The long view
Communists must be patient, writes Paul Demarty, avoiding the twins of opportunism and adventurism
The most fundamental problem for the Marxist left at the present time is the disparity between the grand scale of its ambitions and the paucity of its human and intellectual resources. We aim to storm the heavens; towards this aim, however, we are (in this country) only able to marshal a scant few thousand soldiers, divided on sectarian lines and hopelessly disoriented.
The question is, then, how can we overcome this dire state of affairs? What would an organised and effective strategy for these forces look like, and where would we have to direct our energy?
Many pieces in the last issue of this paper (March 22) touch on this problem - letters from comrades Dave Vincent and Chris Strafford on the Labour Party; an interview with comrade Lee Rock on the aborted PCS strike; and an article, also by comrade Strafford, on the same subject. Missing from all these contributions is the long-term view our movement needs to take.
On the Labour Party question, it has to be said that comrades Vincent and Strafford’s arguments suffer from a remarkably persistent refusal to lead anywhere - once again (twice, in fact), we are to dance around the issue of whether the Labour Party has shifted, or is posing, to the left.
The details change; and this time, we at least have a fine image from the pen of comrade Strafford, of the Labour left as “the necrotic masses from a George Romero movie ... faintly remembering that they used to be something and shuffling on regardless.” (This is, if anything, too kind a description - the Labour left certainly lacks the strength in numbers and clarity of purpose common to Romero’s undead flesh-eaters.) Beyond that, his points are very much recycled from previous polemics, to which the CPGB majority has previously replied.
We have the usual laundry list of bad things Ed Miliband has done recently; and the usual lack of attention to nudges in the other direction (which, contrary to Chris’s stereotype of our argument, were all we ever expected). Given that, in his article, comrade Strafford suggests we should ‘learn from Occupy’ (of which, more later), it will perhaps suffice to mention Margaret Hodge’s public declaration of support for that movement. It would seem that Chris’s line is getting through to Labour rightwingers, in spite of himself.
Comrade Vincent makes much the same kind of argument, albeit more thoroughly and at more length. Their suggestions for alternative activity are different - Dave believes that “anti-cuts candidates” could attract serious votes should they come with union backing, while for Chris this is a “tertiary concern”, less important than overcoming sectarian divisions on the far left and rank-and-file organisation in the unions.
The first problem with such candidates is they will be anti-cuts, but pro what? Common sense will draw that question to the lips of many people one would meet on the knocker, and it will be necessary to have an answer. Comrade Vincent’s union, PCS, has an answer - a laundry list of left-Keynesian policies compiled in a short pamphlet. Yet Keynesianism entails political commitment to the nation-state, and leftwing variants of it at the very least will encourage speculators to attack the economy, capital to flee and all the rest. Alternatively, comrade Vincent could propose a programme of internationalist socialism for his anti-cuts candidates - but he is quite unlikely to attract union support for such a programme, things being as they are.
As for Chris’s proposals, they are supportable as far as they go. The CPGB’s overriding priority is the fight for the unity of Marxists on a Marxist programme - this is the alpha and omega of our politics. Our arguments on Labour are, indeed, unlikely to make much immediate impact on the Labour Party - their primary purpose is to clarify a strategy for the Marxist left in relation to Labour, opposed both to sectarian abstentionism and entrist liquidationism. In order to fight for meaningful political unity on the Marxist left, it is necessary to take up these questions.
Rank-and-file organisation is, indeed, necessary - and a united, principled left could make serious progress on this question. Yet it, too, requires strategic thinking about the overall political questions facing the unions - not the least of which being the Labour Party, and the labour bureaucracy more generally. Throughout his arguments thus far, Chris systematically dodges the question of union affiliation to Labour, unlike Dave; any serious rank-and-file organisation will not be able to do so.
In Chris’s article (‘Fresh attacks as unions retreat’), we get more detailed perspectives - and, indeed, more problematic ones. “In my view,” he writes, “the Occupy and Indignados movement has begun to help the revolutionary left relearn tactics we had long forgotten and the recent pickets against workfare managed to push back the employers and the government on key aspects, where they lost the argument nationally. These protests resulted from the organised left working with activists from campaigns such as UK Uncut.”
The first point - about “relearning tactics” - is basically risible. The occupation tactic was common to the student protests of 2010-11, and periodically surfaces in labour disputes the world over, invariably to much far-left fanfare. As for occupying public places, Parliament Square was occupied not too drastically long before Tahrir and Syntagma. Does Chris really think our memories are that short?
In fact, this is not just a point of pedantry - a characteristic of the Occupy and UK Uncut movements is the rhetoric of novelty: we are new, you are old. Yet there is nothing ‘new’ about anything either have done, barring skilful manipulation of Twitter, today’s favoured outlet for microdemagoguery and thoughtless outrage. Such ephemeral anarchistic movements come and go as regularly as the seasons and, while the Occupy phenomenon was inspiring in some ways, it did not teach the Marxist left anything it did not already know about ‘diversity of tactics’.
The problem with the left today is not its unwillingness to support occupations of public places; quite the opposite. It is its fetishisation of every passing fad in mass protest, and above all its focus on questions of form - tactics and suchlike - instead of the meatier content of political strategy and programme. Occupy has much to learn even from the battered remnants that make up the Marxist left today on these questions; but it will learn nothing while we enthusiastically join in with its historical amnesia.
As for the workfare affair - it was certainly encouraging to see repulsive Tory policies crumble to dust before one’s very eyes, but the truth is that the ruling class was split six ways to Sunday on the issue. It was a - small - point of weakness, which our side was in the event able to exploit. We cannot expect this to provide a model for future actions except in the most inconsistent manner; the ruling class more often is able to pull together in the face of challenges to its rule, and this will become easier if the left and workers’ movement gain in strength.
Lurking in Chris’s arguments as a whole is an impatience with the inertia of the mass organisations of workers in this country, their abject political weakness and domination by the labour bureaucracy. He is right to object to this (unlike some comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who have argued to me that Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and the rest are somehow exempt from being bureaucrats on the basis that they sometimes organise strikes!); but the reason his and comrade Vincent’s arguments are spurious is that they do not treat the existence of this layer as a wall to be broken down, but rather a hindrance to go around.
Chris’s rank-and-file policy seems to be just such a way of working outside the official structures. “We need to build real spaces and networks within which workers are able to organise campaigns and solidarity, bypassing the bureaucratic structures whenever necessary,” he writes, criticising the left’s “horse-trading for this or that position”. The horse-trading, however, is a distorted reaction to the fact that the structures themselves need to be taken on and transformed. The left is utterly hopeless at this task - but its opportunism is precisely the flipside of Chris’s ‘leftist’ impatience, consisting precisely in SPEW, the SWP, etc trying to take shortcuts to mass influence. Both positions are fundamentally passive in relation to the labour bureaucracy - one must either fit into or work around the existing structures, not overcome them.
The CPGB argues consistently for a strategy of patience - against leftist adventurism and opportunism, the twin forms of impatience. It is certainly necessary, as Chris argues, to ‘rebuild at the base’ the forms of workers’ organisation that have become so hopelessly decayed over the years; it would be wrong, as comrade Lee Rock argues, for the PCS to give up the fight over pensions; and an electoral intervention against the austerity consensus (provided it was for something useful) would be a fine opportunity for propaganda. None of them, however, will amount to anything without a long-term political view aiming at the overthrow of the labour bureaucracy.
1. Most recently, James Turley, ‘Repackaging of a tenuous argument’, August 11 2011.