Serious unity will prove elusive

Left unity: Playing happy families

The protracted regroupment talks between Socialist Resistance, the International Socialist Network and others continue; as does their political confusion, writes Paul Demarty

The saga of ‘revolutionary regroupment’ proceeds. On April 28, comrades from various small far-left organisations attended a day-long conference to discuss the terms of closer unity between them.

The groups concerned - Socialist Resistance, the International Socialist Network, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and Workers Power - are, taken as a whole, a rather motley crew. The most obvious point of unity between them is that all are ostensibly revolutionary components of the Left Unity proto-party and, as such, the attendance on the day - which reports put at between 100 and 200 - is significant. Were the forces present to ‘regroup’, they would amount undoubtedly to the largest single component within LU.

Of course, things are unlikely to pan out exactly like that - for many reasons. If the forces involved can be adequately described as ‘diverse’, that is mainly because Workers Power rather sticks out like a sore thumb among the assembled company. It is, after all, a rather run-of-the-mill orthodox Trotskyist grouplet, albeit of unorthodox origins in the International Socialists. They believe in the transitional programme, the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ theory of the Soviet Union, the ‘fighting propaganda group’ organisational model, in which internal disagreements are barred from public expression (with some comical results over the years).

Compare their negotiating partners: the ISN and RS21 are both splits from the Socialist Workers Party, emerging from its recent period of crisis. The split issue in both cases was the bungled investigation into rape allegations against Martin Smith; beyond that, it has been rather difficult to work out what either stands for in any cohesive sense. Their overriding priority has been to keep busy, rather than to settle accounts with their parent organisation; dispiritingly, many in the ISN have borrowed the presently modish discourse of ‘intersectionality’ to deal with the matter (of which more anon), although RS21 seems more sceptical.

Socialist Resistance, on the other hand, is some kind of Trotskyist group. It remains affiliated to the Fourth International, at least. Nowadays, however, it keeps Trotsky firmly out of sight. The organisation describes itself as “ecosocialist, feminist and revolutionary”, but in practice is firmly committed to pulling Left Unity as far to the right as it can.

Thus one attendee, who describes himself as broadly sympathetic to SR, complains that the April 28 event, waggishly hash-tagged as “Trotcon” on social media, was often dominated by arguments between WP and SR on various fronts of disagreement. The opening session of the day, on trade union work, was fought out mainly between the broad-left strategy of SR and the rank-and-filism at the core of WP’s politics, with other contributions hedged somewhere between the two. On the matter of LU, frictions again emerged between those who wanted to build a broad alternative to Labour and those, principally WP, who wanted it to adopt a transitional ‘action programme’.

The third session, on feminism, again saw WP as the main dissenting voice against the onward march of ‘intersectionality’ (although they are in agreement on many of the practical concerns of left feminists - the importance of ‘autonomous’ organisations and so forth - and operate women’s and men’s caucuses at their own meetings). WP, again, would presumably have been the firmest critics of the Ukrainian Maidan movement, which its comrades consider fascist, in the last debate of the day.

Can it work?

One might wonder, then, exactly what WP was doing there at all. Not from its point of view - like all propaganda groups, the CPGB included, WP seeks to win people to its vision of what an effective mass movement will look like. This ‘regroupment’, however, is invite only. We wrote to the organisations concerned several times, and received either polite rejections or silence. All things being equal, and given the political character of the other groups involved, you would have expected WP to get the same treatment.

That would certainly be preferable for Socialist Resistance, which never wanted WP on board. Yet the ISN has insisted on it, likely because its own left wing has found much of interest in the rank-and-filism that, 40 years ago, characterised the IS and the SWP, and thus has a certain measure of common ground with WP (Tim Nelson of the ISN contributed an article to Workers Power’s eponymous paper on the subject).

On the whole, we may assume that - to put it mildly - there is insufficient practical political agreement between Socialist Resistance and Workers Power for regroupment to be possible, barring on a geological timescale. Taking WP out of the equation, however, we face a more subtle problem, which is that none of the others really know what they think as organisations rather than individuals.

Certainly many present on Saturday would have found odd Workers Power’s habit of fighting for a definite political line rather than just free-associating their personal opinions. One overhears, at LU conferences, people expressing bewilderment that CPGB members vote as a bloc, and do so as visibly as possible. Not being under binding discipline has the appeal of the easy life, and your correspondent can attest that carrying out an action you believe to be misguided is a frustrating affair.

In the absence of anything like a common line among the ranks of the ISN, RS21 and ACI, however, we must ask exactly what degree of unity is at all possible between the three, given that they are hardly united organisations themselves, but discrete scars of factional battles past. In the case of the ACI, the matter is most clear. Since its formation, we have described its predominant politics as liquidationist - a diagnosis apparently confirmed when the ACI liquidated into the ISN recently. Except, that is, for a couple of branches which continue to fly the tattered standard; after all, a liquidationist organisation cannot really expect all its components to follow suit, if they would rather continue to do their own thing.

You would naturally expect SR to set the terms going forward, but SR has been utterly rudderless for decades. Its faddish espousal of every passing trend on the left leaves us sceptical of its ability to provide a strong lead for the more diffuse organisations in its orbit. Starting the third millennium as the International Socialist Group, it joined the Socialist Alliance, before fronting the SWP’s plot to shut it down and initiate Respect. When the SWP ditched Respect, it briefly stayed, ‘regrouping’ with a few individuals as Socialist Resistance, before splitting on the fatuous non-issue of George Galloway’s candidacy in a Scottish election.

Now, of course, there is Left Unity - which is once again touted by SR as the best thing since sliced bread. Its history, however, ought to give us a clue as to what is going on here - a whole series of shallow regroupments on the basis of short-term tactical considerations, with more substantial political disagreements smoothed over with diplomatic language, only to erupt again when people disagree about tactics.

On the tactical menu today is Left Unity - and, secondarily, an orientation to the ‘intersectional’ types. The latter you would expect to make this an exceptionally fragile regroupment even by SR’s dismal standards. Attendees at ‘Trotcon’ saw no problem with leavening their Marxism with a little intersectionality theory; and, indeed, there is no reason why bourgeois intellectual enterprises should not teach us a thing or two. Marx’s own career is a testament to that.

In the case of ‘intersectionality’, there are two problems, however. The first is a matter of straightforward incompatibility. Marxism is a realism - it proposes that the world external to the individual can be apprehended accurately both through the examination of empirical evidence and the work of theory. Intersectionality inherits from its postmodern formation the notion that this is impossible, and that one’s viewpoint is invariably overdetermined by one’s gender, skin colour and so forth. Thus it is epistemologically anti-realist. It is one thing to cite Paul Krugman’s statistics in support of a Marxist analysis, but quite another to combine two entirely antagonistic epistemologies.

The second problem is that the theory, however illuminating, does not matter a damn to ‘actually existing intersectionality’: the view that racism, sexism and so on are generated by impersonal structures of oppression, which is ostensibly the whole point, is denied in practice by the mob-handed harassment of individuals on social media that substitutes for political engagement among the intersectional crew. It is utterly instrumentalised in the service of identifying people as racist, with wildly varying accuracy. We remember all too well the recent split in the ISN, on the matter of whether race was admissible as raw material for sadomasochistic imagery. ‘Regroupment’ with intersectionalists predetermines a split the moment the Chapman Brothers have another exhibition on.

Its appeal to the ‘softies’ at Trotcon - beyond appearing spuriously new and trendy - is that it is an alibi: an arbitrary theoretical justification for the anti-sexist, anti-racist workaday activism on which the comrades believe they will build unity - ‘in struggle’, as the cliché goes. We note that the women’s question was the only matter on the agenda of unavoidably strategic importance (even the trade unions are more easily discussed as a matter of tactics); and also the one place where theory was conveniently delegated to an alien tradition. Until comrades begin to think more than a month in advance for more than an hour at a time, serious unity will elude them.