Organisation, consciousness and knack of falling apart
Simon Hardy A strategy for Left Unity: lessons from the European left International Socialist Network, 2014, pp34
About two years ago, in June 2012, I went along to a meeting in Peckham organised by a new group called the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, which had been set up by someone I did not know well at the time, but know better now: comrade Simon Hardy. He had split from Workers Power, making some quite vague-sounding pronouncements about the lack of openness to new ideas in his old group. At that point I was politically homeless, having been in a libertarian-communist group called the Commune, which had reached the end of its natural life-cycle.
When I arrived at a run-down old factory building, I also found comrade Sharon Borthwick, another political refugee from my old group, sitting in a circle with Simon Hardy, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Marcus Halaby, Richard Brenner and Dave Stockton of Workers Power, plus one or two others from those groups. That meant that Sharon and I were in a room with three different splits from WP under the umbrella of this new organisation. The ACI did not have any real politics of its own, apart from the usual nice-sounding commitments to horizontalism, organising “from below” and so on. We had committed to that sort of sentiment in the Commune.
The sense I got immediately here though was that this was a group of people who knew each other, and were in this room solely for the purpose of recruiting the two of us. They were the Trotskyist cadre, and for the purposes of this meeting, we were playing the role of ‘the masses’. We did not talk much. It seemed like they were quite happy doing that, practically finishing each other’s sentences. They were putting an action plan together for Peckham, which was going to revolve around a campaign against all the local betting shops that were opening in the town.
Richard Brenner came up with the idea that, after we had done some shouting outside these betting shops, we should invite the local Labour MP to a meeting, and we could organise it with Peckham-based religious groups and residents of a nearby estate. But he said that it would be a good idea not to use the name of the ACI because it might put the MP off. Instead of that, we were going to go under the title of a “local group of activists and trade unionists”. After this plan was agreed, Simon Hardy turned to me and said in a kind voice that he wanted to know what we members of the Commune thought. I cannot actually remember what I said, but I remember feeling pretty awkward. What I had just heard being proposed was an example of the ‘transitional method’, and a microcosm of what Workers Power went on to propose in Left Unity in a broader form under the title of its ‘Action programme’.
Actually what I was looking for at that moment was a serious political organisation, where we could think about a new strategy for the revolutionary left. I decided to pass over the ACI, realising at this early stage that it was not going to offer anything like that. In the end I settled into what felt like a more serious group: the Communist Party of Great Britain.
I have gone through this episode because I feel it encapsulates the thinking that structures the political malaise in which the left is trapped - as well as being instructive for understanding where Simon Hardy has come from politically. He was a member of WP for more than 10 years, and was the editor of Workers Power for some of that time. It is true that he has made a modest attempt to break from this method and has been trying to find a strategy to bring the left out of the hole in which it finds itself. Comrade Hardy was to become national secretary of the International Socialist Network - mostly made up of comrades who split from the Socialist Workers Party following the ‘comrade Delta’ crisis - after most of the ACI merged with the ISN earlier this year.
We called the ACI a liquidationist group in this paper. It was a project deliberately designed to avoid the problem of divergent politics through its ‘broadness’ - policy can only be determined through the practice and experience of activism of the kind that I described at the beginning. For that reason, the political orientation that I wanted to hammer out through deep discussion would have been an impossibility in that group, and would have been kicked into the indefinite future, so as not to preclude the outcome that was supposed to come from resisting the cuts, living wage campaigns and standing outside betting shops. Proposing a political agenda at this stage was seen as sectarian - something that only we and the ‘cranky’ members of the International Bolshevik Tendency who got involved with the group would attempt to do.
In a similar vein, what has been happening with the ISN that Simon nominally leads is a series of splits, each more ludicrous than the last. This has occurred because members have inherited a culture from the left - in this case the SWP (from which Workers Power originated as well incidentally) - which shies away from open political debate, seeing it as dangerous and divisive. Instead the post-SWP left has seen a series of personalised attacks, where political differences have surfaced in the form of disputes over petty issues. In the case of Richard Seymour and his opponents, that was the crisis now dubbed by ISNers #sexyracistchairgate - comrade Seymour and his allies left the group over opinions related to a piece of art.
Simon Hardy’s contribution to this process was at first to throw himself behind Seymour’s merger plans with his group and Socialist Resistance - probably the most rightwing of all the left groups in existence at the moment. This plan has obviously failed and that form of regroupment is off the table. Since then he has been fairly quiet inside the ISN, and seems to have thrown himself into Left Unity work. It was interesting that he was one of very few comrades from the ISN to actually attend the LU’s November 15-16 policy conference.
Left Unity is, however, one place where some limited debate can occur. This has been hugely curtailed in the three conferences so far, all of which featured ridiculously overcrowded agendas. Obviously the discussion taking place in Left Unity is inadequate. Without time to discuss motions things have effectively been reduced to a sort of plebiscitary democracy, rather than a deliberative body where people can seriously have their views challenged and can defend their positions at length. In this context it is extremely difficult to make a political impact.
It is with this background in mind that we should consider comrade Hardy’s latest contribution, A strategy for Left Unity: lessons from the European left, a pamphlet he wrote on behalf of the ISN’s Left Unity working group. It is a very thin pamphlet with a lot of ‘chapters’, some only a single page long. He’s chosen the Lazar Lissitzky propaganda image, ‘Beat the whites with the red wedge’, as his cover, so you would have thought he must really mean business. This is unfortunately betrayed within the first few pages by a totally perfunctory exploration of how things are bad at the moment in terms of neoliberalism, austerity and the international situation.
Unfortunately I cannot find a single instance where comrade Hardy actually discusses the words and perspectives of other comrades and groups in Left Unity. If you were judging this at face value, you would think that he and the ISN had no opinion whatsoever about what the Communist Platform, Socialist Resistance or Workers Power are doing, or any group or platform for that matter. It is useful in this respect to compare this pamphlet to the CPGB booklet produced over 10 years ago, Towards a Socialist Alliance party. Here you have over a hundred pages in smaller print, and all of it was directed at analysing, critiquing and polemicising with the existing left in that organisation, particularly the SWP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which between them wrecked the SA.
This is a serious failing, because it really betrays the political timidity of this pamphlet and the person putting it forward: he is not willing to address others, risk upsetting anyone or provoke a debate. What we are left with are some quite oblique references to “some people”, who may or may not hold this or that view. We have to guess who he is referring to. Does he mean us when he talks about “some” who assert the “absolute centrality of revolutionary overthrow as the key dividing line in politics”, for instance? (p10).
The aim seems to be one of carefully balancing competing perspectives and not really privileging any particular focus. The form of party that comrade Hardy appears to be defending is recognisably Mandelite, in the sense that he expects it to be heterodox and not allow itself to be confined to any particular political outlook. He said in the book he co-wrote with Luke Cooper, Beyond capitalism?, that the “crisis of the left is still the crisis of the sect”.1 Political clarification in this sense seems to be impossible to disentangle from his experience of the ‘fighting propaganda group’ model he was part of for so long. So broadness is seen as a way of overcoming this.
There is a problem then in approaching the ‘revolution vs reform’ distinction, which he deals with in a very confused and contradictory way. First of all he insists that that distinction is now a “scholastic debate” that should not be seen as a starting point, because it is an “ahistorical point of departure”. The problem today is not one of “the violent overthrow of the system”, but of the choice between a “broad left party” wedded to support for a centre-left consensus and an “anti-capitalist party that wants to fight the policies of the centre-left”. The instrumental thing here is obviously “fight the policies of the centre-left” rather than ‘fight for a totally different kind of society’.
Yet at the very beginning of the document there is the ISN commitment for capitalism to be “replaced by socialism: a system of real democracy and cooperative production for human needs”. The last in a series of key points that Left Unity needs to adhere to is a commitment to socialism to save the earth’s environment and “liberate humanity from class and social oppression” (p6). If that is our starting point then it seems absolutely bizarre to contend that the question of making revolution, rather than reforming or “managing capitalism”, is not posed in the here and now. Comrade Hardy rules out the latter many times, so there is no way around the need to build a party committed to overthrowing capitalism.
At the same time, he speaks rightly of the need to cohere the radical minority - of only two or three percent, he says: “After all, we are a minority party. The question is, what minority do we organise and on what basis? It is only when we have built strong foundations that we can rally forces to our side.” This is true enough, but then he undermines this by saying immediately afterwards that the solid foundation upon which the minority should be organised is opposition to “neoliberalism”, which is “like a virus: it enters the body with terrible force and changes the way people think about the world” (p8). Yuck. But, thinking about that seriously, how many people oppose neoliberalism today? Polls consistently show a solid 60-70% of the population opposing its effects on a whole range of issues, from rail and utilities privatisations to bank bailouts and executive remuneration. This is clearly not the basis for bringing together and giving political coherence to the radical two or three percent.
At this point there is a return of the ever-receding object: “People who want to skip ahead to a mass party will only be building a castle on sand, unless we firm up our politics first” (p9). How can we firm up our politics first? By creating “a party that wants to fight and wants to clarify its ideas in action - otherwise we are not a socialist political party: we are a temporary alignment of people with nothing but good intent to hold us together” (p9). Those who are really familiar with the rhetoric in the SWP as the deliberately programme-light “combat party” will experience a slight shiver at this point. Regardless of the protestations about not wanting to recreate this “monstrosity”, this method of burying politics in agitational and activist work will logically lead us there soon enough.
Battle of ideas
What can be said of comrade Hardy’s opinion regarding anti-austerity parties in general? It seems extremely muddled, because it is not informed by a strategic sense of what he actually wants these parties to achieve. He is politically astute enough to see that the prospect of so-called workers’ governments managing capitalism in countries like Spain and Italy is not a good one. He puts in plenty of warnings along these lines, which are sensible enough as far as they go, in relation to the Red-Green Alliance, green parties generally, Die Linke, Rifondazione Comunista, as well as others.
Yet, bizarrely, Syriza is singled out as representing a “return of strategy” (p29). In what sense? He does not actually identify what he thinks Syriza or left parties should do exactly. He leaves the door wide open to a ‘socialism in one country’ interpretation, where Syriza takes power and could be “forced to radically alter the nature of the Greek economy”. The problem posed is the possibility of the party leadership triangulating to the centre, or of a “lull in class struggle” leaving it exposed to being overthrown by reaction or forced to capitulate and implement austerity. The problem here is quite obviously that Syriza is programmatically undifferentiated in its most basic aims. In fact, its political orientation has been entirely determined by the “flow of the struggle” in Greece, to the extent that it has made commitments it cannot possibly implement. Without international solidarity and common action across Europe, it will be impotent if it takes office and could easily find itself on the wrong end of a military coup. Self-described Marxists cannot be equivocal in this respect. Cheerleading for a formation without warning people about such a likely outcome is a recipe for disaster.
This really gets to the heart of what our role is as Marxists, and what our duty is to the people we are trying to empower and organise. On the ISN email list comrade Hardy described the CPGB as a “passive propagandist sect”. This was in fact echoed in our letters page a few weeks ago by Stuart King, who used the exact same phrase after he was irked by my report of a Communist Platform meeting:
If [Left Unity] is to succeed, it will be built from below, in struggle, by branches committed to actively supporting every local struggle against austerity, cuts and insecurity; fighting against Tories, Lib-Dems and Labour to establish a party workers can trust.
That is why the CPGB and its Communist Platform will play no role in building Left Unity except as self-appointed Marxist lecturers telling us all where we are getting it wrong. It’s the role of a passive propagandist sect.2
This is absurd for a couple of reasons. First of all, members of the CPGB do work in their trade unions and in campaigns. More importantly, it deliberately reduces the field of “struggle” to campaigning work - as though fighting for Marxist politics, or producing a paper which we dedicate ourselves to filling with analysis of the left and the world generally every week, somehow is not activity. As if our intervention in Left Unity - in which we all agree to take part in branches, argue our corner at conferences (including the study of every motion and coming to a considered opinion about them), as well as reporting transparently on all that - could be described as passivity. The question really here for comrades who think so is, do you really believe the left failed in the past because they didn’t go in for enough pickets and demonstrations?
The failure of the left has been political. It is the failure to make the prospect of an alternative to capitalism seem a realistic possibility. Through a combination of Stalinism on the one side, which seemed to prove that any alternative was too grim to be worth considering, and the failure of the far left to take political work seriously, the vision of communism is almost entirely absent. Part of the remedy must be thrashing out political differences in public, in a way in which all of us - and the whole working class - can arrive at the correct conclusions upon which decisions relating to action can be based.
There is nothing at all in this pamphlet about an electoral strategy, but a lot of vague, woolly talk lifted from the Eurocommunist-inspired ‘Kilburn manifesto’, including an appropriate number of Gramsci references, about changing the “common sense” to support fairness, progressive change and all things good. Comrade Hardy has in the past attacked “electoralism” - ie, standing in elections - as a road to reformism, simply because he thinks it means separation from “activism” and “campaigns”. On the Left Unity website he has written:
If we do well in the campaigns, if we make a name for ourselves as serious and dedicated activists supporting every strike and building every protest, then and only then can we build the credibility we need to turn that support into votes. In other words, the elections are a secondary area of work that flows from our general activism.3
This is quite plainly silly. Winning people to our vision is not dependent on our ability to convince them that we are hard-working activists, but on our ability to persuade them that our alternative is not only is credible, but inspirational. Standing in elections provides us with an opportunity to put forward our politics and get that vision across - an opportunity we should seize whenever possible. The idea that electoral work was in any way secondary for the Bolsheviks, for instance, has been comprehensively demolished by August A Nimtz’s two books on Lenin’s electoral strategy.4
We in the Communist Platform have a real strategy for Left Unity. We want to win it to the kind of principled practice I have outlined and to that end we have attempted to put forward a coherent programme, which we believe LU should adopt. We insist that Left Unity must be a ‘safe space’ for debate and contesting ideas, and not suffocated under bureaucratic and patronising rules, which inhibit political development. The CPGB attempts to integrate the political, ideological and economic factors, which comrade Hardy discusses in relation to Engels (p10), into an integrated strategy, in our minimum-maximum Draft programme (in line with pseudo-Trotskyist orthodoxy, Simon predictably claims that such programmes are inevitably reformist - p12). But such a programme, based on the Bolshevik method, would provide an excellent foundation for a truly anti-capitalist party because it naturally integrates the minimum programme - providing us with an agenda of winnable demands under the current order and setting out the measures that a government based on working class power would aim to implement - with our vision of the future society we want to create in line with our maximum aims.
The point in the end is that consciousness must be the basis for our political organisation. We must have a sense of what we are doing and why. We are not sectarian - we do not believe that we alone will form the basis of the new party. We believe that the solution for the left must come from the left itself, in the same way that working class emancipation must be delivered by the working class itself.
1. L Cooper and S Hardy Beyond capitalism? London 2012, pp155-56.
2. Letters Weekly Worker November 13 2014.
4. See ‘The Bolsheviks’ success and the “revolutionary” fear of electoralism’ (Weekly Worker July 24 2014) for a review of Nimtz’s books.