Some hard thinking is needed
After the general election the left needs to do more than carry on protesting, argues Jack Conrad
Anyone on the left who actually mixes with and speaks to so-called ‘ordinary people’ - and talks about politics - will have experienced this, or something very like it. Question: Why are there so many different leftwing groups? Question: Why are there so many splits? Question: Why don’t you talk about other groups in your press? Question: Why don’t you lot get together?
Only the hopelessly complacent, the hopelessly smug, the hopelessly deluded would dismiss such transparently honest inquiries as evidence of irredeemable backwardness. The left’s divisions, the endless series of irresponsible splits, the morbid fear of open debate, the duplication of effort is irrational and self-defeating.
Does that mean different interpretations of history and theoretical arguments are unimportant, irrelevant or in and of themselves problematic? No, without enriching our theory, without interrogating the past, without the right to challenge accepted wisdom, we can never make progress towards revealing the truth, let alone win the battle of ideas. That said, without deep social roots and organising masses of people, there is no possibility of properly testing our strategy and tactics. Marxism, after all, not only sets out to “interpret the world”. The overriding goal, as stated in the famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach, is to “change it”.1
So, the foundation of Left Unity, in November 2013, as an organisation which aims to “unite the diverse strands of radical and socialist politics in the UK”, was a welcome development.2 At the very least Left Unity provides a structure, an ongoing forum, a project within which comrades coming from various backgrounds, traditions, viewpoints and factions can listen, cooperate, engage, learn and, where necessary, argue and compete with each other. Through that process the forces of Marxism can be strengthened. Eg, the Communist Platform had just one member on Left Unity’s national council in 2014. Now we have four.
Like many before them, those who initially floated the idea of Left Unity proclaimed that they were committed to “doing politics differently”. Yet, while the model of the confessional sects has rightly been rejected, there is a real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party, Workers Power, Socialist Party in England and Wales, etc, have done a tremendous disservice to the cause of socialism. What they call ‘democratic centralism’ is, in fact, bureaucratic centralism. Their internal regimes are obnoxious. Their theory is thoroughly corrupted and brittle. Their ‘Leninism’ is entirely bogus. Yet for far too many in Left Unity’s leadership - not least the runaways from the confessional sects - “doing politics differently” amounts to dismissing classical Marxism, abandoning class politics, ignoring the rich lessons of Bolshevism and not bothering with the fate of the Russian Revolution. The ‘old’ politics of the left are outdated, no longer relevant, off-putting, should be forgotten, etc. We heard it in the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and Respect. We hear it in Left Unity too.
There is much talk about original thinking, pushing the boundaries and new kinds of organisation. But on closer examination most of it turns out to be an eclectic rehash of Bernstein revisionism, Stalinist popular frontism, soft Maoist feminism and Eurocommunist identity politics.
Once the model was Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and Die Linke in Germany. Now it is Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Such broad party projects quickly show their limits and dash all the high expectations. Supporting the lesser evil, trying to appear respectable before the media, coalition deals with greens and social democrats, the temptation of high office - all of them trump the radical claims.
There is, of course, a big problem with transposing Rifondazione Comunista, Die Linke or Syriza onto the conditions of Britain. Such organisations have their origins in historically established parties. Namely ‘official communist’ parties.
Take Rifondazione Comunista. It claims to be the continuation of the Italian Communist Party that in 1947 boasted 2.3 million members and in 1976 secured 34.4% of the popular vote. In the 1996 general election Rifondazione Comunista won 8.6% of the vote. Under general secretary Fausto Bertinotti the party supported the first cabinet of Romano Prodi - ultimately leading to electoral disaster and organisational fragmentation.
What about Die Linke? Well, one of the founding strands, albeit by far the smallest, came as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Party in western Germany. That is Oskar Lafontaine and Labour and Social Justice - the Electoral Alternative. The other founding strand was, however, the Party of Democratic Socialism: ie, the inheritor party of the Socialist Unity Party. Till 1989 it ran the Unrechtsstaat - aka the German Democratic Republic. The party has 64 Bundestag deputies and regularly gains 20% of the vote across the eastern districts. Today Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow is prime minister of Thuringia, heading a so-called red-red-green coalition government. Obviously something Die Linke dreams of repeating at a federal level. Towards that end Die Linke steers to the right politically: eg, equating anti-Zionism with “anti-Semitism”.3 Anyway, the explanation for Die Linke’s current strength, at least in part, lies in its existence as a former ruling party.
Nor did Syriza spring out of thin air. It began as one of the historically constituted wings of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Greece: ie, the KKE (Interior). It staged a split with the KKE (Exterior) in 1968 - nominally over the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. In the elections of 1974, following the collapse of the regime of the colonels, both wings of the KKE temporarily came together. They formed the United Left and won 9.36% of the vote. Despite formally dissolving in 1986, the KKE (Interior) continued as the Greek Left and that organisation helped form the Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos) along with the KKE. Synaspismos gained 13.1% of the vote in 1989. Including the KKE, it subsequently joined with New Democracy and then New Democracy and Pasok to form short-lived coalition governments.
In 1991 the KKE withdrew from Synaspismos. But, following a bewildering series of splits and fusions, in effect it - that is, Synaspismos - became Syriza in 2004. From modest beginnings the party began to grow rapidly. Greece was mired in a devastating economic downturn due to the austerity imposed by the EU-ECB-IMF troika. In January 2015 Syriza famously won 2.2 million votes. Though this was only 36.3% of the turnout, it was awarded 149 out of the 300 parliamentary seats (because of the undemocratic 50 seat top-up going to the leading party). Under Alexis Tsipras the party went on to form a coalition government along with the rightwing Independent Greeks - the latter being given the defence portfolio in an attempt to reassure the army high command.
For those who really want a political party that did spring out of thin air there is Podemos. Though some of its initiators were members of this or that left group - most notably the Anti-Capitalist Left - Podemos was formed in January 2014 out of the human raw material swept up by the Indignados movement. Spain, like Greece, was plunged into severe austerity by the troika and this triggered mass opposition.
Podemos is left-populist. Its name is borrowed from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Translated into English it means ‘We can’. Politically the party is deliberately vague and deliberately narrow: opposition to austerity, self-determination for Catalonia, a basic income for everyone, green energy, etc. Podemos is widely known for its plebiscitary democracy, but, as a result, it is effectively run by a Bonaparte in the charismatic shape of Pablo Iglesias.
Nonetheless, there can be no doubting the successes of Podemos. Membership has ballooned. Within 20 days of its launch 100,000 had signed up. Currently the figure is well over 350,000. There appear to be no membership dues. In its first electoral contest, the May 2014 EU elections, Podemos won 8% of the vote. A stunning result - greeted by Iglesias as a “defeat”.4 He said the established social democratic and conservative parties deserved to be crushed. Nonetheless, in November 2014, El País reported that Podemos was topping opinion polls.
Yet despite its spectacular advances there are signs of discontent. Some, for example, are questioning Iglesias’s leadership methods. Co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero stormed out last month. Recently Podemos also appears to have stalled in the polls. The strategy of riding to power in one rush has therefore failed.5
Certainly when it comes to Britain, we need to soberly recognise what is immediately possible and what is not. Without that, disillusionment will rapidly set in. Left Unity is not on the cusp of becoming a mass party. There will be no Podemos in Britain. The poor showing of our candidates in the May 7 general election - whether they were standing as Left Unity or under the umbrella of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - confirms that assessment. Typically we got around 1% or less.
There has been some silly talk of Labour undergoing a process of Pasokification. But Britain is not Greece and the Labour Party is not Pasok. Despite George Osborne’s hard-edged rhetoric, here in Britain austerity has been austerity-lite. There have been significant cuts in local government budgets, a reduction in military spending and a small drop in the GDP. But the bedroom tax and other such horrible measures were designed to please the readership of the Daily Mail.
There has been no mass protest movement. Apart from a few Grand old Duke of York days of action back in 2011, somewhat to my surprise things have stayed relatively quiet. The People’s Assembly demonstration on June 20 will, in all probability, be yet another Grand old Duke of York exercise. An opportunity for left MPs, trade union general secretaries and media personalities. But little or nothing will come from it.
As for Greece, before the January 2015 elections there were some two dozen general strikes. More than that, Pasok haemorrhaged support to the benefit of Syriza. Nor is Pasok the equivalent of the Labour Party. It was founded as a sort of third-worldist ‘socialist’ party in 1974. Pasok supported the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, demanded the closure of American bases and praised the Soviet Union’s anti-imperialist role. In other words, the party posed left.
Pasok was based not on the trade union movement, but clientelism, and the party moved sharply to the right in 1996. Costas Simitis replaced Andreas Papandreou. It embraced neoliberalism. Following the 2008 global crisis the Pasok government of George Papandreou (son of Andreas) was therefore predisposed to impose the swingeing EU-ECB-IMF austerity programme. The result was inevitable. Pasok is now a pathetic rump.
Despite Scotland, the Labour Party is not about to implode. On May 7 its vote in England and Wales actually increased. Crudely, while it lost 40 seats north of the border it gained 20 seats south of the border. And, interestingly, for reasons I do not quite understand, in the aftermath of May 7, some 30,000 have signed up. Maybe they think they can vote for John McDonnell. Maybe they think they can shift Labour to the left. After all, from what I can gather, many of those who are joining come from a student-protest or Occupy background.
True, there have been excited rumours buzzing around for some time now to the effect that Len McCluskey is about to disaffiliate Unite (whose UK and Irish membership is around 1.5 million) from the Labour Party and found a new “party of labour”. We are even told by various insiders that Left Unity’s Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin have been promised executive seats. But, in reality, as things stand at the moment, it would appear that brother McCluskey will back Andy Burnham. He is supposedly the continuation candidate to replace Ed Miliband. In other words, another repositioned Blairite.
Hence the strategy of SPEW to replace the Labour Party with Tusc is utterly illusory. McCluskey would not throw in his lot with Tusc. That would be utterly ridiculous. A whale joining a minnow. Nevertheless, that is the strategy pursued within Left Unity by Nick Wrack’s Independent Socialist Network (it is, in fact, a typical anti-sectarian sect). He wants Left Unity to become one of Tusc’s “participating” organisations.6
Left Unity must therefore reject the ISN’s siren calls to join up with Tusc. Non-aggression agreements should be sought ... where possible. But standing candidates under the Tusc banner is mistaken and has proved to be self-defeating. Joint candidates turn out to be Tusc candidates. And, if at this stage standing in elections is about making socialist propaganda, making new members, spreading our influence - not being elected, let alone forming a government - then we ought to stand Left Unity candidates as Left Unity candidates.
Left Unity consists of a small number of left groups. Our Communist Platform, the ISN (Nick Wrack), International Socialist Network (ex-SWP), Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, Socialist Action, etc. There is also a ‘non-aligned’ leadership core. At the top of Left Unity there is the Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin team. With the subtle backing of Ken Loach they exercise a definite authority. While Socialist Resistance is clearly the most influential group within the leadership, there are definite, though largely unexplored, political differences: Scotland, EU, ‘humanitarian’ imperialist interventions. Paradoxically, though the Communist Platform is undoubtedly the extreme left opposition within LU, we not infrequently find ourselves voting with the Hudson-Burgin leadership.
There were those who thought that if Left Unity adopted ‘sensible’ left-reformist policies and closely identified itself with Syriza and Podemos we would rapidly grow and go from one success to another. Obviously those comrades will have been disappointed. Membership has stagnated - even gone down. Nowadays it stands at around 1,800. And activity, engagement, has never been high. There has, moreover, been a steady trickle of bad-tempered resignations. Nor have our electoral interventions revealed a mass base. So some serious rethinking is surely required.
Instead of believing that the big times are just around the corner, we need a healthy dose of revolutionary patience. Realistically over the next few years Left Unity could carve out an electoral niche and consolidate an organisation of five or six thousand. Though it has to be admitted that the first-past-the-post system mitigates against any Westminster electoral breakthrough in the short term. But, as long as we do not judge ourselves by numbers of MPs and councillors, as long as the right politics are adopted, there are good prospects for growth. Objective circumstances cry out for a fighting party of the working class that can point the way to socialism. Capitalism remains deeply mired in crisis, is visibly wrecking the ecosystem and consigns millions to a soulless existence. Meanwhile, all the mainstream parties, including the Labour Party, are committed to maintaining wage-slavery in perpetuity and capitalist growth for the sake of growth.
There remains a widespread belief in Left Unity that because the Labour Party has moved to the right over the last 30 years there is a reformist space to the left of Labour. This is illusory, not least because reformism is illusory. The fact of the matter is that reformism - the old reformism of Bernstein, Fabianism, the British road to socialism and Bennism - was based on a false premise. Namely that it was possible to use the existing state machine, the existing constitutional order, the existing trade union bureaucracy to bring about one small step followed by another small step, a fundamental shift in wealth and power till the realisation of some kind of national socialism. Then there is the fondness for the government of Clement Attlee. Yes, the national health service was founded, masses of council houses were built and incomes doubled. Hence the ‘spirit of 1945’ and Keynesian economics. But the long post-World War II boom was based on the US replacing Britain as the world hegemon, the massive destruction of capital and millions of deaths. Do socialists want a new capitalist hegemon, a new world war? Hardly.
The history of the 20th century has surely proved beyond all reasonable doubt that reformism disempowers the working class. Long-term aims are sold for short-term gains. Nationalism is promoted. Eventually capitalism is accepted and the conditions are created for demoralisation, disorientation and the politics of despair. Eg, voting SNP in Scotland and voting Ukip in England.
Given this, it is strange, to say the least, that there are still comrades in Left Unity who are dedicated to watering down demands and perspectives. Sweeping away the existing state, working class rule and the transition to a society based on the principle of need are deemed to be barriers, sectarian shibboleths. The most militant upholder of this dismal line has been Socialist Resistance. No surprise therefore that nowadays it is often called Resisting Socialism. That is the task it set itself in Left Unity. True, when it comes to private meetings, when it comes to its own publication, its own conferences, there are speeches and articles about class struggle, revolution and the vision of socialism. But, showing what these speeches and articles are worth, there is no attempt to equip LU with that perspective.
SR’s only excuse for what is rank opportunism lies in the bottom-up theory of spontaneity upheld against Marx and Engels by Mikhail Bakunin and the 19th century anarchists. Nowadays that is what the so-called ‘transitional method’ amounts to. Basically the notion is that capitalism is so corrupting, so pervasive that the majority can never be persuaded. But steer them into action, put them into motion, lead them from one moderate demand to ever more bolder demands, and eventually the aim of overthrowing capitalism can be realised. Only the revolutionary elite knows what is going on. And, of course, there are self-appointed groups by the dozen all aspiring to be the directing hand. So the trick is to carefully insert the right vanguard into the right movement at the right time. Socialist Resistance and its predecessors have gone from left communism to Bennism, from Labour Party entryism to the industrial turn, from Respect to Left Unity.
Though there is a consistency in the inconsistency, the strategy is thoroughly mistaken. Not only does it not work: it breeds a generation of rightists. What begins sincerely morphs into cynicism. But people cannot operate on a permanently cynical basis. Activists become the message.
The SWP shares essentially the same method. That explains the deeply disappointing splits. There has been a process of degeneration on the left. The ISN walked out over the ‘comrade Delta’ fiasco, only to undergo a split itself on the basis of an artistic piece of furniture - that is, Bjarne Melgaard’s take on Alan Jones’s Chair. Looking back to the late 1960s and early 70s, the splits were, if I remember rightly, far more serious. Eg, today’s Workers Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Revolutionary Communist Group, Spiked, etc all originated in the International Socialists/SWP. It is not that these splits were always justified. After all, not a few came in the form of expulsion. But at least they were carried out on the basis of big political questions. Not moral outrage.
Nevertheless, that is what years of training in the SWP’s atrophied internal life has produced ... and subsequently found its way into Left Unity. Reading the SWP annual Pre-conference Bulletins, I still experience a combination of amazement and sadness. The contents are dull, small-minded, technical and often apolitical. It all makes for a poor showing, even compared with the old ‘official’ CPGB. The biennial CPGB congress saw the publication of internal discussion papers with a 2,000-word limit and open discussion in the fortnightly journal Comment. Incidentally, we took full advantage of the pre-congress discussion publication to launch blistering salvo after blistering salvo against the Marxism Today, Straight Left and Morning Star opportunists. True, there was a brief flowering of debate in the SWP - ie, over 2012-13 - but the oppositionists were without exception theoretically blinkered, politically confused and ultimately pitiful.
It was obvious from the start that the ISN did not stand a chance of doing anything serious. With little more than a hundred members the comrades really seem to have believed that they could mimic the SWP ... only better. Richard Seymour wanted to be the media face of the left, China Miéville wanted a publishing house, Tim Nelson wanted a rank-and-file trade union paper, Bev Keenan wanted a women’s magazine. But they did not want to seriously rethink the so-called International Socialism tradition. They did not want to think about programme. What goes for the ISN also goes for Socialism in the 21st Century.
The contemporary left owes far more to Bakunin than Marx, the contemporary left is committed to the politics of spontaneity, the contemporary left is elitist and manipulative. This inexorably leads to the worship of strikes, demonstrations and occupations. Action, action, action is the alpha and omega of the contemporary left. Debate, critical reporting, polemic, historical investigation, theoretical development are at best tolerated. At worst frowned upon.
Hence in some LU branches there is a deep-seated culture of anti-politics politics. Everything is subordinated to the imagined level of the so-called ‘ordinary people’. Patronising, insulting, but revealing. Always expected, like Godot these so-called ‘ordinary people’ never arrive. However, in their name an intolerant, fearful, bullying culture has developed. Political debate is closed down, those who dare think different are subject to censure. In the case of Laurie McCauley he has found himself indefinitely suspended by Manchester branch. Did he disrupt a meeting by shouting? No. Did he kick and punch opponents? No. Did he threaten to shoot them? No. So what was his offence? He had the temerity to report the arguments between himself and some other members of the branch in the Weekly Worker.
We are therefore forced to conclude that there are those in Left Unity who consider what they say to be above criticism - that or criticism should be kept private. LU’s constitution contains no clause upholding the right to publicly criticise other members. Nor does it contain a clause outlawing public criticism. But on the basis of revolutionary ‘common law’ - the practice of Marx and Engels, the Second International, the Bolsheviks, etc - it is clear that it is the attempt to gag a critic through an indefinite suspension from a branch that should be against the rules. In point of fact, this paper has carried many hard-hitting reports of LU branches, the national council, the annual conference without any problem. Indeed Left Unity’s three national conferences were live-streamed and publicly minuted by leadership arrangement. A model of openness, which the whole left, resources permitting, should seek to emulate. Eg, we in the CPGB report our membership aggregates, broadcast our weekly political report from the Provisional Central Committee, etc.
Comrade McCauley was suspended a year ago. And, despite his case being referred to the disputes committee, there has still been no resolution of the ugly affair. Such a situation is surely a denial of natural justice. After all, for justice is to be done, not only must it be seen to be done. There is another legal maxim: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’. If a member cannot get their case heard in a timely fashion, it is to all intents and purposes the same as having no rights at all. This principle of speedy justice has long been upheld - and not only by radical and progressive opinion.
Mention of justice delayed and denied can be found in the Mishnah (the oral Torah of the Jewish religion): “Our rabbis taught … The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied.” Then there is clause 40 of the Magna Carta of 1215. It reads: “To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”7
For LU’s disputes committee to have denied comrade McCauley justice for so long is not only a disgrace. It brings the whole organisation into disrepute. The Communist Platform will be submitting a motion on this matter to the next meeting of the national council.
1. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1976, p5.
4. Note 18 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podemos_%28Spanish_political_party%29#cite_note-G.C3.B3mez-19.