New questions

Some of the earliest materialist philosophers, based in the Greek port of Miletus, proposed several different explanations about the origin of our world. Thales claimed that everything came from and was ultimately made of water, while for Anaximenes the underlying substance was air.

A dead end was reached. Indeed, the problem of the ultimate constitution and origin of matter would wait at least another 2,000 years to be once again seriously tackled. What happened instead? The question (and answers) of what things are made of was abandoned, and replaced by new questions. The concern with form and arrangement, rather than material constitution, led to new lines of philosophical enquiry, starting with Pythagoras, and moving on to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

What is the moral of this excursion into ancient Greek philosophy? That sometimes the best strategy is to think of new questions. At the point in which a majority Tory government has been elected, and the left continues to make no progress by any measure, I believe this is one such time that new questions are needed. At the moment, the indications are that the left is not going to do this. ‘Don’t mourn - organise!’ seems to be the general attitude, and it seems to be that the mourning is because of the Tory victory, not because of the left’s failings.

On the latter, there seem to be two reactions - denial or despair. Neither is very helpful, and the latter simply reinforces the former. What is needed is not unthinking organisation - such as the organisation of yet more demonstrations and conferences - but an honest and realistic assessment of the situation and the formulation of questions. There is no need to analyse the ultimate answers - of where we want to be, and what society we want. The socialist or communist ideal in abstract form is not a new one, and in a sense dates back thousands of years. The concrete reality of such a society cannot be prescribed or even imagined from our current viewpoint. The task is to work out how to get there. The failing of the utopian socialists was that they knew where they wanted to go, but they didn’t have sufficient understanding of where they were starting from, let alone how to set off on the successful journey to their destination.

I think that, although the modern left has the benefit of the corpus of Marxist works, which lay bare the operations of capitalism and the state, and the historical process, it is in a comparable situation to that of the utopians. There is a lack of awareness and understanding concerning the balance and nature of class forces, and the attitudes of strata within classes, to be able to ground a strategy on a concrete assessment of the society we live in. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the leadership and full-time cadre of left organisations are completely cut off from the reality of most working class people - not in the sense of material deprivation (I accept that many full-timers are very poorly paid), but in knowing first-hand the conditions of modern-day work, and knowing (outside of family perhaps) people who either have different political views, or are completely disengaged from anything remotely political.

The second point, related to the first, is that most of the membership of left organisations is cut off in the same way. Many, if not most, work in the public sector, which even today is a qualitatively different kind of place to work than the private sector; not least through being salaried and having unions present, which have mostly managed to hold the line regarding the terms and conditions of employment for many staff.

Third, the type of political activity the left seems to prefer is not activity which brings us into meaningful contact with the full breadth of the working class. A high-street stall largely attracts those already engaged with political concerns in some way - people who have political ideas, people with faith that some form of political activity might achieve some change, however small. Demonstrations, intervening in strikes, and organising public meetings and attending conferences has the same effect. This leads to overconfidence and bullishness about the prospects of the left growing and gaining influence, which subsequent failure fails to dent.

How do I know that this is the case, and what do I propose to do about it? Good question. I know it because, with several other comrades in north Devon, I have just spent the last six weeks campaigning for four Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates in the local council elections. The results we gained in terms of votes were a mixed bag - some OK, some disappointing. Of course, votes are not everything to a Marxist, but (contrary to the views of some in Tusc) they are still important, as they tell you things about how well your political message is going across, and they also help to build - or damage - credibility.

But we gained much else besides just over a thousand votes and an updated list of Tusc supporters, who we’ll be able to keep in regular contact with in the future. We gained a new appreciation of the way in which different layers of the working class respond to our politics, and how their attitudes have been shaped by neoliberalism. We gained this appreciation not by expecting them to come to us - via stalls or public meetings - but by going to them. We knocked on well over a thousand doors in the course of the campaign, gaining thousands of impressions of the reactions of the people we spoke to, and recording data on canvassing sheets to aid in our post-election analysis and activity.

What did we learn? That beyond pockets of support in rows of terraced houses, there are deep levels of cynicism amongst large swathes of the working class. Many of these people seem unwilling to countenance any possibility that politics might bring about any positive change in their condition. They are inward-looking, seeking to shut themselves off from the world. They are uninterested in voting, which doesn’t appear to offer solutions to their daily concerns of paying bills and putting food on the table. The fact that our literature explicitly rejects the world of the bedroom tax, benefit cuts, food banks, zero-hour contracts and tax avoidance by the rich had little impact - even if was not thrown straight in the bin without being read. The left is not exempted from the generalised anger and cynicism towards politics. This tells us something very important about the state of the working class today - something which has not been adequately appreciated by the left as a whole, whose social contacts, workplace colleagues and political activity leads them to mingle with trade unionists, campaigners, people who do actually vote.

How does this relate to the theme I introduced at the beginning, of finding new questions? The answers - demonstrations and conferences - are the same answers that have been tried, and failed, before. They are, in a sense, answers without questions. They are the automatic, unthinking responses of a left in autopilot. To get better answers, we need to work out the questions we intend to derive the answers from. Or, if not getting definitive answers, we may at least get indications and ideas about the way forward from trying to answer and think about the questions.

How do we formulate these new questions? We work out ways to encounter as much of the concrete reality of our current world as possible. Not by reading, not by going to events, but by meeting people in person. Election canvassing is an excellent way to do this, but also knocking on doors as part of a campaign could serve well. Collect data if possible. Then have a free and frank discussion of experiences, impressions, patterns and observations. No answers at this point. But questions should emerge. And formulating a good question, and working to make that question better, is half the battle.

So what questions have we formulated so far? We haven’t had our post-election review meeting yet in north Devon, but will soon. Here are some questions we have come up with so far. We have no answers, but will learn a lot, and improve the way we operate, just by going about trying to answer them:

The passivity of much of the working class was evident when we supported and also attempted to galvanise anti-cuts activity after 2010. I suspect that in many areas this still holds true. What do we do outside of elections to engage in activity and attempt to draw others into collective action if there are no campaigns in our area to support or instigate, to enable this to happen? The answer is not the kneejerk left response of mindless activism conducted by a small number of superactivists, which also leads people with lives and commitments outside politics to drift out of activity.

The answer is not those superactivists preaching to the converted and attending talking shops with other leftists. New answers are needed, and that will require us to formulate new questions.

Jim Lowe

Poking fun

I recently came across your article which mentions the Paul Dennis result of zero votes in Rainham North (‘A wasteful dead-end’, May 21). In neighbouring Rainham South and Rainham Central Tusc scored 165 and 177 votes. Paul Dennis’s family have lived in Rainham for over 100 years and he is well known in the community. We were expecting this to be the highest of the Rainham votes.

Zero votes is clearly a false result. It is not a reflection of Tusc’s support, but of an austerity council which tried to run an election count on the cheap - overworking its counting staff in the process, during the marathon 26-hour event. Since the story broke, Paul has had people knock on his door saying they voted for him, and Tusc supporters have had to correct co-workers that their votes for Paul have not been counted.

Working class people in Rainham have been quick to jump to Tusc’s and Paul Dennis’s support (as have other parties in Medway) and we’d be happy to see others on left doing similar, rather than using the situation to poke fun at Tusc as a whole.

A petition is available to sign here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/justice-for-paul-dennis-rainham-north-medway. And an interview with ITV is here: www.itv.com/news/meridian/update/2015-05-19/video-would-be-councillor-got-zero-votes-despite-voting-for-himself.

Tusc agent


Some hard thoughts. Jack Conrad bewails the state of the left - the bureaucratic habits, the lack of debate, the splits (‘Some hard thinking is needed’, May 21). Perhaps we should ask the question, why is the left like this?

His description of Die Linke, Syriza and Refoundation, which could also apply to a degree to parts of Left Unity, mentions origins in ‘official communism’, Conrad’s euphemism for Stalinism. Products of the decomposition of Stalinism and reformism are part of the picture to this day: the bureaucratic methods, the addiction to popular-front politics, the basing of perspectives on defence of the nation-state and the national economy. We cannot skip over the lessons of the betrayals of the Second and Third Internationals.

He tells us that reformism is illusory. In the long run, true, but the post-war boom meant that gains could be made and left the reformist outlook still strong in the workers’ movement, and not least among many on the left, who claimed to speak for the workers. To reformism, we should add the influence of postmodernism and ‘end of history’ triumphalism on intellectual life.

Thus when we look at the left we find the illusion that the decaying remnants of the old organisations of the labour movement can be pressed to yield something that is contrary to their nature. Alongside this are identity politics, alternative lifestyles, one-off protest campaigns and the ever-present tendency to adapt to whatever non-working class trend is flavour of the month. The latter often involves cheering on some armed struggle, preferably a long way away. When CPGB comrades turned out to leaflet for Tusc, did they pause to reflect on the role of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party in promoting nationalism in Scotland?

Naturally, Conrad can point to Socialist Resistance as diluting the (already feeble) politics of LU in order to appear superior. As an anti-Trotskyist bigot, he likes to use them as an example of Trotskyism to match his own caricature. For the record, the ‘transitional method’ he attributes to Socialist Resistance has nothing to do with the Transitional programme, the founding document of the Fourth International. SR has long since abandoned politics that could reasonably be defined as Trotskyist. They at least have found their natural habitat in LU.

The left that the CPGB is trying to build is actually an obstacle to winning workers to an international revolutionary perspective. You may think you are creating a platform for yourselves, but it is also one for those who create something very different. To answer the question of why the left is so bad, I would say that its social base is not mainly the working class, but remnants of the labour bureaucracy.

Mike Martin


I was interested in Tom Munday’s response (Letters, May 7) to my letter (April 30). I assume Tom is a member of the Weekly Worker group and of Left Unity? Tom states I make “some truly bizarre assumptions regarding the relationship between the CPGB and the wider membership of Left Unity”, and then goes on to say I am “not alone in these sentiments”, and indeed he encounters these in his own LU branch!

I am glad those LU members are not openly aggressive or hostile to Tom, but perhaps their ‘uncertainty’ in their attitude to supporters of the Weekly Worker is precisely because of the tension, even contradiction, I suggested between LU’s stated aim to be a broad, new model party of the left, embracing reformists and revolutionaries, and the Weekly Worker’s explicit opposition and criticism of this.

I am not a member or a supporter of Left Unity so I don’t think it “represents the finished article” (where did that come from?), and I don’t think its formation will in any way address or resolve the increasing desperate crisis in working class political representation, following Labour losing so badly to the Conservative Party in the general election - despite the latter’s record in office since 2010, its dark and brutal threats to inflict further massive pain on the weak and vulnerable in our society, and its unashamed standing for the interests of the obscenely rich and powerful.

Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson’s discussion of the attitude we should take to the Labour Party (‘Gambling on a government - or bidding for an opposition?’, April 23) pointed out, correctly in my view: “It is sponsored and financed by the trade unions, and its members and supporters are overwhelmingly working class. While this situation remains, it is criminal to simply turn our backs on Labour, as Socialist Party of England and Wales has done, claiming that it can never become a party that actually does represent our class in any shape or form. You might just as well say that the unions can never be won to really represent our interests either.”

He adds that there remains the basis and opportunity to “transform the Labour Party into a party that groups together all the main organisations and trends within the working class, including, of course, the Marxists.” This is not at all dissimilar to the ‘reclaim’ half of the political strategy articulated by the Communist Party of Britain over the past 15 to 20 years.

So, how is this generally pro-Labour Party (or, more accurately, pro the mass political party of the working class) orientation congruent or compatible with the Weekly Worker’s parallel intervention in Left Unity? Are the two in contradiction, or is the Weekly Worker progressing a ‘twin-track’ strategy?

The Weekly Worker in its occasional commentary on the CPB likes to assert that the ‘reclaim’ pole of its political strategy is opposite or at least in conflict with the ‘re-establish’ pole. I think this is wrong and leads the Weekly Worker to see divisions and differences in the CPB which, beyond shades of nuance and emphasis, simply do not exist.

‘Re-establish’ is complementary and interrelated to ‘reclaim’. If the Labour Party’s link with the trade unions is reduced even further, or if union members can’t be persuaded to pressure their leaderships, or if trade union leaderships can’t be persuaded to pressure Labour, or if Labour refuses to take heed of trade union pressure, then we are collectively ‘buggered’, as they say in Devon.

‘Reclaim’ may well work, but, if not, we would be trapped into electorally supporting a Labour Party which, beyond mentioning ‘working people and families’ in words, still basically accepts the need to balance the nation’s books on the back of and at the expense of working people, and offers hardly any pro-working class policies whatsoever.

That would be a recipe for despair and disillusion and may result in us being completely marginalised and swept aside, as working class people start to increasingly vote for other parties or simply stay at home. While the rich and powerful get richer, more powerful and more aggressively confident in demonising us all.

The ‘re-establish’ pole provides us with a means to move forward, should the ‘reclaim’ pole continue to fail to deliver or to address the crisis in working class political representation. ‘Re-establish’ initiatives may actually stimulate and strengthen existing efforts to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party, especially if it looks like the Labour Party will lose trade union members, votes and money.

A full-blown ‘re-establish’ initiative and process has just got to include large sections of the existing Labour Party, including trade unions, trade union members, Labour Party individual members, socialist societies and groups, given these are core working class organisations and constituencies, as well as reaching out and including wider forces and potential reservoirs of support.

The shocking electoral defeat of the Labour Party and the resignation of Miliband at least gives us the opportunity to test out whether the ‘reclaim’ or the ‘re-establish’ pole of the strategy will prevail, without being constrained by calls not to ‘rock the boat’ or to jeopardise a newly elected Labour government.

I agree groups like Left Unity can and should play a part in generating greater unity between socialists, communists and progressives, should be based on general opposition to capitalism and its replacement by socialism, and should not divide or exclude on the basis of differences of view in strategies, tactics, history or political tradition.

Left Unity can and should contribute to the formation of a genuinely mass political party of the working class, but this itself can only emerge from, develop and be based on the labour movement and its structures and organisations. This might be a ‘transformed’ Labour Party or a replacement, but one absorbing and going well beyond many existing Labour Party structures, organisations and members.

We need a mass, democratic, socialist and labour party, which expresses the immediate and longer-term aims and interests of the working class. It should be possible to include the majority of existing socialists, communists and political progressives, and it must be grounded in the organisations and structures of the working class. We need, in short, to create a mass political party that unites Marxism, socialism and the labour movement - which, as Lars T Lih has argued, was the central aim of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

We need such a clear and agreed strategic aim and objective, if in the meantime we are to obtain the maximum unity in action and to make tangible progress in the short to medium term.

Andrew Northall

Left candidate

Charles Gradnitzer’s report on the response of the Blairites to Labour’s dire election results and the respectable performance of Left Platform candidates ended on the question of concrete proposals and a concrete strategy (‘Out come the Blairites’, May 14).

Since publication, 10 newly elected Labour MPs have made an intervention into the leadership debate by rejecting a return to ‘New Labour’ and calling for opposition to austerity cuts. I have written to most of them requesting they back a candidate who can articulate this position in the leadership debates. And within a few days, a Facebook page calling for John McDonnell to be on the ballot, and thus on the platform of the leadership debates, has attracted over 300 fans.

McDonnell has ruled out standing and has launched a website called Radical Labour to discuss the future of socialism and the Labour Party. The social media pressure group, Red Labour, has urged its followers on Twitter and Facebook to contact socialist Labour MPs to call for a left candidate in the leadership contest.

An analysis of the election results by Jack Kiffin, published in the Morning Star on May 20, argues that parties using rhetoric of complete opposition to austerity had votes greater than or equal to the majorities won by 23 Tory MPs, and suggests that if Labour had been able to win over ‘anti-austerity’ voters, both Labour and the Tories would have had 308 seats.

Kiffin predicts that, if the ‘anti-austerity’ parties grow their vote share in 2020 by the same amount as in 2015, and if other factors remain constant, Labour could lose another 26 seats. The result could be the worst the party has suffered since the 1930s. And all this is to say nothing of the impact of boundary changes.

With unseemly haste, the Blairites have framed the debate on the Labour leadership contest, joining with capitalists and sympathetic media commentators in dubbing Miliband’s pro-cuts, migrant-bashing platform as ‘too leftwing’, and providing the mood music for leadership candidates to declare Labour must be even more ‘pro-business’.

So we now have a group of former government ministers and shadow cabinet members posing as the willing executioners of Pasokification. Of them, Andy Burnham has the best chance of getting the backing of union tops.

The new ‘one member, one vote’ system and the overwhelming anti-union media effort may convince those voting to opt for Yvette Cooper. An early social media campaign calling on Ian Lavery to stand as a candidate resulted in his declaration for Burnham - and it may be the case that many of the Labour MPs who are pro-union will nominate Burnham despite his mixed track-record and recent ‘pro-business’ and anti-migrant sentiments. It has been reported he has up to 70 backers.

Given Burnham will be reluctant to be painted as the union-backed ‘left’ candidate, it is in his interest that a more radical candidate stands. The numbers certainly exist on the back benches for an anti-austerity candidate to gain sufficient nominations.

James Doran

Say sorry

For over a year there has been an ongoing dispute between the Manchester branch of Left Unity and Laurie McCauley and his organisation, the Communist Party of Great Britain - an organisation I was once a member of (‘A year in limbo’, May 21).

The dispute is over the suspension of Laurie from the Manchester branch due to persistently bad behaviour, where members, particularly women, were treated to sneers, jibes and personal insults. This not only took place in branch meetings and when socialising, but in the pages of the Weekly Worker. After becoming tired of such behaviour and seeing it drive away members, we took the collective decision to protect the branch and suspend him. We asked the disputes committee to look into how to rebuild the relationship between the branch and Laurie.

This process has been held up for over a year and both the branch and Laurie are quite rightly anxious to have the issue resolved. The delay has been because Laurie and his organisation refused to cooperate with the disputes committee, though I do understand that he has now decided to do so. This is good news and I hope we can see the issue resolved in a way where both Laurie and his organisation recognise that such behaviour will not be tolerated in a socialist party and he can again participate in the work of our branch.

Apart from a few responses on social media, I have not risen to the personal attacks, the outright lies and smears against myself and the Manchester branch by Laurie’s organisation. The behaviour of the group’s leaders towards those it sees as threats, whether internal or external, has always been vicious, often apolitical and personal and ultimately concerned with preserving the leadership body, not progressing a political strategy. The hallmarks of a sect.

For further background it is worth noting a couple of things. Firstly, this is not the first time I have been involved in an action to censure Laurie because of his behaviour in a political organisation. Laurie was removed from an organising role in the London branch of Communist Students, with the blessing of the current leadership of the CPGB, because of his destructive behaviour within it. Despite being aware of his record and knowing that other sections of the Manchester left have also complained about his behaviour, the CPGB opportunistically used the suspension to attack members of Left Unity whom it perceived as political enemies and, in doing so, showed a callous disregard for how that would only further isolate Laurie and entrench the divide between him and his branch.

Secondly, at no time has political debate or differences been brushed aside or hidden in our branch. In fact, we were one of the few Left Unity branches that took part in the controversial speaking tour where the question of Scottish independence was debated in public between two Scottish LU members. Further, before Laurie’s suspension, he was invited to lead public discussions twice for the branch, so that he could put his views and we could have a full debate. Since then we have held successful meetings on Syriza and Greece, on the new left parties in Europe, Labourism and the left, and half a dozen other topics that are key debates across the left. In no way have we shirked the necessity to have rigorous and open political discussions.

At no time have we opposed open reporting of our political work whether online or in the pages of the Weekly Worker. What we have no time for, and neither should Left Unity, is destructive personal attacks by individual members that disrupt and damage our collective work. It would not be acceptable in any credible political organisation and, as a socialist party, Left Unity can ill afford to indulge such behaviour.

This issue needs to come to a fair and open resolution and, as I advised Laurie prior to his suspension, an apology is the first step in rebuilding his relationship with the branch.

Chris Strafford
Manchester Left Unity

Not so dead

Excellent article on the great Adam Smith (‘Devotees of a dead Scotsman’, May 21), there are other comments that he made relevant to events closer to our own day, such as Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax:

“Capitation taxes are levied at little expense; and, where they are vigorously exacted, afford a very sure revenue to the state. It is upon this account that in countries where the ease, comfort and security of the inferior ranks of people are but little attended to, capitation taxes are very common ... In England, the different poll taxes never produced the sum which had been expected of them, or of which it was supposed they might have produced, had they been exactly levied” (my emphasis).

Or the present HS2 railway:

“The proud minister of an ostentatious court may frequently take pleasure in executing a work of splendour and magnificence, such as a great highway ... But to execute a great number of little works [that] ... have little to recommend them but their extreme utility is a business which appears too mean and paltry to merit the attention of so great a magistrate. Such works are almost always entirely neglected.”

I wish the present economists dealing with neoliberalism could write like that.

Ted Crawford