John Rees: march, march, march...

Fight for a political alternative

The June 20 national demonstration should be seen as an opportunity to build something more permanent, argues Paul Demarty

It is, of course, an excellent thing that tens of thousands of people are prepared to demonstrate their opposition to the austerity of the main parties. The failure of Labour at the polls, and for others the failure of the ‘Green surge’ to translate into seats, has had a demoralising effect on broadly leftwing opinion in this country; this weekend’s turnout will at least temporarily galvanise flagging spirits.

The demonstration also benefits from a timely coincidence: last-minute vote-switching in the Labour leadership nominations has gotten leftwing stalwart Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot. The bookies do not rate his chances (20/1 as I write), but he could attract a fair share of first preferences - the new category of ‘registered supporter’ offers that possibility.

On June 20, Corbyn has the opportunity to exhort thousands of people to stump up their three quid and cast their vote for him. If all the 70,000-odd souls signed up on Facebook to attend beforehand did so, that would account for a sizeable chunk of the shrivelled Labour membership. In any case, Corbyn’s presence will mean a lot of media attention for a very traditional left Labourism, however much it will be dominated by frothing denunciations in the gutter press. For all the limitations of that politics, it is an improvement on the non-stop diet of Thatcherite dogma we usually get.

While the demonstration has attracted the usual bestiary of far-leftists - Trotskyists, tankies and anarchists alike - as well as more politically pugnacious trade union contingents, it has pulled towards it a respectable slice of the general population as well. The key question, however, is what happens after: having attracted the attention of a decent contingent of those ‘ordinary people’ the left is so keen to engage, where will that attention be directed after the coaches hit the M1 for the long journey home?

On this point, some words are necessary on the organisation that called the demonstration. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity is a self-proclaimed broad alliance of trade unions, leftwing parties and civil-society organisations against the punitive assault of the Tory government and its Tory-Liberal predecessor. Its prominent supporters include Len McCluskey of the Unite union, among other left-leaning general secretaries, and also numerous celebrities, from Russell Brand to Charlotte Church.

In substance, however, the People’s Assembly is the creation of John Rees, Lindsey German and their Counterfire organisation. Rees and German were previously leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, in the period that saw the 1.5 million-strong demo against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The size of that mobilisation convinced them to take the SWP sharply in the direction of ‘building the movements’: creating single-issue campaigns devoid of ‘divisive’ (that is, clear) politics.

The failure of several subsequent initiatives - notably the Respect alliance with George Galloway and dubious petty bourgeois elements in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham - led the SWP to offload Rees and German, who set up Counterfire, with the new context of the global financial crisis to deal with. The PA is their second attempt to build a Stop the War-type ‘broad movement’ against austerity, the first being the now-forgotten Coalition of Resistance, launched with much fanfare in 2010.

The essential difficulty with this broad-front strategy is with its very ‘broadness’. Sure, everyone from Charlotte Church to Paul Demarty can turn out on a PA demonstration; but the very act of doing so does not achieve much in and of itself. My opinions do not become more popular for having been expressed within a central London postcode or two of her; still less the opposite.

In order to maintain such a diversity of talent, the mode of politics represented by the PA clips everyone’s wings. Unfortunately, this demonstration is a case in point, having been called at the height of the general election campaign in lieu of actual voting advice. Yet how could the PA recommend votes, when half of its leading lights (the Corbyns and McLuskeys) are committed to Labour, and another significant chunk to the Greens? (The exact same problem faced COR in 2010, and indeed Stop the War in 2005, with Respect in place of the Greens.)

The PA, like all Rees-German initiatives, faces the persistent complaint that it only organises grand old duke of York affairs - tame A-to-B marches that put no fear into anyone that matters. Instead, according to anarcho-leftist critics, our strategy should be focused on direct action. The gutter press has afforded us a recent example in a hysterical Mailon Sunday exposé (June 14) on various people hoping to use this demonstration as a jumping-off point for other activities, ranging from Class War’s typically infantile “hate mob” to a rerun of Occupy LSX proposed by a member of the Brick Lane Debates (a split from Counterfire).

In reply, Counterfire periodically makes stirring defences of big demonstrations. Both sides, however, are trapped in the same basic mindset of fetishising particular tactics. The problem with the A-to-B march, according to those who wish to re-occupy the St Paul’s churchyard, appears thus to be the ‘to B’ part of the equation, and nothing else.

What disappears in both versions is politics as such. The direct-actionists do not want to sit around and talk - they want to do something. As for the PA, its rolling refrain this past month or so is repeating endlessly the need to break out of the “leftwing bubble”; while this is a recurring theme of Reesism-Germanism passim, the exact form of words comes from a recent article by comrade Church herself. She joined the PA to get out of that bubble; we fear that escape may not be quite so easy as that.

The truth is that those ‘ordinary people’ who can be reached at all have no need of the left to convince them that Tory cuts are a bad thing. Those whose minds have not been mutilated too badly by reading the Mail can see quite plainly the inhumanity of benefit sanctions, and worry about the fate of the national health service. If we on the left can contribute anything at all, it must be in the shape of guidance as to what to do about it.

On this point, we must say that the best answers are the old ones - we need not a broad coalition, or a colourful tapestry of direct action-focused affinity groups, but a party: a democratic mass organisation with meaningful life at every level, whose members agree to act in concert towards a positive political goal.

For us, as the masthead suggests, that goal is communism. It is equally the case, however, that Jeremy Corbyn excites so widely primarily because he is attached to a real, historic organisation - the Labour Party - which looms a lot larger than the far left among the working class and progressive-minded people, despite its political hopelessness in the recent period.

The PA plainly lacks a positive goal - it is a people’s assembly against austerity, but not for very much at all. The natural mode of organisation in such a situation is top-down and bureaucratic; and for all the attempts (quite genuine, we stress) to build thriving local groups, there is the blunt fact that there is not terribly much for them to do as the PA other than build for centrally directed demonstrations and ‘days of action’ like this weekend (other activities, such as defending this or that hospital or library, we suspect those involved would be doing whether or not the PA existed at all).

Above all, parties have the advantage of coherence through time - accountability to a programme means errors can be corrected, history revisited and better conclusions drawn. We have said that the PA is the latest iteration of a strategy adhered to with dogged consistency by its core leaders, but we must point out equally that Stop the War did not stop the war, nor did Coalition of Resistance unseat Cameron.

There is no shame in that; after all, our enemies are strong. The problem is that the millions of participants in the anti-war movement did not replenish the depleted ranks of the left beyond the usual generational replacement; at a moment when huge numbers were paying attention to our side, we had nothing for them but dysfunctional sects and the promise of more and more demonstrations.

Insanity, it is said, consists in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results - a habit we need to break. Major events like this weekend are reminders that there is a constituency out there for radical, socialist politics; but until the already-existing socialists have a serious positive project to offer, that constituency can be forgiven for not sticking around.