Socialism rally: well attended

Following the crowd

The Socialism 2015 event was marked by a distinct lack of new ideas, writes Commissaress

Having been to a grand total of four such leftwing schools, I now consider myself a veteran, very well-accustomed to the tendency skirmishes, Marx/Lenin/whoever quoting contests and bad coffee (oh yeah, and the generally very good debates) that usually ensue at these events.

I went to the school hosted by the Socialist Party in England and Wales expecting pretty much the same thing (except that I hoped the coffee would be better), and I thought I would disagree with quite a few of the points made in the discussions, considering SPEW’s politics. This excited me, not just because tendency wars are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine (blame Reddit), but because having many conflicting opinions, of course, makes for a good atmosphere and a chance to learn something new. So, after having to persuade my parents once again that, no, we were not going to blow up any police buildings - however satisfying that would be - I left for the event feeling pretty pumped.

For the most part, it was a pretty good event, with pretty good discussions, and I even got to eliminate a university from my future application list, because the building was so ridiculously difficult to navigate. It was quite a bit bigger than I thought it would be, with both sessions I attended pretty full and lots of people milling around the building, which made it quite nice and buzzy.

The first session I attended was on art and the Russian Revolution, which became a general discussion on proletarian culture and the relevance of art to the communist movement. Everyone who attended this meeting was mostly in agreement, but one thing I noticed about it was the partial realisation of one of the stereotypes I, at least, have about Trotskyists and Bolsheviks in general: that they venerate whichever figure they theoretically align with. In this case, this involved highlighting the miraculous prophetic powers of Trotsky in predicting the degeneration of the revolution and the culture surrounding it, and other ways in which he was totally right about everything. Even anarchists, who for all their misconceptions about revolution and power actually predicted the degeneration of the revolution in Russia before anyone else did, generally do not have this tendency to play up their miraculous prophetic powers or venerate certain figures; I have mostly seen this behaviour from various Bolshevik tendencies, and it was quite interesting to see how much of it there was at an actual Trotskyist event.

The real action, though, took place at the second session I attended, which was on Corbyn (having a session on Corbyn is practically compulsory at these events right now) and socialist involvement in the Labour Party. Since I was vaguely familiar with SPEW’s position (or what was their position until recently, at least), that attempting to use the Labour Party as a vehicle for working class struggle has now become futile and that a new party needs to be built outside Labour - a position which seems to be a more moderate version of my own - I was looking forward to maybe, just maybe, hearing some sensible, non-hyperbolic thoughts on Corbyn.

It looks as though the curse of youthful optimism had struck again, unfortunately. The meeting was lively, interesting and provoked a lot of discussion, but I really heard nothing new. The first thing I noted about this meeting was the general nostalgia. And it really irritates me to have to write this, because, although I certainly do not buy into the obsession some people on the left have with ‘modernising left theory’ - an endeavour which most often involves the distortion of concepts, academic gibberish, or both - the obstinate refusal of much of the left to acknowledge in practice that we are living in a different era from the Bolsheviks or the trade union organisers of the early 20th century or to move on from past events within the left is arguably much of the reason behind our failure to grow as a political force.

Participants in this discussion often sounded as though they had mistakenly walked into a time machine at some point in the 20th century, waxing nostalgic about Labour’s foundations in the trade union movement, when workers had an influence in Labour during the post-war period (even when Attlee was suppressing strikers, I presume) and the - ahem - successes of the Militant Tendency before it was expelled and began denouncing everything related to Labour. Between the expulsion of Militant and the rise of Corbyn, I do not think SPEW members would have been seen dead doing this, but suddenly, now that Corbynism, which is itself riddled with nostalgia, is gaining support amongst socialists as a slightly less awful way to manage capitalism, every instance of socialist involvement in Labour has become something to daydream about with glazed eyes rather than criticise as a wasted effort. This is yet another example of the damage which can be caused by seeing Corbyn as the redeemer of socialism in Labour: it inspires this sort of ‘golden age’ mentality which I saw repeatedly last weekend.

This leads nicely into the second observation: no-one seemed to have anything new to say about Corbyn. It is almost as though all socialists have agreed on a certain ‘line’ to take on this issue: that, while Corbyn is not going to be the Lenin of 2020, it is worth supporting him and the party he leads because social democrats never ever backtrack on their promises, never ever mismanage the economy and thereby have knock-on effects on the workers, never ever pass anti-worker legislation and are always totally distinguishable from their rightwing counterparts and raise class-consciousness without fostering any illusions at all. This does not display any historical amnesia in the slightest. Riiight.

Of course, SPEW has a slight variation on this line, in that it calls for a new party to be built as well as for involvement in and democratisation of Labour, but I am almost certain that this is entirely to avoid being seen as inconsistent and that in actuality they do want to extend the same sort of support to Corbyn as most other socialist groups have proclaimed to be extending.

Although I have huge problems with this line and with the notion that Labour was or ever will be a workers’ party in any sense of the term, this is not the main issue here. My main problem is that there seems to be no-one at all offering any take on the Corbyn phenomenon other than the generally accepted line. We all rushed to pay our £3, dig out those old Labour Party badges and prepare for the end of austerity and a perfect platform from which to raise class-consciousness and awareness as soon as we heard that Corbyn had won the Labour leadership election, and this seems to apply to every organisation. The left excels at having arguments over anything and everything, but, when a meaningful argument about where to go next is really needed, turns out we all agree.

Which makes me wonder: is the left scared of new ideas? All of the conversation surrounding the Corbyn phenomenon seems to revolve around ‘reclaiming’ the Labour of the past, becoming involved ‘again’ in Labour, ‘regaining’ something that we once had and have now lost. It seems to me that our priorities should be completely different. Instead of reclaiming, regaining, repeating, we should try tactics that have never been tried, try thinking of completely new ways to agitate and organise and achieve. I sincerely hope that we can be the first organisation to do this.