Return of the popular front
The desire for a ‘party of the 99%’ represents a form of political collapse, argues Eddie Ford
There is nothing more embarrassing than a family member who enthusiastically adopts a fashion that is years, if not decades, out of date - have you got the heart to tell them that those shoes or that band are now a byword for uncoolness?
This is a bit how I feel about the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Many of its members have an admirable level of personal commitment, but as an organisation it has persistently refused to engage with - or interrogate - political forces and complexities that take it out of its ideological comfort zone. You always feel that the comrades are lagging behind events. For years the organisation burrowed away as the Militant Tendency deep inside the bowels of the Labour Party, pretending to be normal party supporters and treating with open contempt anyone from the “ultra-left” or “the sects”: back then, what mattered was secretive organisational manoeuvrings in order to take over this or that body or committee. There was no life beyond the Labour Party, which apparently would introduce an enabling act to legislate in socialism. Then when leading Militant comrades were being kicked out of the Labour Party, they did a sudden about-turn and decided Labour was a straightforwardly bourgeois party - as if the whole world had suddenly changed, the moment they found themselves outside their familiar environment.
Now, confronted by the stubborn reality of the Corbyn phenomenon, which clearly blows its previous perspective out of the water, SPEW has done another about-turn by claiming that in reality there are “two Labour Parties”, represented by the Blairite right and the Corbynite left. Yet there has been no admission that the previous line - that Labour had ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party - had been mistaken.
And when it comes to politically assessing the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party, SPEW has adopted a thoroughly unMarxist catchphrase: ie, ‘Not the 1%, but the 99%’, a formulation strongly associated with the Occupy movement. You can see one of the most recent usages in an editorial in The Socialist, where we read:
With justification, most supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the labour and trade union movement believe that unity in the Labour Party on the basis of democratic decision-making and an opening up of the party’s structures would be the best way forward. But the political fault-lines are increasingly irreconcilable - this is fundamentally a battle between those in the party who represent big business interests and those who want to represent the 99% (my emphasis - July 12).
But, naturally, there are many more instances of the slogan. For example, when Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership campaign, partly thanks to the “morons” in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the headline in The Socialist proclaimed: “A new era for the 99% - now organise to fight for a socialist alternative” (September 16 2015). The editorial went on to argue: “But now the world has been turned upside down ... The hopes have been raised of millions who want to see a society for the 99%, not the 1%. This is a tremendous step forward.” Previously we had been reminded that “capitalist parties offer nothing to the 99%”, as “capitalism is a system built on exploitation for profit for the 1%” (October 2 2013).
Similarly, in a fairly random sample: “we are the 99% - fighting for our future” (October 19 2011); “the 1% ‘walk tall’, while the 99% are bowed by austerity” (March 18 2015); The Socialist is “a voice for the 99%” (March 25 2015); “Bernie Sanders campaign an opportunity to build a new party of the 99%” (April 6 2016); “EU: busting the myths that ‘remain’ is best for the 99%” (June 15 2016); and so on and so forth.
Everyone will remember Occupy - in Britain there were the makeshift tents outside St Pauls, countless debates and thousands of enthusiastic young people. It was, of course, quite right for the left to welcome Occupy, to engage with Occupy, to point out the limits of Occupy. Eg, the obsession with ‘horizontal’ organisation as against ‘vertical’ organisation.
As this paper has often stated, horizontal forms of organisation and the supposed insistence on consensus actually bring with them “the tyranny of structurelessness” - namely the anarchistic hatred of formal leadership, leading without fail to ‘secret’ or informal leadership - which is far worse, because it means reversion to pre-existing social relations of domination/subordination (class, gender, education, etc) that inevitably self-selects the most ‘charismatic’ or forceful individuals to become de facto leaders. At the end of the day, decisions have to be taken one way or another - accountable or not.
Of course, for the likes of David Graeber, Paul Mason and Patrick Bruner it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Indeed, we were often told, Occupy and movements like it provided a model for the politics of the future: it was new, new, new. We were told that the left should abandon their ‘obsession’ with centralist organisational structures, programmatic clarity, boring political meetings, the perspective of a mass Marxist party and suchlike. Instead, we should concentrate on symbolic happenings that grab the attention of jaded TV news editors and journalists on the lookout for the latest ephemeral ‘big idea’.
However, the biggest problem with Occupy was its political shallowness, the constant search for lowest-common-denominator demands that united, not divided, the belief that somehow moral outrage itself would change the world. It couldn’t. It didn’t. And within the space of a few months the whole movement slowly faded away, before finally fizzling out.
Under those circumstances why adopt Occupy’s central political slogan? After all, crucially it is an implicit rejection of class politics. If we calculate that the working class comprises some 70%-80% of the population (you can argue about the exact figure), then it stands to reason that SPEW’s ‘99%’ has to include all of the middle class and also a significant slice of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, in reality, what SPEW is calling for is a cross-class alliance or a ‘people’s party’. A degenerate version of the popular front championed by Joseph Stalin from the mid-1930s. A degenerate version, because, whereas Stalin proposed a class popular front government - ie, made up of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and the (middle class) Radical Party, - nowadays the likes of former Socialist Workers Party leader John Rees and SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe advocate a cross-class party (the worst example being Respect, which was designed to incorporate the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood).
More than that, it has to be said that the one percent is not real. It is a mere statistic. It is not the same thing as saying the ruling class or even the capitalist class. For example, some billionaires are entirely marginal in terms of deciding the political and economic direction of the system. On the other hand, there are those of relative modest means who play a crucial role for the ruling class (eg, top politicians, key civil servants, judges, generals, etc). Then there is the layer of management. At the top many are in receipt of million-pound salaries. But, as you go down the chain of command, there is still an allegiance to the system of exploitation despite salaries as low as £120k (not much different from trade union general secretaries and the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition).
It is also true that sections of the middle class, most notably the petty bourgeoisie, have a political and social outlook that is deeply reactionary. Eg, some small businesses rely on exploiting and keeping down members of their own family (wives, children, nephews, etc). This breeds a backward-looking politics, patriarchy, plus the hatred of trade unions and big government alike. In other words, the 99% is just as unreal as the 1%.
Take the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks took power in the name of a workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ government. But the Bolsheviks were always clear that they were the party of the working class (at most some 5-10% of the population). Moreover, the Bolsheviks began to differentiate between peasants, classifying them into four broad categories - the poor peasants (bednyaks), the mid-income peasants (serednyaks) and the higher-income farmers who had larger farms (kulaks). And there was also the category of landless, seasonal agricultural workers, who were part of the proletariat (batraks).
The Bolsheviks considered the bednyaks the most consistent allies of the working class, while the serednyaks were viewed as unreliable, “hesitating” allies. As for the kulaks, they were identified as class enemies, Lenin describing them as “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine”.1 To encourage this process of class differentiation, the Bolshevik authorities briefly established Committees of Poor Peasants (kombeds) as local institutions bringing together impoverished peasants in order to advance government policy - their primary task being grain requisitioning on behalf of the Soviet state, plus the distribution of manufactured goods in rural areas.
The fact that SPEW is coming out with this sub-Occupy nonsense represents a political collapse. By contrast, our CPGB Draft programme (Section 4.1) explicitly states: “… the working class is the only consistently revolutionary section of society”, meaning that “there can be no strategic alliance with the medium and small capitalists”. Also, “the middle class can under no circumstances be regarded a consistent ally of the working class”, though “success in prising it away from capital deprives our main enemy of a major social prop and adds to the momentum of revolution”.2
We need a revolutionary party of the working class armed with a Marxist programme, not a phantasmagorical people’s front of the ‘99%’ - something that would bust apart at the very first test.