Same old ephemeral new
Paul Mason may now be championing ‘consensus democracy’, but its failings have long been established, writes Mick Last of the Labour Party Marxists
In an article published on November 1, journalist Paul Mason announced that he is joining Momentum.1 He gives three reasons. The first two are to support Momentum, and to support Jeremy Corbyn, against the Labour right (one reason dressed up as two). The third, much more elaborated, is to support the organisational proposals of Jon Lansman and his co-thinkers against their internal opponents. Momentum, Mason says, “faces two alternative futures: one in which all the negative, hierarchical and factionalist tendencies of the 20th century left are allowed to resurface; another in which Momentum?- and ultimately Labour itself - becomes a horizontal, consensus-based organisation, directly accountable to its mass of members.”
Mason is a fairly eminent journo (BBC2’s Newsnight business editor and then economics editor for Channel 4 News before quitting this February in order to pursue a freelance career). But his potential political weight in support of Lansman does not come from his background in “impartial” TV reporting. Rather, it has two elements.
The first is Mason’s four books, Live working or die fighting: how the working class went global (2007); Meltdown: the end of the age of greed (2009); Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions (2012) and Postcapitalism: a guide to our future (2015).2 This fertile book production on large issues can make Mason appear as a serious theorist. (No matter for this purpose that all four books are, in fact, journalistic rather than rigorous theoretical productions, that the predictions of the first three have already been falsified, and that the illusions of the fourth in the ‘gig economy’ have been recently exposed by the industrial tribunal ruling in the Uber case.3)
Second, and probably equally importantly, Mason is a ‘repentant Leninist’ like the Eurocommunists and, before them, many others (like Arthur Koestler or Roger Garaudy), though less significant than any of these. Though he tends to downplay his involvement with the semi-orthodox Trotskyist group, Workers Power, he was certainly already involved with WP in 1984 aged 24,4 as he still was in 2001, aged 41.5 This is a substantial track record of involvement with one of the more dogmatic and bureaucratic-centralist among the Trotskyist groups. Work on political economy under this aegis may well account for Mason’s ability to turn himself from a ‘music and politics’ graduate and music teacher in the 1980s into an economics writer from the 1990s.
It is this substantial period of bureaucratic-centralist commitment, together with present explicit condemnation of Leninism, which qualifies Mason as a ‘repentant Leninist’ rather than merely a left Labourite with a far-left past.
Like ‘repentant Leninists’ more generally, he adopts the general line that ‘Leninism leads to Stalinism’. Like them, too, he argues for “respecting ... the democratic institutions of the UK”. And, also like them, he advocates policies of exclusion: “Momentum must have the ability to immediately exclude from membership people who breach Labour Party rules, and who engage in [undefined] unacceptable behaviour.”
Mason claims, however, to offer a new alternative to discredited Leninism; not a mere repetition of the same old repentance. But it is anything but new. It is merely the same old pseudo-anarchism (with bureaucratic control supplying the real practical decision-making mechanism) of the ‘consensus’, anti-globalisation ‘social forums’ movement around 2000; and behind that, the same old ‘anti-authoritarianism’ which goes all the way back to Mikhail Bakunin.
If there is an added element, it is that ‘horizontalism’ is to mean plebiscitary ‘democracy’ without either any effective possibility of deliberation or means of unseating the authors of the plebiscite question - as practised by Louis Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini, and most recently before our very eyes by the Brexiteers and their fraudulent press.
The presentation of something old as really new is a distinctive inheritance of the post-1956 ‘new left’, and thereby of the Socialist Workers Party and related groups (Workers Power, which originated in the ‘Left Faction’ expelled from the SWP in 1975, is one); and of the Mandelite Fourth International, which adopted the idea of a ‘new vanguard’ in the 1970s. The basic idea is that the ‘old left’ is a waste of space and it is necessary to start again from scratch with ‘newly radicalising forces’. Ever since the post-1956 ‘new left’ the novelty of each ‘newly radicalising force’ has proved illusory.
What, if anything, are we to make of the more concrete arguments Mason offers in his ‘joining statement’?
To begin with, Mason responds to discussions about “how Labour could ‘become a social movement’”. He argues that as an electoral party it cannot become a social movement as such, because “its structures have to mirror those of constituencies, councils, parliament itself”. However, he argues, Labour has to “learn from social movements”, meaning that it should “become much more clearly an alliance of groups with limited common interests: in social justice, workers’ rights, a zero-carbon energy system, the liberation of oppressed minorities, and opposition to adventurist wars”.
He makes no attempt to define what he means by a “social movement”. If what is meant is a mass movement mobilising very broad forces in society, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that the Labour Party’s ‘electoral’ and affiliate structures are an obstacle to such a movement. Consider the Social Democratic Party of Germany before 1914 and its European congeners; or, for that matter, the French or Italian Communist Parties at their height. Cooperatives, trade union fractions, social clubs, local fiestas, and so on, all operated alongside and together with the electoral form of organisation.
It is reasonably clear, however, that what Mason means is not this, but rather “social movement” in the sense of the 1970s women’s liberation movement, or the 1990s-early 2000s anti-globalisation movement, or Occupy.
By comparison with the late 20th and early 21st century far-left grouplets, these phenomena are no doubt impressively large. But by comparison with the mass European social democratic or communist parties of the past, or even with the Labour Party, they are trivial.
In the first place, even by comparison with the hundreds of thousands who signed up to Labour to support Corbyn, the numbers involved in them are marginal - with the exception of the Brazilian Workers Party (the source of the “people’s budget” idea), which, Mason conveniently forgets for a moment, both was a conventional political party and, when it took office, became merely a player in the ‘social-liberal’ game, like the Blairites and so on.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, the ‘social movements’ make a big splash for a little while, but are temporally ephemeral. Where now are the social forums? Where is Occupy?
In contrast, the big mass workers’ parties were built over decades and were able to achieve real, if limited, gains. The Labour victory of 1945, celebrated by Ken Loach’s film and by many Labour left supporters, depended in part on a favourable political conjuncture - but also on 14 years’ hard slog after the spectacular defeat of 1931. Before that, the Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900 - it took 22 years for the party it established to become a contender for power. (This is, in fact, also true of the Brazilian Workers Party, which took a decade to achieve more than 10% of the vote.)
Remodelling Labour on the basis of the “social movements” would then mean abandoning that long, hard slog in favour of a series of ephemeral campaigns and street actions, without long-term results.
Moreover, if Labour is anything useful at all, it is, as it was in 1900, a political party which seeks the political representation of labour - that is, of the wage-earning class as a class - through the means available in the electoral system. To remodel Labour as “an alliance of groups with limited common interests” would, in reality, be to achieve what Blair and his Eurocommunist allies failed to do: to liquidate Labour as a party of the working class in favour of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ coalition.
From this angle, Mason’s ‘joining statement’ is his equivalent of Georg von Vollmar’s 1891 Eldorado speeches, in which this former ultra-left and general strike advocate announced his conversion to a ‘realism’ well to the right of those like Bebel and Kautsky.6 Such conversions are commonplace: both ultra-leftism and rightist coalitionism reflect an impatience to ‘do something now’ - it is just that the option of the hard slog of building, (or in 21st century conditions rebuilding) an effective movement is excluded a priori. Then, when it becomes too obvious that ‘direct action’ is not producing results, the only remaining option is coalitionism.
The fundamental step has been taken. Mason’s view remains overtly of the left. But the logic of his view is to become a Blairite, a Clinton Democrat or a Renzi-ite.
The demon of faction that over them hung
In accents of horror their epitaph sung
While pride and venality joined in the stave
And canting democracy wept at the grave7
So wrote Tory politician George Canning on the 1807 fall of the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ government, which introduced the abolition of the slave trade.
For Canning, both ‘faction’ and ‘democracy’ were ‘boo words’, carrying as much negative emphasis as ‘pride’ and ‘venality’. For Mason ‘democracy’ is not a ‘boo word’; but ‘faction’ still is. This complaint about ‘factionalism’ is a feature of the underlying dominance of British high politics by Toryism (including the Cobbettian radical Toryism of the traditional Labour right). But it is also a reflection of the ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ Mason continues to inherit from his time in Workers Power - which even if it does not ban factions outright, or ban ‘permanent factions’ (as the SWP does) - still regards them as wholly exceptional and undesirable. Thus,
I am not worried about ‘entryism’. Anybody who is in a leftwing group or party right now should be allowed to join Momentum, so long as they openly and irrevocably dissolve their organisations and pledge to support Labour in all future elections.
The emphasis is in the original, so that it is the demand to dissolve groups that is Mason’s main point; not the demand for unconditional and permanent future support for Labour.8
What is involved is a deep misunderstanding of absolutely fundamental necessities of social decision-making; a misunderstanding which also supports Mason’s advocacy of plebiscitism. Anti-factionalism makes sense for Toryism, which is an oligarchical and leader-cult politics, and all the more for open anti-democrats such as the early 19th century politicians like Canning. For purported democrats, it is a complete contradiction.
Equally, for traditional Stalinists, with their monolithism and leader cults, anti-factionalism makes a bizarre sort of sense. For Trotskyists - including former Trotskyists - the inheritors of Leon Trotsky’s Third International after Lenin, it should also be an obvious contradiction.
It is just in the nature of things that human beings have disagreements. Assuming there is a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’, what it is is rarely obvious. Very frequently, there is not only a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but from options 1 to 7 and within these, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b) ... and so on.
To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. This is, of course, why the Labour Party, when it functioned at all democratically, had (1) the right of constituencies to introduce amendments to proposed motions, (2) compositing procedures and (3) discussion at party conference before the vote was taken.
Factions (and, in the politics of the state, parties) are a part of the method by which, on the one hand, the full range of possible options is brought to light in discussion; and, on the other hand, the range of options is reduced to a manageable number, through individuals allying, compromising and coalescing in factional groupings, between whose proposals choices are then made.
The underlying problem does not in the least go away if factions are banned. It is still necessary that the range of possible ideas should be reduced in some process of discussion, amendment and so on.
Otherwise, let us imagine a Momentum of 200,000 members, of which every member has (a) the right to put proposals by electronic circulation to the whole organisation and (b) the right of individual veto over all such proposals (which is what is actually meant by proceeding by consensus, rather than by vote).
Then, on the one hand, I get up in the morning, switch on my computer and find 10,000 emails with individual proposals for Momentum decisions waiting to be read. However, on the other hand, actually, I need not read them, because I can be pretty certain that someone among the 200,000 members will veto any of them, so that none of them will be adopted.
The reality is that someone has to reduce the range of possible choices. Behind any consensus process, there must be some decision-making mechanism which works otherwise. Thus, in the World Social Forum, the decisive voice was of the bureaucratic apparatus of the Brazilian Workers Party; in the European Social Forum, that of Rifondazione Comunista; in the London variant, Ken Livingstone’s London mayor’s office. In the absence of freedom to organise factions which endeavour to persuade others of their ideas, it must be so.
Hence my point above about The Third International after Lenin, where Trotsky makes the point that the full-time apparatus must function as a faction. Hence, to ban factions is merely to ban all factions except the full-time apparatus.
The apparatus then functions in exactly the way as Mason claims the ‘Leninist’ left group does - as an ‘enlightened-minority’ cog driving a half-ignorant bigger group - and, by not admitting its own factional character, it befuddles the believers in a real ‘consensus process’.
The ‘zombie ideology’ (which Mason claims affects the left groups) is, then, Mason’s ideology, which is a zombie version of the ideas of the anarchists, the ‘new left’ and the ‘children of 68’. The result of this ideology is to make democratic discussion impossible. In turn, this produces demoralisation as soon as the first flush of enthusiasm fails, which is in turn the reason for the ephemeral quality of the ‘social movements’ of the past period.
2. I leave on one side his ‘journo China novel’, Rare earth (2012), available used at 1p or remaindered at 98p on Amazon.
5. See M Larsen, ‘A tale of two campaigns’ Weekly Worker March 1 2001. In 2007 and 2008 he spoke at the weekend schools of the Permanent Revolution splinter from Workers Power (listings at www.permanentrevolution.net/search/?s=%22Paul+Mason%22), though, given that on these occasions he was plugging his 2007 book, no more than slight sympathy with the Permanent Revolution side of the split can be inferred.
6. FL Carsten, ‘Georg von Vollmar’ Journal of Contemporary History No25 (1990), pp317-22.
7. Memoirs of the life of the Rt Hon George Canning New York 1830, Vol 2, p58.
8. That itself is problematic. Is it to be even if Labour was to break the links with the unions, or to launch a new aggressive war, Mr Mason?