Outmanoeuvred by Johnson
The left’s response to the prorogation of parliament betrays a shallow view of democracy, argues Paul Demarty.
It is not surprising to find widespread condemnation on the left of Boris Johnson’s proposed prorogation of parliament.
We are all, of course, (to put it mildly) disinclined to admiration for Conservative prime ministers - especially if they are old Etonian dog-whistle racists who purchased water cannons to use against our demonstrations (toys the courts prevented him from playing with). Add to that his sociopathic ambition and egotism, and you have a singularly unpleasant proposition: his tricksy manoeuvres, once all the heroic-Brexiteer folderol is properly discarded, can only be in service to the career of one B Johnson. (Asked once if he had any convictions, Boris famously replied that he thought he might have picked one up for speeding.)
What the response ought to be - now there is the poser. And posed, on the face of it, as a question of the urgency of the threat of a no-deal Brexit. We may take the most worried among us first of all - the die-hard left-remainers - and where better to start than the terminally confused Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which made the mistake of believing the imperialist establishment’s democratic rhetoric in the fat years and finds itself tangled up in its present crisis.
Thus shrieks an article on the group’s website: “Boris Johnson is shutting down parliament”, presenting “a long-term threat to democracy”. How serious a threat? Serious indeed: “Johnson is acting as a Mussolini figure”; and if Il Duce is a depressingly routine bogeyman, perhaps the reader might be titillated by an enigmatic reference to Austro-fascism?
History tells us what politicians that seek to rule by suspending parliaments are thereby doing. In 1933 Christian Social chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss suspended the Austrian parliament to cut through a parliamentary stalemate. Dollfuss used that opportunity to block all attempts to reconvene parliament, threatening to use military force.1
Despite the scaremongering intent, this is a bizarrely tame picture of Herr Dollfuss; it does not even occur to the AWL to mention the dictator’s brutal suppression of the Austrian social democrats in 1934. Indeed, the labour movement is barely mentioned in the piece, despite its headline (‘Labour and unions must organise workers’ action to stop Johnson’s coup’) - the starring role is for parliament as such, and our class is to serve as a spear-carrier for it, and the agenda of its ‘sensible’ wing. “Jeremy Corbyn and Labour should clearly come out in opposition to Brexit and demand a second referendum,” the comrades write, unaware that the sentence contradicts itself - advocacy of a second referendum being nothing other than obfuscated opposition to Brexit, albeit concealed so badly we are reminded of those joke-shop plastic fake moustaches.
The AWL is not alone in apparently inexplicable confusion about the course of the 1930s on the continent, mind. There is a truly baffling article by Paul Mason, who has made the long march from Trotskyist obscurity to the starry firmament of bourgeois thought-leadership, resembling the common run of his new caste in nothing so much as his incompetence at predictions. A month ago - between the coronation of Johnson and his ‘coup’ - Mason turned in his latest wizard wheeze to The Guardian: the need for a popular front. Some readers may already be in a huff: ‘Typical Weekly Worker - always using these scholastic insults against their targets. Ordinary people don’t even know what a popular front is!’ Alas, we quote Mason verbatim:
The popular-front tactic has deep antecedents in the very political traditions the modern Labour left emerged from. In 1935 the Bulgarian communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, single-handedly manoeuvred the Communist International into supporting calls for a “popular front” against fascism. This was about formal electoral pacts with centrist socialists, left nationalists and liberals - and it paid off within six months. In Spain, to the fury of conservatives, who had formed their own electoral alliance with the fascists, the Popular Front took power in January 1936.2
If the AWL’s treatment of Dollfuss is oddly partial, Mason’s account of the French and Spanish popular fronts is preposterously so. It escapes his notice that the Spanish republic was defeated in the civil war and the components of the popular front were suppressed in a blood-tide of revenge (in fact his account does not even include the civil war at all, as if the election took place and they all lived happily ever after … ). He also fails to note that the universal switch of the parties of the Comintern to the popular front tactic, despite tremendous expenditure of energy, failed to obtain material support for republican forces from the ‘democracies’, at the same time as the political compromises - vis-à-vis Spain’s colonies, for example - which were necessary to have a chance of gaining French or British support, ruled out many military strategies.
He at least mentions the French defeat to Hitler, but not the plain role of sabotage and defeatism by the reactionary officers - the heirs of Dreyfus’s tormentors - which made the invasion and subsequent Vichy and German regimes something almost like a deflected coup; and, thereby, the total failure of the “popular front tactic” to “[beat] an alliance of far-right populists and conservative amoralists”, never mind being the “one proven response in history” to such a threat.
So absurd, indeed, is this line that his good faith in advancing it must be called into question. In a longer and mostly useful reply to his article, Socialist Worker writer Nick Clark points out apropos Mason’s treatment of France and Spain: “... as a former Trotskyist, he surely knows this is only half the story at best”.3 Surely indeed. Either Mason has suffered some kind of head injury, or he is merely trolling his old comrades; far better to pull ‘clever’ tactics out of his arse in the liberal media than submit to the grind of Workers Power paper sales. Mason enjoys rather too much the sight of himself in the big league, and cannot resist scandalising the dwindling contingents of old-fashioned Marxists in the cheap seats. The rest of his audience he presumably holds in such contempt that he does not even expect the most cursory Wikipedia fact-checking exercise from them.
Not that the Lexiteers manage to avoid confusion. It is most acute in Socialist Worker itself, which faces a very particular problem - there are mass protests going on, and mass protests against the Tory government; it would be a poor show if the Socialist Workers Party could not get very, very excited in its usual fashion. However, on the particular issue that divides the protestors from the government (as understood by those protestors), the SWP is on Johnson’s side. Not for the first time has the SWP’s ill-thought-out Brexitism led it into this uncomfortable position. Thus, in last week’s paper, we find the following formulation in a piece by SWP leader Charlie Kimber:
The crisis has to be used to break Tory rule. It is crucial that these protests are anti-Tory and for forcing Johnson and the government out - not protests against Brexit. And they must be open to people who voted ‘leave’.4
We might wonder, perhaps, if comrade Kimber has anyone particular in mind when he says that people who voted Brexit must be welcome. On the whole, however, even he must realise that this perspective is somewhat askew from reality. These are ‘remain’ protests and their objection to Johnson’s move is its concrete meaning - that he is trying to ram Brexit through a remainer parliament. It is as if there was a planning application to build a mosque, and the council were to say that it could go ahead, as long as it had no minarets or copies of the Qur’an and was open to Wiccan crystal healing types.
That said, it so happens that the political lie of the land at this exact moment is more apt to give Lexiteers a clearer view than left-remainers. The latter are too wrapped up in panic, too easily coopted by mainstream liberal rhetoric. Socialist Worker’s Tomáš Tengely-Evans is hardly unique among Lexiteers when he points out that “there would probably have been a parliamentary recess during the party conference season … so the parliamentary shutdown will amount to MPs losing four to six sitting days”.5 The comrade goes on to pick out the most serious political danger of the situation:
Labour is right to oppose a no-deal Brexit. But lining up with austerity-mongers and racists is no progressive alternative to Johnson. If anything, it could strengthen Johnson’s attempt to present himself as ‘anti-establishment’. The recent picture of Labour’s John McDonnell, Lib Dem Jo Swinson and former Tory Anna Soubry meeting to unite against no deal will make that easier.
This is a danger from which the Lexiteers are immune by definition, while left remainers are extraordinarily vulnerable. In the case of someone like Paul Mason, the damage is already irreversible.
So much for the short-term political outlook. But both sides are equally and disastrously wrong, once we start to look a year (or 10 years) ahead.
When I first started reading this paper - some 13 or so years ago - there was a particular line of critique of its opponents on the far left, which very much dominated its polemics.
That was the accusation of economism. The far left had apparently no interest in questions of democracy; we lived in a ‘bourgeois democracy’, the revolution would introduce ‘workers’ democracy’, and the way to the latter was primarily through direct class struggle against the employer. Where issues outside that were dealt with - as they had to be - they tended to be taken care of simply by tailing elements of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. I do not mean to impugn the spirit of the wider far left on these matters, which were engaged with sincere energy and care; merely the limitations of political line. So anti-war activity was carried on under the sign of pacifism; objections to police brutality as a matter of liberal defence of rights or anti-racism; and so forth.
If that critique is no longer so pertinent, it is - sadly - not because anyone took much notice. Instead, that core commitment to socialist revolution itself has atrophied, and in many cases only the outer shell of liberalism, pacifism and so on remains (in others it lives on as a sort of sectarian shibboleth).
Rarely has this legacy been more obvious than in the AWL article quoted above, where a rote roll-call of working class protest is desultorily invoked to try to stop the real danger: the final eclipse of the liberal bourgeoisie by the nationalist-revanchist opposition it summoned against itself. The proletariat is to engage in mass strikes “against Johnson’s outrageous attack on parliamentary democracy”. In this, the AWL writers confuse Britain as it actually is - a constitutional monarchy, not a parliamentary democracy, in which moves like Johnson’s are perfectly legal and, given particular circumstances, even normal - with the false democratic image in which the modern west presents itself.
At the opposite end of the scale, Robert Griffiths of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain took to that paper’s pages to bang through an old refrain of his, decrying MPs for “defending ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ in order to overturn the ‘popular sovereignty’ of June 2016 and to keep sovereign decision-making powers in Brussels”.6 In other words, the plebiscite is more democratic than parliament, in comrade Griffiths’ view - an equally disastrous error. But, while few have openly argued, as he does, that plebiscitary ‘sovereignty’ is a higher form of democracy, nobody has correctly identified the referendum as anti-democratic as such - apart, that is, from us in the CPGB, and the small matter of the best contingents of our movement back to Marx in the 1850s.
The Marxist critique of bourgeois society’s democratic pretensions is well and truly buried among today’s ‘Marxists’. In the best case, it was supplanted by an anarchistic conception of a workers’ democracy appearing at day zero after the revolution, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter; but that rather threadbare conception gives way to fatuous liberalism or else Bonapartism. Johnson’s non-coup has at least got us all talking about democracy; but, it seems, many on the left have very little to say about it.
+Brexit. This isn’t quite the whole story - a recess of this type would not usually stop the proceedings of parliamentary committees and so on, which will be affected by the prorogation.↩︎