Rebranding as Transform
Yet another call for a new broad left party, yet another disappointment to come. Mike Macnair looks at the latest offering
On July 25 Left Unity announced its participation in yet another call for a “new party of the left”.1 Besides LU itself, the participants are the Breakthrough Party,2 Liverpool Community Independents3 and the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL).
The PAL has very little web presence, but appears to have originated as a general left non-aggression pact, including the Socialist Party of England and Wales’s front, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, but which split four months after its launch, when Tusc allowed George Galloway’s Workers’ Party observer status.4 What remains of PAL is therefore in substance Left Unity, the Breakthrough Party and the Northern Independence Party.5 As Clive Heemskerk of SPEW/Tusc commented at the time of the split, in spite of their name-claims to breadth, none of these formations represent either significant forces on the ground, or (apart from the Liverpool Community Independents) electoral impact significantly greater than Tusc’s.6
The new Transform name appears to reflect the leadership of Left Unity’s commitments to the ‘Euro left’, which were already present in 2013 when the brand-name linked to was (already belatedly, in terms of the hoped-for political selling impact) the German Die Linke. This year’s is ‘Transform! Europe’, which is “a network of 39 European organisations from 23 countries, active in the field of political education and critical scientific analysis, and is the recognised political foundation corresponding to the Party of the European Left”.7
Put the pure rebranding aspect to one side. What does Transform stand for? The call starts with what everyone knows: that we face “an era of crisis: climate change, the cost of living, the erosion of democracy [meaning, of liberalism - MM] and the spread of war”; and that
The Labour Party is failing to provide an alternative. The right wing has regained control of Labour … Keir Starmer has overseen the driving out of 200,000 Labour members. “The many” who supported Labour politics from 2015 to 2019 are denied a political voice.
We need a political organisation that offers a real solution: one that challenges the system at the root of every crisis we face.
So far, so good - except for the fact that Left Unity is not a refugee from the failure of Corbynism, but the relic of an organisation founded in the belief that Corbynism could not happen, and which refused to join “the many” who tried to make the left surge in the Labour Party work - in the process losing most of its own membership.
“Now we are taking the next step: inviting all who agree with our core principles, outlined below, to move rapidly towards founding a new party of the left.” OK, so what are these “core principles”? To a very considerable extent they are classic modern left “motherhood and apple pie”, with indeterminacy of content which make them practically useless to define a political alternative. Let us work through the points describing “the party” It is: (1) “a left party, of and for the working class in all its diversity, seeking to redistribute wealth and power from the elite to the people”.
The commitment to the working class “in all its diversity” is positive. But the rest of the formula is seriously vague. “Left” (derived originally from where the parties sat in the French Chamber of Deputies) is, by now, near-meaningless. Already in the 1920s Cartel des Gauches in France, its meaning was to commit the workers’ party (the French Socialists) to alliance with the equivalent of today’s Liberal Democrats. The call to “redistribute wealth and power from the elite to the people” has the same character: what it proposes is to leave the fundamentals of capitalist order in place, but merely redistribute within this framework; “the elite” could mean, as it does for the right populists, the “metropolitan elite”, while “the people” is even vaguer.
The party is also (2) “eco-socialist, supporting transformative political, social and economic change in order to build a truly sustainable world and achieve climate justice.”
This is a set of fashionable buzz words, which are almost devoid of content. “Eco-socialist” has the character of evading fundamental choices which cannot be avoided.8 For example, to deal with global warming or ocean pollution will require common international action, as opposed to the ‘green’ advocacy of localism.
“Climate justice”, moreover, has all the vices of “justice” politics in general. I wrote about this 20 years ago in response to Salma Yaqoob’s and George Monbiot’s ‘Principles of unity’ draft platform. I quote only a part of my conclusion then:
The implication should be clear. A political movement which founds itself on the struggle for justice sets itself on the path to paternalist dictatorship. In all probability, not enough time has passed since the fall of the Stalinist regimes and of ‘old Labour’ to let such a movement gain much force in society. But, even if it could, all it would produce is an episode leading to ... the return of the neoliberals.9
Point 3 states that the new party “is internationalist, opposing war, imperialism and colonialism, welcoming migrants and standing in solidarity with oppressed people everywhere”. This states a general principle. But what about the present-day concrete? The UK is right now a co-belligerent, along with the USA and other Nato countries, in the war in Ukraine. It is supplying arms to Ukraine and training its armed forces.
This war is presented as a defensive war against Russian aggression, just as the Third Anglo-Mysore war in 1790-92 was in its time presented by the British press as a war of defence of Hyderabad against the ‘aggressor’, Tipu Sultan. Just as the actual aim of 1790-92 was British power in the Indian subcontinent, the actual aim of today’s Ukraine war is a ‘colour revolution’ in Moscow, followed by a new Yeltsin and a new downward step of Russian disarmament and deindustrialisation, and the partitioning of the country to ‘protect against Russian aggression’. It also aims to open the way for a full, aggressive encirclement of China. This is not to celebrate Putin any more than radicals around 1800 should have celebrated Tipu: it is to recognise our own primary responsibility for resisting our imperial state.
This war, moreover, and the sanctions imposed on Russia in order to pursue it, is one of the fundamental causes of the general inflation and the resulting cost-of-living crisis - just as occurred as a result of 1914-18.
So what do you have to say about this war, comrades, and its character as an operation of US imperialism and its side-kicks, including the UK, and its economic implications? Should the working class accept the ‘sacrifices’ which are made necessary by inflation and the £4.6 billion spent on military support for Ukraine in the last two years (and therefore not available for the NHS, care, and so on)? Silence …
Moving on, the party is (4) “feminist and anti-racist, fighting for a world where social injustices including racism, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and the oppression of women have been eradicated”.
Again general principles. But does “feminist” mean in the sense of Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean in and similar forms of managerialist feminism? Or “gender-critical feminist”? Or …? I have criticised the political ‘phobias’ earlier this year: by psychologising what are actually political claims, these formulas tend both to excuse the violence of the oppressor and to preclude the open discussion of political differences among the oppressed.10
The party is also (5) “committed to eradicating regional inequality within Britain and supports the right of the devolved nations to determine their constitutional futures”. This clause contains two points which are each on their own entirely supportable, but which do not comfortably stand together. The reason is that Scotland, Wales and the Six Counties are all substantially subsidised by Westminster, with tax income coming primarily from London and the south-east.11 This reflects the underlying point I made last week: as an ex-hegemon power in long-term industrial decline, the UK is actually dependent for a large part of its income on the export of ‘services’ - meaning mainly financial, legal, consultancy and advertising and PR services.12 This flows into the larger economy as City salaries and is extracted as higher-rate income tax.
Communists stand for the right of the Scotland, Wales and Ireland to self-determination, because we stand for republican democracy. We are not advocates of ‘northern independence’ or any other form of localism which lacks that sort of national-cultural and historical foundation. And, while we support the right to self-determination, we oppose voting for actual independence, because we recognise that the working class needs the widest common action. And “eradicating regional inequality within Britain” will actually need common action on a European scale. This is because the dynamics which produce the skimming of global financial operations by London, which then subsidises the rest of the UK, also naturally produce regional inequality within the UK.
The party is (6) “a democratic party, in which members empower, organise and educate each other; and (7) it “[d]evelops policy democratically, drawing on the knowledge and experience of its members”.
These are very clearly mere ‘motherhood and apple pie’. Everyone on the left would agree with these ideas in principle. The problem is what they mean in practice. For example, Left Unity’s constitution was considerably simplified in 2018 from the Heath Robinson structure originally adopted.13 But it remains a combination of the Bonapartist method of the direct election of national officers (who then cannot be accountable to anyone) with the federalist method of a national council composed of these officers, together with branch representatives (largely irrespective of branch size).
While Left Unity has formal space in its constitution for caucuses of the oppressed and for ‘tendencies’ (factions), Breakthrough does not. Both organisations have more or less elaborate speech controls/‘safe spaces’ policies, the effect of which is to place sharp limits on possible debate (as we saw in Left Unity in 2013-16, and as has been visible in student politics both before and after then).14 In the Labour Party in 2015 and since, such policies have been a primary engine of the witch-hunt, against which the Transform appeal protests.
Moving on, the party (8) “Contests elections in order to offer voters a socialist alternative and build power locally and nationally, without promoting the idea that voting alone can solve the present crises”. And (9) it seeks “to build power in communities, workplaces and on the streets”.
What is needed is a party whose tasks are primarily political: that is, in the long run to fight for the political power of the working class as a class over the state and the middle classes, and, in the immediate term, as Marx put it in 1871, “a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion”. Marx contended:
Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power of the ruling classes - it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands.15
The appeal’s text evades the choice between these political tasks - the ones for which it is worth standing in elections - and, on the other hand, anarchist ideas of building “power in communities, workplaces and on the streets”.
Finally, the party (10) “Builds meaningful relationships with a wide range of organisations, including trade unions, community and campaign groups, social justice movements and left organisations outside Britain.” This is sufficiently vacuous (eg, what are “meaningful relationships”?) that no objection could be taken to it; but equally, Starmerites could agree to it too.
The unity of small groups on a serious and principled platform could be seriously useful. But this appeal will not provide it. The People’s Alliance of the Left, founded on equally unsound political foundations, split within four months of its foundation and Transform is unlikely to do much better.
More on the problems of the ‘eco-socialist’ evasion in J Conrad The little red climate book London 2023.↩︎
‘Clearing the ground’ Weekly Worker February 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1429/clearing-the-ground.↩︎
‘Blind leading the blind’ Weekly Worker July 27: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/blind-leading-the-blind. See in particular note 7.↩︎
leftunity.org/left-unity-constitution-new-2018-version. We (Weekly Worker) wrote at length about the problems of Left Unity’s constitution when we were part of LU in 2013-16: See weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/categories/left-unity-group.↩︎
leftunity.org/motions-passed-at-left-unitys-2016-conference: ‘C4 Conduct Within Left Unity’.↩︎