Divided we stand
We have better solutions, asserts James Turley
Should anyone in Britain decide that the government’s plans for enormous public sector cuts need to be resisted, they will quickly realise it is their lucky day - after all, the number of left fronts for precisely this purpose is already verging on the ridiculous.
The longest standing option, of course, is the ‘official’ Communist Party of Britain’s ‘People’s Charter’. It started life as a grab-bag of sleepy left-Keynesian minimum demands, and so, in a sense, it remains; but circumstances have propelled it into a second life (or, perhaps, a second undeath) as a point of organisation against cuts. Early support came from various union officials in and around the CPB, along with sundry left-Labourites.
Its website now prominently links to the Coalition of Resistance against Cuts and Privatisation, which smacks rather of the Counterfire media grouplet formed by John Rees’s supporters after his undignified exit from the Socialist Workers Party. This one sells itself transparently on the basis of support from prominent individuals rather than unfriendly-looking organisations - Tony Benn has been put up as the lead figurehead for the jamboree, and it is his face that appears on the by-line in The Guardian’s reprint of the founding statement, as well as all over the CRCP website (and, for that matter, Counterfire).
What does it have to say? Even less than the People’s Charter, of course. Point one, a little redundantly, is to oppose cuts and privatisation. The comrades also want to “fight rising unemployment and support organisations of unemployed people,” “develop and support an alternative programme for economic and social recovery”, and so forth. Not a single concrete commitment appears in the whole thing, but rest assured: the comrades intend to “organise information, meetings, conferences, marches and demonstrations” - because, god knows, they were not going to be doing that anyway (August 4).
The SWP itself, of course, is not going to be outdone. It continues to push its Right to Work campaign. The name may lead the naive to believe that it is a campaign against unemployment, but as time has gone on RtW has been retrofitted into an all-purpose ‘united front’ on whatever economic issues come to hand. It achieved some short-lived infamy for an utterly voluntaristic disruption of Acas talks between British Airways and the Unite union, which won the SWP yet another raft of detractors. It also, by the most generous estimates, managed to turn out 7,000 people to protest against the Tory conference (though the weather was horrendous).
There was, needless to say, no mention of this protest to be found on Counterfire (although it managed to put up a short video after it had taken place, whose dreadfully distorted soundtrack suggests a lack of interest on their part). It, instead, is building for another demonstration, outside Downing Street, to coincide with George Osborne’s spending review, which will make it clear exactly who is at risk from the following austerity programme (that is: more or less everyone).
As always, the political divisions are so insubstantial as to be non-existent. There is no compelling reason why we should be forced to name three of these campaigns in as many paragraphs (and that is to ignore the smaller ‘broad fronts’) instead of one, when all speak in the same terms about the same problems and offer the same solutions - no reason except the unprincipled divisions between the different groups. Indeed, John Rees’s official cause for dissent in the SWP was that it did not have an economic ‘united front’ on the model of the Stop the War Coalition. Now, of course, it does; but that did not stop both sides seeking and finalising a split in any case.
That is what we might call the sectarian axis of division. There is also the sectional. Here, as always, the worst culprit is the Socialist Party in England and Wales, whose socialism has always had something of the municipal to it. Perhaps most prominent is its Youth Fight for Jobs front, which, unlike Right to Work, does exactly what it says on the tin - it is a campaign against youth unemployment. Beyond that, there are sundry campaigns against NHS privatisation and such, as well as local anti-cuts fronts wherever the comrades have a foothold.
Of course, these local movements partly get around the problem of having nothing substantial to say because, after all, that is not really the point of a local campaign. Yet the problem does not simply go away for that. A campaign to save a particular hospital or school may get enough support in the area actually to succeed - but there is nothing to stop the cut in question simply being shifted somewhere else. It is a matter of detail for the government whether these jobs go or those. In fact, this also goes for Youth Fight for Jobs - it would hardly be a victory for the working class if it became a serious force, with the result that the young simply forced the old out of their jobs.
As far as national campaigns go, SPEW seems limited to its decrepit Campaign for a New Workers Party, which is forever waiting for substantial union support, along with its increasingly calamitous electoral fronts. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was undemocratically cooked up a matter of months before this year’s general election, and - except for some candidates with some serious local roots - performed to the standard it deserved, though those in attendance at the recent CNWP open steering committee meeting were assured that the whole thing would be warmed over in time for the local elections next year.
In this, SPEW is somewhat crippled by its abstentionist and sectarian attitude towards the Labour Party. This was an attitude it previously shared with the likes of the SWP; but while the latter’s hyper-opportunism at least had the effect of alerting it to the changing circumstances in Labour, the former’s founding myth - that the Labour Party had definitively transformed itself into a common-or-garden bourgeois party in the early 90s - made such a turn impossible.
Indeed, the appearance of strength intermittently projected by RtW and CRCP draws in large part from the acquiescence of unions and individuals associated with the Labour Party, who thereby enjoy greater public prominence than the marginalised far left.
Apart from the kaleidoscopic fragmentation of the left’s resistance to cuts, the major structural weakness in common among these fronts is their strictly reactive, defensive nature. Yes, there are a great number of tasks before us that will pit us in a defensive posture against a bourgeois class offensive; but it does not follow from this that the left needs to keep it simple, and raise only those demands acceptable to the broader milieu which it wishes to mobilise.
Early on in the run of the X Files, Fox Mulder is told by a mysterious ally that “a lie is best hidden between two truths”. So it is with George Osborne and David Cameron - and Thatcher before them. They are able to win substantial public support for their rampage, because it is transparently obvious that the preceding state of affairs did not represent an earthly paradise. A large proportion of public sector jobs, of course, provide useful services on which the rest of us rely at one time or another - but another exists primarily to massage unemployment figures by employing people to do something, anything.
For example, a socially-housed individual who receives housing benefit solicits money from one arm of the state to be paid directly to another arm of the state. This is not useful work - by any rational definition, it is waste. So it goes for the labyrinthine bureaucracies that exist to promote targets and manage services from schools to hospitals to the police. The vast majority of this activity is simply irrational.
Of course, to pose serious solutions to these problems is to move beyond saving every job for the sake of saving every job. Marxists have forgotten why it is that we do fight for all these jobs: to maintain the integrity of our organisations, to avoid the downward spiral into de-proletarianisation that begins with the dole queue and ends in all manner of degradation.
We do it, in other words, because we have better solutions - about which the CPB, SWP, Counterfire et al remain conspicuously silent in their moronic mimicry of stale 70s-style official leftism (at least the CPB were there first time round, after a fashion).