Anti-Capitalist Initiative:Up the Swanny
The Anti-Capitalist Initiative hosted two events over the weekend of December 1-2. Mark Fischer was not impressed
Comrade Joana Ramiro, who gave the welcome speech at the 250-300-strong Anti-Capitalist Initiative-sponsored ‘Up the anti: reclaim the future’ conference on Saturday December 1, was quite unique: she was the only platform speaker on the day who was actually tagged as ‘ACI’.
What was striking about the event was the virtual absence of ACI speakers, or of any real voice for the group that had been at the centre of organising the whole shebang. Instead it seems that the comrades consciously limited their role to just providing a neutral ‘space’ for discussion; or, as leading ACIer Simon Hardy puts it in his initial assessment of the event, “We wanted to build a broad, leftwing conference that appraised the big questions facing radical politics in a fraternal atmosphere of critical debate, where people from different political traditions (and none) could discuss the future of the movement and progressive politics more generally.”1
The politically ‘shy’ shell of this group has a political kernel to it, of course. That is, the adaptation of the comrades around Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper, who collectively walked out of Workers Power earlier this year, to the anarcho/autonomist/left-liberal milieu that WP once cynically sought to recruit from. This adaptation is shared by the other major component of the ACI, Permanent Revolution (an earlier split from WP). However, as we predicted, members have actually leaked the other way.
So, while Joana’s opening was rather breathless - the day, which was by then only three minutes old, was already “very exciting”, she assured us - I would actually dub the comrade’s speech as ‘keynote’, in that it flagged up a number of important themes and ideas that other ex-WP comrades expressed over the weekend. The event was part of the process of “leaving superfluous arguments behind”, she told us. Now the central challenge we had was to “do more, do it more radically and do it now”.
This impatience with the controversies and schisms that have characterised the Marxist movement manifests itself in two forms. In my contribution to the second day’s ‘Get organised’ event (a smaller, 30-40-strong gathering that aimed - rather desperately, I thought - to turn the ACI into “a more defined and recognisable movement”, according to its advertising puff), I actually applauded the spirit that led young comrades like Joana to be keen to get cracking. However, ‘didn’t do enough stuff’ was not a convincing diagnosis for the drawn-out programmatic crisis and decay of the workers’ movement in the 20th century, I suggested.
Youthful impatience is forgivable. However, what is far more poisonous is its manifestation in more experienced comrades; that simply speaks of cynicism. “I’m sick of talking to the left,” Dan Jefferies told us at the Sunday organising meeting. After all, “Marxism is not about 10 people speaking about the Russian Revolution above a pub,” he categorically asserted. (Actually, comrade, given specific historical circumstances and national conditions, that is what it is about.)
This paper has chronicled for years the rather ugly consequences that the search for ‘relevance’ through unprincipled accommodation to forces to your right can produce: the key one is the demand that the Marxist left shuts its mouth in the interests of ‘unity’, as we have repeatedly seen. Although the two ACI-hosted events were relatively open and chairs allowed critics speaking rights, an incident was recounted at the ‘Get organised’ event that may have worrying implications, as might the knee-jerk responses of some ACIers present.
Comrade Barbara Dorn of the International Bolshevik Tendency - which is a recognised part of the ACI - complained about a decision of the alliance’s web team to spike an article on Greece submitted by her organisation (it was subsequently published after protests). Leading Permanent Revolution2 member Stuart King claimed that the article had been too long and opined that this created a “bad impression” and as a result “people won’t read it”. What we “don’t want” on the ACI’s website he said, “is walls of print”. Comrade King was backed up by ACIer Rachel Archer, who told us that a priority for her organisation was “trying to get away from long articles and from alienating people”.
This cheery philistinism was a recurring theme, unfortunately. In another contribution, comrade Jefferies argued against a written contribution authored by ex-CPGBer Cat Rylance, which, amongst other things, made a case for a programme to be adopted in the future “as a tool of accountability for the members against the leadership”. Dan shrugged and said that “the Bolsheviks didn’t have a programme for every situation” and that more often than not they made do with simple conjunctural slogans like “Land, peace and bread”. Luke Cooper implied that a minimum programme for communists was simply a low-level shopping list of run-of-the-mill demands on “wages, conditions” and the like.
While I agree with comrade Hardy that some of the openings on the Saturday could have been better, I found the criticism he made of the only one he explicitly branded as rough to be equally philistine. The session entitled ‘Radical interpretations of the crisis’ (involving Hillel Ticktin, David Graeber, Saul Newman and James Woudhuysen) had received “mixed, indeed many negative, reviews that were summed up by one person as ‘four middle-aged white men arguing with each other’”.3 If that indeed was the summation of the criticism, then it was moronic, not to beat around the bush ...
Even that hoary old bugbear of the right wing of the workers’ movement - democratic centralism - made an appearance in ACIers’ contributions. A sensitive theme for the ACI throughout the day, for example, was one flagged up in the publicity blurb: “Should we retain the current autonomous structure that allows local groups to organise their own strategies and events? ... what should the balance between coordination and autonomy be?” Repeatedly, the ex-WP comrades spoke about their years of (non-recreational) bondage in that sect and recounted tales of leaflets for local branches or for comrades active in a particular union being drafted by out-of-touch-comrades at centre. This was something comrade Hardy dubbed an “ultra-Bolshevik” form of organisation, implying heavily that what he called “democratic centralism” was counterposed to autonomy.4
When comrades Hardy and Cooper led the split from WP that rapidly melted into the ACI, they confided to some CPGB comrades that material we had published in the Weekly Worker on the authentic history of Lenin, the Bolsheviks, the model of a mass Marxist party and democratic centralism had influenced their thinking. I have to say, comrades, it really does not show.
In fact, ACI comrades (PR included) seem to have a consensus that what is required in the here and now is, as Luke Cooper put it, “a Syriza-type organisation in Britain”. Comrade Hardy writes in the autumn issue of the journal Permanent Revolution on the “need for a united left”. Again, Syriza is cited as an example of what can be achieved. Now this is true, but only in a narrow sense. At one time, we made a parallel point about the left in Scotland and its enhanced societal impact when the serious battalions came together in the Scottish Socialist Party - the problem was the politics. However, it is clear that Hardy and his comrades regard it as a given that said united entity cannot be Marxist; it will instead be a “credible left”, he writes evasively.5
Comrade Hardy becomes more explicit when he writes of “the kind of programme” any such new formation should have: “Certainly it should have an anti-capitalist basis, though it can leave some of the bigger questions unresolved ...”6 However, he really nails it when he writes that the ‘action programme’ for his ‘Syriza-type’ party could potentially “focus on the goals that Dan Hind identifies ...”
Now I think the author/journalist Dan Hind has some interesting things to say. Essentially he is a left-liberal mainstream commentator and I thoroughly enjoyed his thought-provoking session at ‘Up the anti’, where he spoke with Flaminia Giambalvo (Occupy Times) and Hicham Yezza (Ceasefire) on ‘What should 21st century journalism look like?’ However, the notion that the Marxist left should look to him for the political platform of our unity is perverse.7
Of course, the ACI comrades will be generally pleased with Saturday’s ‘Up the anti’ conference - given the nature of their project, they have a right to be. But the ‘Get organised’ event which followed the next day will not be viewed as successful, I suspect. What it starkly exposed was the fragility and unviability of the whole hopeless project.
This gathering was convened, according to its publicity, to “discuss the direction” the organisation should now move in and also for participants to “voice their position on a number of policy platforms”. Readers will recall that the ACI majority around comrades Cooper and Hardy have repeatedly put off the discussion and adoption of any sort of even sketchy political platform. This caused its then largest component - the ‘parent’ group, Workers Power itself - to leave in frustration, dubbing the ACI “useless for the tasks that alone would give it some meaning”. And, as illustrated by the ‘Get organised’ meeting, WP was also right that its ex-comrades had “developed an aversion to any serious discussion of programme” - so, as has been its wont, exit Workers Power, stage left.8
In fact, the December 2 ‘Get organised’ event revealed the extent to which the ACI is floundering. Although there were policy motions to be debated, amended and voted on by the assembled comrades, the decision was once again taken to defer discussion and voting on the politics of the ACI until a later date. Clearly, the comrades involved sense the fragility of this profoundly unconvincing Potemkin village and are not keen to commit the organisation to political specifics. Comrades such as Simon Hardy and Stuart King initially came forward with motions and amendments that would have given the organisation a defined membership structure and a fairly extensive platform (opposition to all cuts, abolition of immigration controls, support for the Palestinians, etc).
In the debate, comrade King initially argued quite feebly - almost apolitically - that, as the organisation was producing occasional national bulletins, it needed national positions. However, both he and comrade Hardy allowed themselves to be persuaded that this was premature. A number of reasons were offered for this. A speaker from the floor cautioned against adopting “detailed platforms too soon” (like eight months into your existence as an organisation?). Comrade Hardy concurred that there be “a general discussion of principles” before policy specifics could be hammered out. And tellingly all agreed that the debate in the local branches had been totally inadequate.
The real reason, of course, is the determination of the ‘Marxists’ not to offend the localist and spontaneist prejudices of the sparse anarcho-‘anti-capitalist’ elements the ACI has managed to attract. A written contribution to the pre-conference bulletin from members of the Brighton New Left Initiative posed the question, “What unites us?” Apparently it is only “precisely the desire not to jump into already tested organisational structures”. Practically, this means that “we need to keep our autonomy, as local groups, in terms of the struggles we seek to defend” and thus the ACI should remain “simply as an aggregate of its local branches”.
The bulk of the ‘Marxists’ present subordinated themselves to this miserable, anti-democratic perspective. Thus no vote, no serious perspectives ... no chance, in other words.
But will there be any more discussion prior to the next ACI conference? A chance to nail down differences and areas of agreement as a prelude to the adoption of firm political positions? An IBT leaflet distributed on the day told us that this organisation had engaged with the ACI “as a possible opportunity to debate contrasting political ideas”. But “we were disappointed”, they write flatly. Clearly, outside of the occasional national event staffed with ‘celebs’, the organisation barely exists: “Although the groups in Manchester and Brighton seemed to have a little more life, in London, where our comrades were working, it was an uphill struggle to arrange regular political discussions.”
The IBT at least has the merit of being clear about what it wants out of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative: members. Not so the couple of comrades who left our ranks for the ACI. Cat Rylance and Chris Strafford were the motivators of motion 3 and this was supported by a written contribution which - while transparently sincere - was simply wrongheaded. It advocated that the ACI recognise the need for a serious critical engagement with the left and - more controversially for those assembled on December 2 - the need in the not too distant future to agree a “document of strategy” rather than a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ “list of all our opinions”: a “programme”, in other words.
I joked with comrade Rylance that she seemed to be engaged in an attempt to turn the ACI into a fluffy version of the CPGB: I got an amused, but firm ‘no’. It is gratifying in a sense that these comrades retain (a version of) our politics and fight in this forum for it. However, it is naive and, ultimately, hopeless. At the beginning of the day, not the end, you have to characterise the political nature of the configurations our movement throws up as its crisis unfolds. Is it the answer? Does it even contain part of it?
For example, our intervention in the Socialist Alliance had a totally different character from our participation in Respect. We were loyal partisans of the first process, as it was a partial break from sectarianism for the key organisations of the revolutionary left in this country; we threw polemical and constitutional ‘bombs’ into the latter, as it embodied a reassertion by the Socialist Workers Party of not just popular frontism, but the opportunist impatience for an immediate political breakthrough.
The ACI is a product of the ugly decay and splintering of the left and nothing in its practice or in its methodology shows that it has learned any positive lessons from the series of political disasters the ex-WP comrades have inflicted on themselves in past years. ‘Up the anti’? Up the Swanny, more like.
2. PR split from WP in 2006 - see Weekly Worker July 6 2006.
4. A nonsense, of course. See Weekly Worker November 18 2004.
5. Permanent revolution autumn 2012, p8.
7. “Campaign for an end to the country’s predatory foreign policy, for the dismantling of the offshore network, for democratic control of the central banks, urgent action to address the threat of catastrophic climate change and the reform of the national media regimes” (Dan Hind: www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/08/201282371559392829.html.
8. Weekly Worker August 2.