Anti-cuts movement: Frontism produces no lasting gains
What can we expect from the Peoples Assembly? Dave Isaacson looks at the June 22 build-up
The announcement that a People’s Assembly Against Austerity was to take place at Central Hall, Westminster on June 22 came in a letter published in The Guardian signed by numerous prominent leftwing activists, MPs, media personalities and trade union leaders.1
The initiative came from Counterfire and its Coalition of Resistance anti-cuts front. COR is central to its organisation, which is also backed enthusiastically by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and such figures as Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, Unite. Since the call was launched, support has grown and it seems likely that demand for tickets will exceed the venue’s capacity (the main room holds up to 2,200).
It is not only in the right-on columns of the likes of Owen Jones and Mark Steel that the PA has been brought to the attention of readers of the bourgeois press. The Daily Telegraph’s resident self-professed Blairite, Dan Hodges, plays up the significance of both the PA and Ken Loach’s Left Unity initiative in an attack on Ed Miliband from the right.2 He claims that a member of the shadow cabinet raised the role of the groups with him, asking: “You seen what Owen Jones and Ken Loach are up to?” While Hodges is sure that the PA will fail to live up to its stated aims - “to develop a strategy for resistance to mobilise millions of people against the Con-Dem government” - he does envisage it causing a little grief for the Labour leader: “The left will eat itself. But it will make sure it eats Ed Miliband first,” he claims.
The main point of his article is that Ed - owing to his lack of firm support in the unions - is too weak and compromised to restrain the “hard left”. Yet, when the rebellion of the 44 Labour MPs who voted against the Job Seekers Bill is cited as an example of the hard left’s growing strength and seriousness, you have to wonder about Hodges’s sanity. Surely it is a sign of the utter weakness and insignificance of the left right now that even in opposition only a small rump of the Parliamentary Labour Party will vote against vicious Tory attacks upon some of their core supporters?
Coverage of the PA in The Spectator is much more predictable fare for such rightwing publications.3 An aloof and sneering mockery is Freddy Gray’s weapon of choice: “think Arab spring - but for Brits, who don’t have quite as much to rage about”. In contrast The Guardian’s Rhian E Jones is very sympathetic, comparing the PA to both the London Corresponding Society and the Chartists, but the article’s focus is all on these historic movements and nothing really concrete is said about the assembly, other than how “fitting” and relevant it is to our time.
Brendan O’Neill, in another online Telegraph article, is much more keen to try to grapple with some of the stated aims. Weekly Worker readers may well recall that O’Neill is also editor of Spiked, which is run by the unsavoury clique that made up the now supposedly moribund Revolutionary Communist Party, which itself had its roots in a split from the Socialist Workers Party. But, as anyone who has come across this bunch will tell you, don’t expect them to have any sympathy with any leftwing projects. Indeed, they are happy to act - in the Telegraph and elsewhere - as paid attack dogs savaging such initiatives. Though there was one noticeable exception to this when, in the middle of the crisis surrounding the Socialist Workers Party over the Delta case, O’Neill rushed to the SWP’s defence from what he termed “a corrosive zeitgeist”.4
Hidden behind a disingenuous nostalgia for a more ambitious left comes O’Neill’s general attack on the left and working class resistance to austerity.5 Sounding like a neoliberal, he views the welfare state as simply “monolithic” and “intrusive”, rather than an important gain - albeit a bureaucratically flawed one - won through an assertion of working class power. It is absolutely correct to defend welfare against attacks from the right. While we in the CPGB also lament the left’s lack of ambition, we recognise the difference between that and being a renegade. Repeated in O’Neill’s article is a trope dear to the hearts of Spiked contributors and their associated projects, such as the Institute of Ideas. That is, worship at the temple of “growth” and the linked attack on “miserablist Green thinking”. Backing this up, and giving it an unwarranted radical veneer, is a quote from the left communist, Sylvia Pankhurst, advocating “a great production that will supply more than all the people can consume”. But why would we want this? It defies logic to expend human and natural resources to wilfully generate waste. Marx’s famous maxim outlining communism is surely preferable: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!”6
Far more interesting than all of this coverage in the mainstream media is an article written by the openly rebellious SWP member, David Renton. It first appeared on Facebook, where it sparked controversy,7 and is also available on the comrade’s own blog.8 Renton welcomes the PA initiative and the support it has generated, but does not do so without criticism. The targets of his criticism - as suggested in the article’s title, ‘The People’s Assembly: an auto-critique’ - are not just the core organisers, but also the SWP and his own individual role in the past.
Renton reminds us that this is not the first PA - back in 2003 we had the Stop the War Coalition’s People’s Assembly Against War - and that the core instigators of both events are the same comrades - former SWP leaders John Rees and Lindsey German, now of Counterfire. “My main criticism is of the ‘front’ method; and of the assumptions behind it,” says Renton, who clearly has the current SWP leadership lined up in his sights just as much as the Counterfire comrades. He outlines a number of features of the cynical approach whereby a small core of leaders within a revolutionary group, through various dishonest manoeuvres, attempt to bring the masses into action. Such features include a willingness to anathematise and dispose of uncooperative alliance partners in the movement and the very cadre who do the leg work within such revolutionary groups. Almost everything (principles included) are expendable in the pursuit of mass influence. As Renton writes, this is “ultimately bleak and unrewarding”.
While those pursuing such an approach have on occasion been able to mobilise impressively large numbers (crucially when the general political situation has allowed it: eg, STWC in 2003), these gains have almost wholly been ephemeral. Looking at the position the left finds itself in today, there is no doubt that frontism has failed to bequeath us either any kind of revolutionary party or a strong anti-imperialist movement (opposition to imperialist interventions in Libya, Mali, Syria and Iran have been pitifully weak).
Can we expect the results of this year’s PA to be any different? In all honesty, no. The event aims to be a massive anti-cuts rally and I expect it to be a success in those terms - the fact that elements of the rightwing press are targeting the PA is a good indicator. Recent protests against the bedroom tax have also shown that there is plenty of anger against the cuts amongst the general population. It looks likely that Central Hall will be packed out and that a not insignificant proportion of those attending will not be the usual suspects. This is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself - indeed it is to be welcomed - but it falls a long way short of what is actually needed.
No time will be made available to debate out the perspectives and strategy we need. Those speaking from the platform will make no serious attempt to start such a debate and there will be very little time for speakers from the floor. While the organisers have suggested that providing a strategy is one of the things the PA can do, how can this be achieved without a thorough debate? The positions some of the speakers have taken are hardly uncontroversial, such as union leaders who have been deemed to have demobilised the struggles of their own members. Some activists have argued that such speakers should not have been invited. I disagree. I think that it is good that they are there, so long as we get to have a debate rather than be presented with a cosy consensus. The odds are that it will be the “top-table love-in” that comrade Renton expects.
In their Party Notes of March 25 the SWP’s leaders have welcomed the PA and are calling on “a large number” of their members to attend.9 It says: “We are going to it hoping to win people to an argument - about the need for resistance in deeds, not just words, for the union leaders to call action instead of blocking or restricting it, and not to place our faith in the Labour politicians who have so signally failed to head up a fight.” The SWP clearly want to be seen as being to the left of Counterfire on these questions, but the reality - as David Renton’s “auto-critique” implies - is that compromises over such questions come just as naturally to SWP leaders, when it comes to their own fronts.
What proposals will be made at the PA to take the movement forward is not yet clear, but some hints have been made along the lines of a mass demonstration, possibly to coincide with some industrial action. However, in essence, this will be no different from the role the anti-cuts movement has played all along - that of cheerleader for the actions of the big trade unions. There is no doubt that we should support the unions when they take action, but what do we do when they call actions off? We need to support the rank and file and be free to criticise the leaders when they sell their members short. But the rank and file is currently very weak and disorganised. Only with the support of the union bureaucracies have consistent large-scale actions against cuts been possible so far. It will take time and effort to build rank-and-file organisation from the base up, but it needs doing.
Crucially we need to move beyond resistance to austerity and begin to articulate a political alternative to the capitalist system which produces it. Convincing activists to dump frontism for partyism is a necessary part of that project.