Left Unity is now the focal point for the problem of the united front party. In Britain this was first posed in the mid-1990s with the launch of the Socialist Labour Party. Since then the battle for the united front has taken place around a variety of party-type organisations, including the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
The working class movement is in a state of ideological flux. It is politically disoriented, economically weak and divided. The employers are on the offensive. The trade unions are in retreat in the face of mass unemployment, whilst real wages are undergoing a massive squeeze. The working class has no party to represent its interests and those political activists who recognise this lack of political representation seem unable to agree to what kind of party is needed.
Our starting point is objective conditions and the state of working class consciousness. With the globalisation of capital and the global expansion of the working class, on the face of it conditions have never been more ripe for communism. But the working class has never been further away from revolutionary politics. The working class has not turned to revolution in the UK and, if anything, is more reluctant to embrace change. The politically active section of the working class recognises this problem and rejects ‘revolution’-mongering as the politics of left posturing.
Communist theory provides us with the general answers to the problem. The question is whether we can apply this theory correctly in today’s different and more confused conditions. Two key ideas stand out.
First is the struggle for the united front. With the working class under attack, communists must, without any equivocation or vacillation, demand a united front with social democrats against the class enemy. The united front is a strategy in which communists propose discussions, joint actions and, where possible, joint organisation with them. In building a more effective fightback it is necessary to demonstrate in practice to the workers that it is not the communists who are sectarians, but the inconsistent social democrats. If the social democrats refuse unity they will be exposed. If they agree to united action then the working class will be stronger and the communists will gain influence.
The lowest form is the defensive united front: for example, the unity of communists and social democrats to save a hospital from closure, oppose fascism or defend pensions or wages, etc. This is the normal fare of left activity in Britain. But why should the working class confine itself to defence? Attack is, after all, the best form of defence. Why not a united front agreement to wage a political struggle against the class enemy?
The united front party is a weapon of political struggle. Despite every setback communists must keep up the fight to forge it. Communists must conduct this struggle openly in the working class movement and within the ranks of the communists themselves. In the latter case the problem is the opportunism of some and the sectarianism of others.
A united front party is, of course, a compromise. How could it not be? The communists have to ‘give up’ some of their programme in order to secure at least the prospect of a more effective fightback. How can we decide what to give up and what to retain? Lenin was very clear about one of the bottom lines. Communists must retain the full freedom to explain their views in front of the working class - and this cannot and must not be surrendered in any united front political formation.
Of course, communists can help themselves secure freedom of expression by showing they are the best class fighters for unity. However, if they simply demand the communist full programme then workers will think they are divisive and not interested in the class struggle, but only in their own hobby horses. If they act like sectarians, workers will care less about their ‘freedom of expression’. But if they conduct themselves in a ‘responsible’ way, workers will want to hear what communists have to say, even if they don’t agree with it.
What else can communists ‘give up’ for the sake of the united front party? There is a principled means of deciding how to answer the problem. If we divide the communist programme into minimum and maximum and think of the former as a kind of transitional programme, then the answer is at least clear in principle. The communists should concentrate on the minimum programme as the means to build the united front party.
The minimum programme, correctly defined in the UK, is the democratic republican programme. It is the way to bridge the gap in political consciousness and shift the focus from Labourism to democracy. As Lenin stated many times, the struggle for democracy takes the working class towards socialism, not away from it. However, this is, of course, a contested statement. British Trotskyism has avoided the question of democracy and sees it as a minor or irrelevant issue.
Such a programme requires social democrats to shift to the left and communists to shift to the right by ‘setting aside’, but not giving up, the maximum programme. The minimum programme enables social democrats and communists to find common ground.
Right communism or opportunism is the abandonment of the republican programme for Labourism. Recognising the reality of workers’ consciousness, this right trend has adopted the more ‘realistic’ politics of left Labour. There is nothing republican in Her Majesty’s Labour Party. But the desire to be in touch with workers’ ideas has led right-leaning communists to embrace Labourism, and Left Unity seems set to repeat the mistake.
Left communism proposes the maximum programme either as a barrier to the united front or as an ultimatum to the social democrats. The lefts, or ‘maximalists’, help to perpetuate disunity. Some may think left communism is a macho-aggressive personality disorder which Lenin famously called ‘infantile’. It can be an independent organised tendency. It may appear as a left deviation of thought and action within mainstream communists groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party or CPGB. Revolutionary communists must therefore wage war on left communism which helps maintain divisions amongst the vanguard of the class.
Left communists never pass up an opportunity to tell the workers how wonderful and revolutionary they are and how the communist programme is so precious that they cannot depart from it, since it would be a betrayal of the revolution. They reject the united front as a compromise. They are not interested in more effective class struggle, but in making propaganda for the maximum programme. Workers are completely disgusted by this and see in communism not class politics, but the self-promotion and self-aggrandisement of sects.
The clash between right-communist opportunism and left-communist sectarianism may be farcical, but it is no laughing matter. The inevitable outcome is the hegemony of social democracy and the politics of liberal Labourism. There is a real danger that the struggle between the two ‘extreme’ trends degenerates into a sectarian farce, with the united front paralysed and incapable of class struggle.
The SWP was absent from the first attempt to build a united front party in the guise of the SLP. It was focused on building the SWP. Then the SWP shifted to the right and involved itself in the SA. But it opposed the SA becoming a real party and limited it to an electoral front. Then it shifted even further to the right with Respect. In all cases the SWP opposed republicanism in favour of Labourism, not least when it dabbled in the Labourite Tusc.
The Socialist Party was drawn to the SLP, but could not strike an agreement with Arthur Scargill. It embraced the idea of a political united front in the SA. It adopted the call for a new workers’ party. But it continued to promote Labour left politics against the democratic case for republicanism. The last attempt was its backing for Tusc, which followed the classic, old Labour Party model under trade union leadership.
The CPGB developed its own ‘left’ line, which it took into all the ‘united front’ party formations. It condemned the united front party as a compromise, describing it as a “halfway house”. This slogan showed a disconnection with the real world. If the working class is in retreat then halfway to where we want to be would be a huge step in the right direction.
The CPGB placed responsibility for the united front party firmly in the hands of the social democrats. If the ‘reformists’ form a party, the CPGB will come on board. In this they are not fighting for left unity or a united front party, but merely exploiting an opportunity to make propaganda for the maximum programme. Hence the CPGB joined the SLP, SA and Respect in order to campaign for a Marxist party. In practice the CPGB was the ‘left opposition’ to the united front - a position undermined when the CPGB backed Brown’s Labour Party in the 2009 Euro-elections and after the 2010 general election urged members to join the Labour Party.
In Left Unity the Left Party Platform stands on the right. The ideological foundations should be characterised as Labourite because of its connection with 1945 and the Labour government that created the welfare state. It does link with socialism, but identifies with a range of special interests, such as feminism and environmentalism, and suggests a politics more like the radicalism of Respect in uniting socialist and non-socialist radicals. There is no republicanism in this.
Second, the Socialist Platform stands to the left. But it is unclear whether it stands for a united front of social democrats and communists or is really for Marxist unity and is therefore some kind of Trotskyist front. The CPGB supports Marxist unity and opposes the united front party. It is a critical supporter of the Socialist Platform and is in debate over amending it with Nick Wrack and other supporters. No doubt the CPGB will seek to make maximalist amendments. There is no republicanism here either.
As things stand, these platforms represent either Labourism or Marxist-Trotskyism. Neither propose the necessary political foundations for a united front party. There has to be another way, an alternative informed and guided by the communist minimum programme. It is too early to say whether Left Unity will succeed in cracking the problem of the united front party or be crushed in a pincer movement between opportunism and sectarian maximalism. If it fails we will have to try again.
Story of O
What a dreadful article Paul Demarty has written as a critique of the equally dreadful ‘safe spaces’ policy of Left Unity (‘Playing it safe’, September 12). Rather than write a critique explaining why this policy will not work, we are treated to a silly story concerning the use of abusive and rude language on an internet discussion group. We are also informed that Left Unity has similarities, at least as far as the ‘safe spaces’ policy is concerned, with Maoism! The moral seems to be that “sexism, racism and so forth”, as the author puts it, cannot be fought within Left Unity and the cure proposed by the backers of the ‘safe spaces’ policy is worse than the disease.
Given that there is now a virtual group in existence of members and putative members of Left Unity who have been deemed to be possible or real risks to the safety of other members of the organisation, a more sober discussion is in order. Indeed, despite the fact that a conference of Left Unity has not yet voted the ‘safe spaces’ policy as being operative, it is already being used to merry abandon. It matters not as to whether the person accused is guilty of any offence or the severity of the alleged offence; it is enough that one person voice unease for the accused to be suspended from Left Unity and denied the rights of membership. It matters not if the offence happened years or even decades ago; what matters is that everybody feels safe.
Actually, it is important that people feel safe and can trust their party comrades. But the actions of Left Unity’s self-appointed morality police will not achieve even this limited goal. Rather they will inculcate a sense of false security and a level of paranoid suspicion that can only escalate with time. Make no mistake: the fact is that sexual predators will happily ignore all rules and regulations. Not for them disclosure and party discipline. Not for them meek submission to the admonitions of the morality police and their self-righteousness!
Strangely, and contrary to Mr Demarty’s assertion, the ‘safe spaces’ policy is far from complete in its listing of various forms of oppression. It does not discuss incest or child sexual abuse, for example, and for very good reasons too. Good reasons, that is, for those who would see evil as being intrinsic to all men but those who have passed the test of the moral police. But it is these forms of oppression and abuse that point the way to the roots of sexism and oppression as lying in the family structures that were and are an inescapable part of all known forms of class society. And this, in turn, points to the road to the abolition of sexual oppression, and therefore towards the creation of truly safe spaces.
Unlike Mr Demarty, I hold that Left Unity has the right to expect high standards of behaviour from its members and does need a disciplinary code. But such a code should be proportionate and ought not be retroactive, as seems to be the fashion, but must confine itself to the actions of members in the present day. In the first instance it ought to be the responsibility of branches and districts of Left Unity to find ways to deal with disputes that are not bureaucratic.
Finally, I note that as one of those suspended and forbidden to speak to other supporters of Left Unity, I must conceal my identity as a result of the gag order imposed on all subject to the morality police.
Story of O
Story of O
Paul Demarty writes of the LU ‘safe spaces’ document: “It barely needs to be said that it is an embarrassing dog’s dinner of a document, with barely any coherent structure, and a series of desperate attempts to address every possible grievance it is possible to call oppression in a single code of conduct. I reproduce my little parable above to demonstrate that such an endeavour is futile.”
This rather describes the CPGB’s attempt to amend the Socialist Platform in Left Unity.
Not so aloof
I am a little surprised that Adam Buick’s letter failed to elicit any response (August 29). After all, it was from a member of an organisation that is frequently berated for its sectarianism and political aloofness, yet there he is issuing an invitation for dialogue with the Socialist Platform group of Left Unity.
Comrade Buick was indeed correct about the overlap of ideas, with Socialist Platform expressing sentiments similar to the long-held Declaration of principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. I too, as a member of the SPGB, would welcome an approach from the Socialist Platform for constructive discussions on our shared positions and where we may differ.
Not so aloof
Not so aloof
Mike Macnair’s article, ‘Lessons of Erfurt’, was excellent, pertinent and to the point (September 5). But our sects still keep fracturing along microscopic ideological fissures.
As ever, the Weekly Worker (and stamps for my wife!), via the soon to be extinct Royal Mail, remains always the highlight of the week.
Sadly, your article on the TUC, ‘Hot air and the lesser evil’ (September 12), left me feeling, appropriately, slightly morbid. For some reason, it reminded me of something I’d written for the old Solidarity 50 years ago for the Aldermaston special, printed in April 1963.
Bear in mind, it was a different world in those days. We Solidarists had, in the main, been through the old Communist Party, and progressed to Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League, where several were literally beaten up. I’d been a CP candidate for Battersea, an active member of the strike committee at Battersea garage during the big London bus strike, where we discovered it was the union bureaucracy as much as the government proving to be our enemies (it was the union bureaucracy that inspired the article).
Obviously, my views on Bolshevik history would need modification today. I’d not had the benefit of Ben Lewis et al - was he born yet? But the reason for the ‘morbidity’ from reading your article arose from appreciating the extent the working class/revolutionary movement doesn’t seem more advanced than we believed it to be then. Hence it’s sometimes difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm today. Perhaps I’m just getting too old!