Left culture: Politics for dummies
Paul Demarty asks why so many on the left are afraid of talking politics
Slightly bizarre news comes to us from Leeds, where there has been an almighty kerfuffle in the Left Unity branch.
Two comrades - Nick Jones and Mark Renwick - took it upon themselves to stage a coup. In an uncanny echo of those local authorities who have summarily fired thousands of people and invited them to reapply for their old jobs on radically worse terms, the comrades took over the all-important Facebook group and expelled everyone they did not like.
Fortunately, and quite inevitably, the whole wheeze backfired immediately; control was reasserted by the LU hierarchy and angry locals, and the status quo ante appears to have reasserted itself. Details are pretty hard to come by, but it seems that Jones and Renwick were offended by the rudeness of ‘the sects’; one assumes that there was perhaps a heated discussion on one thing or another, out of which they came off worse.
What do they think, then? A quick browse through the social media presence of each reveals striking similarities - principally, Facebook walls cluttered with apparently endless photos of people on demonstrations. (The Left Unity Leeds Facebook page drowns similarly in such ‘contributions’ from the two comrades.) They also appear keen on Die Linke, and are signatories to the Left Party Platform, whose leading lights appear to be thoroughly embarrassed by the whole affair - as well they might be).
These are people, obviously, for whom the important thing is to get out there and build the movement, to go to (and photo-document to glazed exhaustion) every demonstration: the abstruse chatter of ‘the sects’ will only be off-putting to ‘ordinary people’, and is thus an abusive liability. What this actually means, however, is that talking about politics is off limits, since people have violently different and strongly held political convictions, which quite inevitably lead to discussions becoming heated.
This fear of talking politics is a common feature of many morbid symptoms. For the ‘safe spaces’/identity politics brigade, discussion is reduced to a procedural matter, an infinitely slow approach to the perfect environment, when everyone will be equally capable of engaging in discussion. What matters is not what you say, but how you say it; not substance, but style.
To this, we may add the ‘people out there’ argument, where comrades involved in the movement are silenced in the name of those who might, one day, be attracted to it. There is a notable subvariant of this: the ‘let’s not talk about dead Russians’ line, because, after all, ‘ordinary people’ do not care what Trotsky said to Kamenev in the Smolny on such and such an afternoon in 1922 ...
The ‘dead Russians’ argument highlights something significant. To be blunt, it always seems to slip off the tongues of those who backed the wrong Russians. Arthur Scargill, George Galloway, Robert Griffiths of the Communist Party of Britain: all have sneered at the left’s historical obsessions, but all are Stalinists. There is certainly plenty of bile directed against Trotsky and Lenin in broader society; but there are many oddballs in our movement who have oddball opinions on Koba himself, one of the twin demon figures of bourgeois 20th century historiography.1
For the most part, all those species of lefts who fear talking about politics have ‘something to hide’. Left Unity is something of a laboratory experiment in this type of politics, and the results are exactly as you would expect. Andrew Burgin was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the craziest Trotskyist group in living memory. Kate Hudson is ex-CPB. Both are formerly of Respect. Indeed, the most ardent opponents of serious political discussion tend to be members of Socialist Resistance, and thus presently Trots.
There are also individuals such as Mark Perryman, whose latest contribution to the LU website is an obsequious ‘review’ of an essay by Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea on “common sense”, defined by the authors as “a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading”.
While “we might imagine Nigel Farage and Ukip as the past and present masters of the ‘commonsensical’ in politics”, Perryman delights at the possibility of a ‘progressive’ common sense: “Take a fondly remembered victory, the poll tax, or the beginnings perhaps of a new win, the bedroom tax. A common-sense argument against the unworkable injustice of these taxes linked to their hugely effective renaming for what they are by their opponents.”2
Run of the mill leftisms of this kind are common enough, but Perryman has been here before - he is a former Eurocommunist. For ‘Farage’, read ‘Thatcher’ - it is the same guff that he, Hall and the rest of that sorry gang were rehearsing 30 years ago, down to the dubious Gramsci references. One improvement we must note is on the matter of the poll tax - this is now a “fondly remembered victory” so far as Perryman is concerned, a rather healthier attitude than the utter hostility to poll tax protests he expressed at the time.
Nick Wrack, the most prominent leader of the rival Socialist Platform, who likewise reverted to appeals to the ‘people out there’ at the SP’s September 14 meeting, was once the editor of Militant. The core leadership of the Socialist Platform also includes former members of Workers Power and, alas, the CPGB. Everyone, it turns out, has a history! Including, naturally, Nick Jones and David Renwick - both of whom are late of the Socialist Workers Party.
What we have here is a lesson in the politics of shame. The comrades, whatever their particular bugbear - the esoteric language of the left, the irritable arguments, the ‘dead Russians’ - are embarrassed by their politics. In the case of a hidebound Stalinist, so they ought to be (although they ought not to be allowed to get away with it). In the case of former and current Trotskyists, it is more disappointing, but ultimately a logical outcome of the history of Trotskyism, an unstable combination of spontaneism and ‘hard’ Bolshevism, which has spawned in its wake a substantial residue of atomised individuals who regard themselves as Marxist but are now hostile to organised leftwing groups.
We have consistently called such elements the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ of the left. No more apt metaphor is possible. Their movements are strictly heteronomous, determined by currents they do not control. Flotsam is officially defined as a floating piece of a wrecked vessel; jetsam as cargo that has been jettisoned in troubled waters. Almost all the ‘independent’ lefts in this country are likewise fragments of a dissolved organisation, or have been rudely cast overboard.
The ideology of these individuals is the bastard lovechild of residual - and sincere - attachment to their socialist opinions and petty bourgeois philistinism. One side of their brains, as it were, considers the other cultish and a bit weird.
This, fundamentally, is the role of the ‘ordinary person’ in all this nonsense. It has nothing to do with ‘ordinary people’ as they actually exist. Rather, the ‘ordinary person’ functions as a kind of imperious superego - a projection of the comrade’s own distaste for the meat and potatoes of far-left existence, which in reality (and necessarily, in our current weak state) involves an awful lot more jaw-jaw than class war-war.
The far left talks a lot. In meetings, in pubs over a few beers, in squats over a substance of your choice, on paper sales between the curt dismissals of the general public. ‘Opinions are like assholes,’ goes the popular web refrain: ‘everybody’s got one.’ This is healthy - the left is at its greatest remove from reality when it allows itself to believe that the next demonstration is the big one, is at its most insular precisely at the moment it believes itself to be looking outward. ‘Ordinary people’ are a projection; the left looks outwards and sees only itself.
And ordinary people talk too. In my own humble experience, people try not to say anything stupid about politics - which means they have to think, and organise their thoughts in such a way that they will not be blown over in a gentle breeze. Where the guilty left imagines that only some technical problem with their politics prevents the breakthrough, the result is inevitably patronising to the outside world. There is no magic formula that the broad masses will automatically take to heart. They do not stand passively waiting for ready-made answers. Indeed, they have very pertinent questions for anyone who wants to convince them of socialism, a good many of which are about certain dead Russians.
When people first come into the left, the general rule is that they are the most keen to discuss politics. Having been taught from the cradle that socialism was a bloody failure, the freshly minted leftwinger is apprehensive and eager in equal measure to understand why it might not be next time around. They are not scared of, but enticed by the “complicated ideas” that Hall and Perryman want to deny them. Those who are turned off by the highfalutin talk disappear back into mainstream society. Only the wounded veteran has the anti-political prejudices we are discussing - tired of the talk, but in it too deep to look away.
We may return to Perryman and his “common sense”. The practical outcome of Eurocommunism, it is now indisputable, is Blairism; the technocratic manoeuvres of pollsters and spin-doctors are simply Euro premisses stripped of the Gramscian jargon. Mainstream bourgeois politics has increasingly been reduced to the level of gulling people into believing the test-tube-baby party leaders share the prejudices of ‘the country’. They, too, are ashamed - of the utter vacuity of their actual message. The right wing of Left Unity has arrived, for all intents and purposes, at Eurocommunism; but on a smaller scale. They ought to remind themselves what lies at the end of this road.
1. See J Conrad, ‘Dead Russians’ Weekly Worker March 12 2009.