John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Beyond Trotskyism? A reply to Simon Hardy’s 'A Strategy for Left Unity'

It is probably relatively widely known that there is a difference of opinion in the IS Network over whether the basic orientation of our activity should be as a tendency within Left Unity (LU) (as put to our most recent National Members Meeting), or as another kind of organisation: one in which some members are involved in LU and others are not. At our last two National Members Meetings this discussion has been skirted around, or sometimes taken up little by little. With the publication of our Left Unity Working Group’s A Strategy for Left Unity:Lessons from the European Left, there is an opportunity to lay out a critique of the strand of thinking within the IS Network, the SWP diaspora and the broader revolutionary movement which sees LU as the main site of class struggle, the basic vehicle for the rejuvenation and revitalisation of the left, and the most important thing for revolutionaries to be engaging with at the present moment.

The pamphlet seems to capture something of a general tendency within the far left at the moment. There is a broad view that we are currently in a political context consisting of the failure of communists to capitalise on the student movement, riots or anti-banker sentiments on the one hand, and the collapse and continued crisis of the remaining post ’68 left groups on the other. The argument, with which we are all by now intimately familiar, goes something like this: The fact that the left has taken such a beating and is collapsing is a result of a deeper malaise, a malaise part ideological insofar as neoliberalism goes all the way down into our subjective core, and part organisational insofar as the great institutions and organisations of the working class are crumbling and rotting. As a result, we need to focus on rebuilding key institutions of the left and organising a small minority around “key principles”, and not think too much about the difference between “reform and revolution” because, runs the argument, neither is particularly likely to take place in any sort of a radical or substantial way at this time. Having acknowledged these changed realities, our basic tasks become (note the way this stuff is rhetorically phrased) to “abandon the old dogmas”, find a set of principles and build up a “broad party” with the minority of people who are closest to our politics. In this way, we are told, we will be breaking from the routines that have led the left to the state it is in; we will, to use a tired metaphor, be swimming away from the “melting iceberg” of the revolutionary movement.

That is to say, we are told that we are attempting to break out of the bounds of late Trotskyism and post-Trotskyism. Give or take the odd issue of stress or phrasing (some of which is probably to do with the author’s background in orthodox Trotskyism instead of the IS tradition) the LU pamphlet adopts this basic structure.

The pamphlet begins with a long discussion of the terrible nature of the current state of things for people on the left in general, and revolutionaries specifically. I don’t think there is a huge amount to be disagreed with here. However, I am going to make a first point about the tone of the document. Sometimes people argue that the tone or form of a document shouldn’t be discussed, or that it isn’t where its politics are, but actually the way something is written can often tell us a lot about its implicit politics. The document appears to be written for an audience of readers who are basically of the opinion that there are things wrong with the world, but know basically nothing about left politics (I will give some examples of how this appears throughout this document). The assumption here, then, is that LU is the first port of call for a “radical minority” (2-3% of the population close to our politics in various ways is the figure given in the pamphlet) as they become more confident and politically conscious. The problem with this view is that it is just factually incorrect. What we can call, following some figures in the early International Socialists, the “shifting locus of reformism” in this country has actually benefited fragmentary and peculiar kinds of groups that are not explicitly socialist. Fragmentary, as none of them are countrywide (i.e. the whole United Kingdom) and peculiar insofar as they exist across all sorts of political terrains.

Obviously, no one who is arguing that there is a reformist space to the left of Labour (one implicit in this pamphlet’s typically centrist claim that “the debate between reform and revolution is ahistorical”) can realistically engage in discussion without acknowledging that the most staggering beneficiaries of this have quite clearly been the SNP. They have grown, as if overnight, to being by far the biggest political party in Scotland. Interestingly, their trade union caucus, on its own, counts more members than there are members in the entire Scottish Labour Party. This striking example of the recomposition of this, once British, working class is a clear example of how objective social forces determine the organisational form that the recomposition of class and consciousness takes, not small groups of revolutionaries. As the libertarian wing of socialism and communism has always argued, what the working class actually does, its self-activity – though reformist, partial, semi-conscious and so on – is much more important than the decisions taken by small groups of self-styled revolutionaries. And here is the problem with LU: it is something started by small groups of revolutionaries.

That this pamphlet is left wanting when it comes to anything like a practical analysis of the new kinds of reformist and progressive consciousness arising from class recomposition in this country, is clear from Simon’s inability to think through anything that doesn’t look, obviously and immediately, like some bit of the old-school left. For instance, there is no mention of how LU might relate to the growing demonstrations held by Anonymous in London, such as the one on 5 November, or the house evictions successfully fought by groups such as the so-called “Freemen-of-the-Land” in Nottingham. Now, you could argue that such groups have certain repellent practices and ideas: they are often racist, for instance, and they are not really democratic. The problem with this straight rejection would be that, by this standard, one should reject being a member of all trade unions apart from the IWW. On the other end of the spectrum, we have seen the re-emergence of what could be called a “physical force” tradition of reformism (a line that can be traced from the Chartists through the 43 Group to the Class War Federation) with the growth of the local Anti-Fascist Network groups and others like 161 Crew. The strategy of those who fetishise LU is just basically to say that LU has to be built so that these emergent forms of class consciousness and class struggle can take place in and through it. The problem is, that is not where they are. Clearly, there is a section, a tiny section of 2,000 to be precise, for whom LU, at this moment, does represent something. But for all the safe spaces trumpets and intersectional fireworks, the reality is that it is, by nature, an organisation for a section of our class that is in terminal decline: older, whiter workers in public-sector, heavily unionised industries. Sure, like the Scottish Socialist Party, some large social movement might at some point breathe some more life into LU, but this will come from outside it, not within it, and we can certainly have no control over that; it is a matter of class recomposition, not one of how small groups of revolutionaries choose to spend their time.

To be fair to Simon, it almost seems as if at times the pamphlet is trying to relate to this problem. He skirts around the problem of how we can develop a new kind of organisational strategy and direction. When he begins to sketch a method for building a “left party”, we are told that this will happen through cleaving to a set of principles. Once more, we see at play a strategy typical of centrists. Unlike in a revolutionary situation, where their role would be to fudge the difference between reform and revolution as immediate outcomes, in our (non-revolutionary) times they just refuse to think through what is different about what it means to act and organise as revolutionaries, rather than reformists. They wish to fetishise certain core beliefs, to act as an insurance policy, keeping them “revolutionary” while, in their day-to-day practice, they can be indiscernible from reformists. Ironically, given the way comrades who think that LU is the centre of all recomposition and regroupment dismiss the Green Party as “fluffy Tories” or “Green Lib Dems”, the Green Party sets outs it politics precisely through “ten core values”.

Looking at the “principles” that the Left Unity Working Group lay out in this pamphlet reveals some interesting things. Apart from the peculiarly sub-dialectical tripartite distinction in the claim that “We are an organisation that seeks to unite the struggles around politics, economics and ideology”, what is most striking about these principles is that they simply restate the politics of existing ultra-orthodox left groups at a lower level. For instance, principle 2 states, “We do not think the party on its own can abolish capitalism.” Taken in conjunction with principle 3 (“We see ourselves as a component of a wider struggle against capitalism”), this is just a restatement of the homily common to all hyper-orthodox toytown Bolshevik groups, which is littered through documents ranging from Workers Power’s Action Programme for Britain to the CPGB(PCC)’s preface to their Draft Programme. Common to all these is this rhetorical strategy of saying “We are not the complete party”, we are part of a broader movement and so on.

What this obfuscates is that while these comrades might not think of themselves as part of the finished party, they do in fact act as if they are the finished leadership of a party not yet built. And so it is with our comrades who support this pamphlet within the Left Unity Working Group. They set out politics for a group as if, if only the policies of a group like LU are correct, the masses will come flocking. As such, they fall into that school of socialism that Peter Sedgwick satirised in ‘The Pretenders’. Indeed, the pamphlet makes it clear that, in the view of the author, the only problems with previous attempts to “build a left party to the left of Labour” are practical mistakes, not the bankruptcy of the political idea (if only as a warning against the dangers of building an analysis on the basis of counterfactual Gedanken, this is worth quoting in full):

Imagine how well Left Unity would have done had we existed in 2008. Imagine if an anti-capitalist left party had been set up in 2004 instead of an opportunist “anti-war” party spearheaded by the twin egos of Galloway and the undemocratic SWP. We would have been in a prime position to make the case against unregulated banking, for a socialisation of the entire banking system under democratic control, for a moratorium on mortgage payments and a social bailout not a bank bailout. We would have seen many more people join us, not because we “shifted right” but because events confirmed our argument.

Frankly, this is Wayne’s World communism or the strategy of Field of Dreams: build it, comrades, and they will come. This is why, in his otherwise brutal review, Daniel Harvey from the Weekly Worker group can say that he agrees with Simon’s basic proposition of LU as a place for uniting the “fighting minority”, for like an ortho-sectarian Simon thinks that if we present the correct programme to the correct “vanguard” section of the class, the rest falls into place. His are the politics of a diet Draft Programme and an Action Programme zero. Within the most radical sections of our movement, our job is to argue for a whole different kind of drink, not slim-line version of existing pop.

The defence of these is also fairly confusing, and doesn’t seem to amount to much analytically: “Whilst these different points can be individually disputed, and there is scope for a criticism of the overall strategy, there is an internal logic and order to them that makes sense.” This “sense” is, apparently, that it “leaves open debates about how we move beyond capitalism and what exactly that might look like”. Leaving aside the fact that internal coherence and order don’t amount to usefulness, let alone an accurate relationship to the world, it seems peculiar to claim that the response of revolutionaries to a situation bringing together both reformists and revolutionaries should be to “leave open” as much as possible. In fact, the best traditions of the International Socialists, as well as others in the libertarian socialist/libertarian communist tradition, have been very different from this. The turn to rank and file trade union activity, breaking from the politics of Labour Party entryism and the French Turn, for instance, were historically precisely that: a theory and a practice built on the idea that the job of revolutionaries is not to provide alternative formulations and strategies for leaderships, but to organise the most militant and politically advanced workers in a movement from below.

One strikingly symptomatic turn of phrase in this section appears near the end: “Alongside this debate, we have to decide as a minority party what are the key messages and policies we want to take into the struggle against the government and into the workers’ movement” (my emphasis). This particular turn of phrase reveals the deepest problem with a strategy that focuses on LU, that of the decline of the traditional workers’ movement. The fact of the matter is that only a tiny minority of working class people in this country work in industries where the “workers’ movement” actually exists, and it is from these that LU was born. The other kinds of recompositions of class and consciousness I have mentioned above, and the myriads of others we will see over the next few years, that is to say the ones that do not already perceive themselves as of the workers’ movement, are left out.

The objection here might be that this is absolutely fine, and that it makes sense for some of us, particularly those of us who work in those industries, or live near decent LU branches. I think that is a salient point. But let us be clear: the reality is that this document is written within the context of arguments being put forward, inside and outside the IS Network, by comrades including the author of this pamphlet, to the end that all of us should be working within LU, that LU is the most important political formation in this country, that to stay outside it is “scholastic” and ultra-left and, to quote the comrade himself, that the only arguments that anyone has made against this focus on LU is “whinging about rubbish branches”. That it makes sense that comrades in Lambeth with a branch made up of pretty much loads of Lambeth leftists, say, are involved in Lambeth LU is one thing; none of those much bolder claims about the “centrality” of LU are anywhere near true.

We see the problem of this unconscious sectionalism, an orientation on a dying section of the working class, rear its head again when the pamphlet discusses organising around the NHS. Again, it is worth pointing out that the organic recomposition of class and class consciousness has thrown up support for organisations such as the National Health Action Party, which has been much more central to anti-privatisation work than LU, perhaps because it consists of actual reformists doing reformism, rather than revolutionaries running around pretending to be reformists and being fairly terrible at it.

The argument is that the privatisation of the NHS is a political issue that we should be all over, as members of LU: “The best example would be the NHS – the goal is not to simply defend it or stop privatisation; it is to explain what the NHS represents, that it is an example of social good that is maintained progressively, through general taxation, based not on the principle of the ability to pay but that healthcare is a collective responsibility.” This is, of course, laudable and correct. But no argument at all is provided as to how this might actually work; no strategy is provided. Clearly, we all support the NHS and feel very strongly about it. But the fact of the matter is that in and of itself this does not intervene into the neoliberal ideological terrain that Simon, in one of his trademark semi-developed and then forgotten-about metaphors, refers to as being “like a virus: it enters the body with terrible force and changes the way people think about the world.” Ignoring the fact that using “viruses” as a metaphor for how ideology works is tantamount to a collapse into “meme theory”, the very terrain of the discussion of the NHS has shifted. The reality is that on the recent Farage versus Brand Question Time, Camilla Cavendish (journalist and recipient of the Paul Foot award, perceived as “left of centre”) put forward the regime’s real line on NHS privatisation. She, of course, started by attacking those who are “ideological” on either side, saying that she “cares too much” about the NHS to see it used as a political football, or whatever, and that if in some cases privatising services mean patients get better treatment then we shouldn’t be purists about that. It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is as long as it can carry out the occasional surgical operation, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping. This is the terrain that the idea of social healthcare needs to be defended on now, that of “services” and “free at the point of use”; these arguments have purchase and the pamphlet has no answer.

Ultimately, I think we can begin, through this pamphlet, to diagnose the basic problem that this talk of the “ahistorical nature” of the split between “reformists and revolutionaries in the abstract” is covering over: the absence of a theory and strategy that might provide a bridge between the activities of small groups of radicals and the self-activity of the working class, that is to say, a theory and strategy for being communists in a neoliberal austerity regime, given the attendant re-emergence of a fighting reformist consciousness. Through its reliance on the Pretender model of a broad left party, as well as through this idea that people can be motivated to fight on the basis of things that are of the utmost clarity only to members of a dying labour movement, Simon’s pamphlet remains all too obviously ortho-Trotskyist.

Going further into the pamphlet the structure becomes, to be frank, even more confused. It is at points difficult to find a consistent line of argumentation and, especially striking within the context of a piece of writing that uses the words “strategy” and “strategic” in the kind of vacuously exhortative way that a bodybuilder uses the word “rip”, the pamphlet is fairly light on practical plans for what we should be doing as revolutionary members of LU. There are little bits of something here and there, but very little to get your teeth into. Indeed, in the surprisingly Maoist-sounding section entitled ‘The importance of many struggles on many fronts’, we see evidence of how infertile the terrain is that Simon is ploughing, concerning the challenge of bridging the gap between revolutionary consciousness and the developing recomposition of a reformist consciousness. After helpfully introducing us to a certain Friedrich Engels as a “German Marxist”, we are told that he once said that “the class struggle happens on three fronts, the political, the economic and the ideological”. As a result, after some counter-examples that show the problem with only focusing on one of these three fronts, we are told that we should in fact focus on all three: “A socialist party that is creative and rejects reductionist approaches of trade unionism ‘pure and simple’ or an obsession with the parliamentary process will be less likely to fall into the trap of avoiding certain struggles because they might damage a focus on something else.” As for a strategy to achieve this, i.e. an understanding of what we should be actually doing, though, this is completely empty and amounts, as they put it on the internet, to shouting “DO ALL TEH TINGZ!”

Insofar as a strategy is about delineating priorities and working out what we should all be putting our merged resources into, this is very much the opposite of a strategy. Nevertheless, this wooden distinction between levels of struggle does reveal the main problem for comrades with these kinds of politics when they are trying to think through the present conjuncture. The reality is that the commodity has been much more successful at selling working class people a vision of freedom and equality than we have, to the point where everyday life and its relation to politics is ordered very differently to 30 years ago. We live the ideology of neoliberalism in our economic and political lives every day; if this distinction between “levels of struggle” ever held, it surely doesn’t today. Even 30 years ago, the left surrealists in Poland were able to contribute to the campaign to overthrow the regime by, among other things, helping to organise demonstrations where people pushed televisions around in trolleys so as to show that they didn’t watch the regime’s media. One wonders where this action would fit into Simon’s (and indeed Engels’s) schemas.

The section on ‘Establishing a new “common sense”’, again, does not set out any real strategy for doing this. The pamphlet correctly identifies “welfare” as a site of struggle, but does not engage with any of the important work that comrade Richard Atkinson has done for the IS Network on this subject, to the extent that Simon is still phrasing this question in terms of trying to win people to the idea of an increase in welfare expenditure. As Richard showed at length, so-called neoliberal reform of welfare has nothing to do with expenditure. “Currently we are losing the argument even on welfare spending for disabled people,” writes Simon, as Richard pointed out we will as long as we accept the question is about how much is spent. On the contrary, so-called cuts to the welfare bill are about increasing the power of the state and disciplining us and our class. Towards the end of his article Richard argued that a basic income could be one strategic demand to orient ourselves upon, something that Simon does not engage with. It is also something that is bringing together the far left of the actually existing reformist movement in and around the Greens and the nationalists, with revolutionary groups like some anarchists and post-anarchists, as well as Marxists.

For all the talk of new ideas and new language, once more this pamphlet refuses to engage with actual new analysis, or a changing world. In this section, we get a bit of something about having a “two-way” relationship between party and class, but the idea that our class (and the party that it needs) have changed structurally is not at all engaged with.

The final sections I want to have a look at are where the pamphlet looks at actually existing reformism, in this country and abroad, in particular through the Green Party and Syriza.

In the discussion on the Green Party, the pamphlet lays out a critique from the point of view of those who think that LU is the be-all and end-all of rebuilding left politics in this country. I’m not really going to look too long at his critique of the German Greens, as I will look at his critique of the European left parties through Syriza, and the historical structure and function of the UK Greens is very different from those of their European sister parties. His argument on the UK Greens is presumably to the effect that he is setting out reasons why leftists should be relating to LU rather than them (as opposed to arguing against a phantom position that we should all be uncritically joining the Greens, as to the best of my knowledge no one is arguing for some sort of “Brighton turn” into the Greens). Simon begins by describing Caroline Lucas’s fairly appalling actions around the Brighton bin strike. He does not, however, point out that Lucas actually supported, in principle, the strike. One could answer here that actually Lucas worked in quite a duplicitous way, supporting the strike but also scabbing on it with the community clean-up. The point here though is that such duplicity is exactly how reformist MPs are supposed to behave; the job of revolutionaries is not to denounce them for doing what we know they are going to do, but to find a way to relate to the sections of our class that are gravitating around them. As Simon concludes, “If people want to save the planet they need to join the struggle to end capitalism and create socialism, not the impossible dream of managing capital and winding the clock back 300 years”; but this is the everloving point. Of course they do. It’s just that turning to the thousands of working class people sharing Green memes and statuses on Facebook, or the tens of thousands who have joined the SNP/Plaid Cymru/Green surge and saying, “The problem with your politics is that they are not socialist or revolutionary,” is a joke of a tactic. Of course they are not. Simon’s bon mot, “In this way we can see that the Greens are not actually Green enough,” is not a serious response to a political movement that has recently resulted in the Greens having more members than UKIP.

Finally, it’s worth touching on the idea that these emergent reformisms represent “merely petit bourgeois” forces. More sensible people than one might have expected are wont to play the “tartan Tories” card for the SNP, or reduce the Green surge to former “fluffy Lib Dems”. Against this, I think for instance of a number of people I went to school with, who are still interested in politics, but have never got involved with the organised left, or any of the groups. They probably used to be called “advancing sections of the class”. The fact is that the class nature and the shifting composition of consciousness around the Green Party has been acknowledged by the Labour Party leadership, in the form of Sadiq Khan’s task force. The idea that this is something that the left don’t need to think about properly is knocked out of the water by their strategy. As the first shots have been fired in this campaign, it is striking that the Labour leadership is following the suicidal strategy they did in Scotland: at once claiming that the issue is a distraction, and banging various tribal drums (in all seriousness recently claiming the Labour Party as that of Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst). It is clear that the Green surge is a challenge to the remnants of actually existing reformism on the Labour left, in a way that LU is not. This, I would argue, is at least partially to do with the fact that Green support is coming from broader sections of the class than that for LU; that is to say, the recomposition of class and consciousness, as writers like Sedgwick and Michael Kidron would have argued, is not determined by where we as revolutionaries think it should go. We don’t set up the broad party; it builds itself and we need to respond.

The section on Syriza subtitled ‘Syriza: the return of strategy’sometimes reads like a series of lessons on the “basics” of a left party, to the point where one wonders what the perceived audience for the document is. For instance, in the discussion on Greece we learn that though “it might seem strange to some” that a “cabal of business interests and disaffected sections of the state apparatus” might overthrow a Syriza government, nevertheless, “we absolutely cannot discount such a possibility”. Once more the tone is symptomatic of a basic strategy that the post-Trotskyist left has tried out (and failed with) since (at least) Respect: building the broad party.

Indeed, it is clear that the comrade is writing for a fantasy audience. Not for those who are already engaged in LU actively, but for that posited group of anti-political know-nothings that we have heard so much about in Left Unity since its inception. Tragically, rather than existing in their hundreds, just outside conference, waiting to join LU at a moment’s notice, they in fact number in their ones and twos and sit on LU’s various leadership organisations, their pantomime ignorance barely concealing their complete lack of politics.

The comrade’s argument doesn’t even touch on a detailed account of the situation in Greece. Simon sketches out a very vague outline of Syriza’s programme and criticises it on the grounds of being “social democratic” rather than dealing with more fundamental concerns. He argues that this has something to do with tackling a “credibility gap”, and apart from admitting this is hard, he doesn’t provide any analysis of how this might be done, or what bearing it might have on our practice within LU, outside it, or in solidarity with Greece. The only programmatic suggestion that Simon makes is that he thinks that disbanding the police should also be a part of Syriza’s election platform. He also suggests that Syriza remembers that “only a strong and well-organised social movement of solidarity can provide the basis for any changes enacted through parliament”.

Simon begins to get to the nub of the issue when he writes that “a subversive and confident movement of people taking control of their own workplaces and communities would progressively eliminate the possibility of a counter-revolution because it would break up the flows and co-ordinations of power from below”. Here he begins to really get to grips with how revolutionaries should be reacting and relating to the new forms of reformism that are sweeping across our country. In the first case, the task is not to come up with policies or alternative leadership strategies, or staff the central organs of such reformisms; this is the politics of the Pretender school. Our task is to unite the advancing sections of the rank and file, to challenge and develop our own politics through that engagement, to develop practically and politically the most militant section of the rank and file, to contribute to their independent class political organisation and to argue for them to see themselves as, ultimately, engaged in a struggle in solidarity with worker militants in other reformist bodies. Our task, as ever, is to organise a communist party.

So, this pamphlet doesn’t really put forward a consistent argument as to what the immediate strategy of LU should be, nor does it make a consistent argument as to why the basic orientation of revolutionaries should be towards LU. Nor does it give us a coherent strategy for acting and organising in LU. It doesn’t make a successful argument as to why we should relate to LU any more than the Greens, say, and it doesn’t engage at all with the growth of the Celtic nationalist parties. What it represents, first and foremost, is a (one can’t really say “strategy”) form of activity that has proved a failure for the IS Network: participating in the construction of a “broad left party” in a way that is almost structurally identical (though at a lower practical level) than groups like Workers Power and the CPGB(PCC). It remains wedded to old orthodoxies, and refuses to engage with the objective process of class recomposition, or the development of new actually existing reformisms. It is a pamphlet, strategy and theory that the IS Network should break from. If “programmatic” politics have something to say to us at this moment, it must be a way of thinking about politics that takes on board the lessons of the best of the IS tradition, rather than collapsing to a lower level than the politics of orthodox groups.

Though this article is not the place for setting out exactly what this might look like, I would hesitantly advance a number of issues that might point in the right direction. First, I think the old IS idea of the “shifting locus of reformism” would bear closer scrutiny, as a practical way of engaging with class recomposition. Second, I think the emergence of “democratic” questions as the principle of axis of political struggle, whether in Egypt or Scotland, needs thinking through. Third, I think a recognition of the concomitant shift of the “locus of reformism” away from workplace struggle needs to be understood. In some ways, this should not be a surprise; the autonomist notion of the social factory, already common by the 1970s, draws attention to how everyday life is as much a sphere of struggle as the workplace, and the great battles of the working class, for instance through Chartism or the campaign for the eight-hour day, came out of the workplace, as often as they went into it.

Where LU groups are active, contributing to regroupment, bringing in new people and taking part in campaigns that tie big revolutionary questions to the everyday it makes sense to engage with them, but that is all that should be said it about it as a national body, at least for now.

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What is solidarity? Je ne suis pas Charlie and solidarity with Charlie Hedbo staff

A lot has already been written on the nature of Charlie Hebdo and other subjects. The subject of if we are in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff has been the main area of disagreement within in the ISN and many ISN members have objected to saying “Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff”. So this is what this quick article is about. It is also a response to Charlie Hebdo: the responsibilities of the left by John Game which in response to the debates within the ISN deliberately choose not to say we are solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff.

Seeing the likes of Sergei Lavrov, Bibi Netanyahu, Jacob Zuma, the Egyptian foreign minister, David Cameron and other criminals taking the lead in a millions strong rally, called in the name of national unity and supposedly for freedom of speech, should send a chill down any socialist’s spine. These are murderers, capitalist politicians and bastions of reaction who have done their utmost to withdraw civil liberties and on all occasions use ethnic minorities, and in recent years Muslims in particular, as scapegoats for their agenda. These people are not allies, they are enemies: we need to fight them to win our freedoms not join them.

In its response to the murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the left should not participate in any national unity with those who will use the attacks to whip up hate against Muslims. We are in the middle of a key test for the left, as Game wrote for the ISN, socialists must stand against the wave of racism and Islamophobia that is being unleashed against Muslim communities across Europe and demonstrate solidarity with Muslim communities against the far-right.

How should we respond?: are we Charlie?

Many of the cartoons which individuals shared to demonstrate that Charlie Hebdo was racist were often clearly not understood, mistranslated and taken out of any context. In the worst cases mock ups created by the far-right in attacks on Charlie Hebdo, such as the Shoah Hebdo mock-up front cover, were used to prove Charlie Hebdo’s racism.

However, whatever the traditions of the French left, whatever the intentions of those producing the cartoons, it is clear that in the broadest sense Charlie Hebdo was an Islamophobic paper. Its Islamophobia is different to that of the far-right but it is Islamophobic nevertheless. As such, no we are not Charlie Hebdo. Especially in the light of the “Je Suis Charlie” being very clearly taken over by the establishment.

Showing Solidarity is not opposed to challenging racism

Solidarity should not be confused with an expression of your own identity or your own politics. You do not give solidarity to only those deemed pure. Solidarity is a not religious kindness, doing good to please god. Solidarity is not charitable philanthropy, solidarity is given on the receiver’s terms, not the terms of the philanthropist. Importantly, solidarity is a universal principle on which we hope to construct a new society.

Those murdered by Islamic fundamentalists were not murdered by wildly misguided anti-racist activists, they were murdered because fundamentalists considered their work blasphemy. They were murdered because fundamentalists wish to stoke up a clash of civilisations that is as equally beneficial to them as the Western imperialists.

Socialists should of course oppose anyone being murdered for blasphemy. Further, we oppose completely any ideology that has bizarre illusions about a clash of civilisations. We stand for international socialism.

Solidarity is a system based on trust i.e. you can trust in solidarity of the working class to protect you from being murdered for blasphemy, even if you cannot trust the forces of liberal capitalism which have regularly chosen to use religious and Islamic fundamentalists as their proxies of choice for their wars. This not a solidarity we can or should seek to withdraw. It should be a constant, that the left or the working class will express its solidarity with those murdered for blasphemy even if they do not represent perfect politics.

Solidarity is a universal principle on which socialists hope we can all build a new society

If you are saying or arguing we are not in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo against their murderers, it is saying we would not do anything to protect you against this. I know that this is not what people are trying to say when they argue that we should not offer any solidarity, they assume the very powerful Western states would be their protectors instead of our solidarity.

Socialist society will not be built if we do not build it as alternative source of power to the capitalist state. The offer of socialist society is an offer of life and protection, based not on the force of the capitalist state or god, but on trust in solidarity of the working class. It is important to conceptualise our solidarity in this way as a fundamental ethic which all socialists are obliged to offer.

Solidarity is extended to all members of the working class victims of capitalist system. Solidarity is extended to all women who are victims of patriarchy. I am and always will be in solidarity with those murdered for blasphemy. No socialist should be on marches of national unity with the capitalist establishment whose belief in freedom of speech is skin deep, socialists should stake out their own robust and separate show of solidarity.

More than a dualist discourse

Most on the left see only a two-sided discourse: you are either on the side of the racist-imperialist-capitalist nexus standing in national unity and proclaiming freedom loudly, or you are on the side of us the progressives pointing out that Charlie Hebdo was racist.

It is the task of those who want to construct a new society based on solidarity to create a third camp: one critical of racism of Charlie Hebdo, critical of racist states, critical of the false freedom of speech offered to us, but with its own mechanisms and promise of solidarity and protection against such murders. This is how we will build socialist unity not national unity.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff.

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Charlie Hebdo: the responsibilities of the left

Brief reflections on the shootings at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing debate.

The mood in Paris seems very reminiscent of the mood shortly after 9/11 following initial reports from New York. This began by drawing in many who were genuinely shocked by what had happened- but over a period hardened into a hugely reactionary current of opinion whose consequences we are all familiar with. Its very clear that it will take very little to transform the defence of 'our values' into attacks on minorities. The difference seems paper thin. Already, it is all about 'our' values and 'theirs', Bernard Kouchner holding forth on the need to bring democracy to the Middle East, others speaking of the need for Muslims who have 'chosen to live among us' to reform their religion etc, and much worse to follow it is suspected. Charlie Hebdo magazine was at the sharp end of promoting these kinds of resentments about Muslims in France for a very long period of time (and yes it was indeed a magazine with a background in the left in '68, but this doesn't change much: if anything it makes it worse).

What is rapidly becoming an almost compulsory ideological gesture of solidarity is one which means that, like after 9/11, many will be too frightened to tell the other side of this story: the racism, the disenfranchisement, the discrimination, the utter lack of solidarity every day and in every way. This is not anti-racism, this is not solidarity, this is not opposition to fundamentalism, this is not freedom of speech. This is a kind of compulsory loyalty oath and is really about intimidating anyone who wants to speak otherwise and not according to the script. Its considerably more difficult to speak out against this script than it is to talk about how 'its time to have an open discussion about Islam' (a conversation that has been going on non-stop now for a decade).

The left need to break this silence: not help impose it. The left should be speaking about the urban uprisings against police oppression, about the near segregation in employment and in housing, about the disenfranchisement, about the discrimination, about the wars ravaging large parts of the world. None of which is happening because of a failure of Muslims who live here to 'reform their religion'. This idealist rubbish about evil ideologies masquerading as the values of Enlightenment and Secularism is in fact the dominant ideology of a world where these horrors actually occur. Those who are being left isolated are not those who think that it is a priority to establish the right to mock the religious beliefs of minorities, but those minorities worried and frightened by what the future holds living in a society caught up in a triumphalist chauvinism where every basic liberal and leftist value appears twisted and upside down. And those are the people the left has a duty of solidarity towards, whether or not we agree with this or that religious belief. That actually is the real meaning of Voltaire: the defence of minorities against majorities, not the other way about.

Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je suis Ahmad.

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Revolutionary organisation in the "age of neoliberal austerity": a response to Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner’s recent article, The Age of Neoliberal Austerity (Part 4), is a welcome addition to the debate taking place almost everywhere on the far left at the moment about revolutionary organisation. Neil has recently left a small revolutionary group known as Counterfire, and his article acknowledges that his recent experiences in that organisation have shaped his ideas on this issue. Neil, like many of us who have emerged out of the fractured and diminishing far left in Britain, has begun to seriously question the model of organisation which many sects and groups adopt, namely, what they generally refer to as “Leninism” or “democratic centralism”:

For 35 years now, I have subscribed to something called “democratic-centralism”. I now consider “democratic-centralism” (I will retain the inverted commas to indicate that I consider this term/concept to be a shibboleth of the post-war Far Left) little more than a justification for undemocratic, exclusionary, and sometimes abusive top-down practice by largely self-perpetuating and self-selecting leaderships. The effect has been to turn Far Left groups into revolving doors, their alienating internal regime repelling people as quickly as new ones are recruited.

Neil correctly points out that the model of “democratic centralism” adopted by Trotskyist organisations after the Second World War was not the same model of organisation used by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. He argues that it is instead a poor parody of it, born out of the far left’s marginalisation due to the dominance of reformist ideas in the post-war boom. While I might argue he underestimates the impact of the degeneration of the international communist movement before the Second World War, and the influence of this on the Trotskyist movement afterwards, his general point still stands – the model of “democratic centralism” rigidly applied by far-left sects is not the organisational model which produced the mass revolutionary parties of 1917-23, and has in fact never produced such a party.

It is heartening to see how a number of different people, emerging out of different organisations and therefore coming from different directions, are arriving at very similar conclusions on the question of democracy in the revolutionary movement. However, I would argue that while Neil is correct on a number of important points, there are some problems with the analysis he outlines in this article, and it is worthwhile exploring these differences.


There is arguably a strain of “catastrophism” which runs through Neil’s article, and I believe this skews his analysis. Catastrophism has been a feature of various revolutionary organisations and theorists for some time. Broadly speaking, it is the idea, or attitude, that a revolutionary upheaval is just around the corner. This is often coupled with the idea that if such an upheaval does not occur, the crisis in capitalism is so profound that the alternative will be some form of cataclysm. The problem with this analysis is that it can often lead to a desperate search for short-cuts, as the “objective” situation requires an immediate and profound solution to all our problems. An example of this strain can be found in Neil’s opening remarks:

We face the greatest crisis in human history and a stark choice between barbarism (war, poverty, and ecological catastrophe) and revolution (by which I mean the overthrow of the rich, the banks, and the corporations, and the transfer of power to participatory democracy representing the 99%). To be able to exercise this choice, we have to create mass revolutionary organisation; if we do not, the 1% will continue to rule, and they will drive humanity and the planet into the abyss.

The catastrophist approach goes hand in hand with what I consider to be a wildly over-optimistic outlook when it comes to the potential for the movement at this moment in time. Neil argues that “record numbers of people appear to think that revolution is needed”. This is, in my opinion, completely incorrect. The overall weakness of the working class movement has led to revolutionary and socialist ideas being less prevalent in society than they have been for a very long time. It is this marginalisation, as a result of over three decades of attacks on the working class movement, and record low levels of struggle, which has been the primary contributor to the crisis of the revolutionary left. Neil may be right to argue that it is not impossible for revolutionary organisations to grow in a period of low levels of struggle, but none can deny that it is harder for them to do so. When there are few examples of mass workers’ organisation, and very little self-activity, it is very difficult indeed.

Neil argues that while industrial struggle is still low, there has been an emergence of other forms of activity, primarily in the form of mass street protests, which have taken its place and become the expression of widespread discontent. This is true up to a point, but I would say that while these forms of protest are much more commonplace, this has come about as a result of the weaknesses of working class organisation as a whole. In some senses, this is an expression of powerlessness rather than an assertion of power. Neil makes a similar point towards the end of his article:

The result has been, on the one hand, high levels of alienation, disaffection, and resistance, but, on the other, an erosion of the political and industrial organisation necessary to structure and sustain resistance. One consequence of this is that street protest predominates over industrial action. Another is that protest tends to be spontaneous, explosive, and short-lived.

However, while Neil identifies the shortfalls of these movements, his analysis seems to suggest that they are ultimately a sign of the potential for mass revolutionary organisation.

The problem is that, if the revolutionary mass is already there, any failure of the far left to grow is purely subjective, a failure of the left to “get its act together”. Neil in many ways falls into the same traps that orthodox “Trotskyists” have done previously, despite his intention to move away from them. In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, Trotsky and his followers argued that capitalism was facing its final crisis. This crisis was so profound that there were only two possibilities: socialist revolution, or the collapse of capitalism into barbarism. In such a period, the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, and therefore the primary role of revolutionaries was to build the revolutionary leadership. This in many ways led to the abstract party building and ultra-centralising tendencies we have witnessed in the Trotskyist movement since.


The main problem with catastrophism when it comes to the question of revolutionary organisation is that it can lead to what has been described as an analysis of the “crisis of leadership”. The orthodox Trotskyist organisations, in believing that the working class was “objectively revolutionary”, needed to have an explanation as to why a mass revolutionary movement did not occur. They argued that this was down to the opportunism and duplicity of the existing leadership of the working class – the social democrats, the Stalinist Communist parties and the trade union bureaucracy. The main task of revolutionaries was to build a revolutionary vanguard party to challenge these for the leadership of the class. While Neil is absolutely correct in his criticisms of the form of “Leninism” which orthodox Trotskyist groups adopted, he stops short of explaining how these organisational forms came about as a result of how these groups related to the class as a whole. The top-down structures adopted internally by sects are the natural result of their top-down approach to the movement as a whole.

Traditionally, when Marxists such as VI Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg referred to the “vanguard” of the class, they meant the leading, most advanced elements of a much larger, mass working class movement. A working class movement which has already achieved a high level of organisation, and where socialist ideas are much more common, may produce a layer which is the most combative in terms of challenging capitalism, and imbued with revolutionary ideas. In this sense, the vanguard of the class is that layer which is both consciously against capitalism as a whole (rather than certain aspects of it), and makes up the leadership of the class when it is engaged in confrontation with capitalism. The “revolutionary vanguard party” would be an organisation which unites this layer of workers. If we use this definition, then there is no such thing in the British working class at this time. In fact, even in the 1970s, at a high point of working class organisation and socialist ideas in Britain, Duncan Hallas (a leading member of the International Socialists), argued that to talk of a vanguard was premature:

Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.

The crux of the matter is how to develop the process, now begun, of recreating it. It may be true, as Gramsci said, that it is harder to create generals than to create an army. It is certainly true that generals without an army are entirely useless, even if it is supposed that they can be created in a vacuum. In fact, “vanguardism”, in its extreme forms, is an idealist perversion of Marxism, which leads to a moralistic view of the class struggle. Workers are seen as straining at the leash, always ready and eager to fight but always betrayed by corrupt and reactionary leaders. Especially pernicious are the “left” leaders whose radical phraseology conceals a fixed determination to sell the pass at the first opportunity.

The insistence on the importance of the “vanguard” in a period where none exists can lead to two serious mistakes. One is that the small revolutionary organisation, isolated from the working class as a whole, can come to consider itself the vanguard by virtue of its correct revolutionary politics. The second is that revolutionaries can, in desperation to find a vanguard where one does not yet exist, mistakenly project the qualities of the vanguard onto sections of the movement or the working class. It is the latter mistake, I believe, that Neil makes. He argues towards the end of his article:

The revolutionary vanguard has been reconfigured by these economic, social, political, and cultural changes. It still includes (in Britain) some tens of thousands of ‘traditional’ left activists rooted in unions, parties, and campaigns. But it also includes a more amorphous, shifting group of ‘new’ activists, mainly young, typically students and/or precarious workers, usually ‘non-aligned’, often suspicious of formal organisation. Indeed, in terms of numbers, this group is potentially much larger than the first. The revolutionary vanguard today is largely formed of radicalised urban youth prepared to come onto the streets.

It is a serious mistake, in my opinion, to argue that the combination of the current activist left (and I would dispute the figure of “tens of thousands”), and the activists who make up the core of the protest movements could be reasonably described as a “revolutionary vanguard”. The former is largely isolated, and increasingly cut off from the day-to-day concerns and interests of the working class; the latter is largely amorphous, and by no means is it explicitly revolutionary. While people influenced by autonomist, anarchist and socialist ideas are active in these movements, there are many, probably the majority, who are largely reformist in outlook. That aside, while these movements have been in many respects large and radical, they have not necessarily been directly connected to the working class as a whole, and therefore to describe them as somehow constituting the “leadership” of the class is misleading. This is not to denigrate the importance of these campaigns, but it is important to recognise the danger of projecting onto them a “vanguard” status incorrectly.

Similar mistakes in this regard have been made by the left before. As Neil refers to in his article, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was an upsurge in radical activity, first on the university campuses, and later in the working class. There were a number of revolutionaries, most notably Maoist groups, and the International Marxist Group (a Trotskyist organisation), that believed that the student movement, by virtue of being more radical than the working class and having been the first to engage in struggle in 1968, now constituted the new “revolutionary vanguard”. The dominance of reformist ideas among the working class, and the relative conservatism of the trade union movement, was held up in stark contrast to the revolutionary ideas of many involved in the student movement, and the volatile nature of much of their activity. The International Socialists, in whose tradition both Neil and I consider ourselves to stand, rejected this analysis. While they acknowledged the importance of working within the student movement, and in fact grew massively as a result of doing so, they continued to argue that the growth of a truly mass revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing capitalism was dependent on the growth of revolutionary ideas and militancy within the working class. It was only from here that a truly “revolutionary vanguard” could emerge, as a result of the increasing militancy and self-activity of the working class as a whole. The groups that projected vanguard status onto the student movement were engaging in a form of voluntarism, looking for short-cuts whereby a revolutionary movement could be built off the back of the hard work of a small minority of revolutionaries. There are some parallels between this and Neil’s belief that the activists involved protest movements constitute the revolutionary vanguard today. While many of these campaigns are influenced by radical and revolutionary ideas, they have come about as a result of the relative passivity and conservatism of the working class as a whole. They are largely disconnected from the vast majority of working class people rather than representative of them.


While Neil accurately identifies the problems of lack of democracy in existing revolutionary socialist organisations, he fails to link this to the weaknesses in the way that the far left relates to the class as a whole. He starts from the position that the crisis in capitalism we are experiencing has led to widespread radicalisation, and that this in turn has expressed itself in new forms of protest which the far left has failed to relate to. There is an element of truth in this, in that there are a minority of people who have been radicalised as a result of the crisis, and they have formed the core of protest movements such as Occupy, UK Uncut, the student movement, and various other street protests which we have witnessed since 2008. There have also been much wider layers of people who have begun to question the system, and millions who have been directly affected by the economic crisis. However, the trend in recent years has not been an “upturn” in the numbers of people confronting capitalism. The capitalists’ austerity agenda has, so far, largely faced only sporadic and relatively weak opposition. This is not down to any subjective failure on the part of the left, but rather it is a result of these attacks occurring after over three decades of defeats for the working class in Britain. The onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s led to the destruction of many of the working class organisations on which much of the class’s previous militancy had depended. This, unsurprisingly, went hand in hand with the collapse of much of the traditional left, both inside and outside of the Labour Party. While these attacks slowed (but did not cease) in the 1990s following the stabilisation of capitalism, the far left remained isolated and failed to grow. In these conditions there has been a tendency towards substitutionism on the revolutionary left. In the absence of a radical mass working class movement, the far left has tended to substitute its own activity for that of the working class as a whole, and this has often been sustained by a false belief that the “upturn” was just around the corner, and that it was the role of revolutionaries to position themselves for when this occurred.

In order to properly solve the problems of the far left, including those of democracy, or lack thereof, we first need to acknowledge that we as revolutionaries are more isolated now than we have been for some time. The crisis in capitalism, while deep, does not necessarily mean that a radicalisation of the working class is inevitable. The movements we have seen emerge in opposition to austerity have largely been mobilisations of a radical, and in many ways disconnected, minority of people, who at this point cannot be described as a “revolutionary vanguard” in any meaningful sense. Such a vanguard does not yet exist, and if it does in the future, it will most likely emerge out of the self-activity and militancy of a mass working class movement, rather than from the heroic activity of a minority.

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Again on Shachtman: which International Socialism?


Bill Crane’s response Max Shachtman and the Origins of ‘Socialism from Below' was a very useful response to my own article on Shachtman. He rightly points out the often ignored link between Shachtman’s theory and practice and the International Socialist tradition which both Bill and I identify with. Bill suggests that I concentrated on “Shachtman as a Trotskyist” and his aim was to focus upon “Shachtman as an International Socialist”. It was not my intention to omit Shachtman’s contribution to the IS tradition, and the article was in fact intended to help reintroduce him to it. I therefore agree with many of the points Bill raises in his article, however I also believe he omits or underplays some important aspects of Shachtman’s politics that also contributed to our shared tradition, which narrows his analysis in some ways.

Bill is absolutely correct to point out that much of the International Socialist analysis of state capitalism is rooted in Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state. It was fundamental in concentrating the IS on the working class as the agent for revolutionary change by challenging the orthodox Trotskyist concept that the Soviet bureaucracy could introduce revolution from above. He also highlights the role of T. N. Vance in developing the theory of the permanent arms economy (another key pillar of the IS tradition), something I was completely unaware of until I read Bill’s response. The importance of the idea of socialism from below in Shachtman’s theory was something I did attempt to highlight in my article:

There were many important aspects of Shachtman’s theory which should not be ignored. His insistence that socialism could not be brought about by any other means than through the self-activity of the working class was absolutely essential in a period when any number of socialists were arguing that socialism, or workers’ states, were being introduced on the back of Soviet tanks. From the occupations of Eastern Europe in 1945, to the seizures of power by armed minorities in countries such as China and Cuba, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; many socialists have time and again argued that socialism was being introduced “from above”. This has led many on the revolutionary left to seek all kinds of short cuts to socialism, which by-pass the rather boring necessity of convincing working class people that it’s a good idea. It can lead to any number of voluntaristic methods within the labour movement which view the working class as a passive mass in need of liberating by an enlightened minority. Shachtman in the 1940s, for all his faults, stood by the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

However, while Bill is absolutely correct to highlight Shachtman’s contribution to both the concept of socialism from below and the International Socialist tradition, he omits an important aspect of this which I attempted to raise in my article, which is how this concept impacted upon his ideas concerning revolutionary organisation and practice. This was a running theme which originated in his rejection of Cannon’s model of the revolutionary party, and was also a central pillar of the early International Socialist’s critique of the methods of orthodox Trotskyists. In fact, I would go further and argue that the abandonment of this aspect of the IS tradition has played a crucial role in the degeneration of organisations which adhere to it, and has in many ways contributed to their recent crises.

The early International Socialists argued the orthodox Trotskyist movement’s abandonment of the concept of socialism from below was not just displayed in its theory of the degenerated workers state and the idea that socialist or workers’ economies could be introduced by a bureaucratic movement “from above”. It was also displayed in the methods they employed within the working class movement. This was directly related to Trotsky’s catastrophist theory, which believed that the next proletarian revolution was imminent, and therefore the primary role of the revolutionary organisation, however small or lacking in roots in the working class, was to challenge the existing leadership of the working class – the trade union bureaucracy, the social democrats, and the Stalinist parties – for leadership of the movement. The idea that the revolutionary situation was imminent led many Trotskyists to believe that the working class were “objectively” revolutionary, and therefore the only thing holding them back was the duplicitous role of its leaders. This is often referred to as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, and the early International Socialists argued it led the orthodox Trotskyists to top-down methods of organisation and a tendency to focus on leadership struggles within the movement. The focus, they argued, should be on the rank and file of the working class, most of whom were reformist, not revolutionary, and on winning them to revolutionary arguments. The small Trotskyist sects as they existed were not the revolutionary vanguard party in embryo; it would be formed out of the working class through struggle. This vanguard did not yet exist. The British International Socialist Peter Sedgwick referred to these problems in his article The Pretenders:

Socialists who think and act in these terms may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.

Pretenders are so pre-occupied with the problem of Kingship (or leadership as they insist on calling it) that they seldom bother to find out the attitudes of their prospective subjects, the working class of this country. Or rather, if they do draw upon the opinions of workers, they do so in such a way as to add to the lustre of their own particular claim to royalty.

This top down approach to the movement was reflected in the party model adopted by most Trotskyist organisations. The “Bolshevisation model” was adopted by the Communist parties in a period of time when the international revolutionary movement was receding, and the Soviet state had become increasingly more isolated, and as a result, more authoritarian and bureaucratised. In the course of the civil war the Russian Communist Party had itself adopted top-down and bureaucratic methods. Factions in the Russian Communist Party were banned from 1921, and democratic discussion was increasingly curtailed. The native democratic structures of many international Communist parties were uprooted during Bolshevisation, advocated by Zinoviev, which many referred to as the “Russian model”. While Bill may be correct in arguing that many US Communists supported these measures due to the existence of constant factional battles within their party, it does not change the fact that this was a major break with the democratic principles by which the Communist movement had conducted itself historically. It began the process, which the Stalinists ultimately completed, of transforming it from a democratic working class movement to a bureaucratised authoritarian one. Democratic expression was curtailed, and the central organs of the party became increasingly dominant. Emphasis was placed on centralisation and discipline. Cannon’s uncritical acceptance of this model was a serious problem in the Trotskyist movement, which led to split after split in many of its sections.

The roots of both the top-down method of party democracy and the “crisis of leadership” approach to the working class movement are found in what Trotsky in his early criticism of Lenin referred to as “substitutionism”. This concept was picked up by Cliff in his early work, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in which he quoted Trotsky’s famous line:

…the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.

The argument here was that a top-down method of relating to the class is intrinsically linked to a top-down structure of party organisation. Both these features of the Trotskyist movement could trace themselves to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and both therefore needed to be combated by revolutionaries.

It was this major difference over democracy which ultimately led to the split in the US Socialist Workers Party. All manner of differences on questions of the nature of the Soviet state could probably have existed in a united organisation, but the increasing differences on the question of democracy in the party and the working class movement, which became both exposed and accentuated by the faction fight, meant cohabitation was virtually impossible. The discussion of who was at fault for the split in the party is ultimately of minor importance (although I would argue that Bill is far too kind to Trotsky and Cannon on this question), compared to the key issue for revolutionaries is not the individual behaviour of the leaders of each faction, but what they were arguing for. In Shachtman’s case, he was advocating an open and public debate on the questions the SWP was wrestling with, while Cannon maintained that debates should remain internal. Bill refers to this demand of Shachtman’s as “unprecedented”, which may be the case but is of secondary importance to whether it was correct or not. Shachtman continued to argue for the right of the membership to open and a public debate on all questions, and this was implemented in the Workers Party, which he and his followers founded following the split.

Therefore, when we discuss the roots of our tradition in Shachtman, and the conflict between his faction and that of Cannon, it is important we do not lose sight of the link between the concept of socialism from below and the rejection of the organisational model that Cannon advocated. This important question was also central to the early IS rejection of orthodox Trotskyism. While Tony Cliff and a handful of others originally split with the orthodox Trotskyist organisation The Club over the question of state capitalism in Russia, it began to revise and to question much of the practice of that movement. The organisation they later founded, the International Socialists, put a premium on open and democratic debate, and rejected the ultra-centralism and bureaucratism of many other revolutionary organisations. This, along with its rejection of Stalinism and all other theories of socialism from above, led it to be one of the major far left beneficiaries of the movement in 1968 and the period of working class rank and file militancy in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, however, as the working class movement receded and economic stagnation set in, the IS (which was soon to become the Socialist Workers Party), began to undertake a revision of its ideas concerning its organisational method. This was a long process that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, where there was an increasing inclination to adopt orthodox model of “Leninism” which it had previously rejected.

In the 1970s it began to shut down many self-organised groups and factions, and increasingly began to look like the “monolithic” organisation that the IS had previously rejected. Factional disagreements began to take on the “winner takes all” aspect which characterised the US SWP under Cannon. When the “downturn”, which we now recognise as the first stage of the introduction of neoliberalism, set in in the 1980s the working class was under severe attack, and the SWP resolved to insulate itself from this by separating itself off from the wider left and emphasising the need for centralisation and discipline within the party in order to do so. The serious defeats of the 1980s led to the collapse of much of the left, and the severe weakening of working class organisations. In the early 1970s, the British IS had seen itself as one radical part of a wider movement, rooted in some small ways in the rank and file of the working class. By the 1990s, increasingly isolated and with these ties largely broken, the tendency was for the SWP to substitute itself for the left and the wider working class movement. It began to argue that an “upturn” was just around the corner, and there was a need to manoeuvre in preparation for this upturn. The necessity for a “tightly knit” “Leninist” organisation was emphasised to do so. The SWP began to take on some of the worst aspects of the orthodox Trotskyist tradition which it had originally rejected – substitutionism, dogmatism, catastrophism, and the monolithic party model. Ironically, those important features of the IS tradition- state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution- which were key to their concept of socialism from below, and originated as drastic revisions of orthodox Trotskyist shibboleths, became shibboleths themselves. The revolutionary party became seen in part as a tool to preserve the tradition as a finished product, and a vehicle to deliver it to the masses; much like the orthodox Trotskyist “parties” which the IS used to criticise.

We should not ignore the importance of Shachtmanism to the IS tradition, but nor should we be selective about which parallels to use and which to ignore. Shachtman and his followers, just like Cliff and the IS, emerged out of the orthodox Trotskyist movement as they attempted to make sense of a world which no longer fitted into the outline of Trotsky, and they attempted to revise the shibboleths and dogmas which had become articles of faith for many. In order to do this both required the maximum amount of openness and democracy, and they therefore insisted upon it. I agree with Bill’s criticisms of the trajectory of Shachtman in his later years, but what should concern both of us more is the trajectory of our own tradition away from the democratic, iconoclastic, revolutionary principles on which it was founded, towards the dogmatism and conservatism that we see today.

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Sex work and sanctions - a response

A response to Hey Jobcentre - Sex Work is Work! by a member of Red and Black Leeds (RABL). Many thanks to the author and to RABL for permission to repost.


This is a response to an article on the International Socialist Network blog which I’ve found pretty concerning. Mistress Magpie writes about the government’s decision not to allow escort ads on Universal Jobmatch, the jobcentre’s website. She seems mainly concerned with what this implies in ideological terms, less so with the real material consequences for claimants and sex workers of having or not having escort ads on the website. I understand that Mistress Magpie is no longer in the ISN, and has moved on to a gig writing for the Guardian. She’s since noted the effect that her position of relative privilege might be having on her writing and welcomes constructive criticism. So it’s in the spirit of comradely debate that I’d like to pick apart some of the problems in this blog post and outline an alternative perspective.

Mistress starts by stating that sex is a basic human need. Though I would agree that the moralising around sex work has dangerous consequences for sex workers, I don’t think arguing for the necessity of sex work from the perspective of clients is a productive place to start in countering this. As a sex worker, I have no interest in trying to justify the industry that profits from my labour, nor in defending the sense of entitlement my clients demonstrate towards my body. My interests as a worker are in improving my conditions and my pay. Very often this conflicts with the interests of my clients who would like to demand I take whatever risks with my health they desire, for as long as possible and for as little pay as possible. As workers our demands to be able to work free from criminalisation, stigma, and violence need to start with our own material needs. Were our work actually necessary (and I’m not convinced it is) that might translate to a certain amount of bargaining power in real terms. However when workers in vital industries and caring professions strike for better conditions, their supposed responsibility to continue working for the good of society is used as an argument to undermine solidarity towards the strikers from other workers. It shouldn’t be necessary to refer to the notion of the sad sex-starved clients to explain what is wrong with, for example, police violence against sex workers. We don’t need to justify our work to legitimise our struggle.

Mistress continues to argue for the legitimacy of our work by making the case for working in the sex industry. She says “Sex work has its pitfalls and drawbacks, but it’s one way to avoid the degradation and harsh conditions of today’s zero-hours contracts wasteland.” For many sex workers it is both, the pitfalls and drawbacks of sex work, but also degradation in their job as a sex worker, and being self-employed, sometimes for a boss who doesn’t need to guarantee a wage but still gets all the benefits of an employer. She says “To my friends, food and fuel insecurity are far more frightening prospects than the stigma of sex work.” Once again there are many people experiencing both. The sex industry doesn’t deserve to exist because it is pleasant to work in, it needs to be pleasanter to work in because, for better or for worse, it exists. Whether it represents a choice between a cush office job and a fulfilling job in the sex industry, or a choice between not being able to feed oneself (or ones kids) and doing a job in the sex industry that they detest, workers will continue to opt to be a sex worker when it seems to be the best of the options available to them. Rather than singing the virtues of work in a particular industry, we need to demand more options for everyone, childcare for working mothers, a decent income for sick and unemployed people, better wages, and better conditions in all work, so that we aren’t constantly choosing between a bad option and a worse one.

In reality putting escorting positions on the job centres website provides the opportunity for further coercion in the form of sanctions. Mistress is aware of this, “Of course nobody should be forced to apply for an escorting position, but nobody should be coerced into applying for any job that does not suit their abilities”. As it is though, they would be forced into applying for an escorting position as claimants are forced into applying for other jobs. The level of control that jobcentre staff have over claimants is already shocking. They can print out any job and demand the claimant applies for it under the threat of sanctions. I imagine some job centre advisers also frequent brothels, and would have an interest in harassing their choice of claimant into a job there. Poverty is one reason why some people are forced into the sex industry against their will, and the jobcentre website including those jobs just provides another route by which people can end up coerced into it. Whatever our feelings as sex workers about sex work in comparison to other work, we can’t ignore the fact that being forced into sex work is likely to be a lot more distressing for people who have no experience of it than being forced into most other industries. At this point also, a lot of sex work jobs have appalling conditions, partly due to many businesses in the sex industry operating semi-legally. Much as we can say it shouldn’t be like this, it is.

The concern about whether the jobcentre includes escorting ads is a concern over their implied position that they don’t view it as proper work. I don’t particularly care what the government or the job centre think sex work is, I care about the ways in which they make it more dangerous. I’m not trying to win them over ideologically, they’re already a lost cause. I just want them to give us what we need. In this case, there are no practical benefits to a demand that they allow escorting ads on their website, and would make things worse. Supposing Mistress were to convince the government to put escorting positions on their website, she’d be putting people in a less privileged position at risk for the sake of making an ideological point about how she wants her own work to be viewed.

Making the point that sex work is work is one that we need other workers to understand. We need our unions, political organisations, communities, to include us as workers. We need to build a class consciousness that recognises that we all need to fight against harassment, bullying and intimidation from bosses, the risks of precarity, fees demanded to be able to work, wage theft, unsafe working conditions and all the other perils of work that we have in common. We need to support other workers in their struggles for better conditions and appeal to them to in turn support ours.

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