- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Friday, 16 January 2015
- Written by Javaad Alipoor
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.