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A proposal to take to Left Unity: an organising party

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2013 has been a year of massive problems for the far left, but one that has also seen a vastly wider and more varied discussion about what to do than has recently been the norm. One fundamental change is that the parties that had previously dominated the conversation on the socialist left no longer have the ability to do so, and while this has cost the left its previously stability, it has also presented us with the opportunity to try to look for tactics which might reverse a generation of the left shrinking despite mass movements coming and going. The ability of hundreds of us to come to the Left Unity founding conference this November to agree to establish a new type of party has been an encouraging step forward, but it has been rightly described by supporters as being only a first step. One apt criticism of the ‘platform debate’ in the run-up to conference was that it focused discussion too much on what the new party will say at the expense of what it is going to do – which is really the point of a political party.

I am writing this to propose just one practical suggestion for an initiative of the new party, and I want to hear lots of others. The idea, in short, is that we try to give Left Unity an audience among working people in Britain that it currently lacks by giving the party an outward-facing strategy that focuses on practically organising, rather than the propaganda and agitation methods that we have previously adhered to. I’ve tried to think out what the purpose of this project would be, and to that end have contrasted it with what I think we need to be less wedded to. This is where I think we should start.

The left, the movement and the class

That the far left has done significantly poorly in Britain since the onset of neoliberalism is not even debatable. Most working class people in Britain simply have no awareness of the radical left today, just because it cannot reach them, and this is more true of younger people. The new precarious jobs that younger workers increasingly find themselves in are mostly unknown territory to the trade union movement, at a time when the far left is finding itself mostly inactive anywhere but within the trade unions. The Trotskyist parties have generally been at a loss over what to do to about this, and commonly more or less ignore the problem. The extreme of this situation occurred ten years ago, when the SWP was central to organising genuinely mass demonstrations against the Iraq war, but did not grow in size at all.

Since the economic crises of 2007/8 Trotskyist-inspired efforts to hold ‘youth’ events to appeal to young working people squeezed by austerity have not generally been successful, since their focus has been almost always on propaganda without clear goals (vague calls for reductions in unemployment or ends to attacks on services and benefits) and have often been very substitutionist in their composition: most events like these tend to be very dependent on young people recruited to the far left as students, the only area the far left still finds it relatively easy to recruit within. That, by the way, is also becoming problematic: for decades most of the young people recruited by Trotskyist parties as students have tended to drift away once they enter the workforce full-time, most probably because the tactics and organisation that the far left advocates for working people don’t work any better for graduates in today’s jobs than they do for anyone else.

This is critical to the argument: The nature of most people’s work experience now simply does not lend itself to the ‘industrial strategy’ of the far left from the 20th century. This has not always been an easy thing to discuss, particularly due to a real ideological conservatism in Trotskyist organisations, but also because the central tenets of these strategies are bound up with some genuinely quite important points of principle for socialists: core values of solidarity and of the self-emancipation of the working class. Despite this, I would suggest that a lot of what has been argued ‘industrially’ by the left has been more historically specific than we have been willing to admit, that there are a number of critical interrelated problems that make these perspectives inadequate, and this is the reason for the massive and growing gap between what the left claims to strive for and what it actually delivers. This is my attempt to summarise what these problems are.

Problem 1: The left has not understood recession, austerity, precarity and working life today

If you’ve been in a Trotskyist organisation, you’ve definitely been to loads of meetings about heroic individuals who have led strikes. You almost certainly have not become one. This is not a moral matter. Since the 1980s, but getting progressively worse over time, people have found that getting a job is often harder work than actually doing one, as the economy since Thatcher has created fewer and fewer jobs. The very genuine risk of being made unemployed means that many people today have to think carefully before ‘putting their heads above the parapet’ as being singled out as a militant troublemaker early on will often lead to getting sacked, or simply not being rehired if one is casually employed. This is more the case, the more poorly paid, poorly organised and low-regarded the job happens to be and the younger you are. Paradoxically then, not only are today’s worse jobs triggering less industrial action than measurably superior jobs a generation ago, but there is a stratification in which people with actually better jobs are more likely to take industrial action over their conditions than people in much more inferior conditions.

Trotskyist parties, particularly in Britain, built themselves in a very different economy, in which the job market was favourable and striking was a fairly common activity that masses of people were routinely involved in. Today, more working time is ‘lost’ in the toilets than on strike, and speaking to working people of strikes does not speak to direct experience in the way it did for a previous generation. This has left the left trying to hold a conversation with many workers that seems foreign to their understanding. Even worse, though, an actively unhelpful vision can be presented, in which being a militant worker and leading industrial actions is to almost be a sort of martyr figure who is simply willing to sacrifice their job – a debatable vision of trade union militants historically and certainly not an attractive recruitment strategy into workplace union activism. This leads me to the next point.

Problem 2: The left has not understood the state of the unions

Related to the changed nature of working life, labour organisation is not – I would argue – the same experience as the left tends to present it as. A few things may need to be unpacked here. First of all, this is not an argument that ‘strikes can’t win’. There have demonstrably been strikes that have won within recent years, so they evidently can. The argument here is that strikes do not often happenand are not participated in by large sections of the class, and this means that there is comparatively little lived experience for people who are in unions today of strike action. As with much of this, it is more true of younger people.

This has numerous effects on the way socialists can organise at work, not least that gaining the experience of strikes is rare enough, but it also means that participation in unions by workers is much less ‘active’ than it would have been a generation ago, which changes the way workplace politics functions to a massive degree. There simply are not, at this time, large numbers of workers who are ‘rank and file militants’ in the sense of not being officials but being highly effective at getting better conditions for the workforce through clever and persuasive organisation. Today, the ‘militant minority’ at work are often the only people willing to take on union positions at all, as well as finding this among a much more limited range of possible expression that progressive politics can have nowadays.

The result for socialists, some of them far leftists, is that they end up taking up actually more of a role in trade union bureaucracies than they would have in the 1970s, when far more people would have identified as socialist. This leads me to another thing to unpack – I am not saying that the analysis of the bureaucracy as detached from the working class and pulled by its mediating role with capital is not true – I am saying that the bureaucracy has dragged up a section of the left out of necessity to keep itself afloat, with the effect that it is more left wing, but also the left is also more bureaucratic. In the days of far greater union power, reactionary policies abounded inside many of them unions and big campaigns had to be fought against colour bars and sexism. Today, unions are easily the most consistently progressive institutions in our society – actively backing anti-racist campaigns, feminist campaigns and mass progressive campaigns such as Stop the War – but this ‘policy leftism’ has not as yet revitalised industrial strength.

Problem 3: The left has not understood how people now see and experience politics and class power

This might be one of the assertions I make that might face the most derision, but it is my view that the way the left describes political life in Britain today is not recognisable by most British people and this is common to a general shift away from deference to formal authority worldwide. Neoliberalism has infected everything in our lives today, but one of its most paradoxical but also most all-pervading phenomena is the effect it has had on systems of authority and hierarchy. Neoliberalism is jealous and totalitarian in its own way, but is not classically authoritarian; in fact, it loathes classical authority and it has enabled the capitalist class to break the direct link between hierarchy and domination. Business theory books of the moment abound with trendy sayings about ‘nudging’ people to the correct decisions, rather than telling them. It favours cute ‘starfish’ organisations, in which all parts are active and engaged, over ugly ‘spider’ ones in which everything is subordinated to the processes of a single, unlovely head. This is not just talk: they have actually restructured chains of authority that used to be highly pyramidal into ones that are far more fluid, in particular at work.

Workplaces used to have very simple chains of command, with workers reporting to junior managers with better pay and conditions, who reported to senior managers on better pay still and so on upward. Discipline and control was therefore an extremely vertical affair. Today’s workplaces are vastly more complex. The word ‘manager’ has been devalued to the point of near-meaninglessness, with almost anyone who has any level of seniority being labelled one. More distortingly, though, many of the functions once held by the traditional manager have also been devolved to significantly lower levels, creating some very odd relations of authority. At my workplace, bottom-tier managers can be placed in charge of gangs of contractors who have inferior terms of employment, but better pay! At the extreme end of low-waged work, teams of cleaners are usually led by people who derive almost as little benefit from work as the rest of the team. Less exploited jobs have also become more horizontal, with people being expected to manage themselves and collude in their own exploitation, particularly thanks to the flexibility offered by modern communications technology, to previously impossible degrees. Nothing to me speaks more of the way one is expected to repress oneself at work now than the open-plan office: horrible cavern-like spaces where people sit hunched, mere spitting distances away from each other, but unable to do so much as clear their throat, much less raise their voices, lest they break the taboo of disrupting the order of these ridiculous rooms. These are not atmospheres in which one lightly calls the manager a wanker and starts rows about raw controversies. I suspect they are not one in which many, if anyone, has sold a revolutionary newspaper, either.

I believe this phenomenon extends to most other aspects of life, including those people who are not employed or who are underemployed. In an excellent article in the IS Network website [], Richard Atkinson made this point that really made me think:

Fifty years ago the primary, often the only, source of income for working class families was the wage packet or salary. They generally didn’t pay much, if any, income tax out of this, just national insurance. Today for anyone on or below average wages, for anyone in rented accommodation, for anyone with children or a disability, their financial relationship with the state is likely to be as important – as determinative for their standard of living – as their wage – which is itself set by the state for anyone on or near minimum wage. Income Tax and NICs, Child Benefit, Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, council tax reductions, DLA, free nursery places, free school meals – and so on, and so on.                                    

This has rather profound implications for trade unions who cannot act effectively for the class simply by challenging or mediating with employers, and for class struggle generally.

The wage has become ‘decentralised’ and even ‘outsourced’ from pay into the social wage, which, as Richard points out, completely bypasses conventional trade union struggle over pay, but also has a massive effect on one’s relationship to the state. Once the state becomes as crucial to your ability to make ends meet as an employer would be, it obtains much of the power an employer has to achieve coercion without physical force – the state as ‘special bodies of armed men’ has become something of a limited vision here, if it can use simply economic necessity as a club to beat you with. Working class people can now be repressed by the state via a new means, the withholding and manipulation of income. In ages past, when the bourgeoisie wanted to clear poor folks out of the countryside to enclose and privatise the land, a fair bit of violence had to be employed. Today, to clear poor people out of lucrative inner-city properties, they only need to withhold housing benefits.

Is there a different way of doing things for a different time?

I have floated some new ideas previously, though without much definition, when I started looking at when I became in interested in the history of radical left parties that have been growing rather than stagnating in the past few decades. The one I want to revisit in this case is the Dutch Socialist Party (SP). I find the SP particularly significant because, unlike many other parties of new European left, it did not primarily emerge from splits and mergers in larger, more mainstream or traditional parties (which we simply don’t have in Britain), but began as a small far-left organisation and successfully turned outwards and built itself up into a large and electorally successful party. Here are a few words from their website (which is in English – just as well for me, as I am monolingual):

Founded in October, 1972, the Socialist Party began life as what was apparently no more than one of a panoply of fringe left grouplets. Leaving behind its early flirtation with ‘Maoism’, however, the young SP soon became a party that was focused on the practical struggles of workers, tenants, and victims of social injustice. All of this activity gave the party a strong local presence…

The SP tries as far as possible to attract support from voters, because this gives us a more powerful voice within the institutions of parliamentary democracy. We are not, however, merely an electoral union. If you want to change society for the better there is a great deal of work to be done outside as well as inside parliament and council chamber, on both the national and local level. We are active in campaigns against unaffordably high rents and unacceptably bad working conditions, and for the protection of the environment and better health care for all; against further erosion of social security and for a reasonable income for everyone; for equality of opportunity and against the growing worldwide gulf between rich and poor; against the widening social division and for a more caring society…in word and deed.

We are committed to giving people the opportunity at all times to discuss our political views, whether by contacting our parliamentary group in The Hague, approaching the local branch, or through other sections of our party, such as our Policy Bureau and the SP Environment Alarm Team. This team receives numerous calls alerting us to scandals great and small, and helps people to organise campaigns for a cleaner and safer environment. The SP Helpline is there for people who are having problems with their boss or landlord, the local council or tax collectors. We can often bring complainants together, finding a basis for common actions: acting together always makes you stronger. Many SP members are active in their works council and trade union, working with colleagues to demand safe working conditions and a decent wage.

I must confess to finding their eagerness to dismiss their origins in Maoism mildly amusing, not least because it is not irrelevant to the sort of party they subsequently describe. While they were probably best off without the doctrines that handcuffed them to the theory of Four Classes and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, a focus on seeking out the ‘practical struggles’ was what enabled them to get out of the ghetto of the extreme left and build a significantly large organisation still well to the left of the Dutch Labour Party. Some of the activities listed above seem pretty obvious to us – particularly the bits about organising in trades unions and trades councils, since the British far left made a massive steer into this in the 1970s. The other features, though, are more novel to our eyes. The SP provided, in the Maoist rhetoric they were not then ashamed of, ‘workers’ services’ that offered badly needed help to working class people who needed someone to turn to and in doing so made themselves a relevant organisation. This is not how our forebear organisations grew: they were much more focused on propaganda and agitation and the emphasis on particular forms of workplace and protest organisation, but that too was very relevant for them at that time.

I don’t know very much about working class life in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. I expect it had some significant differences with life in Britain, and it is only to be expected that the strategies adopted by socialists in the two nation-states would have had variations. However, as I have already stated, I don’t think working class life in Britain today is similar to working class life in Britain before neoliberalism. My disagreement with British Trotskyism is not based on principle, but tactics: the ones that worked, sometimes spectacularly, in the 1960s and 1970s do not work now. Following from this, I suggest we look at tactics we would not have previously considered: getting Left Unity to establish a network of help and advice initiatives to help people deal with the serious problems capitalism throws at them. There are not many rank and file union activists today, but there are literally masses of people who are angry with the way capitalism has treated them.

An anti-capitalist helpline or help with anti-capitalism?

How could this work? Well, I believe for a start it would be a major departure from how ‘revolutionary’ industrial departments have worked previously. In my experience, there has been a way that revolutionary parties claim their industrial offices operate, and an actual way. The claimed way is that the industrial office is pursuing some sort of overarching national strategy, keeping an eye on developments, watching for opportunities and working towards a Great Victory. Writing it out now, that we ever entertained this now seems kind of ridiculous. Even if we were in a period when industrial struggle was building up to a mighty climax, the idea that a minor ‘party’ with only a couple of thousand members was actually directing a huge chunk of the labour movement was clearly exaggeration, to say the least.

The actual way that industrial offices work is vastly more prosaic – they act as hubs for the established trade unionists in the party to get advice and guidance on particular campaigns and disputes. The thing is, they tend to do this with the false vision that by advising the minority within their small parties on how to do these things, they are sticking vital pins in the map will the lead gloriously toward the Great General Strike. This facility is certainly a useful resource for those party members though, albeit only the ones in the declining sections of the class where the ‘recognised’ form of trade unionism can prevail, and one that keeps many longstanding members inside the organisation.

Suppose, however, we have a similar function, but on a completely different model. Rather than a single-point industrial department attempting centrally to put to rights as many disputes as it can, imagine a set of advisory centres in which workers with experience of organising and campaigning could pool their knowledge to help those that want and need to organise, but do not know how to (like, well, most people). This vision isn’t intended to be a shortcut to a general strike, or a propagandistic model aimed at persuading workers to resort to strike action, but a resource that workers could call on to get help they would not get elsewhere. It is of course true that workers who are in unions do have those to turn to in the first instance, but only a minority of workers have even this option, and in any case if the union has not delivered success or caved in in the face of the anti-union laws, it is positively better to be able to ask for ideologically motivated and independent advice that a socialist party would provide.

This does all have something of the air of an agony aunt about it, but I don’t think that is such a ridiculous thing. When unionised, precarious workers today are under threat, they have currently nowhere very much to turn – we could be putting them in touch with people who might have advice on what to do and potentially link them up with campaigns that could benefit them. This model can be applied just as well to people whose lives are being threatened by neoliberalism beyond the workplace, being a number to call (or at least an address to email!) for people whose benefits are being threatened, who are being evicted, who are the victims of the latest bit of outrageous Tory class warfare. The Left Unity party already appeals to a lot of people who are themselves already campaigners, trade unionists and in some cases professionals who can and will try to help. We should have this infrastructure in place.

But what of offering solutions beyond the workplaces, since much of class warfare is in fact being fought well outside them? Industrial action is highly unlikely to be able to stop the bedroom tax or changes to disability allowances. I think this approach could be stretched out into those spheres. Suppose we were able to find tactics workers could use to confound attempts to use the social functions of the state against them. One thing we have learned from the anti-austerity movement is that one rapidly runs up against the limits of protest in this field: the ways cuts are stopped is with diverse and multi-layered tactics, combining direct action with legal, ideological and legislative struggle – and some times just plain old volunteering. For me, an effective socialist party will be one that is active and able to help people on all these levels – not just keeping its hands clean, calling demos and expecting ‘the reformists’ to sort out the paperwork. We can find people who will be willing to offer expertise to help other people: this ought to be a goal in itself for socialists.

A bigger vision for a bigger socialist movement

If we can get websites we run, or a phone line, or a bulletin, or even a co-operative enterprise of some sort to be viewed as a relevant facility to working people struggling against austerity, the relevance of socialist organisation will not only become more clear, but it will be obvious. It is only when we are reaching out in such a way that large numbers of people could potentially be attracted to join the party, far beyond the audience the left is currently talking to. We would have to start small, probably online only at first and promoted mainly by social media, but with the vision of building something more.

It is of course not just about recruitment though. Where good active relationships are built up in workplaces and communities, the potential to launch campaigns of more ambitious natures is vastly greater. Breaking down the isolation of benefit claimants and public services users is always the first major obstacle in organising those groups – a project like this might start to do that. Breaking down the isolation of precarious workers has simply yet to happen – could this project do that?

It would be at this point that talk of ‘rank and file’ organisation would advance from a largely abstract notion to a real tactic. If numerous workers within workplaces know they can act together in their own defence, even if this is as simple as refusing to take overtime or just not doing extra favours for the employer without pay, they have strengthened their position against that employer. This is really the essence of rank and file organisation: the idea that workers at work act in their own defence – it is a vision that does not rely on the formal power of trade union officials (and outside of a very few circumstances, and almost never in a liberal democracy, it is not against those union officials). Once again, if we can start a real dialogue with more workers, we can start to get into a position where this becomes possible. The model of talking to workers we have been previously relying on, leafleting workplaces with propaganda, advocating strikes, has almost no real record of success. I think the time has come to turn away from the ‘agitation and propaganda party’, towards a model of an organising party.

I am aware that what I have put here is not a total solution to anything, and also that it is very much a ‘reform’ strategy – in that it is about seeking methods to build the movement by fighting for reforms. I do, however, unlike the founders of the Dutch SP, think we should not view these things as a total rejection of our roots. We aspire one day to organise a revolutionary party that leads a struggle against capitalism that will ultimately destroy capitalism. Such a party will quite rightly need revolutionary ideas, but it won’t be more than an ideological circle unless it has thousands of people in it and working through it, and if we want to get to that position, we need to find ways to get those people to join a socialist organisation. So let’s give them a reason to do so.