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

Nothing Left to salvage

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Can you picture a small society run by the far left as it exists in Britain today? Take a moment away from ‘bourgeois reality’, and imagine a world where all the hundreds of left groups decided they could just about last a boat trip together and make it over to some picturesque Scandinavian Island (donated by one of those suspicious liberal democracies who were interested in watching the experiment from afar).

We can of course only speculate, but I expect it would start out with temporary structures put together by a general meeting held the evening after arrival. A cross between Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat and Thomas More’s Utopia, the declaration of a society free from all suffering would be a bold and daring one, but also full of question marks to be addressed at future steering committee meetings (these would be made up of an elected selection of proportionate membership from all the different left groups inhabiting the island). This would then lead to the next (ultimately binding) General Assembly, where a full bill of rights for all citizens would eventually be agreed.

Harmony would just about last until the third of fourth steering committee meeting, where it was leaked to the Island’s inhabitants by a disgruntled committee member that minutes had not been fully taken. There was some secret plan being cooked up by the committee to strike deals with social democratic governments in Europe. Rumours would fly around about an immediate threat of war from one of the neighbouring Scandinavian countries and there would be talk of postponing the General Assembly. Confusion and chaos would arise, and without the means to resign and leave a Facebook group, pitch forks and catapults would instead be made out of the Island’s natural resources. 'Utopia' would quickly descend into 'Lord of the Flies'.

There would be a handful of survivors, mostly members of the Imperialism Subcommittee, who were busy writing a long piece about the relevance of Nikolai Bukharin’s writings in the post-war Europe, and who had been so indulged in this work that they missed out on what the fighting was all about. They would nonetheless end up taking up separate ends of the Island (out of fear of falling into another war), living in suspicion of each other, resembling the Eloi and Morlock tribes in HG Wells’ post-apocalyptic novel ‘the Time Machine’. The imperialist attack from the neighbouring Scandinavian country would never happen, but the very threat was enough to abandon the project of Utopia in favour of state capitalism.

Imagine now if the ship had never even got there. A chance storm had struck, and the appointed sailor (an ex-navy mutineer who had joined the Fourth International before fully finishing his training) had been unable to steer the ship away from approaching rocks. Despite well intentioned shouts for “unity”, the whole thing collapsed into the sea. There was a small number of survivors who, realising the full severity of approaching storm, would jump off before the whole thing collapsed, escaping on one of the dinghy boats (which had kindly been donated by well-wishing left reformists in the Labour Party, who still had illusions in bourgeois capitalism and had thus decided not to join the Left Ship).

What a job these survivors would have! The last remainders of the revolutionary tradition; in their hands would be the “memory of the class”, a line passed down through the word of mouth of the “most advanced workers”, descending from the Jacobin Club to the Bolsheviks. The famous vanguard who had survived the great Left Ship disaster would become statespeople for the new left of future generations, and what stories they would tell! Several books would have to be written about the experience to cement the importance of the tradition for future generations, but what memories and ideas would need to be salvaged from the shipwreck? Of course, it could never be quite proven that had the ship actually got there in one piece, the whole thing wouldn’t have descended into a sectarian bloodbath… but they had their suspicions. After all, a lot of the people who were going there were not very “serious”, pulled by anarchist ideas and so on, perhaps it’s best to keep things academic and let some sort of hegemony form out of their enlightened ideas over time.

Several decades later, long after the survivors had passed away after long careers in academia and the media, global capitalism would again reach another crisis. A group of students from fractured new organisations (formed out of different interpretations from the writings about the Ship Disaster) decide to unify! Inspired by an immediate urge to do something about the increasingly unjust society they are living in, and out of romanticism surrounding the tales of the great ship experiment, they decide to buy a boat…

Let’s jump back to reality, where no well-intentioned humanitarian in their right mind would ever lend today’s Left a ship, let alone an island. Is this a fair metaphorical impression of where the far left is today? It seems that whichever turn of events face us, the left is deemed to crash or destroy each other. Of course, a lot of this might appear a touch disingenuous, any grouping would no doubt argue that their Utopia could only be built through the mass involvement of the working class, and that their organisation aims merely to be part of a vanguard aimed at steering the ship away from capitalist tyranny. There could also be a lot of vague talk of “upturns” and “downturns” in struggle, and so forth. Could you honestly, though, trust any of us to do a better job at steering a movement, in any period of struggle, than the poor ex-navy trainee from the Fourth International who crashed into the rocks? None of us have the slightest idea of what we are doing (proven by the fractured state the left is in during the most severe global economic crisis in history), so any idea for building a left which starts and ends with “unity with other left groups” seems completely absurd. As does any of us carrying on in the same old traditions which we have seen fail several times over.

To the outside the far left must look like a shower of shite, full of competing egos all trying to be top dog in a cliquey subculture (“Guuuuys, I think you are all failing to understand the dialectical nature of our current hegemony, you hear me?”). I expect the question that often runs through people minds when they first come across the Left is, “Do we really want anything to do with these weird people?” The sad thing is that when all of the genuine, well-intentioned ideas of challenging inequality and oppression, which initially draw very good people in, have become lost in a sea of sectarian wreckage from a war of egos, what is there left to salvage?

I expect “we” (whoever associates as the Left today), need to start again, and not from the basis of a vanguard network of leftists, preaching competing ideas and competing to build a left organisation which will push these arguments through, but instead from the very basic position of trying to work out what it means to be left-wing today. Who knows what the answer is, but I expect it will involve a lot less cliques of self-appointed leaders of the class, and perhaps a few less Facebook rows.