MEETING AND DISCUSSION
hosted by London Socialist Resistance
Saturday 1 February, 1:30pm – 5pm
Room B35, Birkbeck College
Malet Street, WC1E 7HX
(Entrance: £3/£5 donation)
NOTE room change and additional speakers
Penelope Duggan, Fellow of the Amsterdam IIRE, editor of International Viewpoint, and member of the NPA.
Dave Renton, Barrister and historian of IS & SWP; blogs at livesrunning.wordpress.com
Ernie Tate, author of Revolutionary Activism in the Fifties and Sixties in Canada and Britain and a supporter of the Fourth International
Jane Shallice, member of VSC and CAST (the Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre), joined the IMG in 1968 until 1972, NUT activist, and a member of Stop the War from 2001.
Ian Birchall, Marxist historian and translator. Author of ‘Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his time’ and numerous other works. Member of Revolutionary History Editorial Board and of London Socialist Historians Group. Member of IS and SWP for nearly 50 years, recently resigned.
Alan Thornett, Trade union and workers’ leader in the car industry for 25 years, and author of ‘Militant Years – Car Workers Struggles in Britain in the 60s and 70s’. Member of Communist Party and Socialist Labour League (SLL) in the 1960s. Currently a member of Socialist Resistance and of the International Committee of the FI..
The 1960s saw a rising tide of working class mobilisations and youth and student radicalisation. The high point was a month-long general strike in France in 1968. There were also militant and mass mobilisations shaking the system in Prague, Rome, Berlin, London, Mexico and elsewhere. In Britain, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign mobilised up to 200,000 against the war.
In France, revolutionaries saw the events as the “dress rehearsal” of a revolution. How close was France to a revolutionary situation when the rulers can no longer govern as before, and people are no longer willing to be ruled as before?
A “second wave” of feminism spread from the early 196os, with a strong socialist component which argued that there could be no women’s liberation without socialism and no socialism without women’s liberation. It played a major part in defending abortion rights and winning a law for equal pay.
What remains of 1968? It is one of the key dates of the re-composition of the European workers’ movement at the end of the 20th century. New revolutionary Marxist currents, such as the IMG and IS in Britain, developed into significant players. There is still a strong anti-war movement in Britain, preventing intervention in Syria. And feminism is re-energised as austerity is challenging all the gains that women have won.
Participants and historians of the events of 1968 will present their views for a discussion about the period and the challenges faced by the new Marxist Left.
Ernie Tate will be launching his book about the period Revolutionary Activism in the Fifties and Sixties in Canada and Britain. Ernie was a leading member of the VSC and the IMG. He worked with Bertrand Russell in the Russell Tribunal set up to investigate US war crimes in Vietnam.
This is a presentation Alan Thornett made recently at an event in Mannheim marking 75 years of the Fourth International (FI), organised by the its German groupings. Other speakers included Jan Malewski from the FI Bureau and Manos Skoufoglou from OKDE, our Greek. It is not quite a verbatim write up but it does follow the political line of his presentation and includes all the main points he made. A few points have been expanded for clarity.
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak at this event. I have been asked to give a presentation on ‘the role of a revolutionary international in non-revolutionary times’—or as I would prefer to put it the role and priorities of the FI in the 21st century.
I want to address a number of key issues in this regard. There is the political character of the FI itself; there is the ecological crisis and the idea of ecosocialism; there is building broad parties, particularly but not only in Europe, and the role of Syriza in Greece; there is also the issue of feminism and feminisation, which I will address to the extent I am qualified, particularly in relation to the crisis of the SWP where it has played a major role. This crisis, by the way, is entirely unresolved and there could be further splits at the SWP conference next month.
If I have time I will also say something about the initiative by Ken Loach which is leading to the founding conference of Left Unity, in Britain, at the end of this month and also the opportunities for far left regroupment which have opened up.
Let’s start with some remarks on the political character of the International today. As Jan said yesterday the FI today is growing quite fast and we can be optimistic that this will continue. At every meeting of the International Committee (the leading body of the FI between world congresses) there are applications to join or to establish a formal relationship with it, from organisations from various strands and traditions of the far left. These have come from Asia and Latin America in particular and, to a lesser extent, from North America and Europe—from Greece for example.
This is at least partly due to the decisions taken in the 1990s to make the FI into a more pluralist and open organisation which could embrace organisations from different parts of the Trotskyist tradition and beyond. This has allowed a far less dogmatic form of organisation to develop.
It has also been a product of the democratic structures of the FI which have been a long-term feature. As a result of this, minority views in the FI (and on its elected bodies) are fully represented and vigorous political debates take place. In the FI the political orientation of its sections is decided by the sections themselves and cannot be imposed at the international level. The FI can, and does, take a majority view on the strategic issues and the big political events, and will defend such views. But it cannot impose such decisions on the national sections.
This model of international organisation is increasingly attractive today not least because the other international far left organisations, the IST and the CWI, still have top-down leadership where sections are denounced for or given instructions on issues of political orientation and even on tactical questions.
In fact the challenge for the FI today is not so much attracting new forces but generating the resources and the political capacity to organise and administer an expanded FI and develop a common line of approach.
The decision of the last World Congress to place the ecological crisis at the centre of its priorities and define itself as ecosocialist was, in my view, hugely important for the FI and its future development. It has already been a significant factor in attracting new organisations towards the FI. In fact several of the new applicants already regarded themselves as ecosocialist.
Its true that the response of the sections to this decision has been uneven, with the most enthusiastic supporters being those in the front, for example the comrades in the Philippines and Bangladesh. But it is an ongoing process and ecosocialist ideas are getting stronger in the FI as a whole.
The situation is extremely urgent, however. The global temperature is rising; the ice caps are melting; the sea level is rising; the deserts are expanding and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. We have just seen typhoon Haian devastate the Philippines, and this follows hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 that hit New Orleans and New York. The crisis we face worldwide is ecological as well as economic.
But why does all this require us to become ecosocialists rather than simply taking ecological issues more seriously? Why ‘socialist’ no longer enough?
Ecosocialism is a declaration that we intend to build a new society based on ecological sustainability and social equality and the predominance of use value over exchange value. It is a signal that we reject the capitalist logic of insatiable growth, which is fuelled by the drive for profit.
It is recognition that the task today is not just to end capitalism and establish a socialist society but to establish an ecologically sustainable socialist society—that we do not want to see a revolution take place under conditions where the ecology of the planet has been destroyed in advance.
It is a declaration that the ecological issues will be central to our whole approach to the struggle for socialism and not an-add on extra. In any case if we are incapable of fighting to defend the environment before the transition to socialism how can we be equipped to defend it afterwards?
It is also because the ecological struggle will have to continue after capitalism is gone, and it will not be easy.
Building broad parties
The FI and its sections have long been involved in building broad parties: the Left Block in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, the Socialist party in Holland, Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, Die Linke here in Germany, Syriza in Greece, the SSP in Scotland, and the Socialist Alliance and then Respect in England.
When this was discussed at the last World Congress, however, I held a minority position. This was not on building broad parties as such, since I have been a strong supporter of such a policy. It was because the resolution in front of the congress called only for the building of broad ‘anti-capitalist’ parties. To me this was too restrictive. Yes we should seek to build anti-capitalist parties where the conditions for such parties exist, but this is not always the case. We should also be for building radical left parties that don’t meet such a criteria. Die Linke, for example, is not an anti-capitalist party but it is a major gain for the workers’ movement in Germany. Its political character reflects what is possible in the German situation at this particular time.
Building broad parties, however, is crucial if the FI is to have the influence on the wider movement which is necessary and possible today. It means building parties that can start to fill the political space to the left of social democracy that is opened as it moves to the right.
Our class enemies are clear about this. They are not too concerned if we build small revolutionary groups which do good things but which have little influence beyond their own ranks—particularly today when the level of trade union struggle remains low. They do care, however, if we become an influential force in much bigger formations that can have a real influence on the course of events – and even challenge for government.
The most important recent example of the role of a broad party, in recent times, of course, is the rise of Syriza in Greece.
Syriza won a remarkable 27% of the vote in the June election and has maintained such support since. This means that it is effectively a radical left anti-austerity government in waiting. This is hugely important for the European left and the European workers movement. Syriza only failed to win the election because important sections of the Greek left stood against it in the election.
Many on the left (in Greece and elsewhere) claim that Syriza is moving sharply to the right. Some even claim that it is already the new PASOK. (FI supporters in Greece are divided. OKDE, the section, supports Antarsya, which stood against Syriza in the elections, and KOKKINO, a sympathising organisation, supports Syriza and are members of it).
I don’t accept this criticism of Syriza. I would not argue that Syriza has made no mistakes or retreats since it found itself in this remarkable situation. But in my view it does not have an overall trajectory to the right. No doubt Syriza’s leaders are daunted by the prospect of assuming government, but who on the left would not be? But that does not mean they are moving to the right. Certainly the Syriza conference in July—which comprised 3,500 delegates representing 35,000 members—did not reflect such a shift. In fact steps were taken to prepare the party for entry into government
Manos will be speaking later, of course, and I am sure he will express a very different point of view.
It is also argued that Syriza is left reformist in character. I don’t think this is very useful either. If left reformism is to be defined so broadly—as everything from the left in the British Labour Party (for example) to the leadership of Syriza—then does not have much value. I think Syriza has more the character of an anti-capitalist party—which I suspect is the way most of its members would describe it, and how they would see themselves.
Syriza is not a revolutionary party, of course, and has never claimed to be one—which is the factor that gives it mass appeal in the current situation. It is a radical left party committed to an anti-austerity agenda.
There is, of course, a motive behind the insistence that Syriza is left reformist. This is in order to argue that left reformism is simply reformism and that, as such, it will inevitably betray if elected to office. Such a party, it is argued, can never open up a development beyond capitalism since the closer reformism gets to power the more it will adapt to the capitalist agenda.
I had an exchange with an SWP speaker (the SWP supports Antarsya in Greece of course) at the recent Historical Materialism conference in London who argued exactly this. When I asked him it would, therefore, be better if Syriza lost the next election rather than winning he had a problem making up his mind.
I don’t accept this assertion of inevitable betrayal. In fact I think there are conditions where a radical left party of this kind, seeking defend the interests of the working class, and with mass support, can open up such a development under the right conditions.
What is clear is that if Syriza were to implement even a small part of its programme on coming to office this would be totally unacceptable to the Greek bourgeoisie and the European elites. There would be a huge confrontation and it is far from clear which way it would go. Syriza’s anti-austerity pledges alone are totally unacceptable to the elites. In fact under today’s conditions in Greece just the rejection of the memorandum has become a transitional demand.
It is this that that has put the matter of a governmental alternative centre stage in Greece today. Syriza rose from 4% in the polls to 27% in the general election after it had made the call for a government of the left anti-austerity parties. This was the crucial factor. The struggle needed a new dynamic, which could only be could provided at governmental level.
(As I argued in the debate that followed, where was the struggle in Greece go after 25 or 26 general strikes, hundreds of demonstrations, mobilisations, occupations and huge social movements?)
The fact is that three years of hard fought class struggle in Greece did not result in the formation of soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies and dual power on the streets. What it resulted in was mass support for an anti-austerity government of the left parties via a parliamentary majority.
So what do we say about it? That such a government would be a diversion from the real issue which is the formations of workers’ and soldiers’ councils? Of course not! We say that such a government would be a major gain for the working class and that we will fight to get it into office. We will then fight for it to take the struggle to the next stage.
This is far from a new debate, of course, and I am pleased that Jan mentioned it this in his presentation yesterday. It was discussed by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, after the revolutionary wave generated by the Russian revolution had receded and the Comintern had to come to terms with the that new struggles for power would not necessarily follow the soviet model.
What they discussed, therefore, was the united front, transitional demands, and the demand for a workers’ government. A government that comes to office by parliamentary means to represent the interests of the working class under conditions where capitalism, and the capitalist state, remains intact—where no social overturn has yet taken place. In other words it would be a transitional government.
The proposition advanced by the Comintern was that such a government—elected to office with capitalism still existing—could be the vehicle for developments beyond the limitations that capitalism, despite the restrictions which capitalism would attempt to impose on it, and irrespective of whether the leadership of such a government saw itself as playing such a role when it was elected to office.
Could Syriza do it in Greece today if it wins the next election? Who knows? Not even Syriza leadership knows this I suspect. It certainly won’t happen unless Syriza is elected to office! In any case who on the left can guarantee that they would meet such a test if it came? Such a situation would be new territory for the European left.
Challenging capitalism in this way would not be easy, of course, but, there again, there is no easy way of challenging capitalism. Such a government would be faced with a stark choice. It could either take radical measures to defend itself and its mandate (i.e. move sharply to the left and challenge the capitalist institutions) or collapse and accept the conditions demanded by the elites. There is a strong leftwing current inside Syriza which would oppose such a collapse and a mass movement on the streets which would also oppose it.
To defend such a government under these conditions would not only require a mass movement in Greece it would also require the development of solidarity action across Europe, to prevent the isolation of the Greek struggle. It also implies the building of such parties across Europe that can be the driving force for such solidarity action. This is what makes this on building broad parties so important.
At this point I ran out of time. I made a few quick remarks about the Ken Loach initiative, but I had to leave most of that and the issue of revolutionary regroupment (and the role of feminism within that) for the discussion which took place after Manos had spoken about the situation in Greece. Manos did indeed present a very different position to the one I have presented and there was a lively exchange. Hopefully Manos will continue the discussion in written form.
The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) or Socialist Workers’ Party (Socialistische Arbeiderspartij (SAP) is the Fourth International’s section in Belgium. In this statement it explains why, for the first time in its history, it is standing in this year’s elections on a joint slate with Le Parti du travail de Belgique — Partij van Arbeid van België (PTB-PVDA), an organisation of Maoist origin.
The end of the tunnel is far from being in sight. We are only at the beginning of a gigantic offensive by European capitalism against labour, youth and women.
The sacrifices imposed on the majority of the population aggravate deficits and recession. But the dominant class continues to pursue them. Why? Because its objective is not purely economic but strategic: it wishes to break social resistance, dismantle what remains of the “welfare state”, reduce the public sector to its simplest expression and structurally weaken the trade unions. The drift of the employers’ discourse on competitiveness is revealing: for the bosses, it is no longer enough that “labour costs” are aligned with other European countries — it is henceforth in the context of the world market, faced with the “emergent” capitalism of China and elsewhere, that workers on the old continent should be “competitive”.
The EU, capitalist war machine
The European Union and its governments are at the service of this cruel and unjust policy. The very structure of the EU is in fact a capitalist war machine, and provides an alibi to national governments: “It’s not us, it’s Europe”, they say. But Europe is them! The new European treaty (TSCG) which inscribes the “golden rule” in marble, is down to them! The Fortress Europe which repels, imprisons and deports asylum seekers is down to them. The Council, the sole body of effective power, is made up of heads of state and of government. The European Parliament has virtually no real power. The Commission, alone authorised to propose legislative initiatives, is made up of member states.
The influence of the employers’ lobbies has recently again been highlighted by the draft commission communication on the electricity market. This text has been dictated by the fossil fuel sector and the Round Table of European Industrialists. The employers want less renewable fuels and more shale gas powered stations as in the United States — to cut costs. And so much the worst for climatic disasters, the danger of which has nonetheless been shown by the typhoon which has ravaged the Philippines! The fact that a former Goldman Sachs employee — Mario Draghi — heads the European Central Bank is symbolic: all these institutions are linked to big capital which exploits labour and pillages natural resources.
Needless to say, social democracy is collaborating in the offensive of social regression and ecological destruction. In Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal … everywhere, the “socialist” parties have applied the neoliberal and productivist programme. In Belgium, the PS and Sp.a  have been in government for twenty five years. A lesser evil? No: as in other countries, the “socialists” have actively contributed to the dismantling of numerous social conquests (early retirement rights or unemployment benefits) and public services (under-financed, deregulated or indeed privatised), to the security crackdown and the transformation of taxation at the service of the employers and the wealthiest. They are now ready to attack the trade unions, by breaking collective agreements and discrediting workers’ struggles. As in other countries, this favours a slide to the right in public opinion: a rise of racism, Islamophobia, sexism, of each for themselves and the far right.
The polarisation to the right coincides in Belgium with a community polarisation. This specificity should not lead to the false conclusion that the PS and the Sp.a are the last rampart against a division of social security. Behind the scenes, the PS has already agreed with the MR  and the Cdh . And that of the far right. What message does the president of the PS give when, as mayor, he criminalises begging in Charleroi? Who, if not the far right, benefits from the police violence that the PS mayors of Brussels and Saint-Josse have unleashed against Afghans and against the squatters at a former convent? A dangerous dynamic is established, paving the way to coalitions still more to the right — with or without the PS and Sp.a.
2014, what is at stake?
It is in this general context that we must locate the parliamentary, regional and European elections of May 2014. What is at stake for the left? Continuing a policy which, in the name of the lesser evil, plans the exclusion of tens of thousands of the unemployed? No, the argument that “without the PS it would be worse” is “an insult to our intelligence” — as the regional secretary of the FGTB of Charleroi, Daniel Piron puts it. The real issue is to open a first breach in the social-democratic and Green monopoly over “left” parliamentary representation. To provide an anti-austerity political solution to the despair and anger which is accumulating in a section of society. To show to the PS and Sp.a that the time is coming when they can no longer fool their social base with fine promises, thrown aside when the elections are over. To set up a marker towards a new political expression of the exploited and oppressed.
Almost everywhere in Europe, the degeneration of social democracy (and the Greens) is freeing up political space for left forces. Belgium has until now been an exception. This is the result of a multitude of factors: social-democratic control over the trade union base and the low political level of the social movements on the one hand, and the Stalinist sectarianism of the main left formation — the PTB  — and the inability of others to unite on a lasting basis around an innovative anti-capitalist project, on the other. However, this situation is changing. Two elements witness to this:
1. The evolution of the PTB, which has allowed it to grow and realise an initial breakthrough in the communal and provincial elections of October 2012;
2. The fact that more and more trades unionists and activists from other social movements understand the need to fight also at the level of a political alternative.
The LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) has thus decided to stare reality in the face and take responsibility, having in mind the interests of the workers as a whole. In Flanders, our comrades of the SAP (Socialistische Arberjderspartij) have concluded an agreement with the PTB: we will be present on the PVDA+ lists. The common press release of the two organisations is clear: “For the first time in a long while, the elections of May 2014 offer the possibility, by a vote for the PTB+, to have left elected representatives … which will give a clear voice to the fight against austerity policies… The PTB and the SAP have a different vision on a number of questions. By this agreement, we strengthen the left. Thus, we can help advance the fight against austerity, unemployment and for a radically social, ecological and democratic alternative|”.
The situation in Francophone Belgium is different: the PTB is not as hegemonic there as in Flanders. Above all, the appeal of the FGTB of Charleroi-Sud Hainaut and the echo it has received (notably in the CNE) allow hopes for a first step in the direction of a deep going recomposition of the workers’ movement, both at the political/electoral level and at the social/trade union level. This chance should be seized. That is why the LCR has worked for months on a proposal which responds to four objectives: the desire of the trade union left to set up a marker towards a unitary political alternative to the left of the PS and Ecolo , the legitimate concern of the PTB not to abandon its profile, the autonomy of other left formations and the desire of independent “personalities” to participate in the process.
Emergency anti-capitalist programme
Success will depend in the first place on the PTB. It has the cards in its hands. In Francophone Belgium, the “emergency anti-capitalist programme” of the FGTB of Charleroi-Sud Hainaut constitutes a solid contribution to the regroupment of forces. It is mainly on this basis that the LCR will take its responsibilities. We hope that others will do the same, because today it is the only way for the appeal of Daniel Piron and his comrades to receive an initial political and electoral form – and it is essential that it receives one, however imperfect. The LCR (and the SAP in Flanders) maintain their complete political independence in relation to the PTB. We will lead our own campaign by calling for a vote of preference for our own candidates who will defend our programme: anti-capitalist, internationalist, feminist, eco-socialist.
Some will claim perhaps that the “the LCR is kowtowing to the PTB” and so on. It is ridiculous. “They are them, we are us”. We prove it in solidarity with the Syrian revolution, in the fight against the trade union bureaucracy and patriarchy, in the defence of eco-socialism and the self-organisation of struggles. As the Flanders press release says: “the PTB and the SAP have a different vision on a number of questions”. At the same time, the PTB is changing, everyone can see it. We follow its evolution, hoping it will break with Mao-Stalinism without breaking with anti-capitalism… and without adopting the purely verbal pseudo-radical posture of the Greek or Portuguese CPs. But these questions, important as they are, will not stop us from loyally campaigning so that Raoul Hedebouw and Peter Mertens are elected to the Chamber… and all the better if they are not alone. Our wish: that this is the beginning of a new period of common left struggles.
[This statement by the LCR-SAP secretariat was published on November 15, 2013 on the LCR-La Gauche website.]
 The Parti socialiste belge (PS) and the Socialistische Partij Anders (Sp.a) are the two Belgian social democratic parties — since 1978 the two parties have had independent structures. Since December 6, 2011 they have been in a coalition government with the neoliberal right, led by Elio Di Rupo (PS).
 The Mouvement réformateur (MR) is a neoliberal cartel of the Francophone and Germanophone right which participates in the government of Elio Di Ruppo.
 The Centre démocrate humaniste (Cdh), formerly the Parti social-chrétien (PSC), is a Christian Democratic party that participates in the government of Elio Di Ruppo] that the next government would drastically reduce employers’ social security contributions. In reality, it is the social neoliberal policies of the PS and Sp.a which fuel the rise of the national neoliberalism of the NVA. (The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie is a right-wing Flemish pro-independence party, which has been the biggest party in the Belgian parliament since 2010.)
 The Parti du travail de Belgique — Partij van Arbeid van België (PTB-PVDA), of Maoist origin, obtained 1.55% of the vote at the federal elections of June 2010 and made significant advances at the communal elections of 2012, with 47 communal representatives and four provincial representatives elected (two in Antwerp and two in Liege).
 Ecolo is the Green party in Francophone and Germanophone Belgium, with eight federal deputies – its Flemish equivalent, Groen, has five deputies.
The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising,
by Gilbert Achcar, Saqi books, London
Review by Farooq Sulehria
Brushing aside a host of fashionable narratives to explain the Arab spring, Gilbert Achcar’s recent book, ‘The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising’ offers a radically different perspective.
Instead of over-optimistically glorifying the uprising or pessimistically ridiculing the temporary lull as ‘Arab winter’, he views the Arab spring as a protracted or long-term revolutionary process which may continue to unfold for another couple of decades. In fact, the recent coup in Egypt weeks was a timely endorsement of Achcar’s thesis on the Arab spring.
His prophetic analysis, informed by a Marxist outlook, springs from rigorous research and deep knowledge of Arab realities. Instead of offering Facebook explanations, demographic analysis or ascribing the latest Arab upheaval to middle class democratic aspirations, he identifies “the deep roots of the uprising” because “there can be no lasting solution to the crisis unless those roots are transformed”.
The breadth of the Arab spring shows that its causes are neither confined to the political realm nor limited to linguistic factors. In his view, revolution-by-contagion occurs when “there is favourable ground…a predisposition to revolution”. Even importantly: “Despotism by itself…can hardly be sufficient cause for the outbreak and subsequent success of a democratic revolution.”
One should look for the underlying socioeconomic factors to explain why the Arab spring “triumphed when it did: why 2011, after decades of despotism in the Arab region? Why 1789 in France, after a long history of Absolutism and peasant revolts? Why 1989 in Eastern Europe, rather than, say, 1953-56?”
To solve the puzzle, he delves into history. A series of European revolutions also caused ripple effects. These socio-political earthquakes were, in the words of Achcar, “triggered by the collision of the two tectonic plates” ie “developing productive forces and existing relations of production”. The latter, Marx thought, constitute “legal and political superstructures” with the state at its core.
While this contradiction between the rising bourgeoisie and feudal ‘superstructures’ – translating into revolutions – paved the way for Europe’s capitalist industrialisation, a precisely “comparable instance of the existing relations of production blocking the development of the forces of production was at the origin of the shock wave” that, according to Achcar, culminated in collapse of the USSR.
However, unlike juvenile Marxists, Achcar does not issue any sweeping judgements based on “Marx’s paradigmatic thesis on revolution” he himself invokes to explain European revolutions. This is because every crisis does not constitute a revolutionary situation. Similarly, every revolutionary situation does not lead to a revolution. Therefore, Achcar suggests to cautiously “derive variants” from Marxist thesis that are “less sweeping in historical scope” to describe the Arab spring.
Chalking out both revolutionary possibilities and limitation impregnating a system, he points out: “the development of productive forces can be stalled, not by the relations of production constitutive of a generic mode of production (such as the relation between capital and wage-labour in the capitalist mode of production), but, rather, by a specific modality of that generic mode of production. In such cases, it is not always necessary to replace the basic mode of production in order to overcome the blockage. A change in modality or ‘mode of regulation’ does, however, have to occur”.
To understand the Arab spring, Achcar considers it fundamental to determine if “such a blockage exists”. Consequently, he laboriously builds mountains of socioeconomic data showing the slow pace of economic growth, levels of poverty, dwindling welfare role in the Arab states since the 1970s onwards, effects of neo-liberal policies and foreign debt. Citing painstakingly-gathered data on socioeconomic indicators, he shows how of all the developing regions, the “Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is the one facing the most severe development crisis”.
Besides the failure of Arab nationalist forces paving the way for Infitah (opening) – a term president Sadaat introduced for a neo-liberal turn post-Nasser – Achcar ascribes the developmental crisis, or the ‘blockage’, to the character of Arab states.
He characterises the Mena countries either as rentier states (in the case of the oil-rich sheikhdoms), or patrimonial and neo-patrimonial states (Syria, Egypt, Tunis). However, an element of rentiership marks most Mena countries. The character of these states determines the form capitalism has taken there. From this rentier or neo-patrimonial character of these states flows, on the one hand, nepotistic and crony capitalism. On the other hand, the rentierist and neo-patrimonialist character of these states breeds phenomenal corruption.
Achcar describes the dominant section of private capitalism in the Arab countries as given to cronyism because state resources are exploited to benefit private ventures often run by the autocrat’s familial entourage or henchmen. This nature of Mena capitalism, springing from the rentier/neo-patrimonial character of the states, discourages growth even in the capitalist framework because the profits are not invested in the region.
For instance, in rentier states, the rent money accumulated by the kith and kin of the autocrats is staked in western stocks for quick profits. In neo-patrimonial states, the crony-corrupt character of capitalism impedes growth by eliminating ‘free-market’. In 2008 alone, the capital flight – “bribes, kickbacks, embezzlements, tax evasion, and trade mispricing” – from Mena was estimated at $247 billion. The nature of capitalism also determines the class composition of Mena countries. For instance, in oil-rich countries, labour has been imported and deported at convenience – leading to weak civil societies.
But Achcar does not reduce his analysis to economically-determined factors. He pays sufficient attention to historically-determined variables, creative possibilities offered by new information technologies to organise resistance, imperialist manipulations, colonial legacy, gender dimensions and the role of religion. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to understand the rather peaceful victories scored in Egypt and Tunisia and violence in the case of Libya and Syria.
Since the elements of civil society (unions, social movements, political forces, or historical traditions) in Tunisia and Egypt were able to put a brave resistance for the last ten-or-so years, the ‘final’ uprisings, thus, constituted an accumulative consequence. In Libya, the military-tribal domination meant a violent turn. In an equally nuanced way, he explores the cases of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
What Achcar contemptuously, but in a highly informed manner, dismisses is the tendency to understand the Arab spring via conspiracy theories whereby every twist and turn in the Arab world is ascribed to either Washington or Tel Aviv. “This idea reflects…a naïve belief in the omnipotence of the United States, a skewed vision of the Arab uprising’s impact on US interests and the Zionist state’s, and…deep contempt for the insurgent populations”.
Likewise, he takes up the cudgels with leftist ‘anti-imperialism’ that prioritises anti-American dictatorships (Syria, Libya, Iran) over the democratic aspirations of the working classes. On this question, he finds fault with Trotsky’s position in 1922 on Georgia to Hugo and Castro’s support for Qaddafi.
Described by the French daily Le Monde as “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world”, Achcar teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He has authored several books including the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust and Perilous Power. The latter is co-authored with Noam Chomsky.
This review was previously published in The News, a daily newspaper in Pakistan, for which Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
English based progressive parties, including Left Unity, should not organise in Ireland. Liam Mac Uaid explains why that’s a matter of principle for socialists.
There are about 1.5 million people in the north of Ireland. The place has an assembly with some devolved powers through which positions, patronage and money are shared along sectarian lines by a coalition of the junior partner Sinn Féin and the homophobic, climate change denying, creationist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The other parties in the Stormont assembly are the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, UKIP, NI21, the Green Party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). That’s nine parties with elected representatives in an area with a smaller population than Birmingham and those are only the ones which are successful in elections. The tally doesn’t include a range of other groups which either don’t stand in elections or don’t get enough votes under a proportional representation system which is much more democratic than the first past the post method used in England.
It’s hard to argue that people in the north of Ireland are unaware of the importance of political parties or elections.Voter turnouts tend to be much either than in England or Wales. As well as elections people get involved in politics through demonstrations, sectarian parades and, to some extent now, armed struggle.
One can reasonably argue that a choice between the DUP and TUV is no choice at all. It would not be wrong to point out that Sinn Féin is running the northern state on behalf of the London government, has been politically defeated and practises corrupt nepotism. A number of small radical organisations in Ireland make the same criticisms.
Understandably Irish radicals sometimes survey the country’s political landscape and despair. Some English radicals do the same and occasionally reach the conclusion that what the Irish need in their struggle for socialism is an organisation to give the Irish a chance to try “proper” politics, free from all that nonsense about flags and borders. We saw that reflex at the recent Left Unity (LU) conference where the original draft of the constitution contained a clause that would permit the new party to organise in the north of Ireland.
The offending section was removed by a majority vote but a significant minority was in favour of its retention. The pressure of a busy agenda stopped a meaningful discussion of the issue and it’s safe to assume that it was the first time many of the people in the room would have considered it. Why is it so important?
No one is likely to join Left Unity who’s in favour of imperialist war and occupying other people’s countries. However it is only the fact that the north of Ireland is a British colony that even makes it possible to consider the idea of LU organising there. That colonial relationship is secured by a large military presence and a willingness to use murder and violence to protect it. Claiming the right to organise in a colony if you are a party in the occupying country is nothing but an endorsement of your state’s territorial claim. If Left Unity had voted to allow branches in the north of Ireland it would have been explicitly supporting British imperialism’s territorial claim on Ireland. In the political jargon that is “social imperialism” or in more literary language, it’s another version of Kipling’s “white man’s burden”. Only the civilising potential of British socialism can save the ignorant Irish from themselves. It’s one of the most insidious justifications of imperialism and has been used by every war criminal from Julius Caesar to Tony Blair.
A consistently principled position for socialists in Britain is to oppose British imperialism. Most activists have no problem applying that simple rule to Iraq or Afghanistan. With the defeat of the mass movement against imperialism in Ireland it’s a golden rule that is semi forgotten. For many of Left Unity’s younger activists the idea that part of Ireland remains a British colony is one that they may not have heard before. It certainly won’t have had any relevance to their daily political practice.
Socialists in Britain might look at the multiplicity of political organisations in the north of Ireland and thoroughly disapprove. There’s no harm in that. The working class in the south of Ireland has passively suffered huge cuts in its standard of living and in the north they again seem obsessed with flags and trying to blow things up. Partition and imperialism have divided the Irish working class but it’s the responsibility of that class to create the instruments of its own liberation. Well-intentioned missionaries should stay away.
The devastation facing the people of Syria is appalling. After two and half years of war, there are over 100,000 dead, 2 million refugees that have fled the country and are registered with the UNHCR while another 5 million are ‘displaced’, all this out of a population of just 21 million. There appears to be no quick end in sight to the war.
It all started in the town of Daraa on the 6 March 2011 when young boys were arrested, tortured and killed for writing ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’ on walls across the city. The people of Daraa turned out into the streets to protest at this outrage, and demonstrations spread to cities across Syria, all demanding the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. These were immediately and severely repressed by the Syrian army who shot at and killed the unarmed protesters.
Like other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the revolt did not come out of nowhere. If it was the killing of the youth in Daraa which sparked off the revolt, it had been brewing for years. The Assad regime, like those of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia, has been implementing neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank. There is a massive level of poverty and unemployment, endemic corruption, and a despotic ruling elite that is enriching itself. Just as for the other countries of the region, the Left had to give its support and solidarity to those fighting repression and poverty.
The long-term underlying causes of the revolt in Syria are the same as in the rest of the region. If the first event that started the ‘Arab uprisings’ took place in Tunisia on 18 December 2010, the revolt spread rapidly to other countries, in particular Egypt with the occupation of Tahir Square. December 2010 was the beginning of a political revolution across the region that sought to oust old corrupt elites.
The unfolding of the revolutionary process took different forms in the various countries of the region. In Syria, Bashar al Assad refused to make any concessions and stepped up the repression. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia there was no significant break in the ranks of the regime, which would have allowed an alternative to emerge from within the system that would have diffused the revolt while maintaining the country within a neo-liberal framework.
After the Daraa protests, the regime escalated the repression across the country with the army and air force striking at towns that were in revolt and which had ousted the local representatives of the Assad regime. The local population had no choice but to organise to run their communities through the establishment of Local Co-ordinating Committees or Revolutionary Committees and to defend themselves against the military onslaught. The organisation of the military defence of the opposition to Assad developed into the loose network of Free Syrian Army. It is in this context that the Left should support the right of the people of Syria to defend themselves against the military assault of the Assad regime.
The responsibility for the militarisation of the political uprising lies entirely with Bashar al Assad. Towards the end of 2012, there was over 50,000 dead and more than 500,000 refugees. But in 2013, these figures had escalated dramatically. The long drawn-out character of the military conflict is due to the fact that the opposition has only been able to get just about enough arms to hold off the Syrian army. These have been obtained by raiding depots, from defectors, purchasing a few through adjacent countries, all supplemented by a trickle of small-arms from supporters in the Gulf States who directed them mainly to radical islamists. Neither imperialism nor its allies in the Gulf have supplied the anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns necessary to effectively stop the assault by the pro-Assad forces. This is partly because they do not trust the opposition, and also because of the fear that the toppling of the Assad regime may re-ignite the revolution for political democracy which started in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. The superior military resources from supporters in the Gulf States to the radical islamist organisations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida affiliates, is attracting volunteers and has given them an advantage over the Free Syrian Army.
Obama’s Yemeni solution
There should be no surprise that US imperialism and its allies such as Britain and France will want to subvert the uprising against the Assad dictatorship to suit their own strategic political objectives. There has been vigorous intervention by imperialism into every popular movement for democratic change since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and well before that. But the Left should be vigorously relating to these movements for democracy, extending its solidarity and warning them of neo-liberal solutions and imperialist intervention. In the Middle East and North Africa, imperialism wants to back regimes that can ensure a supply of oil and to protect Israel as its most loyal regional ally. At the end of the day, the US, Britain and France would rather see a brutal dictator loyal to their interests in power rather than an independent, democratic and popular government. That is why they supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq for so long, made their peace with Gaddafi, and provided financial and military aid to Egypt.
Since their military intervention in Iraq, the US and its allies have changed their tactics. The intervention was a military victory but the US and Britain were unable to achieve their political objectives. There are no US military bases in the country and the entire destruction of the Baathist regime has now left them with a government which is friendlier to Iran than to the US. Today, instead of seeking a total cleansing of the state in Syria, Obama wpuld prefer the ‘Yemeni’ solution: remove the main figurehead but leave the rest of the regime intact. In that way, things appear to have changed but actually remain the same. There would still be a strong repressive state able to prevent a movement for democracy overflowing in an uncontrollable manner and the country stays within the political and economic framework of neo-liberalism. Furthermore it maintains a ‘peaceful co-existence’ with Israel, as Assad senior and junior have done since 1967 when the Golan Heights were occupied. The deal to destroy chemical weapons, was negotiated after the regime used chemical weapons in the conflict, has been a disaster for the rebellion and a political coup for Assad. It has taken imperialist military intervention off the agenda and has legitimised the regime in a way that Assad could only have dreamt of a few weeks ago. He can now present his regime as complying with the wishes of the UN whilst conducting an all-out war against the rebellion and receiving all the arms he needs from Russia and its allies.
The deal was also a lucky break Obama, who seized it with both hands to rescue his presidency as the intervention was just as unpopular in the US as it was in Britain. Of course, a military intervention is still a possibility, but not at the moment.
The US, Britain and France are not alone in wanting as little change as possible in Syria. Russia is just as keen that the Assad regime is not ousted as it has its last naval base outside the former Soviet Union in Tartus. It also does not want the area to fall further under US political and economic hegemony. That is why it has been generously arming the Assad regime, allowing it to pound relentlessly the opposition held areas and to put the civilian populations under siege like the Russian army had done in Grozny. But condemning the Russian support for Assad cannot just be left to Russian socialists as John Rees, a leading member of the Stop the War Coalition and Counterfire, argues when he writes that ‘the best chance that the Syrian democratic movement has of success is if we successfully challenge our imperialists and Russian socialists and anti-war activists successfully challenge Putin’.
As well as Russia, Iran is also backing Assad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon are sending over fighters to back the regime. Of course the Left and the anti-war movement in Britain and elsewhere must in the first instance call upon their own government not to intervene in Syria. The failure of Cameron to get backing in Parliament for intervention alongside the USA is a tremendous victory and vindication of the anti-war movement established 13 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. But the Left and the anti-war movement cannot stay silent on the other foreign interventions backing the murderous Assad regime. Instead, it has to support the right of the people of Syria to determine their own future free from all foreign intervention.
Unfortunately, too many on the Left while despairing at the horror of the unfolding conflict in Syria are failing to cast a critical eye on the situation or even to accept facts. The conflict is dismissed by some as just a proxy war between the US and Russia, and others that it is simply a civil war. In every ‘civil war’ there is a conflict between political and economic interests that is a class conflict just like there was in the Spanish ‘civil war’. As Clausewitz – who was no Marxist – put it, ‘War is the continuation of Politics by other means’.
There is in Syria not just a political struggle for democracy which is part of the ‘Arab uprisings’, and a proxy conflict between US imperialism and a capitalist Russia, but there is also within the opposition to the Assad regime a struggle between the more progressive and secular elements – even if they have illusions in imperialism – and the radical islamist forces backed by some Gulf States. The latter conflict has at times taken a military form as they struggle for control of cities freed from the Syrian government. And there are of course small leftist and Marxist currents still in Syria fighting against Assad. There are too many credible reports about the more democratic functioning of some of the areas liberated from the Assad regime for these to be simply ignored. Instead, this should give us hope that a political revolution is still possible in Syria.
Zizek’s “Heart of Darkness”
One of the worst readings of Syria is by Slavoj Zizek who, in an article in the Guardian, describes it as an ‘obscure conflict’ where there are ‘no emancipatory forces’. This reading of the situation is far too reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, suggesting that Syria or other countries of the Middle East are a place of moral bankruptcy, wildernesses with ‘no emancipatory forces’. Zizek goes even further, but he is not the only one, when he writes that ‘Syria at least pretended to be a secular state’ implying that Assad is the lesser evil in the current conflict. This argument, which is demolished by Syria Freedom Forever,  is ‘campist’, that is supporting, or at least not being too critical of, regimes which are in conflict with imperialism. It is clearly argued by Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party, who ‘warned that tipping the military balance against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would not only remove a critic of US foreign policy and the illegal Israeli occupation of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese land. It would also strengthen sectarian fundamentalists who – like their Saudi and Qatari sponsors – oppose democratic rights for women and religious minorities’.
Another argument in justifying opposition only to US and British imperialism comes from Guardian journalist Seumas Milne. He argues that since the fall of the Soviet Union, a multi-polar world is a better place than one entirely dominated by US imperialism. Writing in the Guardian about the war in Georgia in 2008, Milne argued for ‘the necessity of a counterbalance in international relations that can restrict the freedom of any one power to impose its will on other countries unilaterally’. This line of argument also influences the Stop the War Coalition which put out a statement recently that ‘continued war threatens to change the face of the Middle East, by weakening the influence of Iran through attacking its allies such as the Syrian government and Hezbollah in Lebanon’. No-one has yet demonstrated that a multi-polar capitalist world is a safer or better place than a uni-polar one dominated by US imperialism.
The problem with this approach, described by some on the Left as ‘campism’, is that it looks at the conflict in Syria through a dynamic of conflicts between states rather than that of a social and economic conflict, in other words of class interests. None of the regimes or governments in the Middle East plays a ‘progressive’ role. All of them, to some extent or another, are repressive and are pushing the neo-liberal agenda, rolling out privatisation, failing to back the Palestinians, and each playing a part in the ‘war against terror’.
Tariq Ali also fails to look at the dynamic of the process and ignores the facts. In a recent article, he correctly argues that ‘mass uprisings on their own (do not) constitute a revolution’ and that the ‘mass uprising was genuine and reflected a desire for political change’, but he ignores the current internal struggles in the opposition and the reports from areas freed from the Assad regime. He denies that there is even a revolutionary process when he writes about Egypt that ‘the ancient régime (the army) is back in charge with mass support. If the original was not a revolution, the latter is hardly a counter-revolution’ and he argues against positions that no-one on the Left holds such as that ‘the idea that the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey backed by NATO are going to create a revolutionary democracy or even a democratic set-up is challenged by what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world’.
John Rees at least argues that ‘although there was an internal dynamic to the Syrian revolution it was increasingly prey to imperialist intervention which was both corroding the revolutionary process and increasingly shaping the direction of events in the region’. It is indeed true that the conflict has been militarised, but this is not just the responsibility of imperialism. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, has been relentless in its attempt to crush the opposition. But that in itself is not a reason to believe that the original character of the Syrian revolution has been totally eradicated. As Gilbert Achcar puts it in his interview, ‘there is an ongoing revolutionary process throughout the region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks – and sometimes ambiguous periods’. There has obviously been a massive set-back in Egypt with the recent military coup ousting the Morsi government. The retreat in the revolutionary process is also evident in Syria with the enduring military conflict between Assad and the opposition, in which Assad seems to be gaining ground and which if nothing changes, he will probably win with his army and air force amply supplied by Russia.
We denounce Assad
So how should the Left and the anti-war movement in Britain and elsewhere respond. Simply opposing Western intervention and stating as, the Stop the War Coalition does, that ‘the solution in Syria cannot lie in further militarising the conflict, but in attempts to achieve peace through negotiation’ is not sufficient as it ignores the future of Assad who has been described by the Coalition as having an ‘appalling record on human rights’. One of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has agreed to join a peace conference in Geneva if certain pre-conditions are met, in particular that Assad should have no role in the future of the country, but also that there should be an end to the fighting, the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from major cities and the urgent introduction of humanitarian aid. But participation in peace talks is contested by many others in the opposition who reject the dialogue in Geneva while Assad continues to commit war crimes in Syria.
The Stop the War Coalition was established 13 years ago not just to oppose Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to defend democratic rights in Britain and oppose racism and islamophobia. The anti-war movement in Britain should not take a view on who to back in Syria but it should support the right of the people of Syria to fight for their democratic rights, and to be allowed to determine their own future free from all foreign intervention, that of Britain first of all but also that of the US and Russia. The movement should also continue to denounce Assad for his ‘appalling record on human rights’.
The Left in Britain should also go further than what a broad-based anti-war movement can do. It should extend its solidarity to all those fighting for democracy in Syria, support their right to take up arms to defend themselves against Assad and to obtain the arms from wherever they can without conditions. The Left should clearly call for the ousting of the Assad regime and for a free and democratic Syria. The Left’s support for the opposition should not be done uncritically. They should be warned of the dangers of imperialist intervention and of backing neo-liberal economic and political solutions. Our warmest solidarity should be extended to those small forces on the Left in Syria such as the Revolutionary Left Current. But in the face of the desperate humanitarian crisis, the Left should also support material aid going to the refugees through appropriate organisations. This should not be dismissed as charity, but as an act of solidarity just like material aid for miners during their year-long strike in Britain or like the Viva Palestina aid convoys.
Fred Leplat, 14 November 2013
 Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, ‘U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid’, New York Times, 26 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/world/middleeast/us-seeks-russias-help-in-removing-assad-in-syria.html?_r=0
 John Rees, ‘Introduction to the Russian translation his of article Empire and revolution’, Counterfire , 23 September 2013, http://www.counterfire.org/theory/37-theory/16679-syria-empire-and-revolution-russian-introduction
 Martin Chulov, ‘American threats widen fault lines among Syria’s rebels’, The Guardian, 8 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/08/american-syria-rebels
 Slavoj Zizek, ‘Syria is a pseudo-struggle’, The Guardian, 6 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt
 ‘A response to Slavoj Zizek’, Syria Freedom Forever, 18 October 2013, http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/a-response-to-slavoj-zizek-syria-a-pseudo-struggle
 ‘Britain’s Communists oppose ‘disastrous attack on Syria’, Communist Party of Britain, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1829:britains-communists-oppose-disastrous-attack-on-syria&catid=132:press-statements&Itemid=167
 Seumas Milne, ‘Georgia is the graveyard of America’s unipolar world’, The Guardian,28 August 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/28/russia.usforeignpolicy
 Stop the War Coalition, http://www.stopwar.org.uk/campaigns/syria
 Tariq Ali, ‘What is a Revolution?’, Guernica – a magazine of arts and politics, 4 September 2013, http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/tariq-ali-what-is-a-revolution
 Reports in areas under opposition control, read Yasser Munif, ‘Syria’s revolution behind the lines – The story of the poor and rural town of Manbij’, Socialist Review, 1 November 2013, http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12410; Ewa Jasiewicz, Red Pepper, August 2013, http://www.redpepper.org.uk/you-are-now-entering-the-liberated-area-of-marrat-al-numan; and reports in Syria Freedom Forever at http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com
 John Rees, Counterfire, 23 September 2013,
 Interview with Gilbert Achcar, ‘Syria between Revolution and Counter-Revolutions’, Socialist Resistance, 2 October 2013, http://socialistresistance.org/5531/syria-between-revolution-and-counter-revolutions
 Stop the War Coalition, ‘Syria – Ten reasons why we oppose intervention’, http://stopwar.org.uk/leaflets/syria
 BBC News, 11 November 2013, ‘Syrian National Coalition agrees Geneva talks position’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24894536, and Al Jazeera, 12 November 2013, ‘Syria opposition sets preconditions for talks’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/11/syria-opposition-agrees-geneva-peace-talks-2013111111259120364.html
A joint public meeting of the Anticapitalist Initiative, International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance.
7pm Tuesday 23rd July at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY
(Nearest Tube: Goodge Street/Russell Square)
Recent changes on the British left have opened up the prospect for revolutionary regroupment for the first time in many years. They equally pose the question of a different type of unity that brings those from diverse radical traditions together. Can we form a plural, heterodox, and effective anticapitalist tendency in Britain? A panel of speakers from the International Socialist Network, Anticapitalist Initiative, and Socialist Resistance, will reflect on this question and report on the discussions that have already taken place amongst the three groups on revolutionary unity.
INTERESTED IN THIS NEW PROJECT? The process isn’t just about bringing together already organised socialists, but is equally about reaching out to the new layers of activists, and those have grown disenchanted with top down politics and are looking for something new. Contact email@example.com if you would like to find out more.
A supporter of the Morning Star/CPB, under the pseudonym ‘Michael Ford’, has written the most substantial rebuttal of the proposal to found a new Left Party – “Left Unity’s Modest Flutter”, posted on the LU site. Here Phil Hearse examines Ford’s arguments.
Weighing in at more than 9000 words Ford’s article assesses almost every conceivable objection, from the weighty to the absurd. By analyzing his critique in depth we can be more precise about what the case for a new party actually is and on what basis it can be built.
Ford’s key argument is that the ‘main organisations of the working class’ – by which he means Unite, Unison and the GMB – are waging a campaign to win back the Labour Party from Blairite neoliberalism. This campaign is counterposed to the idea of building a broad left, socialist, party on the basis of the hundreds of thousands mobilized in the struggles against austerity, in the trade unions, the mass campaigns and the movements of the oppressed. Since this document was drafted we have been given, in the row with Unite over Falkirk, a spectacular view of how the Labour leadership will respond to even the slightest attempt to weaken the iron grip of the party bureaucracy over the selection of candidates (and anything else significant for that matter). We return to this central question below, but first let’s look at some of Ford’s subsidiary arguments.
Your space is already taken…what about TUSC and Respect?
According to Ford “… there is no explicit recognition of the fact that several such Left electoral parties already exist in Britain today – Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the Socialist Labour Party on the electoral side of things; with Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland, as well as a variety of other far left parties, and not forgetting the Green Party which many people would certainly regard as ‘left’. So this is not a call for an occupation of presently empty territory.”
In fact Respect and the SLP disqualify themselves from any serious attempt to occupy the space to the left of Labour by their functioning as wholly owned subsidiaries under one man management. Arthur Scargill evicted any potential critics from the SLP in the mid-1990s and Respect is subject to the whim of George Galloway and his latest foot-in-mouth pronouncements. Neither has the capacity to embrace pluralist vision of socialism or become broad left parties and occupy the space to the left of Labour.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) cannot as presently constituted occupy the space to the left of Labour because it doesn’t have the ambition to; it is not a party but an electoral bloc in which the main forces are the Socialist Party and the RMT union. Left Unity has yet to decide its position on elections, but it is probable there is a big majority in favour of participating in elections and in that case it is quite likely that Left Unity will be involved in some sort of electoral agreement with the TUSC.
However a significant obstacle as far as the European elections are concerned is likely to be the TUSC decision, sanctioned by the RMT, the CPB/Morning Star and the Socialist Party, to re-run a “No to EU” campaign. In a situation where one of the main aspects of xenophobic reactionary mobilisation in Britain is knuckle-headed anti-Europeanism and little Englandism, this is a disaster. A “No to EU” campaign will have its voice confused with and overwhelmed by UKIP. Left opposition to the capitalist EU, and the fight for a democratic social Europe, cannot be posed in these terms and be electorally effective. It is a pity that the Socialist Party has been prepared to go along with it. (How a ‘left’ No to EU can chime in with xenophobic buffoonery was last week demonstrated by Dennis Skinner’s pathetic performance in the Commons, merely acting as an echo chamber for the Tory right).
But are the TUSC potential partners in creating a pluralistic Left party? To be honest you would have to say that it would require a period of more-or-less rapid political development before that was likely, but of course it should not be ruled out. For some of the forces involved therein the issues of feminism, pluralism and individual membership are likely to be obstacles. In the spirit of unity however it is not a matter of raising insuperable barriers but of political debate within the framework of joint action and campaigning.
As far as the Green Party is concerned this organisation certainly doesn’t occupy the political space Left Unity wants to occupy because of its politics. The Greens are no answer to the crisis of working class representation, despite the many socialists and progressives who operate within it. They are deliberately not a left wing or socialist party.
As far as Scotland is concerned it is my personal view that the new left party should not try to build in opposition to the existing Scottish Socialist Party and that comrades in Scotland who sympathise with Left Unity should join the SSP.
Overall none of the other left wing forces mentioned by Michael Ford are attempting to occupy the same space as Left Unity, none are trying to build a broad left party to the left of Labour (in England and Wales).
Michael Ford’s fundamental argument on the Labour Party is that, although it’s difficult, the most realistic strategy for socialists is to back the trade unions leaderships’ campaign to win Labour away from New Labourism. This campaign according to Ford is being waged by the leaderships of Unite, Unison and the GMB.
He argues that the major obstruction to socialist advance and defence of progressive gains is the low level of struggle and the defeats the labour movement has suffered, which are the social base of New Labour. He says there is no chance of breaking out of that other than prolonged work of reconstituting the labour movement and promoting progressive policies and unity within it. In this the trade union-Labour Party nexus is vital. He says:
“The key element is the orientation towards the labour movement, which is to say towards the working class and its organisations, rather than a form of substitutionism which, while acknowledging the role of the working-class in the abstract, avoids engagement with it in practice and instead exalts the role of individual progressives.”
(Just in parenthesis it is frankly just not true that the kind of people in Left Unity, often with decades of experience in the unions, community campaigns, women’s organisations and socialist politics acknowledge the working class in abstract and avoid engagement in practice. Neither do they on the evidence I have seen ‘exalt the role of individual progressives’ – rather the opposite. )
“Under circumstances of a stronger and developing working-class movement, can [the Labour Party] be turned into an instrument of deeper social advance – not a revolutionary party but one which can contribute towards opening up the way to socialism? The only honest answer at the moment is – who can say for sure? The main working-class organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode – the first, and successful, step, being to work for the election of the best of the possible leaders on offer, Ed Miliband. Since then, some progress has been made away from the worst positions of New Labour but it has undeniably been uneven and incomplete – pretending New Labour is dead is as wrong as pretending nothing has changed since 2010 (the Left Party position in effect). No-one can assert that it is likely that a 2015 Labour government will master the economic crisis in the interests of ordinary people, although it could certainly be an arena of struggle over its direction which could bring benefits in itself in terms of strengthening the movement, and could create circumstances for the working-class to recover a measure of confidence. That is the task that the major organisations of the class (Unite, Unison, GMB etc) have democratically set themselves and the chances of them now abandoning it in favour of a new Left Party are zero.” (My emphasis PH)
History is often unkind to political perspectives, but this approach suffered chronic damage within a few weeks of these lines being written. Highly symbolically Ed Miliband chose June 22 – the day of the Peoples’ Assembly – to disabuse everybody of the notion that Labour would restore any of the Tory cuts. In your dreams Leftists! To talk about Ed Miliband having an “uneven and incomplete” break with New Labour is obvious wishful thinking. A few days later when George Osborne revealed his spending plans for 2015 and beyond (cuts and even more cuts) it was no wonder that Ed Balls’ blustering performance in the Commons cut no ice at all – he had fundamentally nothing to say.
But most dramatic of course is the ongoing row between the Unite and the Labour leadership over candidate selection in Falkirk. Clearly Len McCluskey, to who Ford is very close politically, really wanted to use the trade union recruit mechanism to influence the selection of candidates, in a situation let us not forget, where the party leadership before the last election imposed an iron grip and virtually appointed its own chosen right wing candidates from the centre.
In response to this attempt, Ed Miliband demonstrated the ‘unevenness’ and ‘incompleteness’ of his break with Blairism by suspending the union join mechanism, reporting Unite to the police, suspending Karie Murphy, the Unite-backed candidate in Falkirk, and Stephen Deans, the chair of Falkirk CLP, from the party and launching a witch hunt against McCluskey and Unite. The Labour leadership and the dominant right wing will absolutely not allow any significant shift to the left: and they have complete control over the bureaucratic apparatus to impose their will.
Ed Miliband as “the least worst choice available” and the person to lead the labour movement away from New Labour has been the dampest of squibs. Not only has that train left the station but the station itself has been closed down. On a raft of political issues including civil liberties, immigration and foreign policy, Miliband is right slap bang in the middle of New Labourism. From the point of view of representing the working class and promoting progressive advance, Labour is a political corpse.
Ford claims the “major organisations of the class (Unite, Unison, GMB)” have set themselves the task of reclaiming the Labour Party away from New Labourism is questionable on two fronts – a) are they really trying to do that? b) is there any hope of success?
This is not a matter of reading statements by union leaders, but of looking at their real strategies and how they approach the industrial struggle. Unite’s Len McCluskey is serious about trying to push the Labour leadership leftwards, has attempted to use the union’s weight to get left candidates and has given limited support to industrial action; but for Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of GMB this is mainly a matter of protest gestures.
Worse, the union tops, other than the teaching unions (partially) and the PCS’s Mark Serwotka wound down the 2011-12 wave of strike actions over pensions and other cuts. In other words the union leaderships have precisely undermined the mass strike movement which is the type of action that will remoralise the labour movement and rebuild it. Their futile strategy works like this: they think the only possibility of any defence of members’ conditions and the welfare state is the re-election of a Labour government pushed to the left. They absolutely do not believe in mass industrial action as the key to defeating austerity, indeed they believe it may harm Labour’s electoral chances. But once the Labour leadership declares ‘no deal’ on reversing cuts and restoring the welfare state the union tops are left empty-handed.
You have to make an historical judgement of what has happened to Labour. It is now 30 years since Neil Kinnock became leader and initiated the witch hunt against the Militant tendency and others on the left. Thirty years of moving right and championing finance capital and American imperialism as well as dumping the welfare state, including 13 years of vicious right wing government. Of course Labour never was a socialist party, but the prospects in any foreseeable future of it regenerating as even a party of mild welfarism must be counted as practically zero.
Category malfunction: Allowable and non-allowable parties
Michael Ford is obsessed with political parties that ought not to exist and whose very presence on the political scene is disruptive – into which category he scathingly condemns most of the European left to the left of social democracy, including parties like Syriza, Die Linke and even the French Left Front.
There is little recognition in what he writes that these parties represent a significant step forward that is able to represent – in a partial, uneven and contradictory way –the interests of the working class and the oppressed against the politics of austerity and destitution that neoliberalism represents. Sectarian rejection of these formations is a political disaster and a sign of mechanical and schematic thinking. Assessing the social and political impact of these broad left parties using a pre-existing template (especially one inherited from the 1930s) fails to see the positive role that a break with neoliberalism in the political domain has on the morale and the combativity of the working class and the oppressed.
This is the weakness of critiques of Left Unity that say, well of course it is struggle that will defeat austerity and neoliberalism, and not the building of political parties. The new left parties, whatever their weaknesses, disrupt the monopoly of mainstream political discourse enjoyed by the neoliberals and the bourgeoisie. Of course the direct class struggle is the key part of it, but those fighting neoliberalism and the system need to be given political voice capable of getting a wide hearing.
As far as Left Unity is concerned, Michael Ford considers that its programme is merely ‘normal’ social democracy. His is disdainful of new critiques of Leninism being put forward by some in Left Unity: real Leninism, to which he himself appears committed, is what was (and is?) on display in the ‘international communist movement’. For Michael Ford Leninism is, really speaking…Stalinism.
So for Ford the allowable parties are the significant parties supported by the working class and the properly ‘Leninist’: which in Britain conveniently fits into the Labour Party and the CPB/Morning Star. In assessing the possibilities of Labour eventually being returned from the undead to a vehicle of social progress he adds the significant codicil that it’s unlikely “on its own”. This of course harks back to The British Road to Socialism, the programme of the Communist Party since the early 1950s, which posited the transition to socialism starting with a parliamentary victory of a left Labour government supported by Communist MPs.
Given Ford’s major strategic idea, the left reconquest of the Labour Party in alliance with sections of the trade union leaderships, other parties are unnecessary, inconvenient and maybe even sabotage the kind of unity that is needed. They must also be decried with as much tendentious rubbish as possible. Which is where the accusation of social democracy comes in.
According to Ford “the political ‘centre of gravity’ of the new left party will be – opposition to austerity, support for welfare ; opposition to racism, support for equality; democratic, pluralist, green etc”. In fact the founding programme of Left Unity is likely to go well beyond this. In any case this list of ambitions in modern conditions could never possibly be achieved without significant inroads into the power and wealth of capital.
There is absolutely no chance of the Left Party being anything other than a socialist, anti-capitalist party. But there is also no chance of a Left Party being successfully established without it being a pluralist arena where different conceptions of socialism can exist. The role of central planning, co-operatives, private companies and the market are all likely to be hotly contested. The party will have to be broad enough to encompass the many thousands of people hostile to neoliberal capitalism, who want alternatives based on equality and social justice, but who are not yet ready to give their affiliation to a particular brand of socialism, or even call their radicalism ‘socialist’ at all. This is particularly applicable to young people whose political formation has taken place in an epoch where socialism appeared off the political map.
Most of all, quite unlike social democratic parties a new left party based on modern socialism has to be open to the aspirations and movements of the specially oppressed, in particular to feminism.
The conditions of foundation
In the middle of a lot of debate, one of the gratifying things about Left Unity is that people are just getting out there and setting it up, involving a lot of diversity and different political backgrounds, but also people who have never been involved in a party-type organisation before and are new to politics.
By basing itself on the anti-austerity activists, rank and file trade unionists, campaigners for women’s rights and the disabled, as well as radicalised youth and students, Left Unity is ‘ignoring or bypassing’ the leaden schemas of the past on how a new left party could emerge. In the past some of us thought a new left party would require a split in the Labour Party; or dramatic advances in the class struggle in which the working class and its allies scored massive gains; or the emergence of a militant trade union leadership prepared to give direction to the formation of a new party.
Any of those scenarios would of course be a tremendous advance of what we have now. But the conditions which demand we fight for a new party cannot be of our own choosing and design. We are compelled to fight for a new party from the bottom up. It takes some leap of the imagination to believe that this is a less realistic option that fighting to ‘reclaim’ Labour.
Terry Conway explains how the ideas of American socialist Sharon Smith have developed in relation to feminism.
Sharon Smith’s article “Domestic Labour and Women’s oppression” in International Socialist Review 88 is a breath of fresh air, particularly when compared with Sheila McGregor’s article “Marxism and women’s oppression today” in International Socialism 130.
The most significant difference, evident in the opening lines of both articles, is one of approach, of method. While McGregor starts her piece by bringing together a rather well-rehearsed of facts about the reality of working class women’s lives in Britain today, Smith tries to situate her piece in relation to others’ theories of domestic labour.
Smith seems unafraid in her forthright delineation of the contradictions of Marx and Engels approach to the ‘women’s question’ while situating herself clearly within a Marxist approach. Her summing up of those contradictions is worthy of the way she herself describes what historical materialism offers: “As a living and breathing theory, Marxism can and must continue to develop in relation to a changing world”.
Smith goes on to talk about the way that the rise of second wave of feminism from the 1960s onwards challenged a whole raft of ways in which the ‘founding fathers’ of the communist movement failed to . The Women’s Liberation movement not only developed new practice but wove new theoretical insights.
I found Smith’s discussion of the differences between Marx and Engels on a number of questions particularly interesting. Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State is a book I have read time and time again over the years of my activity as a Marxist feminist – and each time it sticks in my craw the way his vision of relationships under socialism is confined to ‘individual sex-love’ between men and women – idealising monogamy and ignoring the possibility of non-heterosexual relationships and just as problematically implying that monogamy is a protection for women – presumably because we are ‘naturally’ less sexual than men!
It’s always been to Alexandra Kollontai that I have looked for more inspiration on the question of personal relationships not Engels. But now Sharon Smith has suggested that I should also explore the writings of Marx, who unlike his colleague does not assume that the monogamous family is the pinnacle to which human relationships can aspire or that it will inevitably survive a transition to socialism.
Much of the rest of what Smith has to say here is fairly familiar territory to one like myself who read and discussed much of the ‘social reproduction’ writings of socialist feminists in the 1970s and 1980s – well summarised and explained – but not particularly groundbreaking.
Why are her views important?
So why write about this? Haven’t there always been critical Marxist feminists saying these sort of things? It’s certainly true, and Smith herself acknowledges that much of what she argues in this piece is part of a line of argument developed since the 1960s by many different socialist feminists. What makes her contribution particularly worthy of note is not its content – though I think that is insightful and well formulated – but who she is and the context in which she is arguing.
Sharon Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), a revolutionary organisation in the United States which until 2001 was a member of the International Socialist Tendency – the international current with the British Socialist Worker’s Party at its centre. In 2001 they were expelled from that current – supposedly for not being enthusiastic enough about the antiglobalisation movement in the run up to Seattle – but in fact, I would argue for being a little too interested in thinking about and acting to transform the concrete political reality in which they found themselves. In another article, Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation (published at the end of January 2013 but based on a talk given in 2012.) Smith is direct and explicit about where she now disagrees with some important arguments on the women’s question put by her previous co-thinkers.
As in the previous piece I have discussed Smith pays tribute to the gains of the women’s liberation movement – but also here to the Black Power and Gay Liberation movement. She makes a sustained explanation of why all women, regardless of class (or race) suffer as a result of sexism, although obviously working class women are at the bottom of the pile.
She is fiercely critical of some arguments put forward by some feminists – and I think it’s unfortunate that she conflates a polemic against bourgeois feminism – which I would describe as the idea that women’s liberation can be achieved under capitalism – with the term middle-class feminism. I don’t have the scope in this piece to explore the question of what mean by middle class in depth – but in the context where millions of women sell their labour power in insecure and badly paid jobs in sectors such as teaching, health and social care which were certainly considered middle class when I was growing up I’m not sure this is helpful. It’s not that I would give any more credence to the arguments of women like Naomi Wolf than Smith does – just that I don’t think that is a helpful characterisation.
There are other things in Smith’s arguments I don’t completely buy into – I think for example she dismisses the arguments of ‘dual systems’ feminists too quickly in a way that undermines what she has previously argued about feminism being a movement not based on class but nevertheless with a huge amount to contribute – and I would argue to teach the left as a whole.
She does go on to talk about the way that socialist/Marxist feminism has been sidelined and ignored both by those hostile to the left within the women’s liberation movement and those hostile to feminism within the left. She pays a welcome tribute to some of those whose work has impacted on her – notably Lise Vogel and Martha Giminez – both of whom should be on any recommended reading list of socialist feminism
The most important part of this article comes when she sets out what she has now re-examined about her former co-thinkers:
“Unfortunately, not all Marxists have, at all times, understood the need to defend feminism, and to appreciate the enormous accomplishments of the women’s movement, even after the 1960s era gave way to the backlash. This includes some in our own tradition, the International Socialist tradition, who, I would argue, fell into a reductionist approach to women’s liberation a few decades ago.”
“What is reductionism? In its purest form, reductionism is the notion that the class struggle will resolve the problem of sexism on its own, by revealing true class interests, as opposed to false consciousness. So this approach “reduces” issues of oppression to an issue of class. It’s also usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interests of men in doing away with women’s oppression–without taking on the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class?”
This description of reductionism I think well sums up an approach common in many writings from the Socialist Worker’s Party which are partly responsible for a situation where some people in that organisation were prepared to see the description ‘creeping feminist’ as an insult!
Should we invite someone from the M5S (Five Star Movement) to speak about how they built their movement in Italy?
This was an interesting and relevant question raised towards the end of our recent local Left Unity meeting writes Dave Kellaway. I suggested that we need to think more about this since the M5S does not define itself as on the left or indeed as a party. It’s mantra is that ‘we are non-party and we are above other parties, neither on the right or the left’. Indeed when the 100 odd MPs took their seats in the Italian parliament they deliberately tried to sit in the upper rows of the semi-circle. Nevertheless the M5S is a political phenomenon.
Just three years since its official formation and electoral scores below 5% it recently became the joint biggest party in Italy in the February general elections. Its breakthrough was foreshadowed in the election campaign with its ability to fill the squares throughout Italy, something the left used to able to do. Today it is riding high since it is highly probable that the new government will be very similar to the previous Monti-led national pro-austerity government. Berlusconi’s right of centre party (PDL) and Bersani’s left of centre Democratic party(PD) lost millions of votes to Grillo and to abstention in February amid a general anger against austerity and the political caste. Despite that the new government will be very similar to the previous one where the right and the so-called mainstream left will support a pro-Troika, pro-austerity government. To quote Leopardi: ‘ everything had to change for nothing to change’.
Beppe Grillo and his movement have refused to have anything to do with such a government, refusing alliances with either ‘the PDL or the PD without the L’ who are both accused of sustaining a corrupt political caste that has prevented real change for 20 years. Symbolising this immobility is the way Napolitano (only 88 years old!) has been brought back for an unprecedented second presidential mandate so that he can cook up the same national government that he did with Monti fourteen months ago. The M5S, Vendola left-wing SEL party and many of the rank and file PD membership supported Stefano Rodota for president as a means of preventing what most ordinary people in Italy see as another ‘stitch-up’. Activists are so angry that they surrounded parliament at the weekend to shout abuse at their MPs – including in restaurants. Hundreds, particularly the youth, have occupied the local PD offices around the country. The PD has managed to hand Grillo a golden opportunity to be the only opposition to a Monti-mark 2 government. Needless to say there is open warfare in the PD over its future direction. It may split or the pull of its apparatus and resources may keep the currents together in an uneasy but paralysing truce.
So what are the things we can learn from Grillo and the M5S?
- Be bold and understand the depth of the crisis of political representation on the right and the left.
Here it is the refrain one hears when canvassing – they are all the same why bother to vote. The expenses scandal and the utter hopelessness of Miliband’s opposition, where he refuses to say if he will restore the cuts and he accepts the main post -Thatcher framework of privatisation and anti-union laws, means the control of the Labour party on the vote of working people is weak. The rise of UKIP, the nationalist parties , the Greens and Respect’s breakthrough in Bradford all show this. Even if there is a slight swing back to Labour to kick out the Tories at the general election it will be a lesser evil vote without great belief or enthusiasm. The structural weakening of the industrial heartlands and the consequent decline in trade unions and working class cultural institutions further loosens Labour’s dead grip. Despite our anti-democratic electoral system parties to the left of labour can make an impact. The very recent polls has shown Labour is not surging ahead but coasting .
- Social media can help develop political support and a distinct political culture.
The Grillo blog is in the top ten sites in the world and the biggest political site in the Italy by many miles. Beppe Grillo, as a comic, was banned from the TV and his movement refuses to allow its MPs to appear on political talk shows. Yet this has not stopped the irresistible rise in the polls. After meeting internet guru, Casaleggio, he understood earlier than other politicians that more and more people use the internet for information and discussion. It provides the movement with a gigantic counter-information site alternative to the mainstream media. Although as we will see below it lends itself to a very limited form of democracy it certainly allows the M5S to materially oppose its system-changing world view to the consensus of the media in which all the other political parties operate.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the big picture.
We may disagree about the programme , tactics or strategy of the M5S but it certainly speaks about the need for a major change. Its most popular slogan is ‘tutti a casa’ about sending all the politicians home, of a total democratic change. In fact we need to understand the usefulness of radical democratic demands alongside the anti-austerity or economic ones. Limiting politicians to two terms of office, radically cutting their pay and expenses, regular accountability albeit through the internet, and against the list systems where the parties decide everything are all very popular, mobilising issues in Italy.
- Build long term mobilisations over matters that affect people, including ecological questions.
Electoral success follows successful campaigning on the nitty-gritty issues. The M5S were active in supporting locally-based campaigns against water privatisation, on US military listening posts, on the expansion of incinerators and building the High Speed rail link through the Val de Susa. Beppe Grillo was using his blog for years exposing corruption by politicians and the big companies. He criticised the financial irregularities endemic in the system years before the banking crash and has put ecological questions at the centre of its activities.
- Use humour, use our imagination to mobilise people in new ways.
You can get used to the norms of the political game so even people on the left frown on vulgarity or being too brutally critical of the mainstream parties. People sneered or condemned the Va Fa (Go F..K yourself) days, which really began to make the Grillo phenomenon a mass movement a decade ago. There was a little of that over the Thatcher funeral where the vulgarity and bad taste eventually saved the honour of the left over the rewriting of history during those weeks. Even radical left activists probably underestimate the visceral anger that is out there. It is not populism to try and relate to that. However we have to produce slogans and demands that hit people between the eyes or in their stomachs. We need our own 5 point programme that people can access and retain easily.
But what does Grillo get wrong?
- He reduces the problem of the economic and political crisis to radical democratic demands.
It is as though cleaning up parliament would necessarily challenge the power of capital and the establishment which operates in a relatively autonomous way from political institutions. His economic programme is very weak. Despite correctly calling for a citizens’ safety net income in Italy (which does not have even our Welfare state benefits) he tends to talk about leaving the Euro or giving more support to small and medium sized businesses as a solution. His championing of Rodota as a left choice for President was tactically astute but reflected illusions that a Rodota presidency would fundamentally change the political situation on austerity or the other big questions.
- The M5S does not identify the independent self-organisation of working people as the key to changing the system.
This is logical since his analysis of Italian society is that once everything is more democratic and less corrupt the essential economic motor can be run more efficiently. Although denouncing the corruption and atrocious management of Italian capital he does not have any theory of class exploitation which can explain the current crisis. Consequently it has sometimes denounced trade unions as being tied into the partocracy or political caste and sometimes linked up with the more radical trade unions such as the FIOM metalworkers. We in Left Unity should reject any notion of one nation and base ourselves on the self-organisation of working people who are in an antagonistic relationship to the people who own the wealth within the nation.
- The M5S movement itself is not democratically organised.
To be sure the M5S it trumpets the slogan that within its ranks that ‘one equals one’. However this is limited to voting online on a number of policies or positions that are not discussed in any democratic political structures. There are no congresses or conferences in which different political positions or currents can really exist. Indeed at the merest sign of dissent from representatives there are organisational threats of expulsion subsequently carried through. If you compare the primary elections for candidates in the M5S with the ones organised in the PD it is difficult to argue that the former were more democratic. It is calculated that some current MPs were selected with only a few thousand votes. It is entirely logical of course, if you do not define yourself as party then the traditional idea of the cut and thrust of political debate with organised currents feels out of place. The democracy is vertically between the leadership team around Grillo and the hundreds of thousands of members registered on the site. What this does show is that merely using the internet as an organising tool does not necessarily result in a transparent democratic party.
- Parties, even not-Parties led by the ‘genius’ of great men, can never provide a longlasting political alternative for working people.
Beppe Grillo is not a fascist – you can see numerous declarations on his website and observe his practical politics to see that is not the case – and nobody serious in Italy uses that term. However he is a populist who is vital to the growth and continued strength of his movement. Although frozen out of the TV he constantly gave theatrical or stadium performances that build up his recognition over the years. He is the biggest draw in town. He does consult and often studies what experts have to say but he also often makes up the political line on the hoof. So recently he was for calling all his supporters to Rome to protest the latest stitch up on the Presidency and then like the Duke of York, he called it off.
- Finally the movement has little to say about involving women, ethnic minorities and gay people in the leadership or structures of the movement.
It is not a concern although there are large numbers of women active in the M5S. The modernity of using the internet does not always result in progress on the widest political involvement. Certain off the cuff remarks by Grillo have not been particularly progressive on either gays (the question was gay marriage) or on the rights of migrant children born in Italy. This does not mean to say that M5S as a movement has reactionary positions on these matters. Part of the problem is that there is not a detailed programme that includes all these questions.
In conclusion it is worth studying new political movements which have such a startling rise and impact. Even if there are not classic left or labour movement oriented currents they can demonstrate some positive and negative political lessons.