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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Phil Hearse made this submission to the April 2013 Socialist Resistance conference. The position it sets out was accepted by the organisation and we’ll be making more of the conference material available shortly. A number of videos can be found here, including greetings from the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, Green Left, the International Socialist Network and Left Unity.
Comrades, we face major opportunities in the next period to help work towards a new broad left party and a refounded Marxist regroupment in this country. The left – and its far left component in particular – is undergoing a profound shake up, the precise contours of which none of us can yet see. The left that comes out of the next two years in England and Wales will look very different to the way its looks now. Our task is to grab that opportunity with both hands.
On the train out of Clapham Junction station you can see the big PCS building on which hangs a huge banner: “Austerity isn’t working, support out alternative”. When even George Osborne’s old buddy, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde is saying the austerity is going too far in the UK, the need for an alternative is obvious. But Labour promises nothing – not a single pledge about the future will they give. Most people don’t know what the PCS’s alternative is: a radical alternative is all but absent from the national political framework.
Ken Loach didn’t launch ‘an appeal’ for a broad left party, it was just an opinion in an Open Democracy interview that an SR supporter put on their website, and it was picked up by Andrew Burgin for Left Unity in a very intelligent way. It was made ‘an appeal’ by popular acclaim. The fact that now more than 7000 people have signed shows the political space that has been opened and which Left Unity has walked in to, without major national political figures heading it up. That’s a disadvantage but also an advantage – Respect was always too beholden the vagaries of George Galloway. But we can now say we have a much better platform to fight for a broad left party.
There is still a long way to go to move towards a real national political party type formation – whether it will call itself a ‘party’ is open for debate and not the crucial issue. The crucial question is how it operates – democratically and not by top down diktat, open to the social movements and mass campaigns and of course standing in local elections. But one thing must be clear from the outset. You must build a national political framework with a name that is known and used in elections. Infinite fronts, committees and local alliances don’t get you that national profile and national recognition.
In any case how does fighting for a broad left party chime in with revolutionary regroupment? Some people will say once you have a broader framework, then why do you need a Marxist organisation? I disagree with that unless you have something like the early SSP experience in which the decisive section of the broad party leadership are the Marxists themselves. The old Militant Labour decided to set up the International Socialist Movement inside the SSP, but it flopped. Everybody asked: why do we have to go to two meetings a week to discuss the same issues? Of course that’s a nice problem to have in some ways, but it wouldn’t work in England and Wales with a really broad party. Then the organisation of a Marxist trend would be an inevitable and vital development.
It is obvious that there is an objective convergence going on with the ACI and the ISN saying a lot of the same things that we are about revolutionary organisation today. But this moment won’t last: organisations that don’t come together soon find reasons for staying apart.
You could say that Socialist Resistance has prefigured the critique of sclerotic archaeotrotskyism for a long while, but that’s only partly true. It’s true that many of the things said by the AI and ISN have been themes in our politics for a long time – internal democracy, feminism, a less sectarian attitude to the rest of the left – in fact going back to the Fourth International documents on women’s liberation and Socialist Democracy at the 1979 world congress. But other comrades, particularly crystallised in the book by Luke Copper and Simon Hardy (1) have deepened this critique and allowed us to see the crisis of the sect formation in a new and more profound way. They have helped develop our thinking on these things as well.
An exciting prospect
I think that we should adopt the algebraic formula ‘for Marxist unity’ or ‘a united democratic revolutionary organisation’, but the arithmetic content we should for the moment advance is a unification of the AI, ISN and SR as a platform within the Left Unity. A united democratic revolutionary tendency would be a major force for opening up the path to a new broad left party and would be a permanent rebuke to the sects. It would have a powerful attraction within the far left and hopefully be much more capable of opening up a dialogue with radical youth. This is an exciting prospect: it would open up the road to a major renewal of left and revolutionary forces.
It’s a big pity that Counterfire for the moment has not evinced any enthusiasm for Left Unity or for the regroupment process. In the longer term their view can change if the regroupment process takes off. And of course we will be continuing to work with them in the Coalition of Resistance and Stop the War. We should also be supportive of the Firebox initiative and publicise Neil Faulkner’s book (2) etc.
But of course there will be subjective problems at a national and local level. Comrades who’ve been in competing organisations often developed less that comradely personal relations, and indeed the snarling, dismissive and cynical factionalism of the sects is a way their leaderships wall of their members from competing groups and ideas. We have to get over this and see the bigger picture. In particular we have to get over any temptation to have a superior or lecturing attitude because we saw some of these problems earlier.
If we did start thinking about some of these things earlier than others, by the way, it was mainly because of our links with the Fourth International. Our discussions were always heavily influenced by international experiences, for example the Left Bloc in Portugal, the PT and then the PSOL in Brazil, the Communist Refoundation and Sinistra Critica, the RMP is the Philippines etc. I think we should also say the some of us, like me in particular, spent too much time in the 80s and early 90s criticising what comrades elsewhere were doing (although on some questions we were obviously right). In any case we need to change our mindset on the Fourth International profoundly. We should stop regarding this treasure trove of experiences, this invaluable network of revolutionary cadres internationally as our personal property as far as Britain is concerned. The experiences of revolutionary militants internationally in the framework of the Fourth International should become of the common patrimony (matrimony?) of all those committed to building a democratic Marxist unity, not a badge of honour through which we divide ourselves off from others and recruit to ourselves.
The youth camp in Greece is a good opportunity to start this process by the way. I know comrades from the ACI are going and I hope people from the ISN will go as well.
1) Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy, Beyond Capitalism?, Zero Books 2012
2) Neil Faulkner, A Marxist History of the World, Pluto Press 2013
Thursday May 2nd 2013 will see local elections for councils in parts of England. Harry Blackwell sets out his own views on the significance of these elections for the left, reviews recent council by-election results for left candidates and looks forward to the elections of 2014, the last big ones before the General Election in 2015.
Local Elections matter
In the highly centralised British state, most political power rests with central government and parliament with the partial exception of recent devolution to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies/parliaments. Over the decades of successive Labour, Tory and now Coalition governments, the democratic structures, powers and responsibilities of local councils have been progressively reduced and this has resulted in a corresponding decrease in turnout and interest.
However, local elections do remain important. Despite their emasculation by central government, local councils do still have some abilities to make decisions on local matters and they can act as a barometer of local opinion. For political parties, they provide the opportunity to mobilise voters outside of a General Election period. For left wingers, they provide the opportunity to present an alternative approach to local and national issues alike. Local wards give us the opportunity of building support from the ‘bottom up’. Unlike parliamentary or European elections or even the recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, there are no financial deposits or barriers to standing candidates in local elections – typically you only need ten signatures of local people to get a candidate on the ballot paper.
Local government used to be a bastion of Labour influence, especially when they were out of central power. For example, despite losing the General Election in 1951 (though with more votes than the Tories, under distorted first past the post system), Labour swept the board in its ‘high water mark’ in the 1952 local elections and for the only time ever won over 50% of the popular vote in an illustration of the continuation of “The Spirit of ‘45”, so well depicted in Ken Loach’s recent film. During the decade of ‘Thatcherism’ in the 1980s, councils from the GLC to Liverpool provided a potent symbol of resistance. Today the Labour Party in office in local councils is committed to implementing the cuts and policies of the Coalition government and fails to organise resistance to the biggest onslaught on the welfare state ever seen.
The ‘Tory Shires’
The campaigns for the council elections on Thursday 2nd May 2013 have recently been launched by all the parties and nominations are now closed. Due to the succession of piecemeal reforms over the decades, English local government is now a patchwork quilt of different council types and responsibilities, each with their own timetable for election. This makes it difficult to gauge nationally what is going on. The main elections will be for councils covering a large minority of the English electorate – the so-called ‘Shire Counties’, of which there are 32 county councils. There will also be an election for one third of the seats in Bristol and for just one council in Wales (Anglesey), together with mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside.
There were efforts during the 1960s to reform completely the overall local government structure through a Royal Commission. This recommended a system of large scale ‘unitary’ authorities based on cities and their hinterlands. The policy was accepted by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government at the time, but despite this the incoming Tory government of Ted Heath looked out for their own vested interests and retained what have continued to be called the ‘Tory Shires’. The majority of cities and urban areas were kept outside of the ‘shires’. So, there are no elections in most of the major cities this time – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and so on, will all sit this election out. Furthermore, successive changes to structure over the last decade have produced an even more bewildering array of modified shire councils, some of them based on rural areas forming a ‘donut’ around larger cities. So, for example, next month there are elections in Nottinghamshire, but not in Nottingham; elections in Leicestershire, but not in Leicester; elections in Hampshire, but not in Southampton and Portsmouth, and so on. Some county councils have smaller, less significant, local district councils under them – a so-called ‘two tier system’, which at least gives some degree of electoral plurality – but some are now unitary, responsible for all council services in their areas.
The removal of many of the urban centres from some of these shire counties has produced an even larger Tory majority in many of them. Coupled with this is the fact that the last time these councils were elected was in 2009, during the dog-days of the discredited Brown Labour government when Labour support was in free-fall. Labour was humiliated and only held one council and a massively reduced number of seats in many areas. Of the more than 2,000 seats up for election in 2009, Labour won only 178, coming a poor third nationally behind the Liberal Democrats. The likelihood for 2013 therefore is that Labour will make some modest gains, and possibly win back three or four of the councils that they lost in 2009 (Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire are the most likely). However, Labour purely sees this election in terms of preparing for the General Election – there is no sense from them of a movement of opposition or resistance to Coalition policies.
There is little likelihood of significant Labour gains in places like Buckinghamshire and Surrey, where the Tory monopoly is likely to be fought out in a depressing three way battle between Tory, Liberal Democrat and a newly invigorated UK Independence Party. Buoyed by their recent by-election successes, UKIP could do well and are standing a very large body of candidates for the first time in English local elections. A strong showing by UKIP would be interpreted as a shift to the right in the Tory heartlands.
Left prospects in May
However, there will some left candidates challenging the establishment consensus in some of the more urban areas.
The Green Party will be contesting over one third of the seats nationally and will be fighting hard to defend the small number of seats that they won in 2009 in places like Norwich, Lancaster and Oxford. It will be an uphill battle though – in their stronghold of Norwich, the leader of the Green group on Norfolk County Council defected to the Tories in 2011, and is standing again to win back his seat under his new colours. The Greens have won the possibly dubious backing of a former (disgraced) Labour MP in Norwich. The Greens much criticised record in Brighton Council (which is not up for election this year), where they run a minority administration and have implemented cuts, have sadly tainted their record for principled opposition to public expenditure cuts. The Greens joining of the coalition administration in Bristol is another very worrying sign. Nevertheless, many individual Green candidates will have far stronger records of campaigning around anti-war, environmental, economic and social issues in their localities than their Labour opponents.
The strongest hard left challenge in the elections comes from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is comprised of two of the largest ‘far left’ groups – the Socialist Party (SP – formerly the Militant Tendency) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – together with the backing of the 80,000 strong RMT trade union and a small group of independent socialists in the Independent Socialist Network. Although originally somewhat unrealistically promising to stand 400 candidates, TUSC will stand a significant 120 candidates, approximately one in 20 (5%) of the seats up for election. The number of candidates varies a lot around the country, depending on local support for the TUSC affiliates and groups. There are an impressive range of candidates in Warwickshire (22), Hertfordshire (13), Staffordshire (11) and the City of Bristol (14). But everywhere else the number of candidates is in in single figures for councils having 60-80+ seats up for election. Most disappointing is the lack of candidates in Lancashire, despite the SWP holding a district council seat and targeting a parliamentary seat for TUSC there, there are only four TUSC candidates out of 84 seats– including one standing against one of only two sitting Green councillors, an unnecessary confrontation. In neighbouring Cumbria, there are four TUSC candidates in Carlisle, a key working class area in the county. TUSC are also standing a candidate for the Mayor of Doncaster and for several by-elections due on the same day.
There are only handful of candidates for other left wing parties – the Communist Party have a few candidates, as do the Socialist Labour Party, and the Socialist People’s Party have a candidate in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, where they could hold a seat. The pacifist Peace Party has four candidates in Sussex and Surrey. Respect have no candidates in these elections that I am aware of.
Sadly, despite initial promise, the National Health Action Party has failed to build on their campaign in the Eastleigh by-election and have no candidates anywhere that I am aware of. At least TUSC has stood one candidate in Eastleigh in these elections, despite doing so badly in the by-election. But for the majority of Eastleigh voters, having been presented with no less than three (!) apparently left wing candidates in the by-election only a few weeks ago, they are back to a choice between the main three parties plus UKIP. It is this sort of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ electoral activity that gives left wing parties a bad reputation among many sympathetic voters who want somebody fighting for them all year round.
So how well can we expect left wing candidates to do?
The Greens have a wide range of candidates including some sitting councillors and strongholds, but a lot of ‘paper candidates’ too. They are likely to have very varied results, and of course despite their left wing programme sometimes appear in rural areas as more akin to liberals than socialists. The defection of their leader in Norfolk to the Tories is sad evidence of this. Nevertheless in many parts of the country they will be the only repository for a left wing voter.
Recent council by-elections have shown the potential for newer left wing parties. The Lewisham People Before Profit group achieved a magnificent result in March’s Evelyn by-election, coming second to Labour and taking nearly 24% of the vote. TUSC recently won its first by-election in the Yorkshire town of Maltby; albeit a parish council and with only one opponent (notionally independent), it was nevertheless a good result for them. TUSC also won over 8% of the vote in an election last week in Prescot, Merseyside. Even though this was slightly down on their result in the election last year, the sudden appearance of a Green candidate, who only got 14 votes, explains most of the small decline. In Lewisham Evelyn ward, the People Before Profit group came to an agreement with the Green Party to highlight campaigning on local environmental issues in return for their support. TUSC does not have a record of campaigning on environmental issues, though at least it does appear in their programme for these elections. TUSC’s previous depiction in its election literature of the Green Party as the ‘Reluctant Cuts’ party has not helped to build alliances with those members of the Green Party who are active trade unionists, socialists and anti-cuts activists, though in a possibly significant move, it appears to have been dropped from the most recent national poster.
TUSC’s election results have varied significantly in the last 12 months – from an impressive 4,792 votes, nearly 5%, for disqualified former Labour councillor Tony Mulhearn in the Liverpool Mayoral, to a dismal 14 votes in a council by-election in Stoke (you need ten voters to get on the ballot paper!). The difficulty for TUSC is that it only exists as an electoral flag of convenience wheeled out at election time. During the rest of the time, it reverts back to its constituent parts, running their own campaigns through their own organisation. Where TUSC has consistently built a presence or has high profile local figures, it can do well. But as was seen in some of the parliamentary by-elections, parachuting in candidates does it no favours. However these are local elections and to stand you must be local and get nominations, so it is to be hoped that TUSC candidates do well, though there will be some areas where there will be pressure to cast a more useful vote for the Greens. Unfortunately, for a large proportion of potential left voters in this May’s electorate, a vote for Labour will be the only option on offer.
Limited as they are, the May 2013 elections are not going to set the world alight. However, there is a much bigger prospect in store in the elections in 2014. The government is out for consultation on dates at the moment, but the most likely situation is that the local elections and European parliament elections will take place on the same day – Thursday 22nd May 2014. This time the scope of the elections will be massive and it will be the last set of elections before the next General Election in 2015.
All voters will get a vote in the European elections and in addition there will be major local elections across England, including all the major cities – all 32 London boroughs will face ‘all out’ elections and there will be four borough-wide Mayoral elections, and there will be other elections in the other major cities – the so-called Metropolitan Boroughs of Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool etc – and other elections elsewhere.
A key task will be to sort out the mess of left wing parties standing against each other. This is unlikely to be achieved in the European elections where the Greens will want an election broadcast to promote their two sitting MEPs, but at ward and borough level there ought to be discussions and, where possible, agreement. In the last London elections in 2010, the left was virtually annihilated with just 1 Respect and 2 Green Councillors. Yet the ‘all-out’ nature of the London elections where there are 3 votes per ward raises the prospect of tactical candidacies to maximise the left opposition with 1-2 or 2-1 or even 1-1-1 splits of candidates to avoid left-inclined voters having to vote against each other. Respect has already announced that it is to contest every seat in Newham; TUSC will aim to stand extensively in Hackney; Lewisham is likely to see a spate of candidacies. Assuming that the 7,000+ people who have signed the Left Unity want to see a campaign by a new ‘Left Party’ in these elections, local Left Unity groups that are springing up need to discuss whether to stand candidates, and whether it is possible to put together pacts or arrangements that maximise the left votes. An ‘Electoral Strategy Working Group’ of Left Unity, or similar, needs to be set up as soon as possible to prepare the way for this.
As Ken Loach has pointed out, it is UKIP that is currently the main beneficiary of electoral hostility to the three main establishment parties. We need a left that can present itself as a single force in elections and win voters to an alternative, and that includes both a new party and dealing with unnecessary electoral conflicts between the existing left parties and the Greens.
This article by Dave Kellaway first appeared on Left Unity’s site.
My dad used to say that if the other side are ignoring you then you are failing or not working hard enough. The activists supporting Left Unity(LU) must be having some impact because the two major revolutionary left groups, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party(SP) and a former significant split from the SWP, Counterfire, have all written significant political articles referring, often rather obliquely, to LU. But definitely not ignoring us.
Alex Callinicos (SWP) seems to suggest that it isn’t such a bad thing that there is the appeal around Ken Loach. He is not stupid enough to condemn it. However the difficulties are emphasised and he states:
“Paradoxically, this revival of the Labour left dovetails with the enthusiastic response that film director Ken Loach’s call for a new party of the left has received.(…)
Defending these achievements—above all the National Health Service—also provides the Labour left with their benchmark. So what we have is, in effect, two different projects for reviving the reformist tradition in Britain.
Both have to be taken seriously. My hunch is that the drive to revive Labour will prove the stronger of the two. (my italics –DK)This is of course problematic, because all Labour governments—including the one elected in 1945—have chosen to manage rather than transform capitalism. The structures of the party are now so undemocratic that it’s hard to see how any attempt to “reclaim” Labour can hope to succeed.
This makes it all the more important that all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together. There are plenty of obstacles in our path as well, but the scale of the crisis and the suffering it is causing demand that we overcome them.”
In this week’s SWP Party notes it states:
Ken Loach has put out a call for a left alternative to Labour.
It’s an aim we share and we want to be part of any such discussions. But we also know that making this into a reality is more difficult and requires engaging with others who are involved in similar projects.
Of course Callinicos or SWP Party Notes will not specifically mention Left Unity’s name or even better refer to our website so that members or readers can make their own judgements. He suggests that a revival of the Labour left is more likely that the LU project and also incidentally already defines the Loach/LU project as reviving the reformist tradition. He does not see any distinction between Owen Jones and his reclaiming Labour idea and the Loach/LU organised party project which is implicitly positioned as a clear rejection of Labour. Obviously the national meeting coming up in May will further begin to clarify this position but reading the statements and political practice of most of the people expressing themselves on the LU website it is clear that there is difference between the Owen Jones position and Left Unity, there are not two sides of the same labourist reformism. Putting money on an Owen Jones left labour revival is a little risky – the record of the internal Labour left since Bennism has at least been as bad as the radical external left and I cannot recall them leading the Stop the War Coalition. Personally I would be quite happy for the LU project to grow alongside any Owen Jones led revival. It would provide a fertile field of engagement for a stronger external force. Any official left revival will come up against the iron fist of the internal party structures and the ideological pressure to knuckle under to elect Miliband.
I suppose Callinicos is repeating here something similar to his position on Syrizia – emphasising what he considers its overall reformist nature. It is not clear in the final paragraph above whether his call for ‘all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together’ includes Left Unity or not. However the SWP still has not lost all its reflexes in relation to what is going on so in its Party Notes it keeps the door open while emphasising how difficult the process will be. Interestingly enough there are reports of SWP members going along to some local LU meet ups.
Currently his ex colleague from the SWP John Rees has a long analytical piece on the Counterfire website http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/55-the-crisis/16388-the-crisis-in-europe-and-the-response-of-the-left that again does not mention LU by name but alludes to left electoral projects.
He puts forward as an abstractly correct line of building the revolutionary party and carrying out the united front tactic properly. He distinguishes between the correct way Counterfire is doing it with the implicitly incorrect way of his ertswhile comrades in the SWP. He takes up the issue of developing new left parties and briefly refers to the experience of Portugal, Greece, Germany, France and Italy where we have seen significant new left parties emerge over the last ten years or so. Comparing the failure of Respect or the SSP (Scotland) to the others he states: “the most successful left electoral projects have been those that were based on the largest movements in the first place and/or on the largest splits from mainstream social democracy”. However if we look at these parties from the point of view of lasting impact rather than just votes, this is not entirely the case since Rifondazione barely exists and came from a massive split in the PCI in Italy while the Bloco in Portugal, which came out of fusion between Trotskyist, Maoist and ex-CP groups, is still going strong and is nationally significant. Die Linke is also experiencing real problems despite coming out of a mass party split. The Front de Gauche, at least the Melenchon part, did not come out of a very large split from the SP and indeed got lower votes than the NPA for a whole period. The CP part of the FdG has always been a component and does not represent a split. Nevertheless both in the cases of failure or success it was right for revolutionary forces to participate in such projects (although the FdG is a more complex issue). You could even argue that the error of the French NPA was that it defined itself too narrowly on revolutionary positions rather than on a broader basis and this led to its later crisis and opened up the space for the FdG. So if revolutionaries keep away from such parties it is no guarantee of success. Revolutionary parties who stayed out of the broad parties did not generally grow any more strongly than those who went in.
John correctly criticises ultraleft and movementist positions which refuse to develop united campaigns on concrete class struggle question with the reformist leaderships of the unions or the Labour party. I suppose he may be alluding to the ACI when he talks below of horizontalist activists and implicitly puts them in the LU project. There is no mention of Left Unity or the Ken Loach appeal in the article or as far as I know on the Counterfire website and we do not have even the limp nameless endorsement issued by SWP party notes. I remember the Communist Party used to do the same thing with the emergent New Left in the old days.
A different answer to the question of what activists should do is given by those on the left who answer this question with proposals for left of centre electoral projects that can challenge the mainstream social democratic parties.(…)
There is, in Britain at the moment at any rate, a peculiar symbiosis developing between the advocates of electoralism and the horizontalist activists. And of course in a way it’s not surprising. If one rejects the model of working class unity that depends on a revolutionary organisation aiming to sustain unity through the mechanism of the united front then activity and politics fall into two separate but mutually reinforcing poles, ‘grass roots activism’ and electoralism. The two are isolated from each other, and so cannot inform each other. The same people who decry ‘top down campaigns’ then end up with the most restricted form of general politics, electoral participation. This is of course a common phenomena: where no effective dialectically unifying practice is found then two wrong poles reinforce one another.
He, like Callinicos, seems to suggest nothing exists politically between some sort of major developments/splits in Labour movement and the steady task of building the revolutionary party along with correct united front work. The detonator of such splits and monumental changes will be struggles with the trade unions playing a major role although recently Counterfire have taken a more savvy, open approach to the new movements than the SWP.
He is presenting a false opposition between united front work/building the revolutionary party and building intermediary class struggle movements/parties like the LU. He seems to suggest it is not possible to develop the revolutionary party, to support and build left moving parties or movements rejecting the worst of Labourism and carrying out successful united front work. As far as I know the central initiators of Left Unity have supported and often played leadership roles in the work of the Coalition of Resistance which John suggests (correctly) is a good example of united front work. It implies that only struggles, presented in rather an economist or objectivist way in my opinion, will unblock everything. Like Callinicos he appears to counterpose waiting for major shifts in the Labour movement and consolidating the pure party rather that getting involved in projects like the LU.
Finally we have a key piece from Peter Taaffe, leader of the Socialist Party. First of course he condemns the Peoples Assembly against the Cuts because there may be Green party members supporting it and we have a Brighton council making cuts. He says it is not sufficiently based on trade unions. Here I think John Rees provides a very good analysis of why this is a propagandistic sectarian line. The SP activists often participate in events with reformists – they are supporting Len McCluskey against the left militant Jerry Hicks. To compare their anti-cuts vehicle, the National Shops Stewards Network, to initiatives like the People’s Assembly is just in the worse traditions of British ‘Leninism’. Then he takes a considerable swipe at Left Unity, although he does have the grace to name the group. He welcomes Ken Loach’s appeal as opening a debate but rubbishes any actual organisation around it.
“Ken Loach, the socialist, radical film director, understands that New Labour represents a dead end and therefore it is necessary to seek a new road; hence his call for people to sign up to a new ‘left unity’. By so doing, he has opened up a very welcome discussion on the need for a viable alternative to the Labour Party for working class people engaged in the anti-cuts campaigns as well as working people generally looking for an alternative to New Labour.
“But this is not the first time that Ken and others have sought to create a new left force. We have seen previous attempts to form a left party: Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance that Ken Loach himself was involved in. These failed either because of sectarianism – the completely intolerant approach of Arthur Scargill – or the equally narrow and ultimately opportunist approach of the SWP in the Socialist Alliance and in Respect.
Learning from this, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is the first serious attempt to create the foundations of a new movement expressing the voice of the working class for their own independent party. It is in the best traditions of the labour movement with a federal constitution, and, moreover, unlike other attempts, is firmly based in the trade union movement.
Therefore, any discussion that is opening up with Ken Loach and his supporters cannot ignore the importance of TUSC. Some, including many of those gathering around Ken Loach, are political grasshoppers leaping light-mindedly from one project to another. Their ‘projects’ invariably failed.
We do not need at this critical juncture miracle workers searching for an easy route to the solution of the problems of the working class. We need, instead, a mass movement to defeat the cuts – and the trade unions offer the best hope for the vehicle that can do this. On a political level TUSC also offers the best hope for furthering the process of creating a viable new mass workers’ party.”
So Peter crudely presents the great ‘success’ of a federal based TUSC against the LU project, referring to the great traditions of the British labour movement to theoretically underpin this. He assumes somehow that the 7000 or so people who have signed up to the Ken Loach appeal and the 80 organisers of the local groups are all completely alien to the trade union movement. His assertion that TUSC is based on the trade union movement is because…the RMT is affiliated – the only trade union, he does not seem able to persuade the PCS, strongly influenced by the SP to join. It is not clear how the TUSC is developing incisive mass struggle currents in the trade unions. Generally the SP does that through its own party structures or the NSSN. Nobody is underestimating the importance of the trade unions Peter but we do not abstractly fetishise them ignoring all other sources of resistance and building blocks for a new mass workers party – the unemployed, students, precarious workers, the womens and gay movements, anti-racist struggles, ecological movements, the labour party activists and so on.
The icing on his tirade is his rather offensive epithet of Ken Loach, Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin, Alan Thornett, Teresa Conway, Nick Wrack and many, many others as political grasshoppers. Apart from being offensive to grasshoppers, that fulfil an important role in the ecosystem and provide protein for humans in some cultures, this is just a ridiculous argument. It would be relatively easy to look back at the history of the SP as a current and identify a whole number of turns and political projects. Lenin and Bolsheviks, so reverentially referenced by Peter, also made lots of moves. The question is always how to relate to the concrete political situation. At the moment there are thousands of individual activists who are looking for an alternative to Miliband’s Labour. They are excited about a new party, most of them are not deluded, they do not think it will be easy (thank you Alex C. for your concerns) and some have gone through Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Hopefully we will learn from our mistakes. The biggest lesson is precisely the opposite to the one Peter draws when he rabbits on about the wonders of federalist structure.
If we want to demoralise and lose all the people coming into the LU project the quickest way of doing it will be to give special status or privileges to existing left currents or parties. The latter have to earn any leadership they might aspire to by building the project locally and nationally. Recent events in the SWP over rape allegations make this approach even more unpalatable to independent activists. Our Left Unity has to be a beacon of internal democracy and run a mile from faux-charismatic leaders a la Galloway or Sheridan. Luckily Ken Loach is probably extremely unlikely to follow their paths and in any case the structures will hopefully be established to prevent even him having a turn and doing anything crazy.
Left Unity represents an understanding that radicalising forces do not pass immediately from reformism to revolutionary positions in one go. It is obvious that the whole process is uneven. Clearly we do not accept closed off stages in the revolutionary process or transition which can lead to the revolution being strangled by cautious, reformist forces who say this far and no further. This was what happened in a number of revolutionary processes in the 20th century where Stalinist parties following the interests of the Russian bureaucracy would hold back (even repress) revolutionary forces in favour of the alliance with national bourgeoisies Ken Loach’s film, Land and Freedom, tells this story.
However an awareness of the stages in the development of revolutionary consciousness is a different matter. Building a party or movement to challenge capitalism itself and fight for socialism requires the understanding of how this consciousness will develop. Left Unity is not the revolutionary party but it may be a party where all those activists who see themselves to the left of labour can work in practice together. We cannot predict its evolution but by definition it will include a wider range of political forces than the SWP or the SP. It will bring together – it is bringing together – forces from the historic Trotskyist tradtition, people who were in the CP, many people who always had a home in the Labour party, people from the movements who are understandably wary of certain Leninist practices developed in Britain and just people who were inspired by a film, who are fed up of Miliband’s grovelling and want to do something.
Far better for revolutionary currents like the SWP, Counterfire and the Socialist Party to be working together with thousands of people not previously organised by the radical left than to be pontificating about the united front from the outside. Comrades inside those groups should be asking why their leaderships are adopting these positions and are not discussing with Left Unity about building something which really might make an impact on British politics.
Last Thursday’s well attended meeting of the Left Unity project in London, at which a number of Socialist Resistance comrades were present, reflected the huge development of the project reports Alan Thornett. Ken Loach made his appeal for a new left party around the launch of his new filmThe Spirit of 45’. In fact the pace this is moving at is remarkable. Over 6,000 people have now signed up and 50 local groups have been established most of them in the course of a few days. People are signing up and groups being formed faster than they can be administered. There are tens of thousands of hits on the website.
It is clear that as Labour moves to the right and panders to anti-immigrant racism and the coalition pushes through the cuts there is a groundswell of people looking for an alternative in the form of a new party which is anti-austerity, broad, pluralist, left of Labour and not dominated undemocratically by a far-left organisation.
The meeting, which was trying to catch up with all this, was very positive and more united in its approach to the project of a new party than the previous meetings of Left Unity, which had been more diverse. The Workers International had pulled out because they are now opposed to standing against Labour at the next meeting and Red Pepper were not present (possibly because they don’t support the idea of a new party). On the other hand there were a lot of new people including three from the new ex-SWP International Socialist Network, who were extremely positive.
There was a common view that moves towards the establishment of a new party (and the majority clearly want it to be a party) would now need to take place quite quickly in order to maintain the momentum, although views differed as to whether it should be July or September or even later in the year. Another proposal was for a possible two-stage process with the first taking place as a national meeting (rather than a conference) in July.
There was also a common view that a new party will have to be based on individual membership, rather than a federal structure, which we fully support. A number of people in the discussion (apart from ourselves) stressed that a new party has to embrace ecological and feminist issues as well taking the lead in fighting austerity.
Despite reservations expressed as to the ability of the left to squander such opportunities it is clear that short of unforeseen developments there will be a new broad party emerging out of this initiative before the end of the year.
An interim organising committee was set up to administer these development support local groups and to make proposals in relation to a national meeting or a launch conference. It will do this in consultation with the local groups and will hold joint meetings with reps from the local groups.
see the local groups that are mushrooming here and sign up to get involved in your area