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
Phil Hearse reviews Beyond Capitalism? by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy (Zero Books 2012)
There could hardly be a more timely book for the socialist left, facing in most countries a dual crisis. On the one hand since 2008 the working class has faced a brutal austerity offensive which has not been thrown back. On the other, partially as a result of the austerity offensive and working class defeats, the socialist left has suffered a series of political defeats which have seen organisations in several countries decay, split or go into crisis. Closely connected with the far left crisis is the fate of the global justice, ‘anti-capitalist’, movement which announced itself spectacularly at the November 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle.
When I heard about the Seattle demonstrations I rashly predicted “Now the American left is going to grow spectacularly”. At a big London conference the next year a speaker from Global Exchange in the US said to huge enthusiasm from the audience “We’re winning”. In July 2001 the huge demonstrations at the Genoa G8 summit were politically dominated by Italian Communist Refoundation with a significant input from the Fourth International – Fausto Bertinotti and Olivier Besancenot were the key speakers at the main rally. The global justice movement was on the offensive and the militant left seemed to have a significant role in it.
Twelve years on the situation seems very different, despite the Occupy movement and despite the Arab Spring. Obviously the main objective factors that changed were the post-9/11 situation which enabled the huge new military-political offensive of American imperialism and its allies; and the financial collapse of 2008 and the utterly ruthless offensive against working class living standards that followed.
For Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy, two young militants of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, the thing to be explained is this:
“The capitalist crisis poses profound questions about the future of left wing politics because of its sheer depth and severity…After all, in these conditions radical political ideas should be striking a major chord amongst millions of workers. If they are not we have to look hard at ourselves.” (1)
Part of the problem, obviously is the relative weakness of anti-capitalist ideas in most parts of the world:
“In most countries in the world not only is acceptance of capitalism fundamental to the assumptions of the major political parties, but a specific variant of neoliberal ideology has come to be seen as the exclusive road down which politics must travel.” (2)
Contemporary mass movement
This reflects itself in the weakness of anti-capitalist mass consciousness. But more than this, there seems like a perennial problem in the existing revolutionary left linking up with major movements of resistance and in particular with the young rebels who emerged in the global justice movement, going through the anti-war movement, the various Social Forums and into such contemporary mass movement as the Indignados and Occupy!
That doesn’t mean, they point out, that militant leftists don’t play leading roles in the movements and protests, indeed they do especially in labour movement based campaigns, but their leading roles are often quite separate from their identity as political militants. This problem seems particularly obvious during the anti-war movement of 2002-3, when in Britain the Socialist Workers Party led a coalition which mobilised two million on the streets but failed to grow at all. By contrast the Vietnam movement in the late 1960s, much smaller in numbers, saw every left organisation grow.
Luke and Simon explain that thy were themselves radicalised during the upsurge of the anti-capitalist movement, and the failure to effect a junction between the existing revolutionary left and the anti-capitalist movement is a theme to which they continually return. Their argument on this is quite nuanced but it is the pivot on which much of their basic position relies. Briefly summed up it goes like this:
- Resistance movements are themselves pressured by ‘capitalist realism’ and “still largely remain within the assumptions of liberal democratic ideology” (3).
- The way that this is expressed among many youthful protestors is a disastrous rejection of ‘politics’.
- BUT the strength of these movements has been their democratic and participatory ethos and practice, their rejection of rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic procedures and their capacity for rapid initiative from below – in other words the things that precisely differentiate them from much of the existing revolutionary left.
- By contrast, the existing revolutionary left is dogmatic, wedded to routinist, uninspiring and non-participatory events, and above all cleaves to a form of ‘democratic centralism’ that is top heavy and (at the very least) outdated.
“The positive side of the current political conjuncture is that it exposes the limitations in the political practices and philosophy of the organised left and the libertarian activist milieu simultaneously. A growing number of activists, who might be labeled ‘libertarians’ or ‘Trots’, depending which side of the divide you are on, are starting to question the limitations of their preferred form of organisation. If activists from the libertarian left are starting to see the social power of organised working class action is crucial to the resistance to austerity, then new organisational forms can also start to overcome other differences. For the ‘old left’ far less dogmatism in their organisational and ideological assumptions coupled with genuine attempts to build organic unity among socialists would go a long way to reach a situation where we no longer ‘old and ‘new’ as dichotomies.” (4)
The authors then temper this with an insistence that this does not mean an attempt at eclectically muddling irreconcilable positions and quite rightly they take aim at people who dodge the question of government and political power with the pipe dream “that we can create a prefigurative space within capital that has a liberating function somehow outside the power relations of the system”(5).
Now we come to the $64,000 question, or rather series of $64,000 questions for the existing far left. Is it really true that the style, practices and hierarchies of the existing ‘Leninist’ organisations repel young rebels and indeed militants in the workers and other movements? Of course not all these organisations are the same, but in Britain the major far left organisations (the SWP and SP) have a hierarchical conception of Leninism that has been pressurised by Stalinism and is at least ‘Zinovievist’ – having features of the top-down version of Leninism imposed on the Comintern by Zinoviev in the early 1920s. The trade union movement and campaign organisations are littered with ex-members of the different far left organisations whose basic politics hasn’t changed but whose ability to cope with this version of ‘the party’ has. Typically these organisations express extreme factional hostility to members of other organisations, have a highly manipulative attitude to the movements in which they participate, severely limit rights of internal discussion not minutely led from above, operate a more-or-less complete ban on public discussion of differences and have leaderships that preserve enormous privileges of private discussion and self-renewal by proposing themselves on the leadership slate.
In the Zinovievist sects there is a tremendous pressure towards conformity and obedience, and a huge price to be paid for dissidence, even on quite secondary questions. For Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy this cuts against the spirit of the times, which is towards greater personal freedom.
I think there’s a good deal of truth in that and young people naturally bristle against artificially imposed authority. On the other hand the zeitgeist of the times is not just the desire for individual freedom but a spirit of individualism promoted by neoliberalism. Rejection of all forms of collectivism, majority votes and disciplined action will disable any form of politics. And of course there are still plenty of radical intellectuals who don’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything, least of all a political organisation.
One other caveat here is that all the organisations that referred to the tradition of Trotsky and the Left Opposition cannot be tarred with the same brush. In particular there are many sections of the Fourth International (FI) who wouldn’t recognise this picture at all and the FI’s tradition is generally one of valuing differences and debate – and often expressing these in public. But it has to be said that some of the more restrictive ‘norms’ of ersatz Leninism have their origin in the US Socialist Workers Party, a long-time key component of the Fourth International, under James P. Cannon, codified in a document published in 1965 but stretching way back before that (6).
Rebels, socialists, revolutionaries are bound to make plenty of enemies. It is not to the discredit of the existing far left organisations that right-wingers hate them; on the other hand the snarling factionalism of the ‘combat party’ automatically creates disabling and usually pointless disunity. ‘Everybody hates us, we don’t care!’ may suffice for Millwall football fans, but should not be a guiding principle for a revolutionary organisation.
So what is to be done? The authors have a wide-ranging discussion of the experience of the left, particularly in Europe, in the last decade which ranges over the question of politics and the movements, as well as the experience of trying to form new left parties – experiences that have been extremely diverse. In making proposals for the future inevitably there are as many questions as precise answers. The framework however is perhaps contained in their assessment of the experience of the ‘Social Forum’ movement, perhaps the main institutional expression of the global justice movement:
“The post-1999 social movements have shown that potentially millions can be thrown into struggle and resistance to capitalism and for a fundamental social change. But for all the ideological impetus that drove many of these movements, they also paradoxically gave expression to the post-political logic that engulfed the world after 1989, because the social forums were consciously limited to the task of aggregating together diverse campaigns in a manner that retained their social movement as opposed to political movement character. It was not that the forums weren’t highly political – they were. These events bore witness to a vast outpouring of discussion on an array of themes. But they ultimately lacked a strategic perspective for social transformation; a strategy to move from protest to a real challenge for power. And it is the latter that would have necessitated a discussion around new political formations as part of a process of attempting to cohere together what Marxists have traditionally referred to as an ‘international – ie a global political party that seeks to overcome national antagonisms and move towards the transcendence of capital. ” (7)
In the section ‘Drawing Conclusions’ the authors note that the situation is becoming more conducive to overcoming ‘capitalist realism’ – the idea that there is no alternative. While expressing caution towards Paul Mason’s idea that “the age of capitalist realism is over” (8) they argue that the common idea of a decade ago that the market, democracy and modernity go together is taking a severe battering. Rampant corruption and declining living standards are going hand in hand swingeing attacks on democracy. How can the left take advantage of this situation? Simply summed up, Luke and Simon suggest:
- The crisis of the left is still the crisis of the sect
- This fuels a drive towards new political formations
- New programmatic definitions will gradually over time through practice
- A pluralistic Marxism is needed
- The left needs to reclaim the idea of democracy
- Electoral and trade activity needs to be linked with grassroots activity ‘from below’ and community struggles.
This of course is a huge agenda to be worked out in detail and practice. Of course it is impossible for anyone to suck the solutions to the problems of the left out of their thumbs. These will only emerge over time through struggle. But it is essential to know “where to begin”. The authors identify key problems with eloquence and go a long way to establishing a practical agenda for a refounded Marxist left. I will just stress two final points.
- The book is evidently weak on the issues of feminism and the environment but these will be vital in establishing the parameters of a future left.
- The whole argument about unity points in the direction of the creation of a new anti-capitalist party – and this has to be out front and upfront. There will be those who will want to interpret the critique of sect functioning as being a rejection of the party form tout court, in favour of the endless circular networking of campaigns and initiatives, with no overall political coherence or direction. A long term war of position that can go ‘beyond capitalism’ requires the building of a party that can strike the political blows to the left of Labour that UKIP does to the right of the Tories. Simultaneously it is inevitable that there will be a pressure towards the co-ordination in a more coherent and structured way of a refounded centre of pluralistic Marxism.
It is through these processes that we can build a Future Left in the true spirit of the founder of Marxism:
“Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” (Marx to Ruge, September 1843).
- Beyond Capitalism p2
- Beyond Capitalism p3
- Ibid p11, see also p99ff
- Ibid p96
- Ibid p97
- See for example James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
- Op Cit pp140-141
- Op Cit p153
This document by the Socialist Resistance steering committee was first published in 2008 and addresses the question of the type of organisations socialists need to build now. We are re-publishing it now because it is a statement of our views on the questions of broad parties and internal regime which are very relevant to the debates now happening on the left.
Since the beginning of the decade important steps have been made in rebuilding the left internationally, following the working class defeats of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the negative impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starting with the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle at the end of 1999, an important global justice movement emerged, which fed directly into the building of a massive anti-war movement that internationally dwarfed the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s. These processes breathed fresh life into the left, as could be seen already at the Florence European Social Movement in 2002 where the presence of the Rifondazione Comunista and the tendencies of the far left was everywhere. In addition, the massive rebirth of the left and socialism in Latin America has fuelled these processes.
However unlike the regrowth and redefinition of the left symbolised by the years 1956 and 1968, in the first decade of the 21st century things were much more difficult objectively, with the working class mainly on the defensive. Multiple debates on orientation and strategy have started to sweep the international left, leading to a reconfiguration of the socialist movement in several countries.
Positive aspects of this process include historic events in Venezuela and Bolivia (with all their problems), the emergence of Die Linke – the Left party – in Germany, the Left Bloc in Portugal and indeed new left formations in many countries.
In other countries the left redefinitions have been decidedly mixed. For example the Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) went out of the Communist Refoundation in Italy, over the fundamental question of the latter’s support for Italian participation in the Afghanistan war and neoliveral domestic policies. In Brazil a militant minority walked out of the Workers Party (PT) to found the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), over the central question of the Lula government’s application of a neoliberal policy which made a mockery of the name of the party. This splits, for sure, represented a political clarification and an attempt to rescue and defend principled class struggle politics. But the evolution of the majority in both the PT and Communist Refoundation are of course massive defeats for the left.
So, in many countries debates are opening up about what kind of left we need in the 21st century. This is of course normal; each successive stage of the international class struggle, especially after world historic events of the type we have seen after 25 years of neoliberalism, poses the issue of socialist organisation anew. It is absurd to imagine that it is possible to take off the shelf wholesale texts written in Russia in 1902 or even 1917, and apply them in an unmediated way in 2007. Even less credible is the idea of taking the form of revolutionary organisation and politics appropriate for Minneapolis in 1934(1) and simply attempting to extrapolate it in a situation where revolutionary politics has been transformed by central new issues (of gender and the environment in particular); where the working class itself has been transformed in terms of its cultural level, geographical distribution and political and trade union organisation; and where the experience of mass social movements and the balance sheet of Stalinism (and social democracy) has radically reaffirmed the centrality of self-organisation and democracy at the heart of the revolutionary project.
As we shall discuss in more details below, it is now obvious that the models of political organisation and habits of engagement with the rest of the left, adopted by some self-proclaimed Trotskyist organisations (like Gerry Healy’s SLL-WRP) were strongly pressurised by third period Stalinism and organisational methods and assumptions inherited from the Stalinised Comintern. No section of British Trotskyism was entirely unaffected by this pressure.
Against this background the split in Respect might not seem too unusual. But there is something special about it, considered on an international level. While there were no principled questions of politics involved (as there were in Italy and Brazil), nevertheless the main revolutionary organisation involved, the SWP, managed to alienate almost the totality of others forces within the movement. This is a spectacularly unfavourable result for a revolutionary organisation and one that cannot be explained by the myth of an anti-socialist “witch-hunt”. Something much more fundamental in politics is involved.
Revolutionary Socialism and ‘broad left parties’
As noted above, the experience of building broad left parties internationally has been decidedly mixed; in some cases they have slid to the right and ended up supporting neoliberal governments. For some on the revolutionary left, what we might call the ‘clean hands and spotless banner’ tendency, this shows that attempts at political recomposition are a waste of time. Far better to just build your organisation, sell your paper, hold your meetings, criticise everyone else and maintain your own spotless banner. But underlying this simplistic approach is actually a deeply spontaneist conception of the revolutionary process. This generally takes the form of the idea that “under the pressure of events”, and after the revolutionary party has been “built”, the revolutionary party will finally link up with big sections of the working class. With this comforting idea under our belts we can be happy to be a very small (but well organised) minority and be sanguine about the strength of the right and indeed the far right.
In our view this simplistic “build the party” option is no longer operable; indeed it is irresponsible because it inevitably leaves the national political arena the exclusive terrain of the right. In the era of neoliberalism, without a mass base for revolutionary politics but with a huge base for militant opposition to the right, it seems to us self-evident the left has to get together, to organise its forces, to win new forces away from the social-liberal centre left, to contest elections and to raise the voice of an alternative in national politics. This is what has been so important about Die Linke, the Left Bloc, the Danish Red-Green Alliance and many others.
This was the importance of the Workers Party in Brazil and the Communist Refoundation in Italy at their height: that they articulated a significant national voice against neoliberalism that would have been impossible for the small forces of the revolutionary left.
More than that: the very existence of these forces, at various stages, had an important impact on mass mobilisations and struggles – as for example Communist Refoundation did on mobilising the anti-war movement and the struggle against pension reform in Italy. The existence of a mass political alternative raises people’s horizons, remoralises them, brings socialism back onto political agendas, erects an obstacle to the domination of political discourses by different brands of neoliberalism and promotes the struggle. It also acts as a clearing house of political ideas in which the revolutionaries put their positions.So with a broad left formation in existence everyone is a winner – not!
No broad left formation has been problem free. For revolutionaries these are usually coalitions with forces to their political right. They are generally centres of permanent political debate and disagreement, and they pose major questions of political functioning for revolutionary forces, especially those used to a strong propaganda routine. They inevitably involve compromises and difficult judgements about where to draw political divides.
What an orientation towards political regroupment of the left does not involve is a fetishisation of a particular political structure, or the idea that broad left parties are the new form of revolutionary party, or the notion that these parties will necessarily last for decades. For us they are interim and transitional forms of organisation (but see the qualification of this below). Our goal remains that of building revolutionary parties. It’s just that, as against the ‘clean hands and spotless banner’ tendency, we have a major disagreement about what revolutionary parties, in the 21st century, will look like – and how to build them.
The functioning of revolutionaries in broad left parties
Broad left parties (or alliances) are not united fronts around specific questions, but political blocs. For them to develop and keep their unity, they have to function according to basic democratic rules. However this cannot be reduced to the simplistic notion that there are votes and the majority rules. This leaves out of account the anomalies and anti-democratic practices which the existence of organised revolutionary currents can give rise to if they operate in a factional way. On this we would advance the following general guidelines:
- Inside broad left formations there has to be a real, autonomous political life in which people who are not members of an organised current can have confidence that decisions are not being made behind their backs in a disciplined caucus that will impose its views – they have to be confident that their contribution can affect political debates.
- This means that no revolutionary current can have the ‘disciplined Phalanx’ concept of operation. Except in the case of the degeneration of a broad left current (as in Brazil) we are not doing entry work or fighting a bureaucratic leadership. This means in most debates, most of the time, members of political currents should have the right to express their own viewpoint irrespective of the majority view in their own current. If this doesn’t happen the real balance of opinion is obscured and democracy negated. Evidently this shouldn’t be the case on decisive questions of the interest of the working class and oppressed – like sending troops to Afghanistan. But if there are differences on issues like that, then membership of a revolutionary current is put in question. One can also imagine vital strategic and sometimes important tactical questions on which a democratic centralist organisation might want its members all to vote the same way. But these should be exceptional circumstances and not the norm. In practice, of course, on most questions most of the time members of revolutionary tendencies would tend to have similar positions.
- Revolutionary tendencies should avoid like the plague attempts to use their organisational weight to impose decisions against everyone else. That’s a disastrous mode of operation in which democracy is a fake. If a revolutionary tendency can’t win its opinions in open and democratic debate, unless it involves fundamental questions of the interest of the working class and oppressed, compromises and concessions have to be made. Democracy is a fake if a revolutionary current says ‘debate is OK, and we’ll pack meetings to ensure we win it’.
- Revolutionaries – individuals and currents – have to demonstrate their commitment and loyalty to the broad left formation of which they are a part. That means prioritising the activities and press of the broad formation itself. Half in, half out, doesn’t work.
- We should put no a priori limits on the evolution of a broad left formation. Its evolution will be determined by how it responds to the major questions in the fight against imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, not by putting a 1930s label on it (like ‘centrism’).
- The example of the PSoL in Brazil shows it is perfectly possible to function as a broad socialist party with several organised militant socialist currents within it. The precondition of giving organised currents the right to operate within a broad party is that they do not circumvent the rights of the members who are not members of organised currents.
The SWP’s ‘democratic centralism’ – national and international
Readers will note that the above series of considerations is exactly how the SWP did not function in Respect. It is a commonplace that those who function in factional and bureaucratic ways in the broader movement generally operate tin pot regimes at home. There are strong reasons for thinking that the version of ‘democratic centralism’ operated by the SWP is undemocratic. This is not just a matter of rules and the constitution, but there are problems there as well.
- Decision-making in the SWP is concentrated in an extremely small group of people. The SWP Central Committee is around12 people, a very small number given the size of the organisation. Effective decision making is concentrated in three or four people within that.
- Political minorities are denied access to the CC. At the January 2006 conference of the SWP long-time SWP member John Molyneaux put forward a position criticising the line of the leadership, but his candidacy for the CC was rejected because it would “add nothing” to CC discussions.
- Tendencies and factions can only exist during pre-conference periods. This effectively makes them extremely difficult to organise. In any case, political debates and issues are not confined the SWP leadership’s internal timetable.
- There is no real internal bulletin and little internal political discussion outside of pre-conference period. Real discussion is concentrated at the top.
- As the expulsions of Nick Wrack, Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden show, the disciplinary procedure is arbitrary and can be effected by the CC with no due process or hearing in which the accused can put their case.
In his contribution to the SWP’s pre-conference bulletin John Molyneaux said:
“…the nature of the problem can most clearly be seen if we look at the outcome of all these meetings, councils, conferences, elections, etc. The fact is that in the last 15 years perhaps longer) there has not been a single substantial issue on which the CC has been defeated at a conference or party council or NC. Indeed I don’t think that in this period there has ever been even a serious challenge or a close vote. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of conference or council sessions have ended with the virtually unanimous endorsement of whatever is proposed by the leadership. Similarly, in this period there has never been a contested election for the CC: ie, not one comrade has ever been proposed or proposed themselves for the CC other than those nominated by the CC themselves. It is worth emphasising that such a state of affairs is a long way from the norm in the history of the socialist movement. It was not the norm in the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International. before its Stalinisation. It was not the norm at any point in the Trotskyist tradition under Trotsky.”
John Molyneaux put all this down to the nature of the period and the low level of the class struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. It is from obvious that this is true. Its root cause is the conception of ‘democratic’ centralism that the SWP have.
We could note at this point that the SWP’s internal regime is the polar opposite of that of a similarly sized, but much more influential, organisation, the LCR in France, where the organisation of minorities and their incorporation in the leadership is normal. In fact the SWP’s supporters in France have gone into the LCR and form a…permanent faction, Socialism Par en Bas (SPEB) that would of course be banned inside the SWP itself!
Equally the functioning of the international tendency that the SWP dominates – the IST – is dominated by a notion of ‘international democratic centralism’ in which the SWP takes upon itself the right to boss other ‘sections’ around, down to the smallest, detailed tactic. This, unsurprisingly, results in splits with any organisation that develops an autonomous leadership with a minimum of self-respect. So for example the SWP split on no principled basis at all with its Greek and US sections in 2003 – expulsions that were carried out by the Central Committee of the SWP, and only confirmed as an afterthought by a hastily-summoned meeting of the IST.
There is an irony in all this. Up until the late 1960s the International Socialists – precursor organisation of the SWP – maintained a sharp critique of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’, not least in regard to its organisational methods. IS members tended to see Leninism as being, at least in part, ‘responsible’ for Stalinism, and instead counterposed ‘Luxemburgism’ against ‘toy Bolshevism’. After the May-June events in France, Tony Cliff adopted Leninism and wrote a three-volume biography of Lenin to justify this. The irony consists in the fact that the version of Leninism that Cliff adopted became, over time, clearly marked by the bowdlerised version of Leninism that the IS originally rejected.
Opposed conceptions of the left
There is a false conception of the configuration of the workers movement and the left, a misreading of ideas from the 1930s, that is common in some sections of the Trotskyist movement. This ‘map’ sees basically the working class and its trade unions, the reformists (Stalinists), various forms of ‘centrism’ (tendencies which vacillate between reform and revolution) and the revolutionary marxists – with maybe the anarchists as a complicating factor. On the basis of this kind of map, Trotsky could say in 1938 “There is no revolutionary tendency worthy of the name on the face of the earth outside the Fourth International (ie the revolutionary marxists – ed)”.
If this idea was ever operable, it is certainly not today. The forms of the emergence of mass anti-capitalism and rejection of Stalinism and social democracy has thrown up a cacophony of social movements and social justice organisations, as well as a huge array of militant left political forces internationally. This poses new and complex tasks of organising and cohering the anti-capitalist left. And this cannot be done by building a small international current that regards itself as the unique depository of Marxist truth and regards itself as capable of giving the correct answer on every question, in every part of the planet (in one of its most caricatured forms, by publishing a paper that looks suspiciously like Socialist Worker and aping every tactical turn of the British SWP).
The self definition of the Fourth International and Socialist Resistance is very different to that. We have our own ideas and political traditions, some of which we see as essential. But we want to help refound the left, together with others, incorporating the decisive lessons of feminism and environmentalism, in a dialogue with other anti-capitalists and militant leftists. One that doesn’t start by assuming that we are correct about everything, all-knowing and have nothing to learn, especially from crucial new revolutionary experiences like the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.
Today the ‘thin red line of Bolshevism’ conception of revolutionary politics doesn’t work. This idea often prioritises formal programmatic agreement, sometimes on arcane or secondary questions, above the realities of organisation and class struggle on the ground. And it systematically leads to artificially counterposing yourself to every other force on the left.
Against this template, the SWP is Neanderthal, a particular variant of the dogmatic-sectarian propagandist tradition that has been so dominant in Britain since the early 20th century. It is time that its members demanded a rethink.
In his interview on Leninism in International Viewpoint, Daniel Bensaid points out that the word itself emerged only after the death of Lenin, as part of a campaign to brutally ‘Bolshevise’ the parties of the Comintern – ie subordinate them to the Soviet leadership.
For us the name, the word, is unimportant. What is important is to incorporate what is relevant today in the thinking of great socialist thinkers like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci. Lenin was far from being a dogmatist on organisational forms; from him we retain major aspects of his theoretical conquests on imperialism and national self-determination, the self-organisation of the working class, the notions of revolutionary crisis and strategy, and his critique of the bureaucracy in the workers movement and social democratic reformism.
All these great thinkers were prepared to change their forms of organisation to suit the circumstances; the unity of revolutionary tendencies is not guaranteed by organisational forms, but by programme and a shared vision of the revolutionary process. Thus we reject the idea that by our ideas about left regroupment we are ‘abandoning Leninism’, any more than we are abandoning Trotskyism or what is relevant in the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. What we are abandoning, indeed have long abandoned, is the template method that sees Leninism as a distinct set of unvarying organisational forms.
We repeat: some of these organisational forms, including a monopoly of decision-making by a tiny central group with special privileges (often of secret information and un-minuted discussion) – came from a beleaguered Trotskyist movement, that inherited many of its organisational forms wholesale from the Stalinised Communist International. You can’t understand the Healy movement without the Communist Party of Great Britain or the French ‘Lambertists’ without the immense pressure of the French Communist Party. The brutal ‘Leninism’ of the Communist Parties and the importation of aspects of its practices into the dogmatic-sectarian Trotskyist organisations we do indeed repudiate.
(1)This is a reference to the American Socialist Workers Party, which played a central role in the Teamster Rebellion in Minneapolis in 1934. The US SWP led by James P. Cannon had a massive impact on British Trotskyism, not least through Cannon’s organisational textbooks The Struggle for a Proletarian Party and History of American Trotskyism.
Michel Husson offers a contribution to the debate on how the European left should respond to the economic crisis and argues that leaving the euro is not currently an option for countries which use it.
The global effects of the crisis have been made even worse by what is happening in Europe. For thirty years the contradictions of capitalism have been overcome with the help of an enormous accumulation of phantom rights to surplus value. The crisis has threatened to destroy them. The bourgeois governments have decided to preserve them claiming that we have to save the banks. They have taken on the banks’ debts and asked for virtually nothing in return. Yet it would have been possible to make this rescue conditional on some assurances. They could have banned speculative financial instruments and closed the tax loopholes. They could even have insisted that they take responsibility for some of the public debt that this rescue increased so dramatically.
We are now in the second phase. Having shifted the debt from the private sector to the public the working class has to be made to pay. This shock therapy is delivered through austerity plans which are all broadly similar – a cut in socially useful spending and hiking up the most unfair taxes. There is no alternative to this form of social violence other than making the shareholders and creditors pay. That is clear and everyone understands it.
The collapse of a ruling class plan
But the European working class is also being asked to pay for the collapse of the ruling class project for Europe. The ruling class thought that it had found a good system with the single currency, the budgetary stability pact (“Stability and Growth Pact”), and the total deregulation of finance and the movement of capital . By creating a competition between social models and wage earners squeezing wages became the only means of regulating inter-capitalist competition and intensifying the inequalities that benefitted only a very narrow stratum of people in society.
However this model put the cart before the horse and wasn’t viable. It presupposed that the European economies were more homogeneous than they actually are. Differences between countries increased due to their place in the global market and their sensitivity to the euro exchange rate. Inflation rates didn’t converge and interest rates favoured property bubbles and so on. All the contradictions of a curtailed programme of European integration which the Euro liberals are discovering today existed before the crisis. But these are blowing apart under speculative attacks against the sovereign debts of the most exposed countries.
Underneath the abstract concept of “financial markets” there are mainly European financial institutions which speculate using capital which states lend to them at very low interest rates. This speculation is only possible due to the states’ policy of non-intervention and we should understand it as a pressure applied to consenting governments to stabilise budgets on the back of the people of Europe and to defend the banks’ interests.
Two immediate tasks
From the point of view of the working class it’s obvious what has to be done: we have to resist the austerity offensive and refuse to pay the debt which is nothing but the debt from the banking crisis. The alternative plan on which this resistance must be based demands another way of sharing society’s wealth. This is a coherent demand. It is in fact against the squeezing of wages, in other words the appropriation of an increasing portion of surplus value by capital.
The alternative requires a real fiscal reform which takes back the gifts which for years have been given to businesses and the rich. It also implies the cancellation of the debt. The debt and the interests of the majority of the population are completely incompatible. There can be no progressive outcome to the crisis which does not put the debt in question, either by defaulting on it or restructuring it. In any case some countries will probably default and it’s therefore important to anticipate this situation and say how it should be managed.
Leaving the euro?
The offensive, which the peoples of Europe are facing, is undeniably made worse by the European straightjacket. For example the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve in the United States, cannot monetise public debt by buying treasury bonds. Would leaving the euro allow the straightjacket to be loosened? That is what some on the left like Costas Lapavitsas and his colleagues are suggesting for Greece as an immediate step. He proposes that it is done immediately without waiting for the left to unite to change the euro zone, something he thinks is impossible.
This idea is put forward elsewhere in Europe and is met with an immediate objection that even though Britain is not part of the euro zone it has not been protected from the climate of austerity. It is also easy to understand why the far right, such as the Front National in France wants to leave the euro. By contrast it is hard to see what could be the merits of such a slogan for the radical left. If a liberal government were forced to take such a measure by the pressure of events it is clear that it would be the pretext for an even more severe austerity than the one we have experienced up to now. Moreover it would not allow us to establish a new balance of forces, which is more favourable to the working class. That is the lesson that one can draw for all the past experiences.
For a left government leaving the euro would be a major strategic error. The new currency would be devalued as that is, after all, the desired objective. But that would immediately open up a space, which the financial markets would immediately use to begin a speculative offensive. It would trigger a cycle of devaluation, inflation and austerity. On top of that, the debt, which until that point had been denominated in euros or in dollars would suddenly increase as a result of this devaluation. Every left government which decided to take measures in favour of the working class would certainly be put under enormous pressure by international capitalism. But from a tactical point of view it would be better in this test of strength to use membership in the euro zone as a source of conflict.
It is basically true that the European project based on the single currency is not coherent and is incomplete. It removes a variable of adjustment, the exchange rate, from the set of different prices and salaries inside the euro zone. The countries in the periphery thus have the choice between the German path of freezing wages or suffering a reduction in competitivity and loss of markets. This situation leads to a sort of impasse and there are no solutions that can be applied straight away: going backwards would throw Europe in a crisis which would hit the most fragile countries hardest.; and beginning a new European project seems out of reach at the moment.
If the euro zone explodes the most fragile economies would be destabilised by speculative attacks. Not even Germany would have anything to gain because its currency would appreciate in value uncontrollably and the country would undergo what the Unites States is today trying to impose on several countries with its monetary policy.[ii]
Other solutions exist which need a complete recasting of the European Union: a budget which is financed by a common tax on capital and which finances harmonisation funds and investments which are both socially and ecologically useful and richer countries help poorer ones with their public debt. But again this outcome is not possible in the short term, not through lack of alternative plans but because implementing them requires a radical change in the balance of forces at the European level.
What should we do at a very difficult moment like this? The struggle against the austerity plans and refusing to pay the debt are the launch pad for a counter offensive. We then have to make sure that the resistance is strengthened by arguing for an alternative project and work out a programme which offers both “practical” answers as well as a general explanation of the class content of the crisis.[iii]
The specific task of the radical, internationalist left is to link the social struggles happening in each country with arguing for a different kind of Europe. What are the ruling classes doing? They are facing up to the policies they have to follow because they are defending interests which are still largely nationally based and contradictory. Yet as soon as they have to impose austerity measures on their own working classes they present a solid united front.
There are better things to do than emphasise the very real differences that exist between the countries. What’s at stake is having an internationalist point of view on the crisis in Europe. The only way of really opposing the rise of the far right is by suggesting other targets than the usual scapegoats. We can affirm a real international solidarity with the peoples who are suffering most due to the crisis by demanding that the debts are shared equally across Europe. Thus we have to oppose an alternative project for Europe to that of the European bourgeoisie which is dragging every country backwards socially. How is it possible not to understand that our mobilisations, which are faced with coordination of the ruling class at a European level, need to be based on a coordinated project of our own? While it is true that struggles happen in a national framework they would be strengthened by a perspective like this instead of being weakened or led down nationalist dead ends. The students who demonstrated in London chanting “all in this together, all in this together” are a symbol of this living hope.
For a European Strategy
The task is as difficult as the period which the crisis has opened. However the radical left must not get locked into the impossible choice and start the risky adventure of leaving the euro and a utopian idea of currency harmonisation. We could easily work on some intermediate targets which challenge the European institutions. For example:
· The states of the European Union should borrow directly from the European Central Bank (ECB) at very low rates of interest and private sector banks should be obliged to take over a a certain proportion of the public debt.
· A default mechanism should be put in place, which allows public sector debt to be written off in proportion to tax breaks for the rich and money spent on bank bailouts.
· Budgetary stabilisation has to be reformed by a fiscal reform which taxes movements of capital, financial transactions, dividends, large fortunes, high salaries and incomes from capital at a standard rate across Europe.
We have to understand that these objectives are neither further or closer away than an “exit from the euro” which would be beneficial to working people. It would definitely be absurd to wait for a simultaneous and co-ordinated exit by every European country. The only strategic hypothesis that one can then conceive of must take as its starting point the experience of a social transformation which starts in one country. The government of the country in questions takes measures, for example imposing a tax on capital. If it is thinking clearly it will anticipate the retaliation for which it will be the target and will impose controls on capital. By taking this fiscal reform measure it is openly in conflict with the rules of the European game. It has no interest in unilaterally leaving the euro. This would be an enormous strategic mistake since the new currency would immediately come under attack with the aim of pulling down the economy of the “rebel” country.
We have to give up on the idea that there are “technical” shortcuts, assume that conflict is inevitable and build a favourable balance of forces of which the European dimension is a part. One point of support for that is the ability to damage capitalist interests. The country, which starts, could restructure the debt, nationalise foreign capital etc, or threaten to do it. The “left” governments of Papandreou in Greece or Zapatero in Spain have not even dreamed of doing this.
The main point of support comes from taking the measures cooperatively. This is completely different from classic protectionism, which basically always tries to gain ground by nibbling at parts of the global market. Every progressive measure on the other hand is effective to the extent that it is shared across a number of countries. We should therefore be talking about a strategy, which is based on the following idea: we are willing to tax capital and we will take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. But we are also hoping for these measures, which we propose, to be implemented across Europe.
We can sum up by saying that rather than seeing them in opposition to each other we have to think hard about the link between breaking the neoliberal European project and our project of creating a new Europe.
[ii] Michael Hudson, “US Quantitative Easing Is Fracturing the Global Economy”, http://gesd.free.fr/hudsonqi.pdf[iii] Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) Portugal: “On the crisis and how to overcome it”, May 23rd 2010, http://gesd.free.fr/bloco510.pdf
Alf Filer draws some conclusions from the far right’s announcement that it plans to attack student demonstrations.
“The next time the students want to protest in our capital, the English Defence League (EDL) will be there.” So threatened ex British National Party (BNP) supporter Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley Lennon , in a speech at Peterborough on 11 December. The EDL , as expected, have thrown in their lot with those forces attacking both the students and any other trade union opposition to the cuts. Fascism is the last defence of capitalism.
Such a statement confirms what most of us knew. The EDL are committed to developing into a hardened street fighting organisation determined first to attack Muslims and then to use that to divide working people, through the scapegoating of innocent victims of the capitalist crises. They see mass student resistance on the streets as being a real challenge, with an ability to mobilise and unite working class youth and trade unionists, whilst making it clear the enemy is not Muslims but the ConDem government, the City, their banker friends and the ruling class.
The racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and reactionary statements coming from the EDL represent a classical attempt by fascists to attack the working class and their allies, in defence of capital. Whilst claiming to be a working class movement of ordinary people, the EDL does not in any way represent or class. It is a crude and violent attempt to act as the storm troopers of capitalism. Some of their organisers may be of the working class but they are certainly not for the working class. Many of its leaders are petty bourgeois small business men, with a few secret financial backers. Their role is certainly not to protect workers from the ravages of the crises, far from it. Congratulations must go to those who recently hacked into the EDL website and exposed some of their supporters.
In Germany, the Brown Shirts violently attacked Jews, gays, trade unionists and socialists in the 20’s and 30’s, blaming unemployment and economic crises on a so-called Zionist Conspiracy. They resurrected the old Tsarist blood lie to frighten voters into supporting them, whilst using street violence to intimidate and attack opponents. Only a divided working class, resulting from a failure of the Communist and Socialist Parties to unite, enabled the Nazis to take power, using the jackboot and the ballot box. The lessons of the rise of fascism in the 30’s and the defeats and human tragedies that then followed in the Holocaust, must be fully understood by the movement today if we are to successfully prevent this being repeated. Stalinism and Social Democracy attempted then to disarm the proletariat in the struggle for Socialism. The united front tactic put forward by Trotsky and his supporters then are just as relevant and essential now.
We totally endorse the statement by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) national officer Martin Smith:
“Some people in the antifascist movement have argued that if the EDL comes to your town, you should stay at home, ignore them and hope they’ll go away. We think that’s wrong. There are fascist elements with a growing influence in the EDL – and if you give an inch to a fascist, they’ll come back for more.
… When they attack one community, it’s an attack on all of us. And we should remember that if we all come together and stand united, there are many, many more of us than them.”
The EDL is planning to return to where it first started its racist marches, in Luton, on Saturday 5th February. Students and young workers will be there, alongside trade unionists, socialists, community groups, anti-cuts campaigners and many others to make it clear whose streets it is and that it does not belong to the fascists.
In Harrow, Tower Hamlets, Manchester, Glasgow, Burnley, Cardiff and in many other towns and cities across the country, thousands marched in defence of all communities against fascist and racist threats. The cry, “They shall not pass” and “ No Platform for Fascists”, was once again raised in defiance of attempts by the police, the media and the Establishment to protect the EDL whilst arresting anti-fascists and bringing of charges against the leaders of the UAF. This duplicity by the state was rewarded by the EDL subsequently attacking police lines on recent marches, to try to prove who the better street fighters were.
There are those in the anti-fascist movement, who have argued for a position that state bans should be relied on to prevent the fascists from marching. Instead of mass mobilisations organised through local based and democratic anti-fascist committees, Hope Not Hate and others have argued that we should call on the police and the Home Office to ban the EDL. Unfortunately, even if they wanted to, the state representatives make it clear that static demos are not illegal. This does not prevent them using police horses, illegal kettling, batons and other similar tactics to prevent students and youth from opposing the cuts. Some in the media have even suggested the use of water cannons and rubber bullets to put down the students, whilst turning a blind eye to the fascists.
The state is not, and never has been, neutral. State violence is used to reinforce class oppression and oppose resistance by working people and organized labour. The same capitalist state that inhumanely mistreats the children of asylum seekers at places such as Yarls Wood, batons and assaults students such as Alfie Meadows in Whitehall, will be the state that attacks workers on picket lines in defence of jobs. Only united action on the streets, as shown at Cable Street in the 1936 and in Harrow 2 years ago, can prevent the fascists from marching.
Although the BNP lost their seats in Barking and Dagenham, along with other electoral losses in the last general and local council elections, their vote had increased to over half a million nationally. This, combined with votes for other far right and nationalist candidates, shows that they are not finished, in spite of recent splits and faction fights. Nick Griffin is considering whether to run in the forthcoming Oldham and Sandlewood by-election.
Labour and immigation
Yet is the Labour Party able to present a challenge, given its record on immigration controls, support for public spending cuts and accepting the case for cutting the size of the budget deficit?
Disillusionment by working people is understandable when all three political parties argue that cuts are inevitable in one way or another. The disgraced former Labour MP, Phil Woolas, was happy to play the race card by accusing his Liberal Democrat opponent of trying to woo the votes of Muslim extremists.
Similarly, in the middle of the Dagenham election campaign, Margaret Hodge, New Labour Culture Minister at the time, called for tighter immigration quotas. Yet in campaigning against Griffin, anti-racists had to point out the racist nature of immigration controls and how racism cannot be fought with racist arguments. All immigration controls are by definition racist. Theresa May, the ConDem Home Office minister has now also faced defeats following successful appeals over immigration restrictions that her Government had recently introduced. Even the City accepts that immigration controls can have a harmful effect on the economy, yet they only want the restrictions lifted on their “ overpaid key workers” not all workers, many on very low pay.
Democracy in UAF
Over the past 2 years, many in the anti-fascist movement, along with Socialist Resistance, have been urging the UAF to maximise the support it has attracted by convening its long delayed AGM. The aim of this is to enable full and frank discussion within the wider movement on tactics and strategy for organising mass mobilisations effectively and so strengthen the anti-fascist movement. Such an AGM would also permit a more open, democratic and approach, with wider representation on the national committee of the UAF. Unfortunately this is where we must disagree with the dominant political force in the UAF, the SWP. Whilst we welcome and recognise the dedication of their members to this struggle, we do not agree with their methodology.
A more open and democratic structure at local and national level , as opposed to a top down approach, would enable the UAF to deepen its links within the labour movement, at the base. Whilst having endorsements from trade union and political leaders, it is the participation of activists in its everyday life that will enable the UAF to succeed. Perhaps this is where the UAF can learn some of the lessons from the Coalition of Resistance, with over 100 people on its National Council. Internal democracy is not a luxury it is a necessity.
Similarly it has been raised for the need by the UAF to convene an international conference, bringing together the international experiences of the anti-fascist movement, linking in with the international struggle against austerity measures across Europe and beyond. The present crises is international and the struggle against this and fascism must be international also.
The emergence over the past year of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, and their active involvement in the Coalition of Resistance is a very positive development in the struggle against racism and the cuts, based on the important principle of autonomy and self organisation. It is not sufficient to simply sloganise “black and white unite and fight”. This shows how the victims of racism can unite with the anti-cuts movement and so strengthen the struggle. Similarly we are seeing similar movements emerging amongst women, gays and people with disabilities. They quite rightly are not prepared to accept being patronised but be accepted and welcomed as equals, who have the right to maintain their independence.
The challenge facing the anti-cuts campaigns at a local and national level is to develop a unifying strategy that can reach out to all sections of the working class communities, developing a clear anti-racist and anti-sexist perspective. The labour movement must totally reject any formula that is based on protecting “British jobs for British workers”. The only winners from such a campaign will be the racists and fascists. Internationalism must be at the forefront of our struggle against austerity measures at all times.