Friday 3 January 2014

A moment for revolutionary ambition

2013 was, to put it mildly, a bad year for the far left in Britain. It began with the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) bursting out publicly, and ended with the second mass resignation from that party after a year-long battle over the basic principles of women’s liberation.

This essay is about how, as 2014 begins, we can move on and build something better. It is primarily addressed to the latest wave of resignees, and is based on my own experiences of the past year, as someone who resigned from the SWP in January 2013 and was involved in founding the International Socialist Network after the first mass resignation in March. I don’t speak for the IS Network (I’m sure plenty of IS Network members will disagree with much of this) and I certainly don’t intend to tell you what to do. But hopefully my writing this will let you learn from my experiences – and from my mistakes.

What do you mean, ambition?

Let’s start with the central point. Consider a few numbers. The SWP’s membership figures are much disputed, but while there may still be a higher number paying subs, I feel reasonably confident from reported aggregate attendances that its active membership is now below 1,000 – and likely to shrink further. Its closest “competitor”, the Socialist Party, is generally thought to be slightly smaller than that. There is little else of any size. Your proto-group is, at least in theory, already in third place.

The far left, then, is small – much smaller than we previously believed it to be. A group of a few hundred might not seem very many, yet it is enough to put you into contention. A group of 400-500 would seem quite large, in a relative sense. A few hundred more and you’d have a serious chance of challenging for the top spot, especially if your organisation was young and dynamic versus one that…well, isn’t. There is nothing that says we have to remain in our small groups – as if it’s only the SWP that can be the biggest.

Of course, it’s not some kind of league table. Becoming the largest group isn’t an end in itself. But if you have left the SWP, you have clearly concluded that it is not fit for purpose. Therefore, surely, the task we face is to attempt to replace the SWP. This doesn’t mean founding an “SWP Mark II” – far from it: it means looking for a way to build something of an equivalent size and profile, but on a much better basis, having learned the lessons of the SWP crisis. The argument of this essay is that such an organisation is within reach – if you are willing to take the initiative. Nothing about what happens next is inevitable.

“Slow down!”

The most common objection to the above is not so much the principle of it as the speed. This argument has been and remains strong in the IS Network, and clearly has some weight among the former SWP opposition as well. We need to take it slow, the argument goes – we have just been through a draining factional battle, and left a party we’ve been in for, in some cases, decades. Before we do anything wider, we need time to think – we need to clarify our own politics.

My intent is not to caricature this argument – it is a serious point. On leaving the SWP, people experience a combination of a parallax shift, demoralisation, a newfound sense of freedom, grief, anger, and what some might call political disorientation, though I’d pose it more positively as an openness to new and different ideas. In this situation it is sorely tempting to retreat into your shell, read a pile of books a mile high and attempt to discover yourself anew. Indeed, I’d never suggest you shouldn’t read lots of books and explore a much wider horizon of revolutionary politics. But I need to introduce you to your number one enemy: drift.

Drift is, in essence, caused by reflection without activity. Let’s look at the IS Network’s experience. A relatively significant number of people left the SWP, signed up for the network, and then were never heard from again. Why did this happen? In the early days (and do take these as criticisms of myself rather than aimed at others) we did not pay enough attention to the most persistent complaint in the network, namely, “the IS Network doesn’t do anything”. Personally I used to respond, “You are the IS Network – do whatever you want to do,” but such appeals to the DIY spirit didn’t cut much ice. Individuals were doing plenty, but often didn’t really see the point of being in a group if everything was left to them as individuals.

What they were flagging up is that, while they like the idea of a loose network and certainly didn’t want an overbearing apparatus breathing down their necks, they really expected a higher level of organisation. Ex-SWP members are used to being, at the very least, heavily prompted. Members were crying out for regular phone calls, more emails, text messages, meetings to go to, a publication, and everything else we have been used to – a bit of direction! Some get along fine without this kind of thing, but many more do not. We spent too much time saying, “What’s the rush?” And – if we are honest – we shrank as a consequence.

Two hundred members can so easily become 100, or lower – in fact this is a recurring feature in the history of splits. Whatever their professed intentions, people do not hang around for long waiting for things to get started. Before you know it, you are too small to sustain regular meetings in most towns, too small to make an impact, too small to test your ideas in practice – and, in something of a catch 22, too small to be an attractive prospect for people to join.

Any talk of urgency tends to get people’s backs up, particularly because of the way the concept was stretched to its breaking point inside the SWP, but comrades, you do not have the luxury of years to get a new group up and running and active after a split. If you want to avoid drift, you have a matter of months. You can say “What’s the rush?” but a large number of your members and potential members will say, “This is going nowhere, I’m off.”

I don’t want to sound apocalyptic: the IS Network has achieved things, particularly in its openness to new theory and to an extent in its internal structure and democracy (the steering committee, to take one example, has guaranteed gender balance, caucus reps and open publication of all its minutes). To look back on its early days is to see how far we’ve come politically on issues such as feminism and intersectionality, neoliberalism and the changing working class, and so on. It has also picked up members beyond the faction it came out of, most of them ex-SWP members of various vintages, who were drawn in by its political direction. As I said at IS Network conference, the network has lots of good ideas – but it lacks the levels of membership and organisation needed to put them into practice. Without being too crude, this is mostly a result of moving too slowly.

Politics first?

The deeper root of the problem is the separation of theory from activity: the notion that we need “a period of discussion”, to achieve clarity, before we can begin to organise. Once this idea takes hold, the analysis is never quite perfect enough, and somehow the time to start organising never comes. Of course, there is also an opposite danger: that we throw ourselves into “mindless activism”, building demonstrations and such in the classic SWP mode, without rethinking the model and its political problems – but I believe this is currently less of a threat. We do not currently suffer from hyperactivism, but from a general lack of activism.

In any case, the way out of this dichotomy is that theory and activity must not be sequential but simultaneous. (You can use the word “dialectic” if you must.) We will not build better theory through “time off” from activity, but through experimenting with new types of activity and drawing theoretical conclusions as we go. Of course you may feel you need some time with your partner, relative or children, or just with your own thoughts, and no one should ever begrudge you that after what you’ve been through. But many will find that activity is, so to speak, “the best medicine”.

To give a personal example, after I left the SWP I did plenty of thinking and writing – on what went wrong, on Leninism, you know the kind of thing. But it was only after I got involved in Left Unity, and began working to build it as a new party of the left – debating with and campaigning alongside current and former members of various left groups, ex-Labour people, ex-Greens and people who’d not been a member of anything before – that my politics began once more to crystallise. You may not be too keen on my current positions, but the point stands: political clarity does not appear in a vacuum.

Clarity is, in any case, a slippery concept. In the early days of the IS Network, and now again among the recent SWP leavers, there is the idea that we will clarify our ideas over time – that whatever we set up, the most important question is not organisational but the politics we share. Well, yes and no. While we may all be on a journey towards clarity, we are also travelling on different trajectories. In the IS Network, some have become more orthodox Trotskyist, some more left communist, some more anarchist. Some see the best hope as the construction of a new approach fit for 2013, based on contemporary theoretical work instead of a return to any particular canon. (Yes, I see myself in the latter group.) As we followed the logic of our new courses, the political space between us has widened.

While you may feel you have a surer footing in the IS tradition, don’t think that something similar won’t happen to you. There are two factors driving it. First, you no longer have the artificial consensus that prevailed in the SWP, where the only way to disagree with anything was through tactical nuances – you’re now free to outline your own direction, no matter how “heretical”. This is absolutely a good thing, but it also lends itself to rapid travel in different directions. Second, it’s obvious even at this remove that there was never one unitary opposition inside the party: the various declared factions were in reality coalitions of informal groupings based in part on shared politics but also significantly on social circles. It seems more likely than not that these informal groupings will continue to develop their politics in different ways. That dynamic could, if we are not careful, see the various ex-SWP groupings split into a dozen shards within a few years. (Look at the fate of the fragments of the Workers Revolutionary Party to see where this can end.)

Being too specific

Even if it were possible to set up a group of the former faction members based on a very high level of political agreement, would it be desirable? If a new group is too specific, too much a product of this factional battle, then it will find it difficult to recruit beyond that milieu. To put it bluntly, there is only one way its membership of such groups can go: down. An ability to incorporate a diversity of viewpoints, on the other hand, gives a group a fighting chance at growing.

This means a spirit of heterodoxy – there cannot be one single political “line” that everyone is expected to hold to. An organisation that is going to grow in the 21st century (in particular, in the age of the internet) cannot dedicate itself to the construction of a new orthodoxy, and cannot be a monolith. Young people, shaped by online discussions, the student movements and Occupy, will either refuse to join such a group or begin to break it apart if they do.

Hold your horses…are you advocating, gasp, permanent factions? No – and please, let us leave permanent factions where they belong, in the central committee’s big box of red herrings. Factions formed in the SWP in recent years not because there was too much freedom, but because there was too little – if you wanted to disagree about anything in an organised way, forming a faction was the only way to do it. In a healthier organisation, it is perfectly possible to, for example, agree with somebody (or informal grouping) about anti-fascism just as vehemently as you disagree with them about the trade unions, then come back at the next meeting and find your positions reversed. Factions are not the same thing as open disagreement and debate.

None of this means, either, that I am advocating a “talking shop”. The aim of our discussions must be unity around specific, agreed actions, as the result of a productive debate between differing perspectives that leads to the best achievable synthesis. It means actively looking for commonalities as a basis for action. You already have “camps” of a sort, and it’s little use denying that: the question is how to structure the debate to avoid them becoming entrenched – and to avoid minorities being harshly treated. It is necessary to draw out not only the areas of disagreement but the areas of agreement, in particular those that can lead to common activity.

There is one other corollary here: a group that can tolerate differences internally will soon find that its differences with other sensible far-left groups no longer appear so insurmountable. Many are assuming that you (the former faction) have a set of shared politics, and that this is different to what you assume are the shared politics of the IS Network. Neither assumption stands up. In truth there are more differences within our groups than between them. This is what gives an opportunity to aim for a revolutionary regroupment.

The road to regroupment

The best antidote to the danger of fragmentation discussed above is surely a conscious and sustained drive towards the maximum achievable unity. We cannot simply hope that a joint organisation will emerge from working together – unity does not come out of nowhere, even with common work: it requires conscious and sustained effort. We have to deliberately attempt to wear down the divides that have unfortunately begun to appear. The best way to do this, in my view, is to build a pluralist organisation – that is, one open to revolutionaries beyond those who were recently in the SWP.

The IS Network has been talking about revolutionary regroupment since its inception, and participating in unity talks and joint work with other groups. What we have in common with the groups we have worked most closely with, Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance, is that they have rejected the road of the left sect – in fact they are already modest regroupment initiatives in and of themselves. The most significant results of this so far have been a part-fusion with Anticapitalist Initiative, whose London members have recently joined the IS Network and whose conference voted to continue on the path towards full fusion, and the development of a joint free magazine between the three groups, The Exchange.

It’s no secret that if I had my way we’d be in one organisation already, but all the same the process of unity continues to move along – and all involved have expressed their desire for you to be part of it. Socialist Resistance, in its most recent formal letter to the IS Network (11 December 2013), say they believe the best outcome would be “regroupment between our three organisations…along with any new groupings which might come out of the SWP after its conference if they share this kind of perspective. In fact if such groupings did emerge involving them in this process would be an important priority.” We have agreed to hold an open conference on revolutionary unity in March 2014, which is in the process of being organised and, depending on what happens, could prove well timed as a focus for further discussion.

The product of this would not simply be a bigger IS Network (or a bigger Socialist Resistance etc). These groups can be the raw materials of a larger regroupment: a new united revolutionary organisation that would be greater than the sum of its parts, laying down a marker after the SWP crisis and, vitally, drawing in significant numbers who are currently non-aligned. It’s not just about size either – people from other traditions (and no fixed tradition) bring their own rich wells of theory and experience to the table, helping us break out of the orthodoxy we could otherwise lapse into.

I am regularly asked when we’re going to set up such a thing by people who know we’ve been talking about it and want to join it. Importantly, if it was set up on a pluralist and democratic basis, it would be more habitable for such people than any current project – it could be in with a chance of ending or at least curtailing the “revolving door” nature of membership of revolutionary groups. This would be revolutionary ambition: a project with the potential to grow large enough to fill the space described at the start of this article.

Unity without “merger”

Does that mean spending the next year or so in unity talks, talks about unity talks, cautious joint meetings and so on? I see no reason why it needs to. A new group could, instead, take the form of an open invitation: you could say, “We’re setting up a new organisation, and if you agree with these fundamental principles, you are welcome to join, right now.” The specifics would be for you to decide – but we know that we agree, at the very least, not only on the need for revolution, but also on socialism from below, anti-oppression, anti-imperialism and more besides. This already places us in something like 0.001% of society. Do we really need to be any narrower than that?

Within such a framework we could work out further details through democratic debate and discussion. Current members of the other groups mentioned above could be invited to join now and dissolve their groups when they are ready. For what it’s worth, if this happened then I for one would argue for immediate dissolution of the IS Network (in fact, the IS Network has already voted that it would reconstitute itself together with you if the opportunity arose, which isn’t too far off this suggestion). There is little point in our little network – an in my view innovative but essentially half-constituted and unorganised project – acting as a barrier between us. I see no reason why any of the projects IS Network members are involved in, from working in Left Unity to the planned women’s publication, would be stopped or hindered by joining this new group. We should be ready to simply sign up without some extended programme of grand negotiations.

This would not be a “merger” – it would be the founding of a whole new organisation, involving you and us alongside those who are, for the moment, members of other groups. It’s not about you relating to the IS Network, per se, but seizing the moment and setting up something we can all be part of, alongside hopefully hundreds of others beyond our collective ranks.

If I had my time again, I would have pushed for the IS Network to take this kind of form on day one instead of setting itself up as a separate group and then holding “talks” with other groups. After all, if we are serious about setting up a new revolutionary organisation, don’t we need to draw in the widest numbers we can at the earliest opportunity? If you want to replace the SWP, why draw the boundaries of a new group in such a way that it only includes ourselves?

This, in sum, is my message to you. On leaving the SWP you have a moment where nothing is fixed, anything is possible, and all eyes are on what you’re going to do next. This moment does not last forever – to wait is to squander it. What happens this year will shape the far left in Britain for decades to come. You have the opportunity to take the initiative, and to regroup the healthy parts of the revolutionary left around you. If I were in your shoes next weekend, I’d take it. Another left is possible.

Thursday 22 August 2013

A rare opportunity

This piece was published on the Socialist Resistance website

If there’s one thing the Trotskyist left is known for, it’s splitting. What if we could do something different?

I write as a member of the International Socialist Network, a group founded by those who left the Socialist Workers Party earlier this year. Given the scale of the crisis over rape inside that organisation, and its continuing degeneration since, this was a split that was clearly justified. We are proud of what we have built already in the short time since. Yet we are still conscious that we have added, yet again, to the total number of groups on the far left – another flavour for the ’57 varieties’, even if we think it’s quite a tasty one.

That’s why, from its beginning, the IS Network has been talking about unity. At our first national meeting in April, we voted to seek talks on a new realignment of the revolutionary left, and to respond positively to requests to participate from Socialist Resistance and the Anticapitalist Initiative. Since then we have not only held several rounds of talks but started holding joint meetings of the three groups in localities where there is crossover.

At this point you might ask: why these groups in particular? After all, there is a whole menu to choose from on the left. I think what unites these groups is some basic convergences of approach: we have learned the same lessons, albeit at different times and in different ways.

One of the greatest differences between the IS Network and our former party is the recognition that feminism must be central to our politics. There must be no place for sexism in our organisation, and this can never be treated as somehow a ‘secondary’ issue. Linked is the key importance of gender balance on all elected bodies, and of self-organised caucuses in making sure we fight all forms of oppression, including within the network itself.

We’ve also learned about the failure of the ‘sect’ model of organisation. A lot flows from this. We need to discuss our differences openly, not say that internal arguments are for our eyes only. We must reject the King Canutes who demand ‘democratic centralist’ control over what members write on Facebook, and their suspicion of the internet (and novelty in general). We cannot ever have debate closed down by bureaucratic diktat. As the three groups’ joint statement after the latest round of talks put it, we need to ‘move away from the top down and monolithic conception of revolutionary organisation’.

This was a model that, let’s face it, was unappealing even before the SWP leadership hit the self-destruct button. The party had utterly failed to grow despite years of protracted capitalist crisis and the new resistance it has sparked – it was able to recruit some activists from these struggles, but it proved too inhospitable an environment for the vast majority of them.

We need to look, really look, at the world once more – not refracted through dogma and long-stale formula, but as it is, as we experience it every day. We need to admit that neoliberalism did change the working class. Young workers in particular are today far more likely to find themselves in unorganised workplaces than organised ones. The most depressing thing about the recent furore over zero-hours contracts was realising how many people I know who have one. We can see pretty clearly that we aren’t part of a 1970s-style militant trade union movement, so why pretend we are? Instead we need to ask what we can do to organise our generation, and rebuild the basics of solidarity.

At the same time the new wave of feminism is booming. More and more people are getting involved in politics through campaigns against Page 3, lads’ mags and rape culture, and being inspired by new theoretical work around intersectionality and privilege. We are seeing a revival of the environmental movement over the threat of fracking. A pattern forms: young, decentralised, non-hierarchical movements with an accent on social media and direct action. No doubt the seeds of the next are being planted as I write. Are we going to turn up and try to sell them a newspaper with all the ‘answers’, or are we going to genuinely participate, engage – and learn?

We may not all agree with all of the above, especially as it is becoming clearer over time that IS Network is a relatively heterogeneous grouping. Nevertheless, there is a common direction of travel. Most of all it is a shared willingness to rethink the big questions, instead of asserting our eternal correctness on all things.

OK, so we’re thinking along similar lines. Still, why not just work together while staying in our separate groups? Why talk about a new organisation?

We’ve been floating the idea for long enough now that we’ve almost become casual about it. The truth is that this is not the kind of situation that comes around every day. The largest group on the revolutionary left has all but collapsed, leaving a substantial political space – and the opportunity to fill it with something much better than what has existed before. An organisation on the far left that didn’t burn out and drive out its members would, in turn, strengthen the left as a whole.

A new, pluralist organisation would be greater than the sum of its parts. Having people in the room from different traditions gives us a chance to have genuine, productive debate – not the kind of debate where a minority gets smashed into tiny pieces, but a discussion where people on all sides shift at least a little, and we come to a better overall position together than we might have alone.

Importantly, many would join this new united revolutionary organisation. After all, the left almost never does this! Imagine: not another split, but this time a fusion – one dedicated to making itself fit for the 21st century. It has bags of potential to grow, and quickly. Several people have already told us directly: when you set it up, I’ll join it.

Of course, I can’t pretend it’s all onwards and upwards for the unity talks. Some are concerned about it all moving too fast. Many within IS Network want more time for us to discuss and decide our own politics before we become part of something bigger. An additional complicating factor is that members inside each of our groups have found themselves supporting different platforms within the founding process of Left Unity. The overall question of exactly how a new revolutionary organisation would work both within and alongside Left Unity remains to be discussed, among plenty of other issues.

Within a democratic, pluralist, multi-tendency organisation, however, it should be possible to organise together while debating and at times – gasp – not all doing and arguing the same thing. The age of the ‘line’ being delivered from high is over. We can do much better than that.

Likewise, unity cannot be declared from above: that’s why the groups have a joint national meeting in the works on the issue of revolutionary regroupment, and why we’re continuing to develop our joint work locally. Yet while joint local work is good, and vital if we are to build up mutual trust, a national fusion would make a far bigger impact on the landscape of the left – and one pluralist organisation, after all, is surely better than three different ones. The time is coming when we will have to decide whether to take the plunge. We have an unusual chance to do something new and interesting. If you ask me, we should grab it.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Which way for Left Unity? The case for the Left Party Platform

This article was published on the Left Unity website, as part of the debate in the run-up to its founding conference about what kind of party it should become.

LogoGreyIn only a few months, more than 9,000 people have signed up to an appeal by film director Ken Loach to set up a new party, and 90 local groups have been established in towns and cities across the country. But Loach – wanting, rightly, to be more a figurehead than a “leader” – did not put forward an elaborate political statement for people to sign up to, simply an appeal to discuss a new party and what it could look like. And that’s where we are today.

Left Unity, through its nascent democratic structures, has agreed to hold a founding conference of this new party in November. It will be open to all who sign up as founding members of the party. And it will vote on statements of the fundamental principles the party should stand for.

In the past weeks, two “platforms” – that is, cross-branch collectives of Left Unity members – have formed to put forward different founding statements: the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform. I have signed up to the Left Party Platform and the more elaborate background document that supports it. In this article I intend to explain why.

Two approaches to Left Unity

The debate between the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform is, for me, a welcome one. I understand there is some nervousness out there about the idea of having platforms at all, or that it will cause the debate to become “polarised”. But I believe there are two fundamentally different visions of a new party of the left in play, and it is better to pick one now than to fudge the issue.

The Left Party Platform stands, I believe, for the kind of project that thousands signed up to when they signed up to Left Unity: a party that can include everyone to the left of Labour. It is a clear left statement, but without being overly dogmatic or prescriptive.

I do not claim to agree with every dot and comma, but it is a platform that I am happy with as a basis. (There is still a chance to move minor amendments in November in any case.) I believe it would give Left Unity tremendous potential to grow and start to make inroads towards becoming a mass party. Already Left Unity’s meetings in many towns are bigger than any other left group’s, and it’s only just getting going. The space to the left of Labour is enormous – and as Labour moves further to the right, it gets bigger every day. In this moment of crisis and the rise of UKIP, even a moderately successful left party could pull the whole debate in society back towards the left, and win real defensive victories over the welfare state.

The Socialist Platform, by contrast, takes the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism as its starting point. It is a far narrower statement – just about acceptable to a few different kinds of socialist, but distinctly unappealing to most people on the wider left. It is a recipe, I think, for narrowing the party to those who are already convinced socialists, plus a few more who we might be able to persuade as we went along. Ultimately it would limit Left Unity’s horizons to uniting the existing organised left, becoming perhaps a slightly better version of TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).

Shouldn’t we argue for the “most radical” platform?

As a consequence of the way the argument has been set up, some people I wouldn’t have expected are signing up to the Socialist Platform, essentially on the basis of “we’re socialists, so we should sign up to the socialist one”. It sounds obvious – but I think it’s a fundamental mistake.

Remember, we’re not discussing platforms to organise within Left Unity in the longer term, to attempt to win people round to their way of thinking inside an established party. We’re not yet talking about cohering the revolutionary minority inside a broader organisation. The platforms are there to argue for different founding statements; that is, different kinds of party to begin with. The debate is about the fundamental principles and aims that the party should stand for – and, most significantly, about who should and shouldn’t be a member.

So the question to ask when reading different platforms isn’t “do I, personally, agree with this?” (If you’re reading this, you’re probably some kind of socialist, so of course you’re likely to have a higher level of agreement with a “more socialist” platform.) The question to ask yourself, instead, is “should agreement with this statement be a condition of membership of Left Unity?”

The the Left Party Platform tries to set out only the fundamentals – and this is part of the reason why it has been criticised in some quarters as “bland” or “anodyne”. We’re told that, horror of horrors, it doesn’t set out a clear roadmap for the transition from capitalism to socialism. We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes – exactly! That’s the point! It is explicitly inclusive of socialism and explicitly opposed to capitalism, but it is not a blunt instrument. It says:

“Many agree that we need a new left party which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies will stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its immediate tasks will be to oppose austerity and the scapegoating which accompanies it, defend the welfare state and those worst affected by the onslaught, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.”

(Note the helpful distinction there between ideology and the “immediate tasks” of defending the welfare state, which we’ll return to in a moment.)

If we want a “broad party” – that is, a party that be inclusive of people who hold the wide array of different ideologies and traditions that make up the left – we need a statement that doesn’t demand agreement with a long list of specifics, but sets out the basics of the political situation and a few fundamental political principles that we believe are essential. If it’s not essential, it doesn’t belong there. Otherwise we are simply excluding people from the party before we’ve even had the debate with them.

We aren’t going to win anyone to socialism by demanding they sign up to it as a condition of Left Unity membership. Better, surely, to pass a broad founding statement and then, after November, be a strong socialist current within a party much wider than ourselves.

Problems with the Socialist Platform

First and foremost, the problem with the Socialist Platform is that it reads like a “where we stand” statement for a revolutionary organisation. The formulations scream “Trotskyist” – yet at the same time, if we want to be purist about it, fall short of actually calling for revolution, leaving a collection of statements that we want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with socialism but ignoring the question of agency. Presumably socialism comes about when the party gets big enough? It’s the programme of a quite inadequate revolutionary socialist organisation, in the Socialist Party/Militant mould. (I don’t think Left Unity should aim to be the new revolutionary party – I’m just noting that if I were one of those who thought it should, the Socialist Platform doesn’t achieve that either.)

Let’s use the key test: should agreement with all these phrases be a condition of membership of Left Unity? Should you have to sign up not only to end capitalism but to replace it with this simultaneously overly specific (in ends) and very vague (in means) vision of “socialism”, just in order to be a member? Should you have to be absolutely sure that no socialist country has ever existed – you can’t even be a bit soft on Cuba or Venezuela – just to join? Should you have to sign up to replace the European Union with “a voluntary European federation of socialist societies”, which is anyway really just a get-out clause from an argument about our attitude to the EU?

Meanwhile more important issues are left unaddressed. Feminism goes unmentioned.

The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the “European Left Party” tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche. The Socialist Platform does not – and the accompanying document prefers to point to their problems (and of course they have problems) than to (critically) outline the inspiration they provide that successful parties to the left of traditional social democracy are possible.

At the time of writing, the supporting document for the Socialist Platform has been signed by seven of the people who have signed the statement itself, so it does not necessarily represent the views of all. However, I think it is worth engaging with briefly, as it makes more explicit the approach that lies behind the platform.

Firstly, loath as I am to use the term “ultra-left”, I think that is an accurate summation of this attitude to the welfare state: “No return to 1945… That alternative is not a return to the welfare state of the 1945 Labour government but an advance to a completely new form of society.” For a party in large part inspired by Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the construction of the welfare state and what it meant to ordinary people, these formulations would be odd to say the least. Forget the NHS, forget council housing, forget decent benefits, forget free education – that is, apparently, “managing capitalism, not getting rid of it”. Calling for renationalisations is slammed as a call for a “mixed economy”! After all, “[t]he profit system will remain, the nationalised industries will service big business” and it isn’t a call for “abolition of private ownership of the means of production more generally”. Don’t renationalise the railways comrades – abolish the private ownership of the means of production more generally!

There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.

But let’s leave that for now to look at the wider issues. This passage is intended to answer arguments such as mine when it comes to “socialism”:

“We do not believe that those who want to fight against austerity will be put off from joining a socialist party that openly and patiently argues its case. Who are the people who it is feared will walk away? Those who we campaign alongside in the anti-cuts campaigns, the anti-bedroom tax protests, opposition to imperialist wars and against racism are unlikely to be repelled by our arguments. We will say, ‘We want to fight here and now to [stop the privatisation of the NHS] [oppose the bedroom tax][oppose police brutality] but we also want to fight for a society in which we no longer have to get up each morning to fight these fights. We want a society in which hospitals don’t get closed and in which there is no police racism. It’s called socialism. But to get it we have to build a party that will campaign for it. You should join it.’ How will this put people off?”

I submit that this is exactly the kind of patronising of working class people that I have argued elsewhere the left needs to get away from. “It’s called socialism.” Oh, is it really? Tell me more, I’ve never heard of that. Perhaps you have a newspaper I could purchase?

The reality of the left – and the working class as a whole – is that it isn’t full of na├»ve activists just waiting to be brought the “good news” about socialism. People are not blank canvasses for our ideology. They have their own traditions and their own outlooks, arrived at through a lifetime of picking up a little here, a little there, and coming to a label they feel comfortable with (or, sometimes, rejecting labels altogether).

The whole spectrum of the left

A broad left party needs to encompass not only socialists, but feminists, greens/environmentalists, anarchists (and people who aren’t particularly anarchist in their practice but say they are anarchists), communists, syndicalists, autonomists, alongside people who might call themselves “mutualists”, or “co-operators”, or supporters of “parecon”, or just “radical”, or “libertarian left”, or any number of other more unusual self-descriptions – situationism, anyone? Not to mention combinations, like “eco-feminist” or “anarcho-communist”, and people who say things like “well, I don’t label myself” or “I just want to defend the welfare state”. And yes, the dreaded “left reformists” should also be included (though, of course, almost no one uses that term to refer to themselves). I’m sure I’ve missed plenty. These are the people who I “fear will walk away”. We need to try to weave together the many, many threads of left tradition into a common party.

The Socialist Platform supporting document answers this argument in this way:

“Another argument is that the supporters of this platform want a ‘narrow’ party, whereas they want a ‘broad’ party. We want a mass working-class party, which will include all who want to support the party’s aims. There is nothing to be gained from being in a narrow or small party. We set our sights on transforming society. We believe that can only be achieved by the majority of the working class acting in their own interests to get rid of capitalism and begin afresh. To reach that stage will require a mass party of millions of activist persuaders, millions of people who will argue for socialism.”

In other words they are for a “broad” party … of people who already agree with them. A “mass party” of millions who are going to appear from nowhere and embrace socialism, because socialism is just that great. The “activist persuaders” line is essentially a propagandist view, of the sort that has done the socialist left no favours for the last century or more.

My argument here annoys those who believe that parties are built through top-down “clarity” – first you come up with a clear programme (or set of politics), then you go out and build the party. But every attempt to build a mass party in this way has failed. Real parties are far messier creatures, containing a whole world of ideas that people bring with them into the party.

Of course plenty will arrive with no set ideology, or with ideas that are not very strongly held. A strong socialist presence will draw people closer to socialist ideas. Common struggle, open debate, genuine participation – all these things will draw people closer to us. But what will surely “put people off” is if we just insist from day one that socialism is the only “correct” left politics – it’s been proven by history, you know! – and insist that if they’re “put off” by it then they must be some kind of right winger.

One final point: Is this about “hiding” our socialism and voting for bad positions, in the style of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect? No – and I find this the most tedious accusation of all. The Left Party Platform is full of left principles, and certainly does not advocate the abandonment of any of them.

Supporting it is, simply, about being openly socialist, but not demanding that everyone else should be. It is about being the kind of socialist who can co-exist in a party with a wide spectrum of the left. If we’re going to demand that people agree with us before they can even join, then what is the point of having a new party at all? This is a crucial moment for Left Unity – and I believe the Left Party Platform offers the best way forward.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

How can we make the left relevant today?

This piece was published in issue 1 of The Exchange magazine.

The left in Britain exists in a bubble – one of its own making. The vast majority of people have never heard of most left groups and pay no attention when they pass them, standing around, trying to sell their newspapers. Much of the left looks anachronistic, in language and in form. It spends its time lecturing people about what they should think and proselytising for them to join – so much so that it has forgotten how to have a real discussion in terms that make sense to people. Most of all, it has forgotten how to listen.

The dominant model of organising on the left today, it’s sad to say, is the ‘sect’ – small groups with a heavy focus on recruitment to their own organisation. This model consumes vast amounts of time, money and activist energy, yet achieves little more than self-perpetuation: the slight growth of whichever group it is, in its never- ending quest to out-compete all the others. Groups construct what Karl Marx called “sectarian principles of their own” in order to differentiate themselves in this ideological ‘market’.

It is insular. It can – as we have seen recently in the Socialist Workers Party – become outright abusive. And it is massively out of date.

Despite years of capitalist crisis, the left has failed to rise to the challenge, failed to grow and failed to have an impact. In what should have been our moment we have been confined to the sidelines. We need to think again – we need to do things differently. Our first port of call should be to gain a much-lacking sense of humility.

We need a left that is open to debate, to forge a new way forwards. On this left there must be no ‘party line’ or suppression of differences. We need unity, but not false, oppressive unity. Ideas should come democratically from the bottom up, not the top down. No deference to ‘leaders’ who tell us what to do – and what to think.

In this debate there is much we will need to discuss. It is now indefensible, for example, not to embrace online organising. Print still has its place – as demonstrated here – but the internet is a better ‘organiser’ today than any newspaper.

The left can learn from the new movements that have swept Britain and the world over the last few years. Occupy – the latest wave of the anticapitalist movement. Feminism – an important and popular resurgence with all sorts of new ideas. The new environmental activism – saying that the situation on the climate is now too serious for the same old, same old.

It’s no use wielding some dusty old tome of Lenin or Trotsky in the general direction of these movements and saying that history has proved that they – and we – have all the answers. If we’re so damn right about everything, shouldn’t we be getting somewhere by now?

Another problem is the current left’s exclusive focus on well-organised (and usually older) public sector workers as the people who are going to lead the fightback. We need to admit what our generation, the generation that grew up under neoliberalism, already knows in its heart: that the neoliberal offensive transformed work permanently, and the 1970s rhythms of the left aren’t good enough any more. We need to organise the unorganised.

If we are to beat back the threat of the racist English Defence League, we need counter-mobilisations – but we are only ‘firefighting’ unless we tackle racism at its roots.

These are just a few of the issues we face. There is much rethinking to be done.

In the International Socialist Network – the group that recently left the Socialist Workers Party – we are involved in two initiatives that we believe share our ideas about how the left can become relevant again. We are pursuing revolutionary regroupment with the Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance, two groups that are also interested in building a multi-tendency, plural left that has these kinds of open debates.

On a broader level, we are part of the Left Unity initiative, to create a new party of the left and provide an alternative to the austerity being pushed by all the mainstream parties, including Labour. Left Unity is a project that can reach out to people who consider themselves ‘leftie’ and radical but not (yet) revolutionary, and give the kind of high profile to left arguments that the rise of UKIP has given to the hard right.

We don’t just want this party to stand in elections – we also want it to be an organising centre for the struggles ahead, of genuine use to the movements and with a fluid relationship with them. Already 8,000 people are signed up and a founding conference is planned for this November.

The left can be better. We’re sure of it.

Monday 10 June 2013

The potential of a People's Assembly

One thing is not in doubt: the People’s Assembly on Saturday 22 June will be a massive event. Local meetings in the run-up have been hundreds strong, and thousands of people will fill London’s huge Westminster Central Hall on the day. There have been quite a few anti-austerity conferences since the Tories took office in 2010, but nothing on this scale. If you haven’t registered already, you should go and do it right now. I’ll wait. (Yes, £8 is a bit steep, but really.)

OK, so we’re all going to the People’s Assembly. Great! The next question is: what are we, the organised left, going to do there? This is a contribution to that debate.

I want the People’s Assembly to be a success. It should be obvious, but I mean it. My aim here is not to ‘expose’ its leaders or some such, but to outline what I believe success would look like and how it could be achieved. The central argument of this article is that the People’s Assembly, already a good conference and a nice day out, has the potential to be something much more than that – but it’s going to need a little helping hand from the likes of us.

The ‘intervention’: how not to do it

The dominant far left model of what to do at big conferences (or at least, ones your particular group isn’t organising) is the ‘intervention’. This means organising groups of their members to get called to speak from the floor and push that left group’s ‘party line’. You can spot these people in a room quite easily – they are the ones who, as soon as there is a chance for contributions, shoot their arms high up into the air and keep them there. This also, happily, doubles up as a form of exercise.

Most of the groups present will have one obsession: the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy. ‘We hear fine words from Len McCluskey,’ they will say, ‘but where is the general strike?’ This is so predictable as to be tedious. Focusing on denouncing the union leaders is a constant temptation, especially in any room that may contain Dave Prentis, but it achieves little apart from making us look like sectarian wreckers.

I am for strikes. Obviously. I am for a general strike. I am for an indefinite general strike. I am also fully in favour of the union leaders getting together to make me a big chocolate cake. Saying all this, whether in this article or at the People’s Assembly, does not make any of it an inch more likely to happen.

The far left getting up and calling for a general strike doesn’t put the union leaders under any pressure, whatever we might imagine. It is empty sloganeering, of the type we used to mock when it came from ‘stopped clock’ groups like the Workers Revolutionary Party. The real purpose of such slogans is not to make a general strike happen, because that takes organisation not slogans – it is a way that the far left attempts to differentiate itself, by posing as the ‘most radical’ wing of the conference, and then saying ‘join us, we’re the ones arguing for a general strike’.

No, this is not an article in which I argue to let the union leaders off the hook. What I am interested in is looking at how we can apply pressure that will work, instead of just shouting into the air.

Top tables, workshops and pressure

There has been an interesting example of pressure from below when it comes to the organisation of the People’s Assembly itself. Though they now deny it, the organisers clearly conceived of the event as simply a mass rally, where speaker after speaker would tell us how bad austerity is, the breadth of speakers demonstrating how broad the movement is. This embodied the ‘get a big audience for the leaders’ approach of the initiative’s prime mover, Counterfire. (If this was really never the plan, then I’ve no idea why they booked a space like Central Hall.)

It was only under pressure that the organisers – by then including some more sensible types from the unions – announced hardly a month before the event that it would now be mostly devoted to workshops, or ‘sub-assemblies’. This is already a victory for the movement, though it is one that must be built on as I will spell out below.

First though, I think it is important to identify the source of this pressure. It came not so much from the organised left as from the anti-austerity movement itself. The points IS Network has been making loudly about the problems of top-down organisation, top table speakers and a lack of democracy on the left are not things that we have invented out of thin air – they are ideas that we ourselves have picked up from the movements. These arguments’ popularity speaks of the lasting influence of the Occupy/Indignados movements, and the anticapitalist movement before them, in spreading ‘horizontal politics’. Anyone who has been part of an Occupy-style assembly, for all their occasional problems, has been imbued with the excitement and empowerment of a bottom-up method of organising. They cannot help but find it a dissonant contrast to a more old-school meeting.

A closely connected phenomenon is the rise and rise of the internet – and with it the ‘network politics’ that Laurie Penny was keen to emphasise at IS Network’s public meeting last weekend. There is a tendency to put this all down to social media, but it is far more complex than that, embracing the whole range of tools that the net has put at our disposal – not just Facebook and Twitter, then, but websites themselves, blogs, forums, photo-sharing, YouTube and other video sites, Skype and similar tech… hell, even something as prosaic as email is transformative for organising compared to what came before it.

We have gradually, almost without noticing, entered a world in which anyone with an internet connection can be part of a massive global conversation – and they no longer demand their participation, they simply expect it. The organised left’s failure to understand this ‘participation generation’ is a significant factor behind its failure to grow throughout the years of capitalist crisis.

The agency of the ‘audience’

So, we’ve got workshops, and ‘the people’ who would have been disappointed to be lectured at what’s meant to be their assembly may instead get a chance to be heard. There might still be another bump in this road if we turn up to the workshops to find them packed with top-table speakers, but hopefully that can be overcome.

The real issue, though, is that hearing from the ‘audience’ is not enough. This hall, after all, will be packed with incredible people. Big delegations of trade unionists. Dedicated local campaigners. People of experience, skill and sound political judgement. I don’t just want them to get a few minutes to speak from the floor – I want the people to be the ones calling the shots in this People’s Assembly. In short, I want to turn the idea of ‘speakers and audience’ upside down and put those thousands of people we’ve heard so much about in the driving seat. I want a meeting that is useful to the people at it, and builds their self-activity. I want to unleash the agency of the audience – in other words, I want democracy. Is that so much to ask?

Let’s briefly consider the proposed statement that will come out of the People’s Assembly, published a few days ago. It says:

‘This declaration represents the views of all those who initially called for the People’s Assembly. We hope it will be endorsed by the People’s Assembly on 22nd June. It will then be open to the local People’s Assembly’s, union bodies and campaign groups who support the People’s Assembly to suggest amendments, additions, or deletions. These will then all be discussed and decided upon at the recall People’s Assembly in 2014.’

So you can amend the statement…but not until 2014! And in the meantime, what? We do whatever the organisers have pre-agreed we should do? None of their statement is anything that anyone would disagree with – but what a dereliction to exclude the wealth of ideas that could come from below on the day. What a lost opportunity to give people a feeling of ownership over the initiative, instead of feeling like fodder when all the decisions have already been made. It would be a great shame if this approach went unchallenged at the assembly.

Where do movements come from?

Isn’t that just a complaint about process? Why does that matter? Surely we can all pull together to create a movement against austerity? This, though, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what a movement is and where it comes from.

In the Independent, Owen Jones – a prominent supporter of the Assembly – asserts several times that it is ‘the movement’ Britain has been waiting for. ‘A movement demanding an alternative to austerity…is being born,’ he writes. ‘The fragmented strands of progressive Britain are coming together; the anti-austerity movement is making its belated appearance.’

But the People’s Assembly is not a movement – it’s a conference. These are not the same thing. Movements can have conferences, but I can’t think of any example of a conference creating a movement. Movements, in general, are not declared from on high – they are spontaneous, complicated, messy things that often appear when you least expect them.

A strange elision here is the assertion that there hasn’t been an anti-austerity movement until now. Yet there have been anti-cuts groups in almost every town and city in the country. Local campaigns have sprung up over everything from hospital closures to the bedroom tax. Owen obviously knows this, having spoken at hundreds of such meetings. This is the movement! Of course in many areas it is not strong enough, but that surely requires a focus on grassroots organising more than it demands a sparkly conference.

It is worth pausing on this, because it reflects a commonplace mistake on the left. Narratives of Britain’s early 2000s anti-war movement, for example, tend to focus heavily on the organisational form it took as the Stop the War Coalition. Of course Stop the War was important – but Stop the War was not the movement. (Hence the problem with book titles like ‘Stop the War: the story of Britain's biggest mass movement’.) A movement is an expression of a widespread feeling in society. Initiatives like Stop the War and the People’s Assembly are an attempt to organise and give voice to that feeling – and also, simultaneously, an attempt by particular political forces to channel the feeling in the direction they would like to see.

Challenging Labour

What direction do the forces that have created the People’s Assembly want for the anti-austerity movement? Owen Jones, as part of the radical left of the Labour Party, clearly wants it to put pressure on Labour to oppose austerity. This is very compatible with the perspective of Unite, by all accounts the Assembly’s main union backer, which has launched a big push to get its members to join Labour in order to ‘reclaim’ the party. Counterfire, meanwhile, has made clear that it no longer believes an alternative to Labour is possible.

Unfortunately, if we’re talking about a movement against austerity, we can’t put the question of Labour to one side so easily. Of course we need the maximum possible unity against the cuts. But the Labour leadership is not against the cuts, and has failed to defend the people at the sharp end of the government’s attacks, even refusing to say it would abolish the bedroom tax. In fact, last week Ed Miliband and Ed Balls finally raised the surrender flag over the whole question of austerity once and for all, by committing to stay within Tory spending limits (‘iron discipline’) and not to reverse Tory cuts.

Some have suggested these were just one-off speeches. But according to Labour sources who spoke to the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley, this is the beginning of a long-term strategy. Rawnsley writes, ‘Preparing for his speech, Mr Balls thought about 10 specific spending cuts that he could list. He decided to hold some of them back in the hope of getting further impact by announcing them later.’ That’s a treat I’m sure we’re all looking forward to.

So having told you at the start of the article not to denounce the union leaders, I’m now suggesting we get up and denounce Labour? No – that’s not the point. Really there’s little need. People already ‘get it’ – they know the Labour Party is not on their side over austerity. The forces that are still tied to Labour drastically underestimate the level that this feeling has now reached. That is why 8,000 have signed up to Left Unity, the project to set up a new party of the left. This is an initiative people want.

This is not about setting up Left Unity somehow in opposition to the People’s Assembly (far from it, it fully supports the Assembly), but saying that if we are really going to challenge the austerity consensus that dominates all the big parties, we need to go further. The way create a force that can give a voice to the ever-growing numbers who stand to Labour’s left – and incidentally, the way to put the frighteners on the Labour leaders – is to go beyond the left’s long established rhythm of conferences and A-to-B marches, and create a more permanent form of organisation that scraps both the Labourist and left-sect models in favour of a party that is driven from below.

A new party of the left is our positive project – and one that will, I promise you, get a very positive reception from the thousands at the People’s Assembly. If we want to see the potential of a People’s Assembly realised, then we should put all our resources on the day into getting the word about Left Unity out to as many people as possible.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Say no to revolutionary jargon

This piece was published on the IS Network website

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

In our day-to-day conversations in the IS Network, many of us are still using these words. In part, that’s an admirable effort to make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. In part, it’s a nervous attempt to affirm our revolutionary credentials, a defence against the inevitable accusation that we have “broken with Leninism” – as if revolutionary politics were encapsulated in jargon, rather than expressed (or sometimes not expressed) through it. The words are waved around like a Leninist talisman.

The trouble is, while I believe we are all committed to building a better, more democratic culture on the left, using this old language makes us sound as though we haven’t changed at all – especially when we use it publicly, to people who don’t know us and are taking our words at face value – with all the connotations they attach to them because of their own experiences on the left. This vocabulary can still sound cynical, manipulative, and to many, frightening. It doesn’t make us sound like the kind of people you’d welcome into your campaign group.

“Comrades will launch a disciplined intervention into the campaign with our propaganda in order to recruit” – on one level that’s a not unreasonable statement of something we might want to do. But say it to someone not versed in the language of Leninism and they'd run 100 miles in the opposite direction. To most people, “discipline” is something you suffer in school, “propaganda” is what is produced by totalitarian regimes and “recruiting” is what armies do. Yet the sentence has a quite benign meaning: “We will get involved in the campaign and argue for our agreed policy using our leaflets, and see if anyone wants to join our group.”

Is this a deep political disagreement dressed up as one about language? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the use of language made me overestimate at first how far apart people are within IS Network – instead of “covering up” differences, the words we use are creating the appearance of bigger differences than actually exist. Of course there is much we will need to debate over the coming months and years, and that’s to be actively encouraged – but if we are unclear with our words, we will talk past one another.

For example, some in the Network are for the continued use of the term “democratic centralism” to describe our organisational practice, arguing that what we are currently constructing is “real” democratic centralism. I believe that this term has been systematically misused for too long to be rehabilitated in this way – we’ll know what we mean, but people who don’t know us will be scared off, thinking we intend to do the same old, same old.

In truth, it seems to me that both sides of that debate are committed to the same actual practices: the most thorough democracy, elected committees, recallability, voluntary as opposed to bureaucratic “discipline” (if we must use that word – “voluntary discipline” feels like a contradiction), autonomy of local branches.

This is a very different model to that of the SWP, and a much healthier one, one much more in line with the real, historical Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the run-up to 1917. In that sense, it is “real democratic centralism”, although Lenin scarcely used the term. To continue to use such a loaded phrase, the battle cry of the left’s drop-of-a-hat expellers over all these decades, is to make a fetish of language over meaning – and to risk being misunderstood. The left is full of groups claiming to employ “democratic centralism” (and, of course, claiming that theirs alone is of a “real” or “authentic” variety) – how do we make it clear that we are not just another one?

We need to break with these linguistic holdovers from the “old party” and its internal culture. In hindsight, we were almost talking to each other in code, repeating certain phrases as a demonstration of orthodoxy. If you use this jargon long enough, you forget how it sounds to the ears of “outsiders”.

The way to create a better culture on the left is not to take those orthodox phrases and attempt to change their content. That is a recipe for talking past one another, never knowing how far someone's definition of a particular word has or hasn’t shifted. The answer is to be clear about what we actually mean, and to try to speak in a vocabulary that brings us closer to those we want to work with instead of pushing them away.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Learning not lecturing: why the left doesn’t have all the answers

If there’s one thing that gets me about the revolutionary left, it’s this: in year five of this protracted capitalist crisis, as austerity strikes blow after blow, our methods, strategies and tactics clearly aren’t working – yet attempting to question and rethink them is often met with something between suspicion and horror. We’ve been doing it this way all these years, us young upstarts are told, and we’re damned if we’re going to revise our ‘distilled’ wisdom now. How many revolutionary parties have you built, anyway?

So instead we remained on the treadmill of doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. Not only that, but we have the arrogance to insist to all and sundry that our way is the only true way. Decisions come down from the wise leadership of the central committee, through the various ‘transmission belts’ of the group’s events and publications, to a cadre who go out and try to impose them on the working class. If the workers push back, it’s because they’re ‘reformist’, or have low levels of class consciousness, or are just outright wrong. You can tell they’re wrong, because they disagree with the true revolutionary leadership. (Oh, and ignore all those other revolutionary groups with their different ‘one true way’, they’re even more wrong.)

Then it all exploded in our faces, and we saw what happens when this model is taken to its logical conclusion: the fantasy politics currently emanating from the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and its supporters. Once you come to believe that being a ‘disciplined’ revolutionary is simply about implementing the leadership’s latest decree, even its most indefensible one, any problems will appear to you not as problems with the line you’ve been fed, but as the world being mistaken – probably because of a conspiracy of hostile forces.

The leadership’s behaviour gets more disgusting by the day. But this crisis is not separate from its wider political mistakes, as both share a common root. And that root is in turn a crisis of the revolutionary left as a whole: its division into sects, veneration of particular leaders, rigidity in organisation, stagnation in growth, and refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation – simultaneously a symptom and a cause of its failure, ideologically, tactically and practically, to match up to the scale of the battle we face. Our groups, big and small, contain many good and committed activists at rank and file level, but they are used as footsoldiers by their leaderships in the never-ending war for position with rival organisations.

In this article I will contend that this top-down method is fundamentally the opposite of how we should be organising. Revolutionary politics is not about ‘injecting’ well-worn tactics and stale slogans into the working class – it’s about learning from the real struggles and movements that are going on now, being a real part of them and fighting to make them as big as possible, trying (modestly) to bring the people who have been central to them into some kind of organisation, and then combining what we learn with our historical knowledge to attempt to renew our theory and practice. Truly revolutionary politics comes not from the top down but from the bottom up.

The end of ‘the line’

To go outside the revolutionary silo for a moment, the practice of leaderships inventing ‘party lines’ out of whole cloth is hardly one that’s unique to the far left. You can see it in action at any of the mainstream parties’ conferences. Some have pretences of voting on motions, but that’s hardly the point. The party leader and various ministers or shadow ministers make lengthy speeches, all laying out their various policy positions. They attempt to reduce them to catchphrases, like Labour leader Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ or David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. These become the party line, followed by the faithful and only really opposed by inveterate oppositionists. And at any time of year, the leadership can turn (or U-turn) on a sixpence, launching new policies and initiatives on the hoof, to the adulation of the party loyalists.

For all our talk of Leninism, I’m afraid this method of policy-making is very similar to when revolutionary groups make their decisions through hours-long meetings of a central committee, who sit and deliberate in philosopher-king isolation until finally smoke rises from the chimney and the signal is ready to go out to the masses. Comrades, we have decided to launch a new campaign, and it shall be called Unite the Resistance, and it is now the central priority for us all. Comrades, the slogan of the day is ‘TUC, call a general strike’. Declarations fall on the membership’s head as if from a great height. The loyalists again exalt them as nuggets of revealed truth, and run off to tell the workers. The party turns up in the movement and shouts: hello, over here, we have the answers! Our tradition of dialogue with the working class has turned into a harangue.

We’re told that such relentless top-downism is in fact ‘our model of democratic centralism’. But someone seems to have lost the democracy bit down the back of the sofa. We’re told that it is important, in a combat organisation, to be able to make quick decisions. Making quick decisions is great, if they’re the right decisions. But too often completely daft decisions come down from on high, always with the excuse of ‘urgency’, because what could be more urgent than the class struggle? There’s not a minute to lose! So here’s the decision, like it or lump it (or try to challenge it at conference in nine months’ time, when it’s too late to change).

So who cares, as long as things get done? We’re not a debating society, goes the argument, we’re revolutionaries. But democracy is not just important in the abstract. We don’t demand democracy because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, or because having a bit of a debate is always fun. The point is that if you don’t have democracy – if power doesn’t rest with the rank and file of the organisation and, through them, the wider class – then you are making decisions in a vacuum. Instead of tactics being based on reality they end up based on outdated bits of theory, half-remembered experiences from another era, personal prejudice and organisational self-interest.

No revolutionary practice worth the name can be created without a living connection to the working class being constantly prized and renewed – and the only way to do that is to listen, learn, discuss properly and hold a vote. It is no good saying you can come up with the ‘correct’ positions and the correct democratic structures will somehow flow from them. You have to answer the question: where are you going to get the positions from?

We need the most thorough democracy, in other words, because it is an organisation’s only guaranteed link with reality.

Are we ahead, or behind?

There’s a problem usually associated with this argument. It’s this: if we make decisions from the bottom up, won’t people bring the unevenness of their experiences into the organisation, dragging in the muck of capitalism on their shoes? Won’t we just end up ‘reflecting back’ their existing consciousness?

But as the scandal in the SWP shows, despite the party’s bombast, being a revolutionary is no guarantee of a more ‘advanced’ consciousness. Far from it. At various times – and on various specific issues – the class will be far ahead of us, especially if we still cling to theory that hasn’t been seriously revised in decades. We are even more likely to find activists who are ahead of us if we focus on those who have been shaped by the struggles, movements and anticapitalist ideological ferment of the last 15 years or so.

As I argued in a previous article, following Rosa Luxemburg via Tony Cliff, revolutionary theory doesn’t fall from the sky. It is learned from the struggle. As Luxemburg said, the most important innovations “have not been the inventions of several leaders and even less so of any central organisational organs. They have always been the spontaneous product of the movement in ferment.” Karl Marx didn’t get his analysis of the state from reading a lot of books in the British Library – he learned from the experience of the Paris Commune. Lenin didn’t wake up one morning and think up workers’ councils in the shower – they were spontaneously invented during the 1905 revolution.

If you’re suspicious of the concept of ‘spontaneity’, consider Mohamed Bouazizi. He tragically set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in Tunisia. In doing so he became the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and then the entire Arab Spring. This was not his intent, nor could he have predicted it. Yes, existing organisations and the wider context mattered. But who could have planned those revolutions, or even seen them coming? Again and again, activists spoke of the uprisings coming as a complete surprise.

Of course, while we can learn from international experience, Britain isn’t in a revolutionary situation. But do we really think that means people outside our ranks aren’t inventing things? Spontaneity means that stuff happens you weren’t expecting, because it arises ‘naturally’, organically, from below. Anyone who has been active on the left will have seen that in action. There are plenty of activists out there who are a long way ahead of the average routinised Trotskyist, perhaps not on everything but certainly on specific issues. Think of the dynamism of Occupy, the sheer impact of UK Uncut, the inspiration of the student movement, the serious analyses of difficult issues put forward by contemporary feminists. (And, incidentally, the internet-savvy of all of the above.) All appeared as if from nowhere and became incredibly popular. Currently our supposed revolutionary leaders sometimes cheer them on for that reason, but usually feel more comfortable pointing out their ‘errors’. They are deeply suspicious of the new ideas and organisational methods produced, especially if party members start to be influenced by them.

But we shouldn’t be scared just because it wasn’t us who came up with this stuff. That doesn’t mean embracing all of it, but recognising that organisation and spontaneity exist in a dialectic. We urgently need to correct for the fact that we have been constantly stressing the primacy of organisation – ‘interventionism’ – while missing the second half of the dialogue, where spontaneity renews organisation.

Marxism is a strong enough framework to incorporate ideas and events that at first don’t seem to fit (in fact, if Lenin’s life had an overarching theme, it was exactly that). Imagine what it would mean if there was a serious effort not just to relate to such movements from the outside but to genuinely be part of them and learn from them.

Part of the movement

What does being connected to the living movement involve? Here’s a clue: it doesn’t mean setting up your own ‘front’ and demanding that everyone join it.

I’m downright angry that we had a great opportunity in 2010, after the Tories came to office, to build a united anti-cuts movement, but the far left as a whole not only failed to take it but in fact acted as a block to it. Workers – generally the local unions, through trades councils or other local networks – set up local anti-cuts groups across Britain, without waiting for the likes of us to prompt them. Here was a genuine, grassroots response to the cuts with huge potential. It was already good, but we had a chance to help make it great.

Revolutionaries who should have seen the importance of this development instead mostly set about either effectively counterposing themselves to it – setting up local Right to Work groups, for example – or incessantly insisting that all anti-cuts groups should come under their particular umbrella, as also happened with Coalition of Resistance and the National Shop Stewards Network. By late 2010 we had Counterfire setting up the grand ‘united front’ it had split from the SWP over, the SWP leadership refusing unity with them because it couldn’t be seen to concede to the splitters, and the Socialist Party ploughing its own furrow of refusing to be in anything that involved the Labour Party. All called for ‘unity’ in statements while in practice saying unity meant joining them. A recipe for fiasco.

In many areas the situation was better, with different left activists working alongside each other well, but that was usually achieved by tactically ignoring the various centralised leaderships. The infighting and suspicion the central committees created still managed to hinder the unity of the movement, however, and ultimately helped hand the leadership of it to the cohering but conservative force that is the TUC. We saw the effects on 26 March 2011: a brilliant, huge demonstration, but the momentum it built up was allowed to dissipate.

What could we have done differently? How should revolutionaries operate in formations like the anti-cuts groups, which appear suddenly, expressing a widespread feeling in the class, and pull in wide forces? (I’d argue we’re seeing the first signs of similar waves over NHS closures and the ‘bedroom tax’.) It’s simple: we should genuinely engage in them, in a way that is helpful and pluralistic instead of controlling and domineering. We should help with what the group wants to do instead of charging in with some preconceived ‘correct’ plan which we force through with our experience in public speaking and caucusing. Building the movement is more important than getting people to sign up to whatever you’re pushing. Please, hold off on declaring another new national campaign. Unity cannot be declared by one group or another – it has to be built at the base.

That doesn’t mean sidelining organisation – it means making your organisation useful instead of allowing it to be an obstacle.

In the universities and colleges, for example, why not build socialist societies or anticapitalist societies organised along pluralist lines, rather than groups based around one particular organisation? It sounds obvious, yet it is in flat contradiction to the organised left’s current practice.

Another example: the Occupy movement. The revolutionary left’s organised ‘intervention’ mostly consisted of paper sales and the occasional speech about the fundamentals of Marxism or the need to reach out to trade unionists. (A few individuals did more, but it was mostly off their own bat.) To be fair, Socialist Worker did a lot of talking about Occupy – but it did relatively little talking with it. Meanwhile there were hundreds of young people standing out in the cold for months arguing for hours on end about politics, expressing all sorts of ideas from all sorts of traditions, but mostly pointing in an anticapitalist direction.

Something like it will happen again, perhaps in a slightly different form. Being a genuine part of it would involve properly participating in the general assemblies, but not only that. We should be part of everything from organising the talks to putting up tents and volunteering in the kitchen. That’s how you earn activists’ respect – you can debate with them as you go, and just as importantly they can debate with you and teach you things you didn’t know before. Each time I went to Occupy, the debates going on were fascinating, the model of participation almost impossible not to get drawn in by, the atmosphere of positivity so incredibly genuine. By joining in with such experiments in grassroots democracy, you see that there is much we could learn from it.

We should be always asking: What do you think? How did you organise this? What have you learned? Instead of declaring ourselves the ‘vanguard’, we need to find what in Gramscian terms we might call the ‘organic vanguard’ – the leadership that emerges in struggle – and let them influence us as we try to influence them, discussing and learning and fighting together. Instead of lecturing from the outside, you engage and learn from within.

Lessons from the class

What I have not looked at so far is the strike of millions on 30 November 2011. This wasn’t just one movement among many, and rightly the left staked a lot on it. Here was the real labour movement in action, not our attempts at substituting for it. The issue here isn’t that we weren’t ‘part of’ the strike, because of course any revolutionary in those workplaces will have been part of it. But the dichotomy between lecturing and learning still fits here.

You might think you have little to learn from a strike – but every strike is rich in lessons. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a strike is worth a million. It tells you about the state of the unions, the level of combativity of the working class, any sectoral and geographical differences in these, what workers are most angry about both in work and in the wider world, how they see their chances of victory, what tactics they know already, what tactics they will happily use once they see them in action… and plenty more besides. Again, the key is to leave aside your pre-planned tactics (whether that’s the industrial department making up demands for a leaflet in the name of being ‘directional’, or some schematic view of what a strike committee should look like) and instead make yourself useful as you allow the working class to be your teacher.

Importantly this gives you a realistic basis for what tactics you should deploy next. Unlike street movements, strikes can be called into being by the trade union bureaucracy but also, under current conditions, called off just as quickly. After the 30 November strike the SWP fell into a voluntaristic overestimation of its influence in the trade union movement, thinking it could push the bureaucracy into calling more strikes by force of will, or a sufficiently clever ‘united front’. As it has proven in practice, it cannot. I don’t have some alternative blueprint – but if the party had put itself at the service of the strikers, taking up their views from below about how to handle the situation, working among the rank and file instead of focusing on the intrigues of union executive committees and yet more conferences, it could have had a far greater impact.

Marxists don’t focus on the working class because they’re somehow special or better than others, or because we think other issues ‘can wait’, but because workers hold in their hands the economic power that comes from their capacity to stop production – and the potential to ultimately take it over and run it in their own interests. At the same time, though, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that without strikes there will be no victories in more immediate battles. The campaign against the poll tax, to give one example, showed that is a mistake. The working class remains central, however the working class is a huge part of all the movements I have described – to think such campaigns are only of secondary importance unless they develop into strikes would be a mistake. We need to have the modesty to see that we don’t get to pick the terrain of battle, and be ready for what life throws at us.

How we could organise

If we are to make the left fit for purpose, we need to ‘bend the stick’ towards democracy, towards the kind of genuine participation in movements I have described, and away from sectarianism. All this doesn’t mean throwing away all our existing theory and practice – not at all. But it means questioning it, thinking again and learning from where we’ve been.

It means not setting up our own ‘fronts’, but working in the organisations that are thrown up by the struggle, such as the local anti-cuts campaigns, and throwing everything we have into building them. It means ending the search for one united front to rule them all. We have got to be able to work with other activists without them feeling like we’re just there to sell papers or recruit. We should be the experienced campaigners who they want to come to for a bit of help, advice and discussion, not the scary types in the corner who look like they’re plotting to take over. We should do more listening than speaking, and have more questions than answers.

We have to understand that leadership is not taken, it is won, and constantly re-won. And we have to understand that our failures so far show that if we hope someday to teach, we first have a lot to learn.

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