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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If you liked this article you may also be interested in Simon Hardy's latest on Anticapitalist Initiative, 'A new culture and a new approach.'


  1. A bit autonomistic and worker-ist perhaps, with the danger of chasing after the class and their organic institutions of resistance, rather than leading them. Yet the general sentiments expressed in this piece are, I feel, correct, especially the vitally of democracy.

  2. Good article. Bureaucrats in such an organization as you have described keep their worker bees buzzing by talking about how important the situation is, and try to moralize and guilt them into showing up at many many many many meetings a week, paper sales, coalition work, etc, with the end result that you aren't really that useful of a person because you are too stretched thin, you can't give anything enough attention. Also you are a totally different wavelength than most workers, it's pretty doubtful that, you know, you'll have a night off to hang out with a coworker and talk about the world for a couple hours.

    Hyper activity in non revolutionary situations completely backwards. Yes, the ecological crisis, the oppression and the victims of wars is all horrible. It is not only so important, but given the scale of destruction to our environment we don't have infinite generations of socialists to one day, "eventaully" reign in capitalism. Our live time is going to see a lot of change, in the right or in the wrong direction, that will seriously affect the livability of this planet.

    In that context, it's worth taking the time to do it right. That means not being frantic, but being a holistic, patient, learning activist.

  3. Awful rubbish article, although the author's point of view is the outcome of what happens when the SWP take their so-called politics to its logical conclusion. Activism. People don't even qualify themselves with the introduction 'socialist' anymore. They are 'activists.' What a load of flaky crap.

    Go and read up on Guy Debord and his strategy and tactics. Then you can start talking about revolution.

    Sean Delaney