Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Stop trying to rehabilitate Tony Blair. We are right to condemn his record.

Tony Blair was prime minister for a decade, but is now widely reviled. The main reason, of course, is Iraq.
 
Blair's role in the US-led invasion of 2003 and the long military occupation which followed - relentlessly pushing for British participation in the war, followed by a disastrous and chaotic occupation - largely defines him and his legacy. It didn't immediately cost him his job, but it can be argued that he left Downing Street earlier than he would have wished - and since then his reputation has never recovered.

There are some among the commentariat and the political class, however, who have long itched to rehabilitate him. For some - for the most fervent of them - this is because they also backed the war in Iraq and they more generally want to revive the credibility of 'humanitarian intervention' after the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
 
But there are others, like the Guardian's Zoe Williams, who want to save Blair from the indignity of being defined by Iraq, which they see as one awful mistake in an otherwise largely successful political career. In the process they actually obscure the truth of Blair's wider record (besides Iraq), while belittling what a monstrous crime the war on Iraq really was.
 
Iraq: never forget

Firstly we should recall why the war in Iraq has so utterly trashed Blair's reputation. Even many people who supported it in 2003 now accept it was utterly destructive, with enormously damaging long-term consequences for the country and its people.
 
But it is more than that. It has since become apparent - if it wasn't clear at the time - that Blair was deeply committed to an invasion, and was willing to make all sorts of dubious pronouncements in a bid to win parliamentary and public approval. Blair is widely regarded as a liar. He and his supporters played a major role in the decline of trust in politicians. Several years before the expenses scandal broke, Iraq was a turning point.

For an increasing number of people, Iraq became part of an even larger failing: the so-called War on Terror. The occupation of Afghanistan became as unpopular as that of Iraq. When Obama and Cameron wanted to attack Syria last year, the legacy of Iraq - and wider opposition to western 'interventions' - guaranteed widespread public opposition. Many people understood that attacking Syria would escalate and widen the conflict, but the opposition and distrust was also fed by recent experience.

Since leaving Downing Street, Blair has made obscene amounts of money, helped enormously by the role he played as George W Bush's junior partner. This gave him a high status among American elites - willing to spend ridiculous amounts for 'keynote speakers' and 'leadership consultants' - and the money, it seems, keeps rolling in. He has 'advised' some dubious characters and shown enthusiasm for bombing countries that he and Bush never got round to bombing.
 
From euphoria to disillusionment

Zoe Williams' claim of a successful Blair era requires some imaginative re-writing of history. In 1997 Labour took 13,518,000 votes; in 2001 (pre-War on Terror) this fell to 10,725,000 votes. A decline of 2.8 million votes is peculiar after four years of reforming success, I'd have thought. In 1997 Labour Party membership was around 400,000; by the time Blair left office it had at least halved.
 
The decline in votes and members was not merely because of Iraq; especially in the case of the former, it pre-dated it. This was because of a whole series of failures which dashed the hopes of millions of natural Labour supporters.

The general election of May 1997 was an occasion for euphoria. By 2001 it was very different. Blair's domestic record was characterised by a number of features. He was lucky in getting continual economic growth - at low levels, and disguising some drastic underlying weaknesses, but growth nevertheless. This allowed some increased public sector funding. Yet this was accompanied by privatisation and deregulation.

Williams refers to the minimum wage, always maintained at a thoroughly measly level, but somehow forgets such 'reforms' as the introduction of tuition fees which demolished the principle of free education and paved the way for the obscene levels of fees we see today. The minimum wage - such a meek threat to big business - was accompanied by a whole raft of policies designed to reassure the already wealthy that they could continue to enrich themselves while offering low pay and insecurity to their workers. The anti-union laws were left firmly intact, nothing was done to regulate working hours (among the longest in Europe), and any restrictions on the pursuit of further wealth were 'deregulated'.

There was increased funding for the NHS, but it was accompanied by the beginnings of marketization which the Tories are now pushing much further. In schools there was the obsession with the three Ts of targets, testing and tables, and later the growth of the academies programme, which did so much damage: increasing stress, feeding competition, distorting learning and allowing the private sector into a public service (a trend replicated in almost every part of the public sector).
 
A funny kind of social democracy

Williams tells us that Blair 'left a blueprint for social democratic government'. I'm not sure Blair would make such a claim himself. He represented the collapse of any aspiration to social democratic government in the face of corporate power and the City of London. He bent over backwards to please the rich and powerful, allowing inequality to grow in the process. His policies encouraged precisely the tendencies which made Britain so vulnerable to the crisis of 2008.

Social democratic? Where is the democracy? The very first act of his first government was to surrender control over interest rates to the unelected Bank of England. The democratic advance of devolution for Scotland and Wales was welcome, but other constitutional and democratic changes never materialised.
 
Scotland and Wales aside, power continued to be highly centralised. The archaic systems of patronage largely remained the same. The links between corporate lobbyists and politicians became much stronger. Blair's love-in with Murdoch symbolised the way that so much of the political agenda was shaped by pleasing a few press barons. Above all, Iraq - going to war despite massive demonstrations and public opinion - prompted talk of a democratic deficit, with the political class failing to represent the views of the people.

Williams praises Blair because, apparently, 'it's better to care about poor children than it is to recast their situation as the result of their parents' fecklessness'. What does this have to do with the punitive Blair? The prison population rose as crime fell; teenagers were slapped with ASBOs. Increasingly, poverty was talked of as a moral failing by the poor themselves, not as a structural failure.

One of the great Blair myths was that of social mobility, which implied that anyone still poor clearly had something wrong with them. It couldn't be the system - the poor must be to blame.
 
Blair represented the desertion by Labour of the social democratic gains of the post-war period. New Labour placed far greater emphasis on the vacuous New than on the Labour.  He wasn't just a warmonger abroad but someone who pushed through private finance initiatives and deregulation at home, who allowed inequality to prosper, and who displaced blame for social ills onto the victims.
 
The state became not a support and provider for people from cradle to grave, but increasingly a facilitator of greater enrichment for private business, bankers and speculators. And it became increasingly coercive too, both at home and abroad. There was growth in state-sanctioned Islamophobia, the erosion of civil liberties, and an increase in the surveillance state; subservience to the White House in the 'war on terror' meant participation in rendition and complicity in torture.
 
No rehabilitation of Blairism
 
When Tories claim that their austerity is necessary because of profligate public spending by previous Labour governments, we should of course point out the various ways in which they are wrong. We should defend what we already have from attack: some, but really not much, of this is a legacy of the Blair and Brown years. Much more of it is a legacy of earlier generations. Much of it started to come undone under Blair, committed as he was to a neoliberal model that made a god of private profit.
 
There can be no rehabilitation of Tony Blair - not now, not ever. Above all, this is because of Iraq. The costs of invasions, wars and occupations have been enormous - in human lives and in money.
 
The money devoted to weapons and war could have been spent on public services. Public investment could have been coupled with greater democratic public control, but instead the opposite happened. There are many failures which explain why Blair was, to millions of people hoping for a change of priorities after 18 years of Tory rule, at first a bitter disappointment - and later something worse.
 
I am writing this on the 1st anniversary of Thatcher's death. It is a commonplace to say that Thatcher may have died, but Thatcherism sadly didn't. This is because the Blair years marked far greater continuity than change from the Thatcher/Major period.
 
Blairism turned out to be a version of neoliberalism with more progressive rhetoric and a 'Cool Britannia' image makeover. It is significant that Cameron modelled himself on Blair, and that Blair has endorsed the current government's austerity drive. In seeking to defeat Cameron's government, there is nothing to be gained from exhuming the corpse of Blairism.


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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A modern-day Chartist: Paul Foot on Tony Benn

Paul Foot's magnificent book The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined was published posthumously, by Penguin, in 2005. Paul Foot had died the previous year, aged 66. In the passage below, from the book's Conclusion, Foot the lifelong revolutionary socialist (who emphatically rejected Labourism) wrote about the transformation of Tony Benn from a moderate Labour politician to a radical campaigner.

Although Benn remained a Labour Party member until the end (something that was never really in doubt) the last decade of Benn's life, including his role as Stop the War Coalition president and his contributions to the Coalition of Resistance and later the People's Assembly, confirmed what Foot wrote about his radicalism and his active commitment to popular struggles.
 
Here is what Paul Foot wrote in The Vote:
 
Anthony Wedgewood Benn was born with a political golden spoon in his mouth. His father was a Liberal who joined the Labour Party and became a member of two Labour governments - and a Viscount. When he was only 25, young Tony 'inherited' Sir Stafford Cripps's safe seat at Bristol. After campaigning successfully to reject his inherited title, he became, on his own admission, a compliant and even right-wing secretary of state in the 1964-70 Labour government, and a senior figure in the 1974-79 government.

During the early 1970s, no one knows quite when, he moved sharply to the left, developed a rich, mocking sense of humour and started making overt socialist propaganda. None of this was strong enough to pull him out of the Wilson or Callaghan governments, but in the early 1980s he resumed his socialist pilgrimage, and in 1981 was only very narrowly defeated for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

During all this time he kept a daily diary- perhaps the most formidable document of a century of Labour Party history. His political development can be traced in the forewords to the seven volumes as they came out. The diaries for 1963-67, for instance, unquestionably the most right-wing period of his long parliamentary career, were published in 1987, the year he launched, in his Chesterfield constituency, a socialist conference to unite and inspire the rank and file outside Parliament.

The foreword to that volume set out his most explicit concerns about the value of parliamentary democracy. He emphasized four lessons he had learned from his long parliamentary experience. The first two were the 'feudal structure' of Crown and Lords and the power and patronage wielded by the leader of the Labour Party. He went on:

'Third, as a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.' 

The fourth lesson related to the power of the media, which 'like the power of the medieval church ensures that the events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege'. Tony Benn's conclusion was as follows:

'These lessons led me on to the conclusion that Britain is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means for securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our present political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.'

Tony Benn kept up his diary through the rest of the 1980s and for all the 1990s too. He watched in bemused dismay while a new leader of the Labour Party was elected from a quite different tradition to the one he grew up in. He observed how speedily New Labour ditched what was left of its social democratic heritage - Clause IV, public ownership, the welfare state, comprehensive education. He was naturally not even considered for office in Tony Blair's administration after 1997, and seethed on the back benches as his party in government stumbled from reaction to reaction until it became indistinguishable from the Tories.

In all this time he made himself available to any organization outside that was resisting this slide. Any workers fighting redundancy, any school standing up for the comprehensive system, any persecuted foreigner seeking asylum could rely on his active support. Again and again, he deliberately abandoned his base in Parliament and worked among those who, he hoped and believed, would one day trigger a new Chartist agitation, and a revolution from below.

In 1999, after two years of the Blair government, he made a historic announcement: he would not be standing for Parliament in the 2001 general election. He would be leaving Parliament 'in order to devote more time to politics'. His own enormous experience in the highest places in the land drove him to the conclusion that the place to fight was in the lowest: that any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in Parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.
 
Some pointed out rather churlishly that this decision came at a time when his parliamentary career might have been over anyway. He was 74, and in any case his constituency, Chesterfield, was lost in the 2001 election to the Liberals. But his resolve never wavered. Despite his age and the cruel death from cancer of his wife, he continued resolutely down the path he had set himself: to argue and agitate for change from below.

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Friday, 17 January 2014

Building a local Counterfire group

The report below is a contribution to Counterfire's pre-Conference discussion. It seeks to learn lessons from the Newcastle Counterfire group, in which I am active. It was originally published along with other documents, resolutions and reports - in advance of the annual conference on 1-2 February - in the Conference 2014 section of the Counterfire website.

Newcastle Counterfire had a busy 2013 and grew in the course of it. The group is centred in Newcastle, although members live in a wider area than this (most are in the Tyne and Wear metropolitan area, with 1 in Teesside and 1 in Northumberland). In total we currently have 13 members, including 7 who joined in 2013.

We started in February 2010 with a small group of 4 founder members, all of whom are still members today. Growth had been very slow and faltering: a number of people joined in our first 3 years, but most never became integrated into the organisation. This last year, however, has seen us take a definite leap forward - we now have a group that is quantitatively and qualitatively different to what we began with a few years ago.

Motors of growth

Two factors are responsible for the recent growth. One is the tremendous success of the People's Assembly in north-east England, which as well as being vitally important on its own terms has also provided a larger audience for Counterfire.

The second factor is the success of a number of Counterfire public meetings: new members, and indeed a layer of non-members close to us, have been attracted by our politics as well as our activism. Our ideas, our ability to explain the world around us, have been crucial.

Significantly, every single person who has joined in the last year - in fact almost everyone who has ever joined in this area - did so immediately after attending a Counterfire public meeting. In a couple of cases it was their first Counterfire meeting, but in most cases they had attended a number of such meetings before joining. This indicates the importance of nurturing political relationships.

All of these newer members, without exception, have encountered Counterfire through our movement activity. Most have met us specifically through local People's Assembly activity. It is clear that the People's Assembly provides the main context for the growth of Counterfire, but it is equally clear that being well-respected activists is not in itself enough. Ideas matter. Local Counterfire meetings, with a political focus, are the key.

A particular strength here is that several newer members have already been active in the broader movement. This means that our local group has not just seen a growth in members, but more importantly in active members. These are active members who already have some experience in the movement.

For sake of clarity, it should be stressed that we have not adopted a two-stages approach, i.e. building People's Assembly and then focusing on Counterfire. At no point have we chosen between temporarily focusing on the People's Assembly or Counterfire, however hard it may have been to successfully sustain both. A consistently twin-track approach has been essential.

North East People's Assembly

The People's Assembly, as indicated, has been (and continues to be) a considerable success in north-east England, especially in the Newcastle area. It is widely recognised that, while North East People's Assembly is a genuine coalition, it wouldn't have happened without the vital initiating role played by our members - and indeed we continue to be centrally involved.

The People's Assembly has constituted a decisive shifting of gears for the anti-cuts movement here. This is an on-going process, but the turning point was the big all-day regional event, backed by a range of campaigns and unions, attended by an astonishing 500 people, in Newcastle in September. A key lesson is surely the central importance of a major - and very ambitious - unifying event as a platform for building a local/regional People's Assembly in the long term.

The success of that landmark event - the most important event initiated by the left in Newcastle for many years - can be measured in various ways, and it will ripple outwards for a long time yet. One key measure is the establishing of several local groups, e.g. South Tyneside, Teesside, Sunderland, in the wake of it. This is getting the People's Assembly more rooted and involving wider layers of supporters. We have also played an especially influential role in strengthening trade union participation in North East People's Assembly, and developing good political relationships with a number of unions.

One reason for the People's Assembly's success here is that we built on the existing foundations of an effective local Coalition of Resistance group, which we established in August 2010 (although the People's Assembly has proved bigger and broader). Recent success has therefore been aided by the development of long-term political relationships. It is closely linked to having a strategic focus over a long period, not flitting between different campaigns and activities. It rests upon a commitment to united-front-as-strategy.

Getting political

It should also be noted that a number of Counterfire members have been centrally involved in Newcastle Stop the War. The group's successes include a local emergency protest over Syria in August, and more recently a public meeting attended by 60 people. Our commitment to Stop the War reflects a broader political perspective on imperialism and war in the current period.

Counterfire meetings have been organised, therefore, in the context of our members - including newer members - playing a major part in the building of broader movements, above all the People's Assembly. These meetings have included book launches by Lindsey German, Neil Faulkner and Kate Connelly. Those three events all had a historical focus, though with an eye for contemporary lessons, but we have also held public meetings on important current political topics. We also held a theoretical day school in Newcastle, which focused on key texts by Lenin and Luxemburg and their relevance for today.

There have also been meetings which have combined political discussion with more practical issues - not just planning future events, but discussing our experiences, strategy and tactics in the anti-cuts and anti-war movements. These meetings have been crucial for developing and sustaining a local group, involving newer members and ensuring we have a coherent approach to what we are doing in the movements and in some members' trade union work.

The way ahead

In 2014 we aim to continue building the People's Assembly, in relation both to priority national initiatives like the conference in March and national demo in June and to local developments in fighting the cuts. We will also help sustain Newcastle Stop the War and ensure it plays an active part in opposing imperialism this year.

Above all, we will focus consistently on organising and building attractive Counterfire meetings which can open up space for much-needed political discussion - and, in the process, hopefully recruit new members and build a bigger group while supporting the political development of all members.

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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

My predictions for 2014

David Cameron on the day of his Syria defeat. No more rebellions?
When I did this same exercise on New Year's Day 2013, I wrote: 'This is a soberly realistic view of what I think is most likely to happen. It is not always what I want to happen: in several instances I very much hope things will work out differently to my predictions.' The same is true again this year.

Note: You may be interested in reading my assessment of how last year's predictions actually turned out.

OK, here we go...

1. There will be growing tensions between US and Israel, with the latter increasingly asserting independent positions in relation to the wider Middle East. The same will apply to the US-Saudi relationship.

2. Egypt will witness the consolidation of the Army-led counter-revolution; there will be various isolated and sectional forms of opposition, but this won't cohere in a serious challenge to the current order.

3. In the wake of upheavals in Ukraine in recent weeks, there will be rumbling tensions in some former Soviet states; this will increasingly become a fissure point in global geopolitics, with rivalry between the US and Russia. The Winter Olympics in Russia in February will be a focal point for political grandstanding.

4. There will be repeated diplomatic clashes between China and Japan throughout the year, with a jittery US supporting Japan as a counterweight to rising Chinese influence.

5. Tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, especially South Korea, will increase.

6. The football World Cup will be the most politicised for decades, with a revival of the kind of protests seen some months ago in Brazil providing a counterpoint to the official corporate pageant.

7. Turkey will see continuing large-scale social and political unrest, though the current government will remain in office.

8. The controversies around NSA, whistleblowers and the surveillance state will continue throughout the year, with fresh revelations and controversies, plaguing the Obama administration.

9. In the UK the shallow recovery (in reality a debt-based bubble) will continue, with modest growth throughout the year, and the Tories will make this the centrepiece of their propaganda, though it will not discernibly affect people's living standards.

10. People's inability to make mortgage repayments will be a major story of the year, with a growth in repossessions.

11. Scotland will vote No to independence, but around 40% of voters will opt for independence. The outcome will be greater pressure for devolved powers ('devo max'), especially over economic questions.

12. There will be no major parliamentary rebellions by backbench Tories, aided by the disciplining effect of a looming general election.

13. There will be more frequent clashes between Tories and Lib Dems than ever before, as Nick Clegg's party seeks to assert an independent profile ahead of 2015's general election. Immigration and Europe will be especially big areas of dispute. Vince Cable will be at the forefront in making criticisms of the senior coalition partners.

14. Labour will push the 'cost of living' agenda, therefore putting clear water between itself and the Tories. In a number of other areas, however, it will maintain its right-wing stance or move even further rightwards: immigration, welfare and education will all clearly illustrate this. It will, however, command a convincing opinion poll lead at the end of 2014, with predictions of a Labour majority in the 2015 general election (a situation driven by popular disquiet with the experience of austerity).

15. Ukip will do well in the European elections and continue to score well in opinion polls, but will fail to make any new breakthrough and will stutter after May's elections. Nick Griffin of the BNP will be booted out of the European Parliament by voters.

16. The Cameron's government's massive propaganda drive around the legacy of World War One will be widely contested and challenged: not in parliament, where Miliband and other Labour leaders will be supine for fear of being portrayed as 'unpatriotic', but in wider civil society and particularly on the cultural field.

17. There will some further public sector national strikes - including by teachers, firefighters, higher education workers and civil service workers - but no major co-ordinated strike action on anything like the scale seen on 30 November 2011. Pay will be the major battleground for trade unions.

18. The bedroom tax will be scrapped, thus bringing the anti-cuts movement its first major national victory.

19. The student movement's revival will continue in the spring term, though not nearly reaching levels comparable to autumn 2010. The privatisation of student loans will prove to be the central issue for the movement.

20. The People's Assembly will be the English left's great success story, the primary vehicle for co-ordinated opposition to cuts, with a national demonstration in June proving especially successful. However, any left-of-Labour electoral vehicles will be no further advanced at the end of 2014 than they are now.


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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Reviewing my predictions for 2013

It's that time of year again. It's time to look back at my predictions for the year - and compare them with how things actually turned out. See 'My predictions for 2013'

Almost 12 months ago - on New Year's Day 2013 - I recklessly made a series of 20 predictions for the political year ahead. Some turned out to be correct, some were only partially correct, and some were utterly offbeam (intriguingly my predictions for domestic politics tended to be nearer the mark than when I ventured further afield, but this is a generalisation).

I will be doing the same exercise again on 1 January 2014, and will no doubt have very mixed results again. Let's take a look at some of those predictions and see what patterns can be identified.

Global politics

My first observation is that my predictions for the Middle East have turned out to be dismally inaccurate. I predicted that Israel would attack Iran, Morsi would still be president in Egypt and that Assad would be overthrown in Syria. All of these, of course, were wrong. Developments in connection with Iran have been in a quite different direction; a military coup removed Morsi in June; and Assad has proved more resilient than I expected. This unpredictability illustrates the continuing volatility in the region.

At the end of 2013 the picture of the region is that direct US influence continues to become weaker, while the pro-Western sub-imperialist states of Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia all have an uneasy, tense relationship with the world's sole superpower (and with their own neighbours). The US and its allies were unable to intervene overtly in Syria, while broadly positive developments in relation to Iran have lessened the likelihood of a major new war in the region.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that public and political pressure stopped an assault on Syria, but unpleasantly surprised by the military's effective counter-revolution in Egypt. My prediction a year ago was based on an assumption that the country's military-industrial ruling class would prefer a more or less stable Morsi government to outright counter-revolution. In fact the Moris government became somewhat more unstable than most predicted, but the outcome has been the disabling of the revolutionary movement and a strengthening of elite military power. Generally speaking, it's been a bad year for progressive and popular movements in the Arab world.

Elsewhere in the world I was largely correct about growing tensions between Japan and China, about the political picture in Greece, and about US gun laws remaining unchanged (predictable, perhaps, but recall this was in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre). I actually don't know if my prediction of growing anti-rape and anti-sexism protests was accurate, as I don't have enough information and it is hard to assess. However, my prediciton of growing unrest - especially in the form of mass strikes - in a number of specific European countries has turned out to be over-optimistic.

British politics

What about domestic politics? I was right about the coalition holding together, Osborne remaining chancellor (a year ago there was widespread speculation he was heading for the exit), and Nick Clegg stessing his differences with the Tories more but with no discernible effect on his party's ratings.

I was also right to emphasise a continuing rightwards lurch over immigration and the EU, with Ukip capitalising on this, but I failed to predict the electoral breakthrough Nigel Farage's party made in May's local elections. And I was correct to predict that the hype about Boris Johnson as future Tory leader would fade.

I was right, predictably enough, to say that local government would be destroyed in all but name, but a little too optimistic about the resistance to that destruction. I was also accurate about the growing centrality of attacks on welfare and the poor to the whole austerity project, and how it is justified ideologically.

I stand by my point about Labour commanding a healthy poll lead and most commentators failing to grasp the near-inevitability of a Labour majority in 2015; I am still confident there will be a Labour victory in the next general election, regardless of the 'recovery' and any fluctuations in polling. I did, however, somewhat overestimate Labour's successes in 2013's council elections - the big story was in fact Ukip.

The resistance and the left

My predictions for the unions were almost uncannily accurate, both in respect of the positive and the negative elements in the picture. Pay has indeed been a more central issue and there has been more strike action, but I was also right to be cautious about the idea that we might see a return to 30 November 2011 levels of co-ordination.

There was one exception to my accuracy here though: I underestimated the vote for Jerry Hicks in his challenge to Len McCluskey for the leadership of Unite.

I was right about the People's Assembly being an enormous breakthrough (at a time when it hadn't yet even been announced), there being no significant developments in left-of-Labour electoral politics (no, I don't regard the Left Unity founding conference as significant here - when they actually stand in elections it may, or more likely may not, be different), and about the revolutionary left failing to grow (I didn't predict the SWP's implosion, but that was more for reasons of tact than anything else!).

Finally, I correctly predicted Margaret Thatcher's death - but I also predicted the demise of Castro and Mubarak, both of whom remain with us. As I have no medical knowledge denied to the rest of the world, such predictions are of course nothing more an enjoyable stab in the dark.

Now I had better get out my crystal ball in preparation for my New Year's Day blog post...

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Monday, 23 December 2013

2013: my year in writing

A veritable smorgasbord
Here is a selection of 12 articles I have written this year. You might call it a veritable smorgasbord of polemical delights and tasty political morsels for the discerning connoisseur of radical-left blogging. Or you might not. I'll leave that one to you.

1) Why is the revolutionary left not growing? (Luna17, January)
Published on the weekend of what turned out to be a highly-charged SWP Conference, this is a lengthy reflection on the decline of the revolutionary left - and what can be done to reverse it.

2) North East 'bounce back' is not all good news (Comment is Free, February)
I was asked to write about claims of a jobs recovery in my native north-east England for the Guardian website.

3) We need to end the legacy of Thatcherism (Counterfire, April)
I finished writing this, and sent it to the Counterfire editorial team, just 2 hours after the announcement of Margaret Thatcher's death. Luckily the 'sad' news fell during a holiday, so I was able to knock out a rapid response. I don't think I would change anything if I had more time.

4) Say What? Language and the Left (Scottish Left Review, May)
The Scots kindly commissioned me to write this, despite my location south of the border, after spotting an earlier blog post of mine about left-wing langauge.

5) The People's Assembly: we need unity to beat austerity (Counterfire, May)
This detailed argument for why the People's Assembly is essential for the left was written in the run up to June's big national launch event.

6) The Question of Strategy part 1 (Counterfire, June)
Part 1 of my wide-ranging discussion of social movements, left-wing strategy and organisation...

7) The Question of Strategy part 2 (Counterfire, June)
... and here is part 2.

8) What is the real IS tradition? (Luna17, August)
This post involved rediscovering Tony Cliff and his ideas and political method.

9) Gentrification, class and the Left (Luna17, August)
My polemical response to an article on New Left Project about 'gentrification' and the Left.

10) Revolutionaries, movements and class (Luna17, October)
My longest article of the year, this is both an interrogation of what's gone wrong in the SWP and a broader discussion of social and political changes.

11) Ten points on revolutionary organisation and democracy (Luna17, November)
A brief guide to some important aspects of building socialist organisation today.

12) What to do with a tin of beans? Food banks, the left and the movement (Luna17, December)
A contribution to debate about how socialists ought to relate to the rapid rise of food banks.


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What to do with a tin of beans? Food banks, the left and the movement

Church Action on Poverty advert, hated by Iain Duncan Smith
I am, as I've noted plenty of times before, a great admirer of Tony Cliff, the late founder and longtime leading figure in the International Socialists (and later SWP). But one of his worst political moments was in 1984, in the early days of the Miners' Strike, when the SWP leadership initially adopted a rather aloof and dogmatic attitude to burgeoning practical solidarity with the miners.

Cliff's argument - at first - was that practical support in the form of food collections and such like was a distraction. What really mattered was putting a political argument about the need for widespread secondary strike action, and using this as the basis for exerting rank and file pressure on trade union leaders.

This political view was correct - and it helped steer the organisation through the year-long strike. But the dismissive attitude towards workplaces, union branches, trades councils, community groups and so on doing food collections for miners and their families was misguided (if, in the circumstances, initially understandable). This was in fact a major form of support and solidarity for the miners from large numbers of working class people. It was practically useful - indeed necessary - but it also expressed political support for the miners and their cause.

It was solidarity, not charity. It was practical and political. It was not an alternative to other forms of action, but an urgently necessary complement to them.

Cliff's initial attitude was summed up by his unfortunate remark that "the only good thing to do with a tin of beans is to throw it at a policeman". One version - possibly apocryphal - is that he changed his attitude after Chanie, his lifelong partner, told him that from now on he could do all his own cooking, and he would soon learn how important a tin of beans can be. Ian Birchall, in his superb biography of Cliff, suggests that the experience in Birmingham - where SWP members were involved in practical support work - was influential in him changing his mind.

Fortunately, Cliff was responsive to what was going on and he (and the wider leadership) corrected the earlier mistake and began taking such efforts seriously. The organisation went on to play an exemplary role in promoting miners' solidarity while maintaining a distinctive political analysis.


This brings us to food banks. The danger for the left is remaining aloof from what is a practically important form of necessary support for hundreds of thousands of working class people and also a highly political issue. It has become more acutely political in recent days due to Iain Duncan Smith's spat with the Trussell Trust, Christian providers of food banks, and the charity Church Action on Poverty (not to mention the evident contempt many Tory MPs have for food banks and those who benefit from them).
The very existence of food banks in communities throughout the UK is an indictment of this government's austerity drive. The rapid growth of food banks is a graphic, and disturbing, index of the human impact of austerity. It shines a light on the grotesque levels of inequality in our society and the injustice of current government policy.
 
It is important for socialists to voice the political arguments about food banks - how it is government policy that is making them necessary, how we need a radically different approach to alleviate poverty - just as it was necessary in the Miners' Strike to articulate a set of political arguments.

But that isn't enough. In fact there is something grimly dogmatic and sectarian about those who trot out a 'never mind about making donations to a food bank - we need to stop the cuts' line whenever there is any reference, e.g. on social media, to food banks. I prefer the approach taken by workers at offices in Darlington, in north-east England, who decided to ditch their customary Secret Santa and instead do a food bank collection. See the picture of their collection above. How would you feel if your own workplace was responsible for this?

It strikes me as an excellent act of solidarity and - at a time of very weak workplace organisation - a very politically useful thing to do in your workplace. I wish I had suggested it where I work.

Imagine if hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workplaces throughout the country do the same thing next Christmas. Will that be an irrelevant distraction from the real fight against austerity? Or will it be a collective and visible act of solidarity? Will it be a great way to stimulate discussion at work about the politics of cuts, poverty and so on?

Will it be a way of connecting workplaces with wider society, especially with its poorest and most vulnerable people? Will it be a powerful means of asserting that we won't be divided against each other, but will instead stand up for each other and provide support? It surely raises the political level in workplaces, counteracts divide-and-rule and stigmatisation, and opens up opportunities for new alliances.

I hope the organised left, anti-cuts groups and trade unions take the initiative with this (and there's no need to wait until next Christmas). This doesn't necessarily mean the movement starting food banks itself - although trade unions, with their considerable resources, could at least consider this option - but I do think that initiatives like the one in Darlington could point the way.

We should think of such collective practical solidarity (and, if you think about it, when approached in this way it is clearly solidarity not charity) as a springboard to participation in political campaigning against austerity. It is a starting point in turning the tide against the Tory war on the poor.

This should not be seen as an alternative to - or substitute for - strikes, demonstrations or anything else. It is one thing that we can do. It can be not only of practical service, but a vital way for the left to make its politics relevant and meaningful to wider layers of people.


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Saturday, 2 November 2013

10 points on revolutionary organisation and democracy

Working class democracy: Chartist mass meeting, Kennington, 1848
As part of my recent blog post 'Revolutionaries, movements and class' I briefly restated the case for revolutionary socialist organisation. This included the following:
 
'The need for revolutionary organisation remains rooted in an understanding that real change has to be fought for through action from below. We cannot rely on either politicians or bureaucrats to change things for us, but must instead build broad, democratic coalitions of resistance. To make permanent gains and bring about radical social transformation, revolution will be necessary, in which the repressive state is replaced with a new order based on mass democratic assemblies. To this end we need an organisation of revolutionary socialists rooted in, and shaping, broader working class struggles.'
 
I also indicated the centrality of democracy to the project of building such organisation.
 
'Democracy is at the heart of the authentic Leninist tradition. It is essential for effective action. The centrality of democracy applies not only to our social and political struggles, but also to our own organisation. We need to recover authentic democratic centralism and recognise that the genuine Leninist commitment to internal democracy is radically different from the 'sect' form, in which an ossified dogmatic orthodoxy is seen as needing protection against challenge in democratic discussion.'
 
In this post I want to elaborate on the theme of democracy in revolutionary socialist organisations. The 10 points below involve a fair amount of generalisation while being, in my view, especially pertinent to the period we currently find ourselves in. 
 
The continuing crisis of the SWP is part of the context here, but I am ultimately far more interested in positive ideas for building democratic revolutionary organisation than in diagnosing my former organisation's malaise. To a large extent the points here involve reflecting on my positive experiences as an activist in Counterfire - and in broader movement activity such as the North East People's Assembly - fused with some more general observations.

1) Building broad movements. Internal democratic culture can't be separated from an organisation's external activity. Activity in the wider world is the lifeblood of any group that wishes to be something better than a propagandist sect. 
 
A constant connection with reality is an important corrective to any tendencies to sectarianism or self-importance. If a group is not only 'intervening' in broader social struggles, but working with others in a constructive manner and building on-going political relationships, then this is especially so. When a revolutionary group is operating in a non-sectarian way beyond its own ranks - building coalitions, working co-operatively - the habits of openness, discussion and respect that characterise successful coalitions are likely to also characterise its own internal culture.
 
A high level of activity, with vibrant local groups where issues are discussed face to face in meetings, is essential. The more members who are active, the better. The more members who report and reflect on their experiences as an activist, the better. The more discussion there is among members, the better. Democracy is an active and collective process - day in, day out. It should be a habit to promote maximum participation in discussions, e.g. Counterfire's last national members' meeting was attended by a high proportion of our members, most of whom contributed in discussions.
 
2) Open marxism. Practical engagement in coalitions and broad struggles has to be accompanied with an intellectual openness that recognises that Marxism is a living tradition not a dead doctrine, an open and on-going project not a closed set of prescriptions. This is not the same thing as opportunistically abandoning Marxist ideas in favour of academic eclecticism (a genuine problem that becomes a bigger problem when revolutionary organisations decline or become more marginalised).
 
Tony Cliff opened his book 'Trotskyism after Trotsky' with these words:
 
'In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argue that communists generalise from the historical and international experience of the working class. This experience is always changing and developing and therefore Marxism always changes; the moment Marxism stops changing, it is dead. Sometimes historical change happens slowly and almost imperceptibly, but sometimes the changes are radical. Consequently there are abrupt turning points in the history of Marxism.'
 
'Open marxism' means deploying the intellectual tools inherited from the Marxist tradition to analyse changing realities. The all-too-real abandonment of Marxist ideas by some encourages a dogmatic reaction by others. Both of these paths - eclecticism and dogmatism - should be rejected. In the current period a democratic, inclusive and open culture facilitates the kind of theoretical enquiry that is needed to wrestle with important changes: the impact of neoliberalism, changes in working class composition, the state of the trade unions, the causes, nature and effects of the present capitalist crisis, and so on.
 
3) Unity in action and freedom of discussion. This is a classic formulation in the revolutionary tradition, but is sometimes misunderstood (to put it generously). It doesn't mean that once a decision has been taken it is unacceptable for anyone to challenge that decision, attempt to overturn it at the next opportunity or express an alternative view. It simply means that decisions which affect an organisation's activity are binding on the members, e.g. if a group collectively and democratically decides - after discussion - to support a particular course of action in an industrial dispute then it's wrong for members in the relevant trade union to vote the opposite way to what has been agreed.
 
The vital thing about this formulation - unity in action, freedom in discussion - is that it enables coherent, unified and effective political action at the same time as enabling the fullest discussion about the issues. Indeed these two go together: they are not two completely different things which co-exist uneasily. It is necessary to reflect on the impact of agreed decisions through discussions. Sometimes it may be necessary to change course as a result. Unity in action relies upon freedom of discussion; freedom of discussion relies upon unity in action.  
 
4) Centralism means  there is democratic accountability. In 1978 Chris Harman wrote a piece demolishing the argument that centralism is somehow undemocratic. Quite the opposite, he argued: democracy and centralism are interdependent, and it is those who refute centralism who evade any democratic accountability. He wrote:
 
Ultra-left adventurers and self-seeking careerists alike often relish in the joys of ‘decentralisation’ – because it means a movement they can exploit to their own advantage without being bound by its discipline. Today in Britain, for example, lack of a common discipline is one of the hallmarks of the Tribune group of Labour MPs. Why? Because it allows the members to enjoy an aura of ‘leftness’ without impeding their pursuit of careerist and opportunist policies. In the same way it is precisely the lack of centralism of the Broad Left in a number of unions that gives it such an appeal to aspiring bureaucrats. It can elect them but not control them.'
 
Harman's examples here are especially targeted at those who can be considered 'leaders' but the same principle applies throughout an organisation. Allowing members to do their own thing, irrespective of collective decision-making, is not democratic. It undermines democracy. Accountability is essential.

5) Factionalising is a bogus concept. Some people who discuss democracy and revolutionary organisation make a big deal of the question of factions: are they permitted? when are they permitted? what rights do they have? I actually think that 'factionalising' has long been a non-issue in reality. In the internet age the whole notion of 'factionalising' as A Bad Thing is absurd. It is utterly anachronistic to attempt prohibitions on discussion among members in an organisation, when it's so easy to make contact with each other and have a dialogue, e.g. via facebook. What is labelled 'factionalising' would more accurately be called 'discussion'.
 
It's not so much a case of saying that faction rights are important and should be permitted. The important point is a deeper one: the whole notion of 'factionalising' is redundant and a group should, quite simply, allow complete freedom of discussion among its members. Mechanisms - conferences, meetings, bulletins - should be in place to allow for this discussion, while also adopting a laidback approach to discussion which takes place outside these mechanisms. There should be scope for the formation of factions, but this is only one aspect of a group's internal democracy.

6) Openness. This leads on to a more general observation about openness. The fact is that socialist groups have to be open about differences and 'internal' discussion because the growth of the internet means that everything gets out whether we want it to or not. We might as well embrace it. The age of the 'internal bulletin' is emphatically over.
 
I also think that political discussion, including and involving as many members as possible, is tremendously important and therefore a group should put the emphasis on opening discussion up rather than seeking to limit it. Using the internet is obviously essential to this and should be utilised, but the most important thing remains facilitating face-to-face discussion.

7) Permanent discussion not permanent factionalism. Some commentators on revolutionary organisation argue that permanent factions are a good thing. In fact they institutionalise differences. They make it extremely difficult for there to be healthy, genuine and open discussion of issues because members can instinctively rally to 'their side' instead of engaging properly with the issues. If discussion among members is typically mediated through factions that is in truth less democratic.
 
Permanent factions undermine unity because many members will tend to put loyalty to their own particular faction ahead of the needs of the whole organisation (and indeed the wider interests of the working class movement). They can encourage an excessive focus on internal differences - however minor - at the expense of looking and building outwards. Permanent discussion is far healthier than permanent factions.

8) Proposals not factions.
The above points lead on to another: it makes far more sense to discuss concrete proposals on their own merits than it does to form factions which bundle together a whole set of issues. The emergence of factions can be polarising and unhelpful. A better approach is to focus on offering and discussing proposals, whether to a conference/national meeting or more informally. This, indeed, should be actively encouraged at every level of an organisation.
 
One problem with the existence of factions, and the disputes between them, is that it is alienating to the many members who are in no faction at all. Focusing instead on discussion and debate around proposals is much more inclusive. It is less polarising and prevents the development of 'organisations within organisations' (which is, among other things, a recipe for future splits).
 
9) Initiative is vital. Within an agreed national framework, grassroots members should get on with it. Local initiative is much healthier than passively waiting for some sort of 'centre' to tell you what to do. Local groups and activists are also capable of generating new experiences, insights and ideas, which can be fed into - and potentially generalised for - the national organisation.
 
Mistakes might be made, but the same is true whether initiative is coming from the national leadership or local groups. Mistakes can be a source of learning; they can be corrected. Local activists need to combine national-level discussions and priorities with their own knowledge of local circumstances. They need ownership of what they are doing and the capacity to determine what is needed in their own particular area.

10) Democratic culture is crucial for growth. The health of any group's democratic culture is as much about how issues are discussed as anything more formal: an avoidance of hectoring, bullying and appeals to 'the tradition'; encouragement to express different opinions, because discussion of them enriches everyone's understanding; a willingness to acknowledge errors and correct tactics which may not be working.
 
Meetings should be friendly and welcoming, new members should be encouraged to contribute ideas and participate in discussions, and there should be genuine openness to ideas offered by allies or sympathisers outside the organisation. If a group wants to function democratically and effectively and - above all - if it wants to grow, rather than simply perpetuate itself at the same low level, this kind of attitude is indispensable.
 
 
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Monday, 28 October 2013

Strategy, movements and the future of the Left


In June Counterfire published my review of Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy (Merlin, 2012) in two separate parts, due to its length (around 6000 words). I am belatedly posting it here as a single, hopefully coherent review article. Much of this material first appeared in a different, rougher form on Luna17, when I was thinking through the issues, but this version represents a synthesis of my ideas about left-wing strategy today.


What is to be done? The question posed by the title of Lenin’s short book over a century ago is always demanding an answer. For socialist activists, seeking to not only understand the world but to change it, this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is, as the title of this volume puts it, the question of strategy. Fundamentally this means considering: who has the capacity to change the world, and how can they do so?

At a time of deep crisis across a number of overlapping fields – economic, imperial and ecological – the question of strategy demands urgent and persuasive answers. But the crisis of the system has not automatically generated a convincing response from the left. Indeed it is often suggested that the crisis of the system is matched by a crisis of the left. The multiple crises of capitalism, matched by the difficulties faced by the contemporary left in responding to them, are the background to this new, wide-ranging volume of nineteen essays.

Socialist Register began in the early 1960s as part of the post-1956 New Left. Every year there is a fresh volume, always with a theme, drawing together diverse contributions from an international range of socialist writers and activists. Rather than attempting to summarise every contribution, however, I will pay fairly detailed attention to several very stimulating contributions in particular. These engage directly with the question of strategy for the radical left in the ‘old capitalist heartlands’ of Europe and North America.

Three aspects are in the foreground here: protest movements (specifically Occupy and anti-austerity), electoral left-wing parties and the revolutionary left. The relationship between these different elements is of fundamental importance if we are to both develop a successful strategy for defeating austerity and create a new left capable of leading a challenge to the entire system.

Crisis, austerity, alternatives

Greg Albo’s ‘The crisis and economic alternatives’ is the opening essay and provides a useful framework for the whole book. Albo’s starting point is the systemic crisis of capitalism that has wracked the core economies since 2008 and the far-reaching political and social implications of that crisis. He observes that in North America, Japan and Europe this crisis is comparable in scale and severity to three earlier periods of ‘major crisis’: the Long Depression of 1873-96, the Great Depression in the 1930s and the period of successive recessions which began in 1973.

One political consequence has been a renewal of critiques of neoliberalism, opening up space for political opposition. Albo refers to three trends in particular. The first is an upsurge of protest identified with the likes of Occupy and UK Uncut, ‘demonstrating a tactical inventiveness that the left very much could use’ (p2). The second is the development of radical-left parties in the electoral arena in Europe. He mentions five by name, ‘Syriza in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Left Front in France, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark’, and most commentators would also regard Germany’s Die Linke (the subject of an essay in this volume) as deserving inclusion in the list.

The third trend is Albo’s main focus: renewed interest in alternatives to neoliberal economics and the strategic question of posing an alternative to dominant austerity. He is concerned that the formulation of such alternatives has so far been ‘sputtering’ and hopes that the growth of anti-austerity struggles will expand the space in which alternatives can be debated. Albo develops some detailed ideas along these lines, but the most pertinent part of his essay is when he considers how alternative economic strategies, which can easily seem utopian and distant, might be translated into demands guiding the anti-austerity movement.

Albo notes that we do not yet have ‘focused campaigning demands animating the movements’ (p11), so he proposes what these demands might be. This is not meant as a coherent ‘transitional programme’, but rather as ‘a distinctive socialist contribution to struggles over an exit to the crisis’ (p11). It consists of five elements: debt audits and defaults, bank nationalisation and democratic control, a radical programme of public works, a ‘green new deal’ which links climate justice and anti-austerity struggles, and a number of transnational measures grouped under the heading ‘confronting the world market’.

Albo makes the important point that ‘the position of financial capital within the neoliberal power bloc makes [bank] nationalization under political control a struggle of the first order’ (p12). It is a struggle that pushes beyond the limits of neoliberal capitalism. Nationalisation of the banks is viewed here as integral to breaking the power of finance capital. The demands for mass public works and a ‘green new deal’ also cut against the core tenets of neoliberalism, seeking to stimulate the economy through public investment rather than adopting policies of cuts and privatisation.

All this leaves open the question of agency - of how such demands can be pursued - which is a more central focus in a number of the other essays. Albo, however, is aware of the difficulties here: he observes that both the crisis and the resistance to it have proceeded in profoundly uneven ways in different countries, so that inevitably in some countries there is greater scope (but also greater urgency) for raising these demands in practical ways, as a direct challenge to nation states and the international institutions backing them. The PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) are the countries where the crisis has been deepest and the challenge to austerity has been fiercest, therefore posing such questions most urgently.

Revolutionaries and new parties of the European left

This leads us on to the state of the anti-austerity left in Europe. A number of essays cover this territory. Charles Post’s ‘What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective’ sounds audacious - and it is. One of the very strongest pieces in the whole volume, it goes back to the pre-1917 development of socialism to help understand current divisions and debates on the radical left. Post provides a sweeping historical survey of the twentieth-century revolutionary left. This includes the development of a number of mass Communist Parties in the early 1920s and, during the Stalinist era, their political degeneration. However, it is the analysis of the radical left since 1968 that I want to focus on here.

In 1968-75 there was substantial growth in Trotskyist and Maoist organisations. Shaped by the upsurge of student and worker militancy of those years, they offered an alternative to both social democracy and official Communism. There was a widespread view among revolutionaries that conditions were comparable to the post-1917 period and the growth of genuinely mass revolutionary parties was a viable prospect, just as happened in much of Europe (and to an extent beyond) during the years following the Russian Revolution.

These prospects were dashed as a period of working-class retreat began in the mid-1970s and the neoliberal offensive commenced. The European revolutionary left was thoroughly disoriented and suffered a series of splits. Some groups collapsed, others declined. The authentic non-Stalinist revolutionary left of the 1970s never grew to the scale seen in some countries during the Third International period of the early 1920s.

The downturn period saw a largely successful neoliberal assault on the working class, with a weakening of trade-union power, a shift in weight from the rank and file to the union bureaucracy and a decisive move rightwards in the Labour Party and its continental equivalents. This was complemented by the marginalisation of the radical left and its ideas (intellectually Marxism came under sustained assault). Post observes that only two small but substantial revolutionary organisations survived the downturn period with membership largely intact and a credible base among militant workers: the British International Socialists (IS) and the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Both of these were Trotskyist organisations; the Maoist left, meanwhile, had almost entirely collapsed by the end of the 1970s.

The IS, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, adapted well to changing circumstances and took important initiatives like the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, a united front that was successful in beating back the threat of the far right, while also sustaining a base in the trade unions despite vastly more difficult circumstances than the early-1970s upturn in struggle. The SWP came through the 1980s and 1990s with a solid activist base intact, with roots in an admittedly weakened organised working class, so that in the early years of this century it could play an impressive role in anti-capitalist and anti-war movements (and for a time in new left-wing electoral formations). The LCR, similarly, maintained a credible layer of working-class activists throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so that it was able to intervene in fresh workers’ struggles from the mid-1990s onwards and, a little later, in the anti-capitalist movement.

Post argues that these organisations were about as successful as could reasonably be expected in harsh circumstances. The aspiration to develop new mass revolutionary parties that could challenge reformists (in parliament and the trade unions) for leadership of the working-class movement was, however, unfulfilled. The revolutionary left remained a small minority current, marginal to the broad labour movement.

This was not simply, argues Post, because there was a period of defeats for the working class or a crude result of economic and social changes. It was largely due to circumstances beyond revolutionaries’ control, but these were as much to do with the nature of the working-class movement as anything, i.e. the political and organisational domination of the working class by reformism, manifested in the weight of the trade-union bureaucracy, the strength of long-established social-democratic parties (like the British Labour Party) and the role of Communist Parties which had long since accommodated to the system. The revolutionary left repeatedly found itself confronting these obstacles within the broader movement. When a new wave of anti-capitalist mobilising developed at the start of this century, radical consciousness tended not to translate into specifically Marxist ideas and allegiance to the revolutionary left.

This brings us to the development of new parties of the European left over the last decade or so. The space for such parties was created primarily by the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism and - to a lesser but still important degree - the collapse of the Communist parties after 1989 and the fact that revolutionary organisations were too small to fill the gap. The character of these parties was also influenced by the development of generally street-based protest movements. In the early 2000s, with the rapid growth of anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, Italy’s Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) held out great promise. But the PRC made enormous concessions to parties to its right, which effectively finished it as a credible left-wing force.

Since that time a number of new left-wing parties have emerged, some of which have since collapsed or fragmented, while a few have been sustained fairly successfully. Germany’s Die Linke, formed in 2007, resulted principally from a fusion of an old Communist left (based mainly in the East) with the left-wing of social democracy disenchanted with the neoliberal trajectory of that political tradition (based mainly in the West). Die Linke has had some difficulties recently and it is currently unclear how it will develop.

Some parties, like the earlier (2004-07) version of Respect in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party, have been quite different in character: the revolutionary left has been the principal driving force, lending them considerable radicalism, but without the benefits brought by large-scale cracks in the mainstream parties of social democracy or in the union movement. Reformism has remained a more powerful block than many revolutionary activists anticipated, despite a deepening loss of faith in mainstream politics among millions of people and the poor record of social democracy in office.

Newer parties of the left are sometimes held up as shining lights for us to follow, but Post argues that they have in fact suffered from a whole series of problems and, furthermore, they are incapable of successfully moving beyond the old divide in the socialist movement between reformism and revolutionary politics. Most of them have had an important degree of success, some continue to be successful, and they have generally been worthy of support and participation. Yet they have had difficulty grappling with such questions as how to connect parliamentary and electoral activity to extra-parliamentary activity, how to overcome the weaknesses of the trade unions, and how to prevent sliding to the right and into compromises with neo-liberal politics.

Crucially, Post argues, it is simply impossible to be successfully both post-social-democratic and post-Leninist. Ultimately, it is still necessary for the most advanced, revolutionary elements of the working class to organise independently in their own organisations, separate from reformist parties. This is one of the central lessons of 1917 and the period which followed the Russian Revolution. The new parties of the left have not ‘transcended the pre-1914 social-democratic “twin pillars” organisational norm where the party focused on electoral politics, while the union officialdom directed day-to-day class struggle in the workplace and beyond’ (p191). These new parties have reproduced the old challenges of social democracy, dating back to before 1914: ‘the contradictions of entering capitalist governments, the relationship of electoral and routine trade union activity and mass, extra-parliamentary struggles, and the issues of war and peace’ (p191).

None of this remotely means that the new left parties are unimportant and should be disregarded. It does, however, strongly suggest that independent revolutionary organisation and the united front method, whereby revolutionaries work with those who have reformist consciousness in extra-parliamentary struggles over shared demands, are as necessary as ever. Post looks to ‘the revival of the rational core of Leninism - the transcendence of the division of labour between party and unions and movements through the organisation of radical and revolutionary activists who attempt to contest the forces of official reformism over the conduct of mass struggle’ (p192).

Finally, Post points out that the political development of left-wing parties is shaped by two especially important factors: the outcome of extra-parliamentary struggles against austerity, and the relative strength within these parties of radical anti-capitalists, who can counter the pressures which are liable to pull such parties in a more moderate direction. Revolutionaries, if they can organise effectively, can influence the direction of credible left-wing parties where they exist. In all countries, whether there is such a party or not, revolutionaries have the challenge of shaping anti-austerity struggle beyond the realm of electoral politics and strengthening the radical anti-capitalist pole within those movements.

Occupy and the new anti-capitalist left

Two essays engage with issues arising from the Occupy movement, which emerged from September 2011 onwards, first in New York and rapidly spreading nationwide (and to an extent beyond the US). These two particular contributions look especially at the experiences of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, placing them in context, and sketching conclusions that might be more generally applicable.

Occupy Wall Street signposted a resurgence of radical protest in the US and generated political debate about social and economic inequality. The Occupy movement can be seen as opening up new possibilities for the American left. After the initial Occupy moment - galvanising, exciting, hopeful - different directions were (and are) possible. There are naturally different ideas about what the movement is for, what it can become, and how it should organise. Jodi Dean’s ‘Occupy Wall Street: after the anarchist moment’, highlights the strengths of Occupy, but also notes that initially attractive qualities – inclusive, leaderless, participatory, and consensus-seeking - brought serious problems too. The focus on ‘consensus’ masked political and tactical differences, so there was a tendency to fudge issues that actually needed thrashing out and resolving in order for action to be taken.

The need for democratic structures which can guide effective action was too often evaded. If there are not accountable leaders or leadership bodies then unaccountable leaders emerge. The rhetoric of being ‘leaderless’, however well-intentioned and genuine, is soon complemented by unaccountable leadership and weak democracy. This reduces the capacity for collective action around coherent demands.

In New York the biggest Occupy-related protests resulted from trade-union participation. However, without coherent strategy there was a failure to build fully on the successes. Instead the tendency was for fragmentation into disparate campaigns and projects. Without a clear, agreed strategy for reaching out to broader layers of support, sustaining the occupation was increasingly seen as an end in itself. The movement was liable to turn in on itself; ‘obsessively reflecting on its failures adequately to include’ (p54). Questions of process became more important than questions of action.

Dean observes that Occupy ‘mobilised not a proletariat bound to the factory but the proletarianised, extended throughout uneven, unequal cities’ (p55). This is a valuable insight: in a period of low levels of industrial struggle, protests and occupations are the primary expression of resistance. But that does not mean abandoning any notion of working-class struggle or politics: it is a question of forms of resistance, shaped by the realities of today’s working class and the legacy of defeats for the organised working class during the long neoliberal offensive.

Dean suggests, provocatively and, in my view, correctly, that the occupiers effectively formed a ‘self-selected vanguard’ in a broader struggle, taking on the kind of responsibilities Lenin attributed to professional revolutionaries or Bolshevik cadre. She writes that they were ‘establishing and maintaining a continuity, a persistence, that enables broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. This continuity combats the fragmentation, localism and transitoriness of much of contemporary left politics’ (p56).

In the Leninist tradition the two crucial points about any vanguard are that they are organised in a coherent and collective body, and that they are in constant interaction with wider layers of the class. This is the basis for needing two interconnected things: revolutionary organisation and the united front. Occupy was, by its very nature, a politically-disparate phenomenon. It was not as (relatively) politically and ideologically homogenous as a revolutionary organisation. It also struggled to establish forms of long-term organisation, limited instead by the transient character of a specific tactic: the occupation of public space.

Occupy activists’ relationship with wider layers of support was complex. Some elements were outward-looking and determined to build wider (and long-term) alliances, especially with working class organisations. However, there was also a strong pull - due to both material and political pressures - to be inward-looking and overly focused on simply maintaining the occupation itself (and on its own internal dynamics).

Occupy, direct action and the broad movement

Barbara Epstein’s ‘Occupy Oakland: the question of violence’ has relevance way beyond Oakland, and the question of violence is only one of a number explored here. She focuses on a number of issues arising from Occupy Oakland, which was one of the most high-profile parts of the movement: ‘the balance between non-violent tactics and militancy, between a focus on tactics and internal processes on the one hand, and on goals and strategy on the other, and the question of how to respond to police violence’ (p64).

Anarchist-influenced ideas have become prominent in the last thirty years of protest movements. She suggests the first wave was in the 1980s with a particular focus on anti-nuclear activity, with feminist and environmentalist concerns at the fore. The second wave was the anti-capitalist movement after the great Seattle demonstration in late 1999, which benefited from a wider anti-system critique but borrowed many of the same preoccupations: inclusivity, horizontalism, consensus, etc. The third wave is Occupy.

Internationally the predominance of such ideas and forms of organisation is influenced by the weakness of traditions that were once stronger: trade unions, social democracy, official Communism and the organised left. There is often a deep distrust of ‘politics’ and also of organisation: taken together, this feeds an emphasis on direct action, and a certain dynamism and militancy, but with little connection to mass politics or mass organisations it also encourages a degree of elitism and sectarianism.

Epstein explains that various occupations, including Occupy Oakland, modelled themselves on Occupy Wall Street: ‘adopting, along with encampment, the General Assembly, some modified form of consensus process, the hand motions, the use of the human mic’ (p70). She points out that these tactics have strengths but also drawbacks: consensus, or even modified consensus, can allow a small minority to block the will of the majority; meetings can be long, tedious and unproductive; an appearance of consensus can disguise important differences.

In Occupy Oakland the issue of responding to police violence became a central one. Influential elements within the activist base of OO, heavily influenced by variants of anarchism, foregrounded physical confrontation with the forces of the state. This was coupled with a highly antagonistic attitude to anything deemed part of ‘official politics’. There were two interconnected problems. Firstly, these forms of organisation privilege the commitment of relatively small numbers of activists over the capacity to mobilise large numbers. Yet, if you want to isolate and defeat state forces, it makes sense to mobilise the largest numbers possible. The other problem is that distrust of authority even extended to sympathetic elected politicians: at one demonstration, progressive local politicians were refused any opportunity to speak. Epstein writes: ‘a suspicious attitude towards progressive groups that engage in electoral politics deprives Occupy Oakland of potential allies’ (p74).

The response to a police attack on the Oakland camp on 25 October 2011 was to call a ‘general strike’, which in fact was a day of demonstrations supported by unions, as agreed at a General Assembly of over 1000 people. Twenty thousand people took part in the demonstrations on 2 November, with many taking the day off work. In the evening a much smaller number, many dressed in black and wearing masks, gathered. A confrontation with police ensued, with over 100 arrests. Debate raged afterwards about this adoption of confrontational, small-scale ‘militancy’ by some of those involved in Occupy Oakland. The debate tended to be framed in terms of whether only ‘non-violent’ tactics should be used or if a ‘diversity of tactics’ (including confrontational tactics) was preferable.

But, as Epstein observes, that confuses the issues. The real debate needs to be about what tactics can successfully build on widespread popular enthusiasm for Occupy. Continued mass mobilisations, outreach and strengthening links with unions were all tactics for doing this; small-scale actions involving dedicated activists, by contrast, alienated broad support and risked diverting the movement down a blind alley. The truly radical aspect of 2 November 2011 was not any ‘Black Bloc’ heroics, but rather the mass movement opposing state repression and providing solidarity with Occupy’s stand against social inequality and injustice.

Epstein considers what options were open to Occupy activists when the occupations ended in late 2011. She suggests that perhaps the most successful development for Occupy Wall Street was a campaign over housing, taking direct action in response to evictions. This indicated the potential that exists: addressing issues that are important to millions of working-class people, allying with campaigns and community groups, extending the movement beyond a single, highly visible but transient tactic. Such action can enable community participation and build new coalitions. Occupy Oakland had some similar experience with a protest march against school closures attracting around 5000 people. OO’s most effective work was through its links with trade unions, but, as indicated above, this was in tension with other elements of the movement. It is also not clear if it has been sustained.

Epstein writes:

‘The Occupy movement as a whole faces the problem of any movement whose identity is tied to a tactic and an internal process rather than to a clearly defined goal: what to do when the tactic reaches its limit and the process loses its glow, when internal differences, or fatigue and declining numbers, call for more stable forms of organising’ (p79).

 This implies that a clearer sense of goals and demands is necessary. That is one part of what is meant when we refer to strategy. However, it also points towards other aspects of strategy: who is involved in the movement, and what mechanisms are deployed for mobilising them and co-ordinating their efforts. It is, fundamentally, a question of how a small and committed activist minority can, in a sustained, long-term way, connect with much larger layers of people in joint activity towards meaningful shared demands.

Trade unions and the American Left

In ‘Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism’, Sam Gindin’s starting point is American trade unions’ ‘generally anaemic response to the Great Financial Crisis’ (p26). Gindin, a Canadian academic who has a long association with North America’s union movements, observes that the US-union movement failed to build out of the activist and political space opened up by Occupy. The struggle in Wisconsin was exemplary, but its eventual defeat may be one reason why there has not been a general upswing in trade-union action.

The key question Gindin addresses is this: ‘does the rejuvenation of unions still really remain possible, or are unions now exhausted as an effective historical form through which working people organise themselves?’ (p26). The last comparable economic and social crisis (in the 1930s) prompted a response that, in the US, had industrial unionism at the fore. Is it bound to be different this time? In the 1930s the American left was very much shaped by participation in workers’ struggles. Gindin considers the decline and weakened state of today’s left, noting that there is a huge gap between the poor state of socialist organisation and the crying need for a socialist response to the crisis.

Gindin is conscious of the limits of trade-union sectionalism, which pulls the unions away from co-ordination and from a generalised political response to the crisis. The unions are particularly weak after over three decades of neoliberal workforce restructuring, which has eroded workplace organisation. It is exceptionally difficult for union militants to build rank-and-file organisations when they are isolated in often small workplaces, operating in a context of low union density and low levels of strike action.

Gindin suggests a way forward suited to this context of low levels of confidence within the labour movement (and a very small organised left) co-existing with widespread working-class anger and the radicalism signified by Occupy. His proposal is for workers’ assemblies, which would have ‘four elements - individual membership, community-based, class-focused and anti-capitalist in the ultimate goal’ (p37). These would be locally-based and encompass a range of issues, offering a way for left-wing activists to both group together and reach out to wider layers, with a radical political dynamic.

This has attractive elements: it reflects a correct understanding that organisation is more likely to be area-based than workplace-based (in a period of low industrial struggle and taking into account long-term workforce restructuring), it aims to make connections between different elements of the working class to overcome sectionalism, and has a general political perspective rather than being limited to single issues. However, it does seem a rather speculative model because it is not, to the best of my knowledge, rooted in any existing processes. It is not clear who would initiate such assemblies: is this a call to the unions to take such an initiative, or perhaps to small groupings of socialist activists, or a wider appeal to the broad progressive movement? Also, as Gindin acknowledges, in the absence of real workers’ struggles they risk becoming talking shops and could turn inwards.

I also think there is a lack of clarity in Gindin’s ideas about how such workers’ assemblies actually relate to trade-union renewal. The idea is that they could play a vital role in stimulating a renewal of workers’ struggles, but how this might unfold is not explained. What is missing here, it seems, is the concept of the united front, or a sense of how it might be applied in current circumstances. I am reluctant to offer prescriptions from my location in another continent - and of course there will already be at least localised or partial examples of this anyway - so I will just indicate roughly what that might imply. It means that socialist activists initiate broader formations opposed to key aspects of the neoliberal offensive. In Europe this overwhelmingly means austerity; in the US it is not quite so straightforward, but there is (as Occupy testified) a sense that the vast majority are being made to pay for a crisis generated by a tiny, wealthy minority, with growth in inequality and a squeeze on working-class living standards.

It is in the context of wider struggles, which can involve sometimes large numbers of people from non-activist or non-left backgrounds, that the American Left can find a way forward. These will often be broader-based and more ostensibly single-issue (though of course specific issues tend to be a lightning rod for wider grievances) than the workers’ assemblies model implies. In this context it is possible for there to both a broad left renewal - a left equivalent of the Tea Party phenomenon, if you will - and also a strengthening of the radical left. In this context arguments about the need for fundamental system change can resonate at least with a small minority of those involved in joint activity.

Socialists, elections and movements

I want, finally, to make some synoptic comments on the question of how socialists should organise in the current period, especially on the prospects for new left-wing parties. This is a central theme of A Question of Strategy, which includes three very insightful contributions devoted specifically to Syriza. The Greek party is undoubtedly the brightest hope of the European left and a focus for a great deal of political and strategic debate.

What are the conditions for the growth of new left parties? The last decade has provided numerous examples of left-wing electoral initiatives in the political space opened up by social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberal orthodoxies. This wider experience, in countries like Greece, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and Holland as well as in the UK, can be distilled into several key elements which provide the conditions for new left-wing parties being a plausible endeavour.

Firstly, a crisis of established social democracy opens up political space. In other words, a country’s traditional social-democratic party has disillusioned its supporters by imposing cuts and privatisation while in office. It is the adoption of neoliberalism by European left-of-centre parties, especially from the mid-1990s onwards (typified by Blair’s ‘Third Way’, but far more widespread), that provides the broader political context for the rise of newer left-wing formations in recent years.

Secondly, there have been consequent fractures in social democracy as an organised force. The crisis of trust in the traditional labour parties leads to breakaways by left wingers, either in those parties themselves or the trade unions linked to them. Die Linke provides a powerful example of this. Thirdly, mass movements or mass struggles have given impetus to new parties. This country’s Stop the War movement was the practical context that shaped the formation of Respect, especially the involvement of Muslim anti-war activists in alliance with the radical left, when it was launched in January 2004. The most advanced example is of course Syriza, the growth of which is organically connected to the mass strikes and mass protests in Greece.

Fourthly, a significant layer of activists is required. An obvious example is France’s Fronte de Gauche, which is dominated by the French Communist Party, an organisation that claims 70,000 subs-paying members (i.e. several times the membership of the entire UK organised radical left combined). On a smaller scale, though, recall that the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect were both made possible by decent-sized socialist organisations investing time in building them.

Fifthly, an electoral system that is favourable to minor parties is helpful if not absolutely essential. Our ‘first past the post’ system is a major barrier to minor parties. Many European countries (including Greece) have systems that provide better opportunities for small parties actually to get people elected, which in turn takes them to a higher level of public awareness, provides a certain political credibility and motivates activists to keep on campaigning. Finally, an existing electoral vacuum is not an absolute precondition - look at how Syriza has flourished despite competition from the Communist KKE and the radical left Antarsya - but it helps a new left-wing party’s chances if there are not already a number of left-wing alternatives on offer to voters. A range of options on the left not only splits the vote, but also generates cynicism among voters (and many potential activists) about the left’s inability to unite.

What overall conclusions can be taken from the above? It should be obvious that past UK successes, several SSP candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the election of George Galloway as a Respect MP followed by a batch of east London councillors in 2006, are not easily replicated. It would also be naïve to imagine that breakthroughs on the continent can be readily emulated here. We also need to recall that initial breakthroughs, here and elsewhere, have in most cases not been sustained or built upon. In fact a number of electoral formations have declined or even collapsed, as the wider circumstances have changed or as difficult-to-balance political tensions have ultimately become irreconcilable.

The central question, however, is what our priorities on the left ought to be. In the UK the primary locus of struggle is clearly extra-parliamentary activity, especially in the form of street protests and principally oriented on the struggle against austerity. This includes a great deal of trade-union activity - although strike levels have been low, unions have played a major role in mobilising anti-cuts feeling on the streets - but also protests by a wide range of groups encompassing all sorts of issues, from the bedroom tax to the NHS, from workfare to library closures.

There has been a fragmented and localised quality to most anti-cuts campaigning. The People’s Assembly offers the hope of utilising the energy and dynamism in much of this campaigning and channelling it into a more co-ordinated assault on the government, developing a unified and coherent movement that combines the myriad campaigns and organisations. Such working-class unity in action is surely the central priority for the left today. This has the capacity to confront urgently the Tory assault on working-class living standards, welfare and public services, mobilising popular opposition on the streets and hopefully, increasingly, through workplace action too.

This does not mean pursuing blind activity or downplaying politics: indeed the People’s Assembly process provides a chance to unite activity and politics on a sustained, on-going basis. It is through this process that we can unite and renew the left, drawing in new layers of activists and supporters, making left-wing politics relevant through meaningful mass activity against the cuts.

The corollary of united front building is the renewal of the revolutionary socialist tradition. Revolutionaries need to articulate an anti-capitalist politics that points the way to total system change, linking together the numerous different issues and locating them as having the same roots in capitalism. Doing this effectively requires organisation. We start from a low base, due to the weakened state of the revolutionary left and (in the UK) the political and sectarian degeneration of the SWP, but nonetheless a new revolutionary organisation must be built. As John Rees recently wrote for Counterfire:

‘The revolutionary left has a crucial role to play here since the conception of the united front and of the necessary predominance of extra-parliamentary struggle is at the heart of the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. The revolutionary left may be weakened, in Britain at least, by internal degeneration produced by sectarian politics. But it can and must recover to play a vital ideological and practical role in the reconstruction of a fighting and united working class movement.’ (http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/55-the-crisis/16388-the-crisis-in-europe-and-the-response-of-the-left)

The construction of broad united fronts capable of confronting austerity and the renewal of revolutionary organisation are two sides of the same coin. Grasping the centrality of both these challenges, and the relationship between them, is at the core of any answers we might give to the question of strategy.


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