Friday, 17 January 2014
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.
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.
Wednesday, 1 January 2014
|David Cameron on the day of his Syria defeat. No more rebellions?|
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.
Tuesday, 24 December 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.
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.
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...
Monday, 23 December 2013
|A veritable smorgasbord|
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.
|Church Action on Poverty advert, hated by Iain Duncan Smith|
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).
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.
Saturday, 2 November 2013
|Working class democracy: Chartist mass meeting, Kennington, 1848|
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, 28 October 2013
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.
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.
Friday, 18 October 2013
|Manchester, 29 September 2013. Photo: Mark Husmann|
‘The politics of the crisis in the SWP’ – by leading Socialist Workers Party members Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber – includes a defence of the SWP leadership’s positions in recent internal party debates and of its handling of accusations of rape and sexual harassment against a leading member. However, it is also an attempt to locate the specific debates inside the SWP over the last year among larger social and political trends. The authors’ dominant idea is that the political tendency they call ‘movementism’ has pulled layers of revolutionaries away from the tradition.
A great deal has been written about the specific controversies in the SWP recently. The debate prompted by the Central Committee's response to allegations against Martin Smith, former SWP national secretary, is a tremendously important one in its own right. This article is not adding to the discussion about those particular issues - there are well-informed accounts elsewhere.
Leading UCU activist Sean Vernell appears to refute the narrow view offered by Callinicos when he writes:
'Too often the debate about the street versus the workplace is a sterile one with a false polarisation between the two. Socialists welcome all and any forms of protest against any aspect of injustice or poverty... Strikes and street protests are sometimes simplistically counterposed. However, both are going to be vital in defeating the government's offensive.'
Callinicos and Kimber argue that the trend of ‘movementism’ is shaped by a wider context characterised by widespread street protest coupled with low levels of strike action. Movementism and left reformism are viewed by the authors as two sides of the same coin: left reformism is focused on parliament and the Labour Party while movementism is concerned with street-based protest movements, but they are both given greater radical legitimacy by supposed ex-revolutionaries who reject revolutionary organisation and downplay the role of 'organised workers' in social change. This 'downplaying' is treated as synonymous with writing off the working class as a political actor.
'Movementism': the origins of a concept
I will return to the current debate about 'movementism' below, but first let's consider where the concept comes from. It is a creature of the downturn for working-class struggle that began in the mid-1970s. The disorientation of the revolutionary left followed the ending of the international upturn in working class struggles in around 1975 - with the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution, Italy's 'historic compromise', Britain's 'social contract', the end of mass workers' unrest and so on. The end of the upturn was accompanied by a general shift to the right and a profound weakening of rank-and-file workers' organisation. This was complemented by the marginalisation of Marxist ideas (replaced, over time, with ideas labelled 'poststructuralist', 'postmodernist' etc) and a move into the Labour Party by former revolutionaries attracted by the rise of Bennism.
Criticising such 'movementism' did not mean neglecting the kind of issues that it tended to promote like gender, race and sexuality. It did mean having a distinct Marxist analysis of such issues combined with a practical approach that emphasised connections between oppressed groups and the working class movement. It also put the stress on mass activity, rather than elitist and separatist forms of action. The 'social movements' were not class-wide movements of protest but rather sectional campaigns which, though they didn't need to be, were often counterposed to a supposedly outdated class politics.
Many SWP activists were involved in campaigning to defend abortion rights in the mid-1970s (indeed Lindsey German was a founder member of the National Abortion Campaign). The Anti Nazi League was launched in 1977 and formed a huge part of the party's activities until 1979. The SWP took the riots in Brixton and elsewhere very seriously (they were not a distraction from the 'class struggle'). The CND demonstrations of the early 1980s were important for the party, while the period also saw attempts to relate to fights over oppression.
There may have been a strong critique of 'movementism', but this was not a period of abstention from real-live movements. The critique of movementism was in fact quite precise: it was a critique of various forms of identity politics and their relationship to a drift by some from the revolutionary left into Labour Left politics. From the mid-1980s onwards the term almost completely disappeared from SWP discourse.
That is indeed a real danger. No doubt there have been individual examples of it happening. But it is a grossly inaccurate characterisation of many critics of the current SWP leadership, including those of us seeking to build a new revolutionary socialist organisation in the form of Counterfire. In fact the commitment to movement building reflects, as it has done for over a decade, two core understandings: in an era of political radicalisation and protest movements, revolutionaries can most effectively build their own organisation and spread their ideas by participating centrally in the movements; and, secondly, movement-building is not an alternative to the working class, but rather a particular expression of working class resistance and organisation. Trade unions remain hugely important and need to be an arena of political action for revolutionaries, but limiting ourselves to them would be foolish.
The emergence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, against a backdrop of continuing low levels of industrial struggle, meant that working class resistance followed a very different pattern to the 1960s and 1970s, the era which had been the context for the growth of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP). It was also very different to the downturn of the 1980s, which had largely shaped the modern SWP. It was generally political and ideological issues which provided the cutting edge for resistance. SWP founder Tony Cliff, shortly before his death in 2000, grasped the new opportunities which were opening up and urged changes in how the SWP should operate, moving away from the more routinist and propagandist approaches necessary to survive the downturn years, turning the party outwards to embrace new developments (a number of those who worked most closely with Cliff in his later years are now involved in building Counterfire or Scotland's International Socialist Group).
The growing People's Assembly movement, the large and vibrant 29 September demo and Miliband's very hesitant leftward shift - itself a product of pressures from protests, trade unions and public opinion - have all given confidence to some trade unionists to go for strike action. And when strike action happens its most visible expression is often in public protest, something we have seen this week with the strikes, marches and rallies by teachers.
Organised workers will be at the strategic centre of any successful revolutionary movement. This is one of the great lessons, still as relevant as ever, of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of revolutionary upheavals which followed in its wake. Rebuilding trade unions - and workers 'confidence to take strike action - is a central priority. We are seeing signs of a growing spirit of resistance in the unions right now, including teachers', higher education workers' and firefighters' strikes this month and a national post workers' strike lined up for 4 November. But as well as winning arguments for strike action - and the projects of recruiting and workplace organising which are linked to such action - the process of rebuilding confidence also involves the development of wider movements of resistance.
The rejection of a united front approach to the economic crisis was a serious mistake by the SWP leadership and the main issue of contention in the SWP faction fight of 2009/10 then the main cause of the successive splits which led to the formation of Counterfire in 2010 and Scotland’s International Socialist Group in 2011. Some SWP members are now involved in the People’s Assembly, which the party formally supports, but there is still a reluctance to fully commit to it in practice. This is reflected in the almost-total absence of references to the People’s Assembly from the Callinicos and Kimber article.
Reasserting democratic centralism does not mean importing wholesale the practices and structures of the pre-1917 Bolshevik Party (which, in any case, changed greatly over time and varied in different places). The essence of Leninism and the particular forms it can take need to be separated out. Crucially, what democratic centralism means in reality - how it is embodied in structures, procedures, practices - can be quite different for an organisation of modest size (like today's SWP) compared to one with a genuine mass base like the Bolsheviks.
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.
We need to group together those who are consistently anti-capitalist and recognise the need for fundamental system change. This is the necessary complement to participation in broader social and political struggles. It is essential if revolutionaries want to make an impact on the world around them, rather than being reduced to either sectarian position-taking or, on the other hand, tailing more moderate elements in the broad labour movement.
The future of the revolutionary left
The SWP leadership has developed a narrow conception of class struggle that regardless of concrete circumstances privileges the call for strikes – despite actual strike levels being historically low –and downplays other forms of struggle, deriding them as ‘movementism’. This confuses a matter of principle, the centrality of the working class as the agent of change, with strategic and tactical assessments of which actions are possible at any given moment. This leads to ultra-left propagandism in practice and crude reductionism in theory. Sean Vernell expresses a more sophisticated view when he writes:
'Street protests of all kinds therefore must play a significant part in any real mass movement against austerity - not only because they can, given the right conditions, give confidence to workers to take strike action but also because they play a vital role in winning the battle of ideas within the working class against arguments justifying austerity. The question for the left should not be the street or the workplace but how we can inspire people to campaign and get involved with all types of campaigns to end austerity and for a different world.'
There have been times in the past when the SWP made initial mis-judgements about what forms of action to prioritise. In the late 1970s it was only through experience that the party realised the Rank and File Movement was going nowhere but the Right to Work Campaign had great potential, necessarily correcting its perspective (which had previously regarded the rank and file union work as paramount, while work among the unemployed was a mere adjunct). In the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 there was an initial over-estimation of potential for workers’ action, with a focus on calling for secondary strike action that quickly turned out to be less important than building practical solidarity campaigns in localities. When the poll tax was introduced in Scotland the party adopted the line of calling for strike action by those responsible for collecting and administering the new tax, while ignoring the emerging non-payment campaign. Thankfully the line changed when the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales.
Some of this material has been posted previously in a different form on Luna17.