Sunday, 1 March 2015

Love Newcastle, Hate Racism: 6 observations on the #NewcastleUnites demonstration

Yesterday's anti-racist demonstration in Newcastle was successful beyond the hopes of all of us involved in organising and promoting it. Now for some reflection.

1) It was a huge local demo. Vera Baird, police and crime commissioner, tweeted that we had 3000 while the Pegida rally was only 200. Even if some media reports (putting the racists at 400) are correct, the ratio in favour of anti-racists is massive. This is especially significant for Newcastle because just two years ago 2000 EDL supporters marched through our streets (greatly outnumbering us) a few days after the killing of Lee Rigby.
With the exception of 30 November 2011 - when we had a demo of nearly 10,000 by striking public sector workers - that makes it Tyneside's biggest local demonstration (on any issue) for decades. I am informed by Nigel Todd - a historian of Tyneside anti-fascism in the 1930s as well as a local councillor - that it was the biggest anti-racist or anti-fascist protest in Tyneside since 1934, possibly ever. It also received vastly more media coverage than any Newcastle protest I recall.

2) The turnout was also magnificently diverse. Hundreds of Geordie Muslims turned out, but the great majority on the demo were non-Muslims. It became a spectacular gesture of solidarity with Muslims facing racist hatred and Islamophobia, while also asserting our collective pride in being a multi-cultural city and a multi-cultural society.
The symbolism of starting the march outside the Tyneside Irish Centre end of Chinatown - nodding towards two historically immigrant communities in Newcastle simultaneously - was beautiful. The fact that St James' Park, home of the club that wears black and white and currently fields a number of Muslim players, was in the background made it perfect. And Muslim player Papiss Cisse scoring the winner for NUFC in the home game which took place later the same day was a fitting bonus.

3) The fact that it was Pegida's first attempt at demonstrating anywhere in the UK gave yesterday considerable significance. I was co-chairing the rally and I announced at the start that our primary aim for the day was to make sure this would be Pegida's last demonstration anywhere in the UK. It was Newcastle's responsibility to show that Pegida was isolated and stop it before it got started.
Pegida had deliberately chosen Newcastle because the group viewed it - from afar - as a soft target where they would meet little opposition. That was an insult and regarded as such by people in Newcastle. Pegida thought that the city having a small Muslim population compared to some British cities would give it a free pass, then the group - emboldened - would move on to Birmingham and London.
Our counter-demonstration was important because Pegida has (or had, prior to yesterday) the potential to become a 'respectable' vehicle for anti-Muslim street protest. To a certain extent the EDL succeeded with that project in its early days - when it could mobilise on a much greater scale than today - but it didn't achieve what Pegida managed with its huge Dresden rally. In the north east, the EDL and similar groups can mobilise their own hooligans but have been reduced to a very small and narrow base incapable of appealing to a wider constituency. So the stakes were high yesterday.

4) It is crucial that the demonstration was built on a much broader basis, however, than simply opposing the far right. The issue is racism. The issue is Islamophobia.
The demonstration was promoted with that in mind. The likes of Pegida and the EDL feed off mainstream Islamophobia in politics, media and the British state. The demonization of Muslims, with a whole set of apparently 'respectable' prejudices and stereotypes, has flourished since 2001, when the 'war on terror' (and British participation in it) began.
At the same time, anti-immigrant rhetoric poisons establishment politics, often diverting popular anger away from the real enemies: the bankers, their politicians, and the savage cuts those politicians continue to impose on millions of working class people. The Newcastle Unites demonstration was an expression of opposition to all of that, and reflected the widespread yearning for a principled anti-racist political culture.
5) Unity always has to be fought for. It doesn't happen naturally. In the run up to the day there were in fact more arguments and problems than you would normally expect - a sign that we were doing something right, pushing out into new ground and taking on arguments rather than shying away from them.
For example, Dipu Ahad (at the centre of organising the demo) had to persuade some of his fellow Labour councillors that George Galloway speaking shouldn't deter them, while also arguing with some in the Muslim community that local Labour politicians have a place on the platform despite the war in Iraq (and much else besides).
There were meetings with various Asian groups in Newcastle to persuade them to support and participate - almost none of which previously backed counter-demonstrations against the EDL, due to fear and insecurity or because they were cowed by the endless media and political rhetoric about Muslim communities. There was a concerted effort in the mosques, but also invitations to other faith groups to be part of it. An unprecedented number of trade unions got on board too, while groups not normally associated with protest (like Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service) pledged support. 
The coalition we built in the short period building up to the day was thus truly remarkable - and it was reflected in the diverse array of (22) speakers given space in the rally. Even the Lord Mayor of Newcastle turned up - and was added to the list of speakers. 
6) No such coalition can, however, be built in just a few weeks. It reflected a long-term process of co-operation among a number of political and campaigning groups, crossing several boundaries.
Above all, it built on the legacy of anti-war and pro-Palestine campaigning. The majority of those involved in organising the demo worked together in organising last summer's series of local protests, marches and vigils for Gaza. There has been joint campaigning over war and Palestine on an on-going basis for some years.
What was true of the organisational core was also true more widely. I recognised a great many faces from last summer's protests against Israel's war on Gaza, or from other protests and public meetings organised by our local Stop the War Coalition or Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Such long-term activity has been especially important for building relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially those of us on the organised left.
This is a precious coalition. We will need it again - whether against war, in opposition to racism, or in solidarity with Palestine.
Also see: my Counterfire article in the build-up to the demonstration


Friday, 16 January 2015

15 things worth reading in aftermath of Paris attacks

Last weekend I collated '12 illuminating contributions to debate in wake of Paris killings'. Since then there has been more and more commentary and analysis about the various contentious issues arising from the recent events. So, here is a further selection of writings on Islamophobia, secularism, free speech and the contexts shaping the terror attacks in Paris, all of which I strongly recommend reading.
A letter to liberals - Mehdi Hasan responds to the hypocrisy of the 'free speech fundamentalists'
What a perfect tribute to satire the Paris march turned out to be - Mark Steel exposes political leaders' double standards
The limits of secularism - Giles Fraser on the bullying of France's stigmatised and disenfranchised Muslims  
Who are they laughing at? A former employee of Charlie Hebdo lambasts the magazine's racist trajectory  
There's no insulation from the West's wars - Seumas Milne explains how the 'war on terror' bred more terror
Palestinian journalists targeted as Netanyahu and Abbas march for 'free speech' - Electronic Intifada highlights a few troubling inconsistencies
The limits of liberalism - John Rees explores the debates around freedom of speech 
From anti-Semitism to Islamophobia - Michael Rosen recalls some pertinent history
What should anti-capitalists say? - John Mullen offers some thoughts from Paris
Unmournable bodies - Teju Cole on the different values placed on different lives 
Don't mention the war - Lindsey German points out what is missing from media narratives about the Charlie Hebdo murders
Making sense of the horror - Tariq Ali on how Islamophobia and Islamist terror feed each other
I'm going to kill a cow - Anindya Bhattacharyya provides an illuminating analogy
Discussing Charlie Hebdo - Gavan Titley puts a few things straight
Why many French Muslims are not impressed by Je Suis Charlie - the Washington Post shares the voices of those suffering the backlash


Saturday, 10 January 2015

12 illuminating contributions to debate in wake of Paris killings

Joe Sacco.
If you want thoughtful reflection, context and a refreshing alternative to banal or racist responses to the killings in Paris this week, I recommend the following...

Satire is not meant to be a weapon against the powerless - Will Self on satire, free speech and racism

Was it really an attack on European values? - Myriam Francois-Cerrah punctures a few lazy myths

Why this was no attack on humour - Des Freedman examines the context surrounding the debate about free speech

The bitter fruit of imperialism - Lindsey German on lessons to be learned by the West's war-making governments

Western liberalism? Abdullah Al-Arian on the Enlightenment, empire and the contradictions of 'Western values'

What is the purpose of satire? - Cartoonist Joe Sacco on the politics of his art

There is a difference between being brave and being funny - Hugo Rifkind offers a thoughtful response

Moral clarity - Adam Shatz dismantles the 'clash of civilisations' thesis

The Iraq connection - Juan Cole draws attention to how the 'war on terror' influenced the latest terrorist atrocity

Algeria is the post-colonial wound that still bleeds in France - Robert Fisk on French imperialism and the legacy of the Algerian war for independence

The problem with drawings that fuel sectarian tensions - Alain Gresh sketches the recent evolution of Charlie Hebdo

How exactly would we like Muslims to condemn these attacks? Mark Steel lampoons the hypocrisy and absurdity of some responses to the killings


Thursday, 1 January 2015

My predictions for 2015

On New Year's Day 2014 I made a set of predictions for politics (both global and domestic) in the year ahead. Read: My predictions for 2014

Here I am doing the same exercise again, but for 2015. I should point out that the purpose of the exercise is prediction, not an expression of what I want to happen. I've done this for the last two years and have aimed to be soberly realistic.

Glancing back at my 2014 predictions, I found that a few of them were well wide of the mark but many were entirely or largely correct. British politics is currently rather volatile and it's widely agreed that the outcomes of May's general election are highly unpredictable, so I may end up getting things badly wrong this time. We will have to wait and see.

There are 20 predictions. The first 6 are to do with the general election, then there are several others focused on British politics, and finally some predictions concerning global politics. Feel free to wildly disagree with any of them!

1. Labour will win most seats in May's general election, with 305 seats in total. It will form a minority government, relying heavily on a large degree of SNP and Lib Dem support.

2. In Scotland the SNP will win 35 seats, with Labour on 17, the Lib Dems on 6 and the Tories on 1. Alex Salmond will become SNP group leader in the Commons and Jim Murphy will continue as Scottish Labour leader despite his party's humiliation (losing over half of its current Scottish seats). By the end of 2015 there will be have been substantial progress in developing a new Scottish left party, ready to stand in its first elections the following spring (for the Scottish parliament at Holyrood).  

3. The Lib Dems will win 25-30 seats, followed by Nick Clegg resigning as party leader.

4. Ukip will make no gains in the general election, simply retaining the 2 seats it recently won in by-elections (Clacton; Rochester and Strood). In general 2015 will see Ukip decline slightly and its vote share in opinion polls fall to below 15%, as the perception of the party as racist becomes more widely accepted.

5. The Greens will hold Brighton Pavilion (where Caroline Lucas is MP), winning by a whisker, but make no gains. The Green Surge - the remarkable growth in the party's membership in 2014 - will to a large extent continue until spring, but stall after May's election.

6. The various fragments of the electoral left will make zero impact on the general election, get derisory votes and (more generally) make no progress in 2015. Respect's George Galloway will lose his Bradford West seat to Labour.

7. Theresa May will succeed David Cameron as Conservative Party leader, following a hotly - contested leadership election which she will win narrowly against a more stridently Eurosceptic challenger. The party will nonetheless tilt somewhat further to the right, especially on Europe.

8. The new Labour minority government will fulfil a number of its promises - including scrapping the bedroom tax and freezing energy price rises - but it will be extremely slow and partial in reversing Tory reforms in the NHS, leaving recent changes largely untouched. Its continuance of austerity, with very little modification compared to the current government, will be the biggest source of discontent among current or former Labour supporters - and there will be significant anti-cuts protests against the new government before the end of 2015.

9. The Westminster child abuse scandal will become one of the year's biggest stories in British politics, with a whole set of devastating allegations turning out to be accurate.

10. The Chilcot inquiry will be more damaging for Tony Blair and various other former senior figures - in politics, the civil service and the military - than many people have tended to assume.  

11. There will be no major co-ordinated strikes by British trade unions, though several public sector unions will take sectional action over pay claims. Unison, Unite and GMB leaders will strongly discourage strikes in the light of there being a weak Labour government.

12. Housing will become a huge political and campaigning issue in London - and to a lesser extent elsewhere - with several further campaigns similar to the recent New Era and Focus E15 campaigns and a number of victories. As with the recent campaigns, working class women will be the main organisers of these campaigns.

13. Trident replacement will become a major issue in British politics, especially after May's election, and a source of large-scale campaigning, but the new government will nonetheless strongly (and, as of the end of 2015, successfully) resist pressures for its cancellation.

14. There will be further tensions involving North Korea and the US, again centred on questions of surveillance or cyber-security.

15. Syriza will win the forthcoming Greek election, but extremely narrowly, and a major political crisis will follow. Defence of the left-wing Greek government will become a major rallying point for the left and working class movements across Europe. Greece will still be in the Eurozone at the end of 2015.

16. Palestinian resistance will grow, giving real substance to claims of a Third Intifada, forcing Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (and his Fatah party) to give tacit support to fresh protests. Efforts at Palestinian unity will be stuttering but gain impetus from grassroots pressure, while the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement will score significant victories.

17. Hillary Clinton will emerge as clear frontrunner in the race to be Democrat nominee for US president, with an emphasis in her rhetoric on being more hawk-ish in foreign policy than President Obama.

18. ISIS will suffer serious setbacks, largely due to its own internal contradictions and limits, and make no further territorial gains. There will be no escalation of US-led military operations in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East.

19. The Eurozone will continue to stagnate and the UK economic recovery will continue being very weak, but another slump will be deferred for now. Russia's recession will deepen.

20. Widespread protests against police racism in the US will continue, periodically flaring up in response to specific police killings of black victims. Federal, state and civic authorities will remain resistant to any police reform and lose a great deal of legitimacy in the process.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Unfinished Leninism - an extended review

Paul Le Blanc’s Unfinished Leninism, a collection of 12 essays, most of them previously published on socialist websites or in publications in the last few years, mixes biography, historical summary, polemic and contemporary strategy. It does not merely summarise the life of Lenin, his political ideas and the tradition with which he is identified; it also explains the relevance of the revolutionary leader, and of Leninism, to our own times.

The book aims to persuade readers that Lenin ought to be taken seriously, his ideas applied creatively to new realities. This is an unfashionable task: Lenin has long been written off as at best irrelevant, at worst dangerous, by mainstream politicians and academics. Moreover, he is also regarded as outdated or irrelevant by many on the left and among those who are entering radical or anti-capitalist politics. Marxism in general is no longer automatically a major reference point for radical activists.

The notion of revolutionary organisation in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks has become particularly marginal for a number of reasons: the small size of the revolutionary left can make it seem insignificant, the sectarian degeneration and impotence of much of it has made it unattractive, and the body of ideas – Marxism – which underpins it is still little understood. Numerous alternative ways of organising have been offered, though all of them have encountered profound difficulties. The case for a renewal of revolutionary organisation may be unfashionable, but in a world of growing inequalities, seemingly intractable crisis and deep social injustice, it is one that deserves serious attention.

A reviled figure

Lenin is an important figure in history as the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a central figure in the international Communist movement that developed in its aftermath, and the first leader of post-revolutionary Russia until his death in 1924. Lenin has been reviled by successive generations of conservative politicians, historians and political commentators precisely because he was a key protagonist in a revolutionary, mass working class challenge to capitalism - to the wealth and power of the ruling class - of huge historic significance, serving as inspiration to workers and oppressed people worldwide. But he has also been a source of contention and disagreement among many who have rejected the status quo of exploitation, inequality and oppression because the Soviet Union became, under Lenin’s successor Stalin, a grotesquely undemocratic, unequal and violent society.

The view that Lenin led inevitably to the horrors of Stalinism became the orthodoxy in the Cold War era. It requires considerable historical analysis to uncover why the fledgling revolutionary state which emerged from 1917 became the opposite of what Russian workers, soldiers and peasants had struggled for. This largely falls outside Le Blanc’s remit in this book, but he directs readers towards such analysis and seeks to rescue Lenin from the crimes committed in his name.

The rise of Stalinism was made possible by the isolation of the revolution: though there were revolutionary upheavals and popular rebellions in several European countries, none of them resulted in the defeat of the old order. Meanwhile, revolutionary Russia was attacked by imperialist armies and, for a time, engulfed in civil war.

Economic hardship and the demands of protecting the new revolutionary state from attack and civil war had a devastating impact on the working class and the scope for any sort of meaningful working-class democracy. The rising bureaucracy became, in this context, more powerful, centralised, and removed from the experiences of ordinary workers.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some renewed interest in what the author dubs ‘Lenin studies’, with some fresh thinking unencumbered by the rigid orthodoxies of the Cold War era, yet the dominant interpretation of the upheavals of 1989-91 was that they ‘finished’ Leninism for good. This confirms notions of triumphant free-market capitalism and the elimination of any radical, progressive alternatives. Public perceptions of Lenin in the West are still mainly shaped by anti-Communist propaganda of the Cold War era and the association of Lenin with the subsequent Stalinist era.

Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin is also significant as one of the towering figures of Marxism. Le Blanc stresses Lenin’s continuity from Marx; his deep rootedness in the writings of Marx and Engels. At the same time he summarises Lenin’s special contributions to a rich political and intellectual tradition, one that depends always on being creatively applied to new situations and on interaction with the lives and struggles of working-class people.

Lenin was the author of such influential Marxist texts as What is to be done?, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, State and Revolution and Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder. Le Blanc argues – persuasively in my view, though some will disagree – that it is justified to talk of ‘Leninism’: a body of ideas and analysis that updated and developed Marx’s own writings, involving the application of Marxism to Russian realities and more generally to an era of capitalist expansion, imperialist competition and war. More positively, Lenin’s era witnessed the growth of mass socialist parties and trade unions, and successive waves of popular struggle, opening up new opportunities for Marxists but also presenting fresh challenges which Marx and Engels had not faced.

Lenin’s contributions included analysis of Russian capitalism’s particular development, an account of the emergence of modern imperialist rivalry in the era of monopoly capitalism, and a nuanced understanding of nationalism and national liberation movements. Le Blanc sketches the contexts which shaped the development of these ideas, including the debates which took place among Marxists. There is a fascinating essay examining the connections and differences between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. They are often counter-posed to each other, but Le Blanc demonstrates that any differences between their outlooks were fewer than often supposed, while teasing out the significance of the genuine differences – for example over the national question - that did exist.

Lenin also developed important ideas about socialist strategy: a thorough and innovative understanding of the relationship between movements for democracy and the struggle for socialism. He developed a strategic perspective that linked Russian workers with the rural peasantry, and some original analysis of revolutionary processes. This was informed partly by his own revolutionary experiences in 1905 and 1917 as well as the legacy of earlier breakthroughs like the Paris Commune of 1871, which was the first experience anywhere of working-class people taking control, albeit briefly, of the running of a city.

The period following the Russian Revolution opened up further strategic challenges, which required new thinking. The urgent need to spread the successful revolution and simultaneously learn from the Russian experience, while engaging with distinctive situations in other countries, prompted the launch of the Third International (or Comintern) in 1919 and the developing body of ideas and strategy that went with it.  This included sharp critiques of both European reformist politics and the problems of ultra-leftism, and the emergence of the united-front strategy as a means of advancing working-class aims in non-revolutionary times.

I agree with Le Blanc when he writes that it is peculiar – when considering these contributions - for some contemporary critics to dismiss the idea that there is such a thing as Leninism, or that Lenin’s influence of the development of Marxism was either minor or largely limited to organisational questions. He also adeptly discredits the idea that ‘Leninism’ was an invention of those who followed Lenin and should be rejected on that basis. While it is true that Stalin and others created an ossified and obscenely distorted ‘Leninism’, there is nonetheless a real body of ideas associated with Lenin.

Lenin was shaped by the best of Second International (1889-1914) Marxism, but he also moved beyond some of its limits. Although one of an able generation of Marxists, also including Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and later Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács, he did make his own distinctive contributions as part of a collective enterprise. Lenin can be seen as ‘first among equals’ in the development of Marxism during this period, interacting with the ideas of others and the debates among socialists while making significant innovations.

Revolutionary Lenin

In addition to Lenin’s significance as an influential historical figure and giant of Marxism, he is important because his life and work, more than that of anyone else in the history of socialism, is bound up with the whole question of how revolutionaries should organise and act in pursuit of their goals. He can reasonably be regarded as history’s greatest revolutionary leader. But what made that historical role possible? How did Lenin and his comrades actually organise themselves, and what lessons (if any) does this offer us today?

It is the questions of strategy and organisation that most often prompt debate about Lenin, and his legacy, in left-wing circles; this is as true today as it has ever been. Lenin was a pioneer of distinctively revolutionary organisation and the experiences of the Bolsheviks (the faction and later party that he led) from 1903 to 1917, are a particular focus for debate. Le Blanc challenges the oft-expressed idea that Stalinism originated in pre-1917 Bolshevik practices and the myth that Lenin undemocratically dominated the Bolsheviks, which was in fact a democratic, collective organisation in which debate flourished. He skilfully clarifies the genuine meaning of ‘democratic centralism’ for Lenin and his contemporaries.

He also critiques the idea, currently prevalent in some debates, that there was nothing especially distinctive about the Bolsheviks, treating the argument of Lars Lih (among others) that Lenin was essentially a standard Second International Marxist until 1914 with critical sympathy. He recognises the degree of truth in this. Lenin didn’t, prior to 1914, view the Bolsheviks as a new and special type of organisation or as substantially different from some European socialist parties, but he also explains how the Bolsheviks had in fact developed quite differently from the likes of the German Social Democrats, which had become increasingly geared towards parliamentary politics and compromise with capitalism. The outbreak of World War One, and corresponding collapse of most socialist parties into national chauvinism, was a turning point, after which the differences became sharper and the thinking of Lenin and other revolutionaries continued to evolve.

For those who seek to change the world, not merely understand it, wrestling with Lenin’s writings about strategy and organisation – and equally importantly his actions – is indispensable. The revolution he led was the only successful overthrow of capitalist state power in world history and, though it may have been beset by problems from the beginning, and unsuccessful in the longer term, the experiences involved remain a unique school in strategy and tactics for anyone wanting to end the miseries of capitalism and create a better world.

A central preoccupation for the author is the excavation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ deep commitment to democracy, the profoundly democratic possibilities inherent in the Russian Revolution and the democratic character of how Lenin and his comrades organised. He refutes several well-worn myths along the way, clearing away the misconceptions to present a view of Lenin as a radical democrat, and his revolutionary socialism as a political project with democracy at its core.

This is acutely relevant to our own times, in which democracy is visibly the loser in its struggle with capitalism, and when struggles for real democracy are integral to struggles against various aspects of the capitalist system. The recovery of Lenin’s radical democracy is especially necessary because of the widespread distortions of Leninism in the name of Leninism; most importantly those associated with the old Communist bloc, but also (as the author notes) the faulty versions of ‘Leninist’ practice that many well-meaning socialists have pursued in the West. These have seen dogmatic and somewhat sectarian groups competing with each other and largely cut off from influence over the broad working-class movement, therefore giving Leninist organisation a bad name.
The return of Lenin

The particular context framing this latest volume is twofold, with both social and more specifically literary dimensions. Firstly, there is the wave of insurgencies that have followed the emergence of a severe crisis for capitalism since 2008: Arab revolutions, Occupy, anti-austerity rebellions, the indignados and other manifestations of anti-capitalist revolt. This has, rather paradoxically, not led to a general revival of organised left-wing politics – though there are partial exceptions, such as in Greece, Spain and parts of Latin America –and it certainly has not proved the basis for a renewal of specifically Leninist (or revolutionary socialist) political practice.

However, the idea of revolution is certainly in the air, partly due to the Arab uprisings of 2011 and partly because the erosion and fragmentation of traditional parliamentary politics has fed a volatile situation in which rhetoric about ‘revolution’ (e.g. the public debate prompted by Russell Brand’s new book) is rather more mainstream than a few years ago, however ill-defined it might be.

The traditional revolutionary left, though, has in shrunk, fragmented and in many instances become politically sterile. The reference to the ‘return of a revolutionary doctrine’ in this book’s subtitle may for now be mostly wishful thinking, but the conditions clearly exist for considering that as a live possibility. The political radicalisation and volatility of recent years, the stirrings of debate about what is meant by ‘revolution’, and the small breakthroughs in ‘Lenin studies’, can all, in quite different ways, be seen as providing some basis for hope.

Secondly, there is a somewhat more favourable context for the publication of a new book on Lenin and Leninism, which is a partial revival in worthwhile scholarship on Lenin. Although the leader of the Russian Revolution largely remains a marginal, caricatured and derided figure, in politics, media and academia, there has been a series of books in recent years, generally written from a sympathetic left-wing perspective, that have generated some debate and welcome re-evaluation.

Lars Lih, who wrote the path-breaking 2006 book Lenin Rediscovered, has been foremost in re-assessing Lenin’s ideas, practice and context. Lih’s work in particular keeps cropping up – not without some criticism and disagreement, but with tremendous appreciation – in Le Blanc’s new collection. Canadian historian John Riddell’s on-going labour of love in editing the proceedings of the Comintern, from 1919 until the mid-1920s, is another vital reference point. Le Blanc’s essays involve reviewing some newer biographies and studies, but there are also references to older but still very useful works by the likes of Tony Cliff, Marcel Liebman and Ernest Mandel.

Le Blanc has decades of both study and practical experience to draw on in writing about his subject. His experience is as a revolutionary socialist activist in the US and he is acutely aware that the context in which he has been active is a radically different one from Lenin’s own, so any lessons from Lenin must be thought through in relation to contemporary reality. Unlike many of his peers, Le Blanc has remained a dedicated Marxist, though conscious of the need for an independent, critical and open Marxism which runs counter to the dogmatic orthodoxies which have so often plagued the avowedly Leninist left. He writes of the need for ‘guidelines’ rather than dogma when appreciating Lenin’s legacy.

I had previously read a number of the essays (though they all paid re-reading) and I heard their author deliver the talk at the Dangerous Times 2013 festival which is included here (and previously published on Counterfire). Le Blanc has previously written studies of the Marxist tradition, with a special focus on questions of organisation and strategy, and edited or co-edited selections of writings by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, all of which I warmly recommend. His concern in all these writings has been to update our understanding of the intellectual contributions of the most influential figures in the tradition and to indicate how they can serve activists in renewing the tradition. Consequently his style is lucid and accessible, blessedly devoid of academic jargon, and there is a rich sense of the wider context of socialist debate in Lenin’s own time.

The format, a selection of essays, written at different times for different audiences, inevitably leads to some repetition, but the author just about gets away with it. The selection animates a series of debates among contemporary writers and activists about aspects of both the historical record and the legacy. There are critiques of a range of recent works on Lenin, including a number of biographies, relevant historical works and the 2007 Lenin Reloaded collection of essays by left-wing intellectuals.

Overall the book succeeds as both an introduction to the life, times, ideas and legacy of Lenin, and as an insightful discussion of important issues for today’s activists. It can be dipped into and read in any order that suits the reader. Several essays could reasonably serve as an introduction to the topic, while others are more pitched at those familiar with certain debates.

When disagreeing with other writers, Le Blanc is admirably fair and does justice to any arguments he is disputing, though he is not afraid to criticise or re-think orthodoxies. The title is inspired in part by a fraternal disagreement with Alex Callinicos, chief theoretician of the British Socialist Workers Party, after he penned an article asking ‘Is Leninism finished?’ Le Blanc agrees with the answer proffered by Callinicos – no it isn’t finished, but is instead still acutely relevant – but points out that ‘finished’ has a dual meaning. It suggests ‘irrelevant’, but it can also mean ‘complete’.

The problem with Callinicos is that he appears to lapse into presenting Leninism as already complete, a doctrine to be passed down the generations rather than as a space for creative renewal. For Le Blanc, Leninism is unfinished in both senses: it is still relevant and it still requires constant updating and applying in light of new experiences. Rather than defensively repeating a doctrine, the advocacy of Leninism ought to be critical and creative.

The future of Leninism

The concluding essay is, appropriately, where Le Blanc is most explicit and forthright about renewing Leninism today and for the future. He rejects the notion that anything resembling a revolutionary party already exists anywhere in the world. We are instead at an earlier stage of development in renewing revolutionary organisation and it is necessary to avoid false or inflated ideas about the organisations we are building.

He convincingly argues that it is (self-) destructive for relatively small organisations to imagine themselves as the definitive Leninist party, when in fact they can at best be something far more modest: a contribution to the re-composition of an authentic revolutionary left. This does not mean treating the building of such organisations lightly; rather, it suggests seriousness of purpose combined with a healthy sense of perspective and openness to different possible realignments.

He reasserts the centrality of participation in actual working-class struggles and the need to relate Marxist ideas to people’s struggles and experiences. The fusion of socialism with the working-class movement is the historic core of the Marxist tradition, as a practical endeavour not merely a scholarly exercise, and it remains essential. But he also notes the difficulties we face when there is not the same kind of mass class-conscious working-class vanguard, with powerful traditions of struggle, ideas and organisation, which existed in roughly the first third of the twentieth century. The process of renewing revolutionary organisation thus goes together with processes of re-building the broader working-class movement and a recognisably left-wing culture.

He calls for a focus on democracy, not only as a topic of practical political struggle, but as something indispensable to how revolutionaries operate. Democracy is necessary in the broader movements we are part of, and inside our own organisations. This dedication to democratic practice is inextricably linked with the development of self-confident cadres who can think independently and engage in political debate. It is connected with the pursuit of a critically engaged open Marxism, willing to question orthodox interpretations and engage thoughtfully with changing realities.

The closing essay also emphasises the need for strategy. The ultimate goal for revolutionaries is the successful overthrow of capitalism and moving towards a democratic socialist future. This vision, the recognition of the potential inherent in current contradictions, and an awareness that current revolts can be the seeds of future social transformation, shapes revolutionaries’ perspectives. Elsewhere in the volume, Le Blanc cites Lukács, who wrote about the ‘actuality of revolution’ in his own short book on Lenin: the potential for revolution serves as a horizon for Marxist activists, and specific tactical decisions are made in the context of that broader worldview.

The ‘three whales of Bolshevism’ – a strategic perspective encompassing an 8-hour working day, land redistribution and a democratic assembly – guided the Bolsheviks between 1912 and 1917, providing a link between day-to-day struggles and the larger vision of socialism. A fresh strategic vision is needed to guide our own efforts today, suggests Le Blanc, and to provide that same bridge to a socialist alternative.

‘Unfinished Leninism’ is a source of ideas about how to build a stronger anti-capitalist left – more coherently organised, wider in its influence, and capable of applying the lessons of history to new challenges – as well as an historical introduction. Hopefully it will reach many of the activists who are searching for effective ways to organise for a future characterised by democracy, equality and human liberation.

This review was originally published on Counterfire.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

What's wrong with the Guardian article about Nick Forbes and Newcastle's council cuts

16 February 2013: over 1000 march in Newcastle
The Guardian's article by John Harris about cuts in Newcastle contained much valuable material about the devastating impact of cuts on the city's public services. It grasped the scale and severity of what is happening. Harris went some way to conveying the human toll by interviewing a number of people on the ground affected by austerity policies, unemployment and lack of investment.

The article also correctly located this in a national context, with cuts driven by the policies of Tory-led central government. It highlights the injustice of cuts to local government falling especially heavily on Labour-run northern cities like Newcastle. This is extremely welcome.

However, the article was much weaker on the local political situation. We need to think seriously about how councils can constructively oppose the cuts imposed by central government.

One option is for councils to become centres of active opposition and resistance. The other option is for council leaders to moan while implementing the cuts. Those of us active in Newcastle's anti-cuts campaigns have repeatedly advocated the former approach. Newcastle Council's Labour Leader Nick Forbes, by contrast, has done the latter.

Nick Forbes and Newcastle's anti-cuts movement

It is wrongly claimed that local anti-cuts campaigners have personally targeted Nick Forbes. In the major campaigns and protests in Newcastle - such as the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign, which I co-founded - it was agreed that focusing on Forbes personally would distract from the fact that central government was the source of the cuts. A few isolated cases of people having placards that criticised Forbes doesn't make a pattern - and they are, in any case, hardly surprising when he became the public figurehead for the council's cuts programme.

Our approach was a political decision that reflected our recognition that to stop cuts to local services we naturally needed to focus pressure and lobbying on the local council, but that we also had to connect local cuts to the bigger picture of national austerity. The article's focus on allegedly personal attacks on Forbes also feeds what one local campaigner has described to me as the myth of Forbes as a 'lone embattled figure'. This is the image of him as someone simultaneously attacked by the government and local campaigners, the only person who is genuinely sticking up for Newcastle (the title - 'Is saving Newcastle a mission impossible?' - feeds this delusion). This is a gross disservice to all those in Newcastle who have actively opposed austerity.

Forbes is presented as a 'progressive', left-leaning figure who earns high praise from political 'heavyweights' like Jon Cruddas. There are glowing claims that he is such a talented individual he could be a big name in national politics, but has such deep civic commitment that he remains a humble council leader.

Yet Forbes' reputation locally is different. He is universally regarded as being firmly on the right wing of the Labour Party and anti-cuts campaigners have always found him unsympathetic. He is even believed to be a member of the controversial Blairite ginger group Progress. Newcastle's Labour Party has different political tendencies including many councillors and activists who are principled opponents of austerity. Forbes emphatically isn't one of them.

The article fails to acknowledge the simple fact that Forbes has had nothing to do with our city's opposition to cuts. The city has had a vibrant and diverse anti-cuts movement for the last few years, but its council leader has not been part of it.

Forbes could have co-operated with local campaign groups in developing opposition to the impact of austerity on Newcastle - as many local Labour Party members have done - but instead he dismisses anti-cuts protests in Newcastle as 'the far left' and implies they are an equivalent problem to the far right whipping up racist hatred. That says a lot about what is wrong with Forbes' political stance.

Missing the real arguments

The failure to interview local anti-cuts campaigners leads to serious imbalances in the article. Newcastle-born writer Lee Hall, who was a prominent supporter of Save Newcastle Libraries, is quoted only in order to caricature and dismiss what he said. It's also interesting that opponents of cuts are characterised as indulging in personal attacks on Forbes, without mentioning that Forbes resorted to personalised criticism of Lee Hall instead of engaging with local people's concerns about the threatened closures.

Similarly, it is very unfortunate that the cuts to Sure Start are discussed with no input from the very impressive local campaign to save it. The lack of space given to genuine anti-cuts campaigners misrepresents the real situation and gives undue weight to Forbes' own perspectives.

A further weakness is that Harris fails to offer any criticism of Forbes' divisive strategy of claiming that campaigners were only interested in saving 'middle class' funding - libraries, culture - and not interested in those services that most affected people living in poverty. This was always a grossly offensive stance and was designed to both justify many of the cuts while attempting (unsuccessfully) to divide campaigners against each other.

We instead took the position that central government's cuts programme should be opposed in its totality, and that we shouldn't be played off against each other. This was a major political difference between the grassroots campaigns (aiming for united and serious opposition to cuts) and, on the other hand, Forbes and his allies (who trotted out conservative arguments to justify the cuts).

We also challenged the caricature that certain things - arts, reading - are middle class pursuits. We pointed out that public funding enables better access to such vital aspects of what it means to live in a decent, humane and civilised society.

The myth of the heroic civic leader

The political arguments are evaded in the article, replaced by a highly personal focus on the allegedly embattled council leader. For example, Forbes refers to an incident in which he encountered an individual who had taken part in an anti-cuts demonstration and says that he didn't even know a protest was taking place. This is extraordinary because the incident he refers to was on the day of the biggest demonstration opposing Newcastle Council's cuts that we ever had (it attracted over 1000 people).

If Forbes really didn't know the protest was even happening it doesn't suggest a civic leader paying attention to the concerns of local people about the cuts to their services. It is also of concern that Harris, in his article, gives more attention to an isolated incident involving one person who had attended the protest than the demonstration itself.

To summarise. Many of the article's problems originate from John Harris relying heavily on the perspective of Nick Forbes and not seeking corroboration from others. Harris uncritically accepts a whole set of political assumptions about cuts in local government - and how to oppose them - so that Forbes emerges as a heroic figure, while anti-cuts campaigners appear to be either irrelevant, wrong or dangerous.

Consequently the whole picture of Newcastle's politics is grossly distorted. It is essential that readers have access to alternative perspectives on Newcastle, the politics of local government and the opposition to cuts.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Radical Independence: how #RIC2014 took the Scottish left to the next level

The sheer scale of the 3rd Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow was extraordinary. Around 3000 people attended. Considering Scotland's population, this puts it on a different level to anything else organised by the left in Britain.
The atmosphere was electric, but there was also a serious sense of purpose about building a stronger movement, mapping a strategy and articulating alternatives to both Westminster and the limits of Holyrood.
Westminster politics and Scottish Labour were the main targets for criticism (the disgust with the latter was understandably visceral), but there were also warnings that Holyrood must consistently champion an alternative political vision and approach to the discredited British mainstream parties. For example, the recent SNP conference was somewhat half-hearted and equivocal in opposing fracking, but at RIC 2014 any calls for total opposition to this environmentally damaging practice were greeted with rapturous applause.
A nation in political turmoil

The great success of the conference was made possible by the political ferment which developed in the run up to September's independence referendum and which, unexpectedly, has continued without faltering since polling day. Prior to referendum day, RIC organisers assumed that in the event of a 'No' victory the conference would be at best the same size as the previous two conferences. Yet all 3000 tickets sold in a few weeks.
Suki Sangha - RIC activist and a member of the Scottish TUC Council - made the opening speech of the conference, in which she recalled how the referendum campaign had galvanised participation in politics and public debate by many thousands of people for the first time. That political ferment and mass campaigning, she said, provided a baseline for the conference and for future action.
Instead of the widely predicted demoralisation, the 'Yes' movement has been, and continues to be, buoyant after a defeat that increasingly seems to have been anything but. One thing that appeared to unite conference speakers was a conviction that independence is a matter of when not if - that on 18 September independence was deferred not defeated.

But the success also rested upon serious coalition-building stretching back to the preparations for RIC's first conference two years ago. The 2012 and 2013 conferences each drew up to 1000 people. Together with the growth of local groups  nationwide and on-going campaigning, those conferences laid the basis for such an unprecedented success. Organisation matters: these things don't happen by accident.
Bernadette McAliskey, who became a socialist and civil rights activist in Northern Ireland in the 1960s (she was then Bernadette Devlin), paid tribute to the role RIC has already played, saying "The Radical Independence Campaign has organised from the bottom up and engaged people in the political conversations we need to have... You have reminded us old veterans how this job is done". The wider engagement of RIC activists and groups with local communities - often the poorest, those neglected for generations by politicians - through mass canvasses, street stalls and other activities marked a step forward for the Scottish left in connecting radical ideas with wider society.
Re-shaping the political debate
In general the independence debate shifted Scottish politics to the left. Increasingly the arguments for independence became centred on big social and economic issues, not dry constitutional matters or national identity. Radical Independence and other organisations with an alternative social, political vision to 'politics as usual' played a vital role in that process. The more the radical potential of independence was highlighted, the more enthused and engaged people became in the run up to independence.
On top of the long-term trajectory of devolved Scottish politics - with Holyrood more hospitable to 'social democratic' politics than Westminster - this makes the Scottish political landscape very different to the UK-wide level. Scapegoating of immigrants, for example, barely figures in political discourse. 17-year-old Saffron Dickson, a 'Generation Yes' campaigner speaking in the morning plenary, pointed out that she's never known a time when 'immigration' wasn't a dirty word across mainstream British politics. The Scottish political scene is proving this isn't inevitable - and opposition to the racist scapegoating sadly endemic in Westminster politics remains a key driver of support for independence.
This political landscape is not as it is because social and political attitudes are substantially more left-wing in Scotland, but a matter of how organised (especially electoral) politics has given expression to people's attitudes, and the whole direction of travel during the referendum campaign.

This enlarged political space for left-wing ideas - and political demands that dissent from a narrow and sterile 'orthodoxy' - was part of the context for today's conference. There was a powerful sense that the terms of political debate have shifted recently, and this offers openings to RIC and the left. The conference was explicitly left-wing, yet also tangibly part of a larger mainstream political discussion in Scottish society: as RIC's national co-ordinator Jonathon Shafi noted, it is a crucial step in creating a mass left that is taken seriously and capable of influencing the national debate. 
Another Scotland, another world
There was a tremendous 'mass forum' in the afternoon with speakers from left-wing parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and socialist activists from Quebec and Catalonia, highlighting the internationalism of the movement and the lessons to be learnt from experiences elsewhere.
A theme of the speeches from the Catalonia and Quebec campaigners was the need to go beyond the limits of nationalist campaigns for independence and consistently campaign around specific social and economic demands. The speakers from Podemos and Syriza highlighted the potential for mass discontent with austerity and the establishment to find electoral expression - providing that is linked closely with movement struggles - though the exact implications for Scotland will be a source of on-going dialogue for some time.
The same session also included speakers from two important campaigns in England, indicating that RIC has nothing to do with 'separatism' but instead seeks authentic solidarity and common working class interests. A Bectu union organiser talked insightfully about low-paid Ritzy cinema workers organising and striking for a living wage and against threatened job cuts, followed by one of the Focus E15 women talking about their militant and creative housing campaign in east London (while two other members of the campaign held up a banner declaring 'London, Glasgow - one struggle, one fight - decent homes for all').
The conference concluded with practical commitments to take the movement forward. This was centred on the new 'People's Vow' - an antidote to the empty politicians' vow pledged, in desperation, by Westminster leaders on the eve of the referendum. The challenge now is to use it, and the whole conference, as a launchpad for concerted campaigning that can win victories, shift the political debate further to the left, and move Scotland closer to not only independence but a version of it that involves decisively rejecting the injustices and inequalities that have driven the movement this far.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

No, Jackie Slesenger, it is not anti-Semitic to protest against the killing of over 2000 Palestinians

Assembling for a 1000-strong march in Newcastle, July 2014
Jackie Slesenger, a Newcastle city councillor, has written an article for The Journal newspaper with the headline 'Harmonious race relations are being damaged and may take years to repair'.

Her target is not any racist organisation or policy, but rather our city's vibrant and diverse movement for peace and justice in Palestine.  

It indicates the remarkable impact of our city's protests and campaigning against Israeli violence in Gaza that an uncritical supporter of Israel like Jackie Slesenger has written this. It is a sign of acute weakness on the part of Slesenger and other defenders of Israel's sustained onslaught on Gaza's civilian population. Let's remember that Israeli forces killed over 2000 people including 500 children, destroyed basic infrastructure and made many more Palestinians homeless.

All this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, contrary to her utterly unfounded claims. Sadly she appears to be cynically using that baseless smear to cover for - and justify - her support for Israel's obscene violence against Gaza. This regrettably obscures the real issues in Palestine and makes it harder for all of us to confront genuine cases of anti-Semitism.

There is absolutely no need for anyone to resign from the Newcastle Holocaust Memorial Day committee, as she has done. It is meant to be a commemoration independent of any other political disagreements.

Slesenger is the one who has dragged the issue of commemorating the Holocaust into debates about Palestine. This does a massive disservice to both the Holocaust's victims and the contemporary politics of Palestine.

I am proud to have helped organise Newcastle's protests, marches and vigils for Gaza during the summer, and to be working with people of all backgrounds to build an on-going movement for peace and justice in the Middle East. This is a movement with opposition to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, at its core.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why build revolutionary organisation today?

Image by Ady Cousins
I’ve recently read Paul Le Blanc’s very stimulating collection of essays, ‘Unfinished Leninism’, which re-states the validity and value of Lenin’s life, ideas and legacy for our times. My review for Counterfire will appear soon. But there is a specific issue raised by the selection of essays that I want to address here.
One big issue covered in the book is the much-debated topic of organisation, and whether the project of building explicitly revolutionary socialist organisation remains a worthwhile one. Paul Le Blanc thinks it is. I think so too. But in current circumstances the reasons for this are far from self-evident.

A sense of the possible

There is a big, general answer to the question ‘Why build revolutionary organisation?’ It is do with challenging the capitalist state for power, grouping together the most militant and class-conscious elements in a party, and the vital role of a party in the dynamics of revolution. The arguments are familiar to anyone who has spent time as part of the revolutionary left – whether here in the UK or elsewhere – and to many other socialist activists too. 

But that’s not what interests me here and I’m not going to recycle the arguments in this post. The focus here is more immediate. It is reflected in the addition of the word ‘today’ to the question above.

In current circumstances - which are distinctly non-revolutionary and characterised by the absence of a sizeable revolutionary left - what is the rationale for devoting time and energies to building revolutionary organisation? Why do this despite the many failed efforts of the past, the chronic problems of sectarianism and decline, and the fact that such a project is perhaps (even) more unfashionable than for decades?

Le Blanc makes the unarguable point that much of the historical record of building Leninist organisations in Western countries since World War Two does not exactly leave us with great grounds for optimism. In the context of a revolutionary left that is small, fragmented, frequently sectarian and too often intellectually and practically conservative, some serious and clear thinking is needed.

What is also needed is humility and a realistic sense of what’s possible in the immediate future. Le Blanc sees delusions of grandeur as one of the big problems. He distinguishes between a credible, rooted revolutionary party – which doesn’t exist anywhere today – and more modest revolutionary organisations that can do useful work in the here and now, while contributing to a future re-composition of the revolutionary left. This might one day take the form of a serious and sizeable party with a tight connection with broader working class struggles.
Le Blanc writes:
'A number of us have concluded that it is a fatal mistake for a small group to see itself as the nucleus or the embryo of a mass revolutionary party. Such a party will, in fact, be made up though the coming together of elements from a number of groups, as well as a number of people not presently in any group, and even more who do not presently think of themselves as socialists at all. It will crystallise through innumerable experiences and struggles, blending together with a broad labour-radical subculture of ideas, discussions, and creative activities.'

Three good reasons

So, in the absence of such a party and with more modest means at our disposal, what kind of organisation can realistically be created, and what should such an organisation be doing to justify its existence and the expending of time and energy by its activists? I think there are three central reasons for building such organisation in current conditions, which are applicable in many different contexts, but which certainly provide some sort of compass for those of us engaged in such a project in England (in my case through Counterfire).

Firstly, there is the role a revolutionary organisation can play in broader movements over such issues as war, austerity, climate change and racism. Whether specific revolutionary groups actually play such a role is of course a separate matter. They may operate in an at best semi-detached way, at worst entirely parasitic manner, to such movements. But it is also possible to play a constructive and even central role in broad campaigns.

This is what Counterfire strives to do in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and Stop the War Coalition, for example, and what Scotland’s International Socialist Group does in the Radical Independence Campaign. It isn’t simply a matter of an organisation throwing its weight (relatively slight as it is) behind a coalition, but is also about strategizing for the movement: planning and arguing for certain strategy and tactics, etc.
In the absence of such coherent input from organised revolutionaries, it is easy for a protest movement – subjected to all sorts of pressures – to be pulled in different directions and for the agenda to be shaped by more conservative elements inside the broad labour movement.

Secondly, a revolutionary organisation enables the sustaining of the Marxist tradition. It is a place where new generations of activists can develop a wide-ranging political understanding of the world, underpinned by the Marxist tradition.
There are two interconnected elements: the sustaining of an existing body of ideas and writings, and fresh analysis of contemporary reality. The latter naturally depends on a strong grasp of the former, but it is also aided by a close connection with political activity and struggle. An organisation helps enormously with that.

Having an organisation helps with both the education of newer activists in the Marxist tradition – in all its richness – because a more systematic approach can be taken than is otherwise possible. But it is also enormously beneficial to theoretical innovation, which is more likely as part of a collective enterprise. Crucially, an organisation provides an environment in which ideas and action can be connected: the development of ideas is informed by political experience and changing reality, while the organisation’s ideas are applied to campaigning, mobilising and organising.

Thirdly, there is the task of laying the groundwork for future realignments on the left. We may not have a revolutionary party now – and there may not be the prospect of one, even, in the foreseeable future – but building revolutionary organisation now is a step in that direction.
It is impossible to imagine any serious party of thousands emerging without any pre-existing organisations. To take a historical example: the British Communist Party, flawed as it was, didn't simply spring into being in 1920 because people were inspired by the Russian Revolution, but was a fusion of a number of existing socialist organisations and strands.

The vanguard

One of Le Blanc’s arguments is that the development of an authentic revolutionary party is intertwined with the growth of a wider working class ‘vanguard’. This doesn’t refer to any organisation, but a looser layer of people who have a fair degree of class consciousness and experience of collective struggle, linked to the development a broad left-wing/radical political culture and sizeable, vibrant labour movement of some description. Le Blanc points to a passage in Lenin’s ‘Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder’ that insists on this broader vanguard as a precondition for a genuine revolutionary party.
A similar argument can be found in an excellent Duncan Hallas essay from the early 1970s, 'Towards a revolutionary socialist party', subsequently included in the slim volume ‘Party and Class’. He was writing at a time when Britain had a strong shop stewards movement and a much bigger organised left and more powerful trade union movement than today.

Yet, perhaps disconcertingly for us, even then Hallas didn’t think there was already a strong vanguard layer of class-conscious workers and left-wing culture. He envisaged a future revolutionary party developing in tandem with the growth of such a layer, yet the latter process didn’t happen as he hoped. In the 1971 essay Hallas wrote:
'A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.'

It is clear that Hallas, who was a member of the International Socialists (an organisation of 1000-2000 members at the time), didn’t think there was already a revolutionary party. Such a thing was very much a hypothesis. It is clear that he viewed such a prospect as something other – and more - than a simple numerical growth of the existing IS group. It is implied that such a party would almost certainly combine a number of traditions or existing groups, but just as importantly would involve layers of workers not yet won to revolutionary politics or organisation.

Both elements of that hypothesis proved to be much harder than anticipated. Organisational unity between different elements of the existing left never happened. Hallas and others perhaps underestimated the differences between groups (not necessarily major formal theoretical differences, but differences of perspective, orientation and approach) and the extent to which particular groups had become defined by their own specific traditions.

But, perhaps more importantly in the final analysis, the wider vanguard layer declined rather than growing as Hallas had anticipated. The crucial change was the erosion of the independent rank and file strength of the shop stewards that followed the end of the long post-war economic boom and the end of the upturn in working class struggle in the mid-1970s. These developments were conditioned, though not entirely determined, by wider changes in the composition of the working class itself.

Le Blanc and Hallas both wrote – one primarily focused on the US, the other on Britain – of how such a vanguard layer had once existed. It is easy to see, and quite indisputable, that such a layer doesn’t exist today in anything remotely resembling the same form. There is a danger, however, in becoming too fixed on particular criteria for the strength or weakness of such a layer – in thinking that what Le Blanc dubs a ‘radical-labor subculture’ in the American context must take certain forms.

The elements of the re-composition of such a vanguard, in a new form, are clearly present, if only partially developed. They are not primarily coalescing in the unions, though elements of the union movement – despite its activist base being much smaller than in its heyday – are part of it. This is especially the case where unions adopt a more political, ‘social movement unionism’ approach that self-consciously utilises the strengths of protest movements to enhance union organising, such as the NUT’s ‘Stand up for Education’ campaign. 

There are also the more-or-less organised elements found in such things as the People’s Assembly, Occupy protests, and various campaigns, but also – more loosely – a hard-to-define radicalisation that only sporadically finds organised expression.

The hollowing-out of the organised left means that such phenomena are often less stable, more volatile, and harder to pin down into something coherent and durable, than was once the case, although we shouldn’t exaggerate the differences as this is not entirely novel (think of the turmoil of 1968). The old organised left has declined partly for reasons outside its control – the larger defeat of the working class movement from the 1980s onwards, the sharp decline in strike levels, the shift to the right in social democracy, the ideological impact of the end of ‘Communism’ – but also partly because it failed to adapt properly to changed circumstances. The constant expectation that a return to 1970s-style class struggle, in much the same form as 40 years ago, is just around the corner has certainly not helped. 

Revolutionary organisation can be built in a new context, with some continuities but also some changes in relation to our heritage. It has to be rooted in the debates, movements and struggles of our time. And it is a project that requires a healthy does of humility and perspective, as well as seriousness and commitment.

Duncan Hallas: Towards a revolutionary socialist party
Paul Le Blanc: Organising for 21st century socialism
Lenin: An essential condition of the Bolsheviks' success


3 reflections prompted by 'Tony Benn: Will and Testament'

I recently watched, and very much enjoyed, the film ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’. I found it personally affecting as well as politically insightful but, rather than review it, I thought I’d share three particular political reflections which the film prompted for me.

1. The spirit of ’45. A pivotal point in the film, and in Benn’s life, is the historic moment of 1945: the end of war and the hopeful election of a Labour government which would go on to create the NHS, build large numbers of council houses, nationalise industries and provide the opening chapter in the story of a post-war boom, characterised above all by full employment, that would last until the 1970s.

The importance of the post-war settlement is illustrated in the film by the context of what preceded it: mass unemployment and squalor in the 1930s, the rise of fascism in much of Europe, and the contradictory experiences of wartime. It powerfully illustrates why, for example, the birth of the NHS was such a momentous advance for anyone who had been poor.

1945 was one of the turning points in British history and the 1945-51 government was in fact the only Labour government that delivered meaningful and serious reforms for working class people. The Wilson governments of 1964-70 – in which Benn served – benefited from being during the boom years, but their achievements were of smaller scale, and their contradictions more pronounced, than Attlee’s government. To a large extent the Labour Party has relied on the advances of those years to maintain credibility ever since, but with diminishing success.

After watching the film it occurred to me that three particular aspects of those years really made a material difference to working class people’s lives: the NHS, housing and full employment. Labour can take a lot of credit for the first two, though the needs of post-war society were such that there were few other options. Full employment was both a legacy of the war years – when people were put to work for the war effort – and a feature of the conditions of healthy economic growth that survived long beyond the Attlee years. This is what underpinned much of what characterised British society until the crisis of the 1970s, including the confidence of workers to strike for better pay and other improvements.

But there was also a darker side to the 1945 government, which is particularly highlighted in the film by Benn’s criticism of Attlee for secretively pursuing programmes for the creation of nuclear weapons, in close association with the newly dominant imperialist power across the Atlantic. Benn had a keen interest in many foreign policy matters and desire for peace even in his younger, more moderate days. The film relates how he was, for example, an enthusiastic supporter of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the whole process of decolonisation, and an unwavering opponent of nuclear weapons.

2. Moving to the left. It is often said of Benn that he moved progressively to the left as he grew older, something that is seen as rare and exceptional. This is largely true, though he was never especially right-wing Labour to begin with but rather a career politician with a mix of ideas. What’s often missed, though, is something that comes across in the film: the leftwards shift happened mostly in one particular decade. At the start of the 1970s Benn had moved little politically since 20 years earlier when he had entered the Commons. By the end of that decade he was essentially the implacable left-winger we are all familiar with.

Such a political shift cannot be reduced mechanically to objective circumstances. Different individuals can react to the same events in quite different ways. Nonetheless, there are two major contexts which frame Benn’s political shift.

The first of these is the upsurge in popular rebellions and especially workers’ struggles between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, including the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 - the latter triggered the fall of Heath’s Tory government - and the occupation by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (there’s footage of Benn addressing a Clydeside rally of the time in ‘Will and Testament’). These clearly influenced Benn’s move to the left, together with an increasing focus on what happened outside parliament as significant for the left.

The second influential factor was Benn’s own highly frustrating experience of being in office. As a Cabinet Minister in the Labour governments of 1974-79 under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, he had insider knowledge of how Labour politicians were subservient to the dictates of the IMF and big business. He was incapable of making even mild reforms. Such an experience normally shifts a Labour politician further to the right – as they rationalise their own situation as a means of coping with it – but the film reveals how it had the opposite effect on Benn (something that is also conveyed by his Diaries from that era).

On leaving office in 1979, with the election of Thatcher’s first government, Benn had moved to a firmly left-wing political stance and became the leading figure in the Labour Left. From the 1980s onwards he devoted a lot of time to extra-parliamentary struggles, speaking on campaign and labour movement platforms. A final shift would take place after leaving parliament in 2001, when he really did ‘spend more time on politics’ and dedicated himself overwhelmingly to championing struggles outside Westminster’s confines.

3. Democracy beyond Westminster. Perhaps the most compelling thing of all about Benn is the paradox that he spent half a century in the House of Commons, yet he increasingly gave priority to struggles and movements outside Parliament and used his profile to promote and champion them. This process began in the early 1970s, when he was in opposition and there was a wave of workers’ militancy, but it became more pronounced in the 1980s.

The Miners’ Strike was a whole year in which Benn dedicated himself to the cause of supporting the miners, their families and communities. He spoke in public around 200 times during the course of the Strike, and his devotion to the miners’ heroic struggle is of course a big part of why in later years he always got a great reception at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, one of the places where he seemingly felt most at home and one of the locations for filming in ‘Will and Testament’.

The mid-1980s must have also been the time when Benn reluctantly realised that the Labour Party was not going to be won for the Left, and an excessive focus on internal battles would be unproductive (though he remained loyal to the Party to the end, and never entirely abandoned hope in it). He had been the figurehead in the early 1980s for the Labour left, the great hope for many socialists who did indeed get swallowed up inside the Labour Party and in fruitless battles over resolutions and democratic procedures. He stood firm against the Party’s drift to the right, beginning under the hapless and hopeless Neil Kinnock (seeing him on the big screen reminded me what a pitiful character he was), becoming over time an inspiration to many people beyond the Labour Party as well as the diminishing numbers of principled socialists within it.

His outspoken opposition to the Gulf War in the early 1990s prefigured his later energetic commitment to anti-war campaigning from 2001 onwards. His role in the Stop the War movement, following the commencement of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, put his talents, especially as an orator, to magnificent use – the film includes some of his famous passionate attack on the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the emergency appeal for Gaza, which gives a flavour of his political eloquence. His anti-war role was surely his most important practical contribution in later years. He spoke on many other campaigning platforms, too, and devoted much time to touring the country and talking about socialist ideas at packed public events.

One thing Benn expressed powerfully when interviewed for the film was his conclusion that democracy is much bigger and broader than what happens in Westminster, and that real change comes from mass action and determined campaigning. Commitment to democratic principles and reform was in fact a thread running through his life, but in the end he had more radical sense of democracy and how it conflicts with the wealth and power of those who will preserve capitalism at any cost.

Benn said he would be content if his epitaph was, simply, ‘he encouraged us’. This seems to have reflected recognition that change will be won people’s own actions, not principally by the politicians in Westminster.