Monday, 17 August 2009

Has the left blown its big chance of success? Discuss.

The Guardian has an interesting feature article by Andy Beckett, attempting to address the question above. The obvious answer is yes - and indeed that's the answer offered by Beckett and a number of those he interviewed for his piece, one of whom suggests the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was the great test (and we failed the test).

While I broadly agree with the thrust of the article, it's worth first noting a serious problem. Beckett appears to overestimate the opportunities we can expect to have due to economic crisis. The current crisis has a generated a complex situation, ideologically and politcally, and it inevitably won't all go the way of the radical left. Other forces, like the mainstream Right (e.g. Cameron's Tories) and the far right (e.g. BNP) can exploit the disillusionment and anger created by the crisis.

Beckett's article will resonate with people, however, because a crisis for capitalism is bound to prompt discussion of what can be done about it - and what alternatives exist. At least at the level of ideas, a crisis for the whole global system - and collapse of the ruling ideology of the last 30 years, neoliberalism - must open up new opportunities for the radical left.

Several months ago mainstream papers were reporting that there had been a renewed interest in Marx, citing a surge in sales of his masterpiece Capital and a number of lesser works. Neoliberalism's collapse doesn't automatically mean people reject capitalism altogether, but it does at least create a space in which Marxists can debate with people. In this context should we be doing better? Yes we should.

Of course it is an objective difficulty that the level of class struggle remains relatively low, despite the inspiring stirrings of revolt from workers at Waterfords, Visteon, Vestas and Thomas Cook, all sites of militant occupations. This prevents rapid and mass growth of socialist organisations.

But a time of raw working class anger at capitalist greed and questioning of the system, against a backdrop of years of what might be called a 'political upturn' (anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, mass rejection of New Labour's rightwards shift), should be fertile for the left. So, yes we can do better.


  1. There is always room for improvement and mistakes are part of life (although everyone should always learn from their mistakes). Concerning the party (the SWP) there was one bit in Andy Beckett's article that made me think how we might improve things which was about an observation he made; people at Marxism 2009 were conecting very much with old contacts and friends rather than there being an emphasis on welcoming new people in, and taking more of an interest them. I think that is pretty good advice for us...

  2. Dear Comrade,
    I think that your view of the article accepts too much of the pessimism and short termism shown by the writer. Andy Beckett's article is mechanistic - crisis of capital = swing to the left and at the same time volountrist i.e., revolutionaries create the revolution.
    This new crisis in the system has only just begun, its effects are working down through the economic system. What started as a banking crisis is now a crisis in indusry and it's shockwaves will roll on for a long time to come. It is part of the long term crisis of capital. How much advantage the left can take of this depends on what happens at the base, in the working class, the left can not conjure a revolutionary mood by force of will. The setbacks that beset our class in the Thatcher years are only starting to be undone.
    The occupations at Visteon and at Vestas show how the mood is turning, but these sparks need careful fanning before a more general fire breaks out. We need both patience and impatience. We should be impatient with our selves, we should do more and do it better, but we should be patient with the struggle itself. In Lenin's words we need to "patiently explain" to people the importance of the occupations but be ready to move if thing shows promise. The crisis can generate anger but it can also generate despair, that is what the BNP depend on. The factory occupations can show that there is hope. That working people can run things themselves, but not everybody sees this yet.
    None of this is to say that we could not do things much better but if you have been feeling a bit under the weather its harder to break into a run right away!
    Pessimism of the intellect comrade but always optimism of the will!

  3. As Sophie suggests, there's a crying need for socialists - and I don't limit this specifically to the SWP - to reach out to new people. It is inevitable that a systemic crisis like we're currently seeing will radicalise some people, or at least force them to question things and become more politically conscious. How that is channelled depends, at least to a significant degree, on the conscious intervention of socialists. What we mustn't do is limit ourselves to addressing some kind of established 'left'.

    I agree with dvgil that Beckett veers into a mechanistic attitude in his article: capitalist crisis = growth for the left. However, I'd argue strongly that in the longer term that growth is precisely what we should expect to see, but it depends upon deploying the right strategy and tactics and on a willingness to shake up routines and take the initiative.

    What I don't think socialists should be doing is believing that only when the working class becomes more combative can we see a significant change for the left. We currently have favourable conditions ideologically, if not industrially to the extent we'd like, and this is the basis for us building in the current period. Stop the War remains very important, there's potential for resurgent anti-capitalist mobilising, and disputes like Vestas raise big questions about climate change and economic planning.

    If the left built on these strengths - and shaped a stronger political response to the crisis - it would both grow and help influence the revival of resistance on the economic front.