Saturday, 1 January 2011

Carnival of Socialism: debating the way forward

As I'm publishing this on the first day of a new year, I've chosen 'Debating the way forward' as the theme for my turn at compiling the Carnival of Socialism round-up of left-wing blog posts.

Everything here was posted online during the last two weeks of 2010; most of it concerns strategy and tactics for the left, the students or the anti-cuts movement once everyone gets back to business in January.

Amongst lefties the major online debate over Christmas was prompted by Laurie Penny's Christmas Eve offering at Comment is Free. Laurie wrote:

'The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left. Their energy and creativity is disseminated via networks rather than organisations, and many young people have neither the time nor the inclination to wait for any political party to decide what direction they should take. The Liberal Democrats represented the last hope that parliamentary democracy might have something to offer the young, and that hope has been exquisitely betrayed – no wonder, then, that the new movements have responded by rejecting the old order entirely.'

Her article covered a range of contested issues - concerning the student movement and its relationship to the unions, Labour Party and the far left - so there was more than enough for other bloggers to get their teeth into.

It triggered an impressive range of responses. As well as a CiF reply from Alex Callinicos, and Laurie's rejoinder to it at The Staggers, responses included those from Lenin's Tomb, Latte Labour, Dave Osler and yours truly. Simon at Latte Labour wrote:

'Class solidarity is necessary. But without concrete expressions, class solidarity is just a pious wish. That solidarity must be lived out. We saw some of that at the recent occupations. It was great hearing tube-workers talking in occupied university spaces. But not all solidarity can have the immediacy and the excitement of these occasions. There is a need for the more hum-drum, patient, working with existing organisations, drawing on their accumulated wisdom, and building on the contacts they have with the class, particularly as organised in trade unions. Integral to this is learning about the diverse cultural realities which supply the backdrop for peoples' lives.'

There were further interesting contributions - all of them adding something to the mix - from Though Cowards Flinch, The Great Unrest and Harpymarx. Even US-based blogger Louis Proyect chipped in with a contribution. Louise, aka Harpymarx, suggested organisation is important but some fresh thinking is required about what forms it takes:

'Twitter and Facebook cannot on their own create the political legitimacy and effectiveness that proper political organsition can. Organisaton does not equate to either the SWP or to Labourism in either old or new variants. In fact not to pay attention to how you organise surrenders ground to either/both the old style democratic-centralism or the corrupt party machine of the LP. You need the kinds of organisations that can act as political transmission belts: the most obvious current example being the LRC (Labour representation Committee). We need organisations that can quickly provide political and pracitical support to strikes and other forms of resistance as well as challenging the LP establishment in more traditional forms of politics. You have to fight on all fronts.'

This kind of debate can all seem rather fractious, but I don't think it is. The tone has mostly, if not entirely, been respectful and comradely (despite Laurie herself lapsing into un-comradely language about the SWP in her original piece). There's also been a great deal of related discussion, including from many of the same voices, on Twitter, but in my view that has generated more heat than light. It is on the blogs where thoughtful socialists with something to say have been able to develop their ideas, not limited to 140 characters at a time.

New Left Project helpfully brought together contributions from four student activists on the tactics of the student movement. The site's 'round table' involved Elly Badcock, David Wearing, Sophie Burge and Guy Aitchison, whose contribution takes the form of a critical response to parts of James Meadway's extended analysis, 'Where next for the student revolt?', at Counterfire. James, in a very lengthy and wide-ranging article, had written:

'The failure of the NUS nationally has left students with little choice but to establish alternative structures and centres of organisation. Some have claimed that the ubiquity of social media like Twitter and Facebook makes the question of leadership irrelevant. It is now possible to organise major demonstrations, as we saw on 24 November, on the basis of a single Facebook posting. We do not, runs the argument, need centralisation.

These new tools are absolutely critical to successful activism. But in a world in which everyone can organise a demonstration through Facebook, it is absolutely vital that not everyone does so. A cacophony of different initiatives, all reduced on-screen to equal validity, would disintegrate the movement. (As we have seen with the fake demonstration on 20 December, some are actively attempting to produce that result.) Social media has increased – not diminished - the need for a credible, central voice for the student movement.'

Guy Aitchison, writing from a broadly autonomist perspective, is concerned about any notion of centralism:

'How, for example, would a new central body be constituted? What authority would it have and in whose name would it speak? The danger we face is of creating a new tier of leaders who, however well-intentioned, seek to manage the movement and end up sapping it of its power, radicalism and creativity. They would come under intense institutional pressure to police the movement from within and dilute its aims – indeed, this is why the Met, the mainstream media and the political establishment have been craving for “leaders” to point the finger at.

We need to recognise that the student movement’s openness and pluralism is a political strength. Without it, it won’t succeed in bringing in the larger public. It would be a tragedy to now descend into ideological fetishism or for different factions of the far left to move in and try and appropriate the anger and energy to grow themselves at the expense of the wider cause. But this is the risk we run with centralised top-down structures.'

One of the issues that keeps cropping up is the role of social media: how important Facebook, Twitter etc are for today's activists, how these tools fit in with other forms of activism or organisation. Some grand claims have been made, for example by Left Foot Forward and Laurie Penny.

More sober perspectives have been offered by Joss Hands, in a New Left Project interview, and also by Phil at A Very Public Sociologist. In a post titled 'The revolution will not be tweeted' he celebrates the benefits of new social media, but also comments:

'You cannot get away from the awkward reality that this burgeoning radicalisation-by-internet is very much tolerated by the powers that be. Twitter is as capitalist as McDonalds. Facebook is fundamentally the same beast as Microsoft. Your internet connection is owned by a private company. The political economy of the social media world is indistinguishable in kind from any other marketplace, and as such each firm has material and political interests over and above the continued flow of users that pour through their services.'

Various blogs have engaged with questions around what the anti-cuts movement can do in 2011. Some of this was prompted by Unite leader Len McCluskey's call for a 'broad strike movement' to confront the cuts, for example The Third Estate refuted The Guardian's criticisms of McCluskey's strike call. River's Edge posted this interesting contribution to debate about the role of Labour councillors, while Left Futures shared a useful summary of the tax justice alternative to austerity.

Finally, a few miscellaneous items which don't fit with my theme, but which deserve attention. Political Scrapbook rounds up 10 good political music videos of 2010, Lancaster UAF exposes the ugly truth about Jim Dowson, Reading the Maps starts with Davros and takes it from there, and Charlie Pottins pays tribute to Jayaben Desai, who uttered these immortal words:

"What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."


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