Friday, 30 September 2011

Renewing the radical left

Chris Bambery's recent article - see HERE - is a useful contribution to discussing how to build a new left. I want to think through a few of the issues he raises, but first a summary of the ideas.

Summary of the analysis

Chris Bambery makes the following points:

1) The left does not automatically grow alongside resistance to the system. Growth depends on choices about tactics and forms of organisation, an ability to relate to new movements, and a capacity for fresh thinking about a changing world.

2) There is a gap between the political upturn of the last decade or so and the state of the radical left. Mass movements, political radicalisation and widespread distrust of establishment institutions have not led to growth for the radical left. There are factors beyond our control which influence this, but it's partly because of weaknesses in the established Left. A period bracketed by emergent anti-capitalism and the start of the 'war on terror' at one end and the financial crisis and mass austerity at the other end has not led to a stronger radical left.

3) The radical left in Europe is currently struggling more than it is flourishing. There is unevenness, with the radical left in a number of southern European countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) having greater 'social weight' than elsewhere, though there are still substantial problems in these countries. Italy provides the most powerful example of a mistaken approach and subsequent collapse, but Spain fares little better. Germany's Die Linke is contradictory but relatively successful.

4) There are both similarities and differences between the post-1968 period and the current period. It is not self-evident today that the working class - organised in the trade unions, deploying tactics of mass strikes and rank and file militancy - is central to social change in the way it was to large numbers of young activists four decades ago. The centrality of the organised working class remains a largely abstract argument.

5) Our starting point for analysis has to be the current shape and conditions of the working class. There is an urgent need to engage with contemporary reality. There will not be a simple repetition of historical experiences when new resistance movements develop.

6) Leninism remains marginal. We need a Left that relates to wider layers of the working class in resisting capitalism, but also offers a consistently anti-systemic perspective and articulates alternatives. But while Marx may be frequently cited as an analyst of capitalist crisis, Lenin is more unfashionable than ever. The organised revolutionary left is too small. The anti-socialist backlash following the end of the Cold War has been an important factor in this.

7) We can't have a 'non-ideological Left'. It isn't sufficient to declare ideology dead in the name of 'left unity'. Political questions will always emerge - and need to be addressed. Islamophobia and Libya are good examples. Political and theoretical clarity will always be essential for the radical left.

8) Cadre can be conservative. Lenin's old, familiar warning about the dangers of conservatism in an organisation's cadre is especially relevant now. This is because we've had such a long period of the radical left being on the margins and industrial struggle remaining very low. It is far from automatic that long-time socialists will be able to relate to current problems.

9) The unions remain weak. There is a particular problem with the decline of the trade union movement - with increased bureaucratisation, a low level of combativity and the casework-dominated nature of life for most reps. This inevitably finds expression inside the organised left.

10) Much of the left expresses a mixture of economism and propagandism. In his summing up in the video, Bambery cites Tony Cliff's comment about how Scottish communist Willie Gallacher operated during World War One: for six days a week he was a radical trade unionist and on Sundays he propagandised for socialism. This approach is particularly at odds with a context characterised by a high level of politics but still a low level of strikes, in which trade unionists tend to make an impact precisely when they ally with other groups and address political issues.

11) The radical left in the UK has failed key tests. Specifically, Bambery refers to failures in building out of the student protests of late 2010 and developing a credible response to August's riots. There is a particular tendency to intervene in campaigns and disputes from the outside, reduced to the level of selling publications and trying (with little success) to recruit new members.

12) The left has to relate to the most advanced sections. When new waves of resistance develop, 'revolutionaries have to base themselves within that section of the working class that is in the vanguard of the struggle'. In the early and mid 1970s, for example, that meant orienting on mainly younger militant workers - some of them union reps but some not, many of them in white-collar areas of work not traditionally associated with militancy - who weren't part of the older, increasingly bureaucratised, layers in the unions.

13) In the UK there are fresh opportunities for left unity and renewal. But it won't be done by simply cobbling together the existing fragments of the organised left. Any new electoral formations will develop out of the anti-austerity movement and involve new forces, steered primarily by a younger generation which isn't stuck in the disputes of previous periods.

Developing some key themes

I want to develop my own thoughts about three recurring themes in Chris Bambery's analysis: the shape of resistance today, realigning the Left, and internationalism.

The shape of resistance

If the left is to grow then it needs an accurate grasp of forms of resistance in today's world. A striking characteristic of recent resistance is the tactic of the mass occupation of public space: from Madrid to Tunis, Athens to Cairo, Wall Street to Santiago, youth-led demonstrations in public squares are pretty much the trademark tactic of 2011.

More generally - and this is a long term pattern - it's clear that street demonstrations have been a prominent form of resistance across a range of issues. This is true of the anti-austerity movement: the 26 March demo indicated the unions can mobilise on a large scale on the streets, at a time when there was still insufficent confidence to strike.

We have had 20 years of historically low strike levels. That is thankfully now changing, but it flies in the face of reality for anyone to think strike action is now the dominant form of resistance just because of the prospect of N30.

Union density in the private sector is 1 in 6. The power of the union bureaucracy in relation to the grassroots has, over the last 30 years or more, increased dramatically. The unions are shackled by anti-union laws. Reps are bogged down in casework, with a shift over time from collective action to individual remedies like employment tribunals. Some unions haven't had any strike action at all for many years.

The workplace is increasingly becoming a key site of resistance, but it won't replace other forms of struggle. Rather we can expect strikes to complement - and gain strength from - the protests, marches and occupations. There's still a common idea on the left that 'real power' is in the workplaces - other forms of resistance are a sort of prelude to what really matters, which is mass strikes.

Revolutionaries, however, argue that confronting (and contending for) state power is the highest form of struggle. A mass strike becomes more powerful when it rises to this level and becomes an overtly political confrontation. The fusion of economic and political struggles is especially vital.

The left has to constantly forge connections between trade unionists and different groups. The strengths in one area have to be brought into other areas: the most advanced sections must set the pace for everyone else. The emergence of strike action in the public sector is hugely hopeful, but it must be allied to a broader general anti-cuts movement that can't be dismissed as sectional, self-interested or single-issue, that isn't overly reliant on the whims of the union bureaucracy.

Realigning the left

I am, like Bambery, rooted in the distinctive strand in the history of British Trotskyism associated with Tony Cliff, i.e. the International Socialist tradition. But why would anyone in 2011 define themselves - and their relationship to the wider Left, movements or class - according to theories developed in the post-WW2 world which are now largely of historical interest?

Elements of these theories are still relevant. Most notably, Cliff's theory of state capitalism enables marxists to defend our tradition against the still widespread assumption that marxism - or more precisely Leninism - can be written off because of the legacy of Stalinism. A revised, updated and accessible version of it is therefore essential.

But you can't possibly define your political stance in 2011 with reference to state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution and the arms economy (if you aren't familiar with these terms, that perhaps illustrates my point).

The crucial issues defining today's left are different. At the theoretical and political levels there are many important issues to engage with: Islamophobia, Libya and 'humanitarian intervention', climate change, the rise of China, the working class today, struggles in Latin America, and so on.

Just as importantly, there are questions of political strategy. Sects build nothing. We need a Left that participates in and strives to influence the wider resistance that develops, identifying political priorities and locating where it can be most effective.

The development of any movement is not blind. It requires conscious intervention and organisation. And that means a stronger left, but specifically a Left that grasps current realities and can adapt and renew itself accordingly.


The importance of internationalism is implicit in Bambery's comments, but it's worth foregrounding this and making it explicit. There are two current political reasons for this.

One is that austerity is pan-European, and the resistance to it will be stronger if internationally co-ordinated. Tomorrow's Europe Against Austerity event is not just another conference. It is a unique opportunity to get our act together as an international movement and co-ordinate resistance.

The other reason is the continuing centrality of imperialism and the 'war on terror' to global politics. Crisis, austerity, revolutions in the Arab world, imperialism and the anti-Muslim backlash are the defining features of our epoch.

Anti-imperialism has to remain a priority for the left, not simply at the level of propaganda but as a guide to action. This means building an anti-war movement, regardless of the level of mobilisation being far lower than during its peak period. This is also, for those of us inside the imperialist countries, the most important and practical way for us to demonstrate solidarity with the Arab revolutions. The closely-related Palestinian solidarity movement is also politically important, now more than ever.

Localism and parochialism are problems in the anti-cuts movement. There are chronic problems with achieving national co-ordination, while too much of the Left is allowing an astonishingly good opportunity for international co-ordination - tomorrow's conference - to largely pass them by.

Austerity is imposed by central government. It is framed by an international crisis. National and international co-ordination and solutions are thus indispensable.

Furthermore, the Left's task has to be to make connections and raise the political level everywhere: bring anti-imperialism into the anti-cuts movement, argue within anti-war circles for participation in anti-austerity struggles, and so on. Politics remains central: not as a propaganda exercise, but as a living, integral part of every act of resistance.


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