Thursday, 17 January 2013

Revolutionaries, movements and the radical left - a few comments

Mark Perryman responded to my recent 'Why is the revolutionary left not growing?' post. Read his reply here.

I thought I'd pick up on a few of the points Mark raised. But first, I should acknowledge the importance of Mark's central argument - reflected powerfully in the closing comments of his post - that we need a serious, reflective and open-minded dialogue among socialists about the way ahead, with attempts to at least open up communication (and preferably co-operation) even where there have previously been animosities.

This is vital. So is common action on the streets and in the workplaces, but that doesn't diminish the need for conversations about where we are coming from and where we might be going. The current SWP crisis in particular means we are quite obviously going through what might grandly be called a re-composition of the radical left, but there are other trends feeding that process too.

So, three things.

1) Mark is of course right to say we need to look beyond these shores and consider the experiences - good, bad and faltering - of the radical left elsewhere in Europe. This experience has been profoundly uneven: a party justifiably cited as a great hope at one time is, a couple of years later, clearly in decline. This has been the fate of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the NPA in France and Die Linke in Germany (although the last of these could perhaps be reversed), though all of these have followed their own distinct trajectory and risen or fallen at somewhat different times.

In general the radical left - a term I've previously used (and use here) to denote something including the revolutionary left but broader than it, combining radical reformists as well as revolutionaries but outside the camp of social democracy - is not growing (within that, the revolutionary left is emphatically not growing). In electoral terms this radical left emerged from the crisis of neoliberal social democracy - Blairism in this country - and sought to fill the gap abandoned by the centre-left parties.

Those electoral projects have had mixed results, but by far the most successful is Syriza in Greece. France is providing a hopeful case study with the Left Front, but interestingly this is from a different direction to most of the examples we have cited in recent years: the backbone of the coalition is the French Communists, with Trotskyists playing a more marginal role than in most other examples we might discuss.

I think it's essential that revolutionaries take such developments seriously. When they don't, they risk sectarian isolation. See, for example, the response of the British SWP and its Greek sister organisation to Syriza - a response which has combined grudging respect, sectarian nit-picking and a disastrous strategy of working within a tiny electoral organisation instead of participating in Syriza.

Broad left-wing formations can be a key way for revolutionaries to engage with other socialists and help create a new left. In this country, however, I don't think it is currently on the cards. The central means of renewing the left remains through the building of political movements, especially over austerity and war. They can, in turn, create conditions for electoral left renewal (something that, it must be said, is in electoral terms far more likely to be plausible under a future Labour government).

2) It follows that we do not have to choose between Leninism and broad electoral coalitions, between revolutionary organisations and creating something bigger and broader. Both are possible simultaneously. A key development in the British SWP in the last few years is the conviction that serious commitment to a broader formation undermines the project of 'building the party' (which is deemed paramount). This rests upon an exaggerated and partial mis-reading of what went wrong in Respect, which was viewed as an unmitigated disaster warranting a sharp turn towards familiar party-building routines at the expense of building political relationships and shaping wider campaigns.

It remains the case that revolutionary socialists are at their most effective when building movements. The nature of the current radicalisation is that few people move directly to explicitly Marxist politics. Trade union struggle remains low, but is stronger in terms of campaigns and demonstrations than in terms of strikes. So the idea that building a bigger revolutionary left can happen through a combination of vigorous propagandising and a semi-syndicalist practice is a non-starter. It is through political campaigns, of one sort or another, that revolutionaries can do something meaningful and build its own weight within the movement (often, I should note, these campaigning activities have significant union involvement - this is not an argument for neglecting trade unions).

But it's also true that the radical left in a wider sense can be developed and enhanced through such campaigns. I'm not merely thinking of electoral work here. Last year the local Coalition of Resistance group in Newcastle put on a meeting, with Owen Jones as keynote speaker, that drew 160 people. On the night it occurred to me: 'This is the Left'. It wasn't just a successful anti-cuts meeting; it was one of the biggest left-wing meetings we've had in Newcastle in many years. There were plenty of members of various radical-left groups in attendance, and also some left-wing Labour members, but also many non-aligned but politically conscious and left-wing people. Left-wing trade unionists turned up, but so did many who have no experience of unions.

The same thing happened again last week, but on an even bigger scale: over 300 attended the Save Newcastle Libraries public meeting, with 'Billy Elliot' writer Lee Hall giving a radical speech and getting a great reception for it. The old institutions of the working class - the Labour Party and trade unions most importantly, but also the organised Communist and Trotskyist lefts - have declined. There is a gap between that wider left-wing audience and three things: the politics of today's Labour Party, the confidence of workers to resist through strike action, and the size of the revolutionary left.

On the last of these points, however, it should be noted that the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign was initiated primarily by revolutionaries (in Counterfire, working with others in Coalition of Resistance) and there are local SWP members involved in driving it forward. A key question is how the appetite both for resistance and for left-wing ideas, as shown in those examples, can be channelled into a Left that is durable, more organised, and with social roots.

3) Mark says of left-wing groups: 'Most do at least one or two things of some importance, eg The Marxism Festival, Coalition of Resistance, The Morning Star, winning in Bradford West. None have anything resembling a significant footprint in society nor a local base of any significance either.'

But Mark doesn't explicitly identify what links these strengths. They are all instances of a left-wing organisation connecting politically with larger numbers of people beyond its own ranks, with politics absolutely central. It is the attendance of non-SWP members that makes Marxism a worthy example for Mark to cite. Incidentally, for the last 3 years - i.e. since I left the SWP - I've regarded the annual Marxism festival as easily the party's greatest asset, the thing that still seems to be going strong while most things decay (I've assessed this from afar, as I've not attended myself).

The Morning Star is a paper for the left of the labour movement. Coalition of Resistance involves a range of people and is attractive to those from outside the traditional organised left. Bradford West was, as some commentators noted at the time, more of a grassroots political movement than a familiar left-wing electoral challenge. It reached out way beyond the established left.

It's therefore not enough to simply characterise left-wing organisations as doing 'at least one or two things of some importance'. We also need to consider which organisations are actively promoting more of these things - even if they don't have the capacity to fully deliver - and which are retreating from broader engagement.

Above all, we need to develop a serious, united anti-austerity front. That doesn't mean cobbling together the existing left-wing organisations: it has to unite those on the organised left who are non-sectarian with broader layers of activists and supporters. Coalition of Resistance is the closest we've got. It's too weak on the ground - lacking lots of local groups - because there isn't a sizeable left-wing organisation getting behind it that could translate a national strategy into local groups. But it's vital we do what is possible, and I hope the People's Assembly Against Austerity (on 1 June) proves a turning point for the left's role in shaping the anti-cuts movement.

Mark refers to 'the lack of any mass movement, certainly on the scale and with the roots of Stop the War, The Miners Strike, The Poll Tax, CND or Anti Nazi League.' This is correct. But the lack of a mass anti-cuts coalition shaped by the radical left - in the way ANL and STW were shaped by the SWP, and the poll tax movement was shaped by Militant - is not an objective inevitability, but a failure of political strategy and will. That is the single most important thing that needs to shift over the next year.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Alex

    An excellent rejoinder, thought your term 'radical left' more useful than the catch-small revolutionary left

    Your description of what the left is and the disconnect with the organised left is key.

    And the observations on the 'Marxism' event well-made, something similar could also be said about Counterfire's Festival of Dangerous Ideas too.

    Mark P