Friday 4 January 2013

Why is the revolutionary left not growing?

For a while I've been toying with the idea of jotting down my reflections on some issues concerning that perennial favourite: the State of the Left. I've only just got round to it. Chris Bambery's thoughtful new article on the stagnation of the Left was a particular spur to me finally sketching my own observations and reflections.
I am currently working my way through Socialist Register 2013, a diverse collection of essays on the theme of left-wing strategy in the present period, and will be reviewing it in due course. Some contributions are insightful or thought-provoking, so that also feeds into my current attention to this.  

An aside on terminology here before we go further. When I refer to the Left I am being rather broad - from Trotskyists to the 'soft left' within the Labour Party. I'm not just thinking of organisations, either, but a broader culture and place in political discourse and public debate.

When I refer to the revolutionary left I am almost entirely thinking of Trotskyist currents: internationally there are a number of significant tendencies, but there are other groups outside those formal tendencies. This includes Counterfire (of which I'm a member) and Scotland's International Socialist Group (of which Chris Bambery, cited above, is a member). Most of my focus here is on the UK context.

The stagnant revolutionary left

Let's start with a simple observation: the revolutionary left is not growing. Indeed I am perhaps being generous in referring merely to stagnation rather than decline. On New Year's Day 2012 I published a series of 20 predictions for the year ahead. One was that the revolutionary left internationally would fail to grow. I was right. On New Year's Day 2013 I again published a list of 20 predictions. Again I predicted that the revolutionary left will fail to grow in the year ahead. I will, sadly, be right again.
Yet we live in an age in which many revolutionary socialist groups predict a growth in the revolutionary left - including whatever their own organisation is - and indeed sometimes speak as if it's already happening. So for someone from within the revolutionary left - like me - to make this comment may be somewhat uncharacteristic.

There are two reasons why this stagnation might surprise people and therefore requires explanation. One is historical precedent. Previous periods of systemic crisis - whether the First World War, the 1930s or the post-1968 era - have led to a growth in the revolutionary left or in other sections of the Left (or both). So shouldn't that be happening now?
The second reason is that it's not like we have a shortage of resistance to capitalism, or particular aspects of capitalist crisis, in the current period. Shouldn't such phenomena - Arab revolutions, Occupy, general strikes in southern Europe, a widespread anti-establishment mood etc - find expression in the growth of the revolutionary left?

Something else needs to be noted here. It's not the case that other sections of the left are growing. Actually, the Left as a whole is stagnant or declining. There have been large-scale protest movements, and lots of interest in radical and anti-capitalist ideas, over the last decade or so. There has also been a collapse in social democracy's capacity to deliver positive reforms for working class people, which might be expected to encourage growth in other elements of the Left. Yet  all this isn't generally finding expression in anything resembling an organised Left (partial exceptions, like Syriza in Greece, are of course worth exploring).  

So it's not a case of saying that other parts of the Left are flourishing but there's something inherent to the revolutionary left that is an obstacle. This should, by the way, give pause for thought to all those people - many of them disillusioned ex-members of left-wing groups - who seem preoccupied with the idea that 'democratic centralism', or 'Leninism', is what we need to focus on (and reject). No. The problems we're wrestling with are rather bigger and more political than that.

Is the revolutionary left doomed to stagnation?

Now an obvious question arises. Is this failure to grow a result of objective factors or subjective failures? Put another way: are there factors entirely outside our control that explain the problem, or is it basically our fault?
I don't find it credible that it is entirely subjective failings. This is for a simple reason: it is happening everywhere. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the international revolutionary left, but I'm not aware of anywhere that is bucking the trend to any significant extent (I'm happy to be corrected here). When a problem is universal it can only be a subjective failure if everyone everywhere is doing the same dumb things and making the same mistakes. That doesn't seem likely.

So there must be powerful objective forces at work here. But I also don't buy into the idea  that it is entirely because of factors outside our control. When you consider the current radicalisation, when you think about the myriad forms of resistance, that just doesn't make sense.

We are categorically not in the kind of downturn we had in many countries in the 1980s: a period of recurring defeats and setbacks for the working class. And the Left has not been smashed in the way it was in Germany in 1933, or some other parts of Europe in the same period. So it really won't do to say that the wider political situation is so hostile that the revolutionary left can't possibly grow.

Neoliberal victories
The starting point really has to be a registering of the scale and successful nature of the neoliberal offensive. Neoliberal politicians haven’t always got away with everything they wanted; there has been resistance in every part of the globe; we have scored some small-scale victories; and there has, since around the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and deepened by the Great Crash of 2008, been an anti-neoliberal backlash. But there’s no getting away from it: they have mostly been winning for over 30 years.

The neoliberal offensive started in the 1970s and gathered steam in the 1980s. It has had several different elements, but at the political level we can sum it up as follows: the whole centre of gravity in mainstream politics has shifted to the right; the social democratic parties have capitulated to right-wing ideology; left-wing ideas have been marginalised.

When considering prospects for the left, we should also register the huge damage done to the unions. They have not been smashed – and there’s good prospects for revival – but there has been a serious erosion of trade union power. This is manifested in the historically low strike levels of the last two decades but also things like the increasingly routinized and bureaucratised nature of much work done by union reps, the fact that most private sector workplaces have no union representation at all, and so on. The effects of the neoliberal restructuring of the working class have still not been properly absorbed by much of the revolutionary left.
Chris Bambery's article makes a number of very good points about the neoliberal offensive. He remarks that in a sense Blair, more than Thatcher, was the real triumph of neoliberalism: the abandonment of traditional reformism by social democratic leaders is a more advanced, far-reaching achievement than a right-wing government doing what Thatcher did in the 1980s. He also comments that the right-wing shift in social democracy was accompanied by the discrediting of left-wing ideas after the end of the Cold War.

I became a revolutionary socialist through the pit closures of October 1992 - or the reaction to them - while still at school. At that time - never mind going back to the 70s or 80s - there was still a sizable left compared to today. There was a sense in which left-wing ideas and language were still (very marginally) part of the political mainstream in a way that isn't true now. Labour leaders still nodded towards the rhetoric of socialism – however vacuously – and there wasn’t yet quite the same stultifying neoliberal consensus that was established by the turn of the millennium.
It's important not to exaggerate the change since then, but a couple of important observations need to be made. One is that the pattern in the last 20 years has been basically the same as that in the 1980s, i.e. the Left has got smaller and been more marginalised. Despite important developments like the anti-capitalist mobilisations and a mass anti-war movement in the noughties - important in their own right - the trend has not been reversed in any sense.

The second point is that no strand of the Left has been immune: not the Labour left, not the Trotskyists, not the old Communist tradition, not the anarchists, or anyone else. (A minor point here: I include anarchists, despite a widespread perception that they've grown in number. When I think back to organising against the Criminal Justice Bill in around 1994, this country's anarchist currents were undoubtedly more numerous then than they are today).

Revisiting three hypotheses
At this point it's worth remembering some of the assumptions and hypotheses that underpinned the way some of us used to see things in the 1990s. I want to focus on three things here that turned out differently to our expectations.

Firstly, if I think back to the Socialist Workers Party in the 1990s (I was a member for 17 years) a key idea was that the wider Left was in a state of collapse and this created a vacuum that we in the SWP could, and probably would, go a long way to filling. This idea was fundamental to our perspectives at the time. But the SWP never grew after peaking in the mid-1990s. The wider decline of the Left actually exerted pressure on the revolutionary left, rather than creating a vacuum to be filled.
An important trend to note here is the upswing for Labourism in the 1994-97 period, when Labour Party membership doubled. This was of course accompanied by a further shift to the right under Blair's leadership, almost obliterating the left. I still think that this did not represent any sort of shift rightwards in working class consciousness. It reflected the depth of anti-Tory feeling, the desperation to get rid of the Tories, and the feeling that what that meant was voting Labour.

Most of those joining the Labour Party were willing to bury their reservations and criticisms, even if they were very well to the left of Blair. The sense that voting Labour was the way to kick the Tories was influenced by the defeats of the unions in the 1980s and the lack of big protest movements (after the anti-Criminal Justice Bill protests subsided there was very little).

For the revolutionary left the growth of Labour, the rightwards shift in the terms of mainstream politics and the absence of a substantial protest culture all made life more difficult than we actually acknowledged at the time. We told ourselves that conditions were a little more favourable than in fact they were.
Two further things were integral to our perspectives in the 1990s - and both have also turned out to be problematic. One assumption was that of the imminent industrial upturn. I still have a tape of a meeting Tony Cliff gave at the Marxism festival in July 1993 called 'The new militancy'. The title now seems grimly ironic. What new militancy?

Look at the strike statistics. Since around 1993 they have been almost consistently much lower than in the preceding 20 years. But Cliff wasn't just being the eternal optimist. One of his many strengths was a close attention to the details of what was happening in the working class. There were indeed some signs of a shift in our direction, but they never amounted to much.
We clung to the imminent industrial upturn hypothesis for all it was worth - tenaciously and persistently. We were like thirsty travellers in the desert. It was so many years since there had been big, successful strikes. Every little strike, or a thumping majority for action in a ballot (there were quite a few of them), was like a precious drop of water - and led us to inflated expectations of what was on the horizon. 

But the mistake wasn't simply in overestimating the possibilities for such an upturn. We also assumed that such an upturn would follow roughly the same pattern as in the early 1970s, regardless of all the changes in working class composition and the state of the unions since then. There was a tendency to demoralisation and then passivity among many members. Demoralisation can come from two things: pessimism and over-optimism (the latter because high expectations are dashed). Most of those members who drifted off were not because of political differences or any shift to the right, but more because they stopped feeling like they could make a difference or had disappointed expectations.

The impact of New Labour on the Left
The other thing that turned out rather differently to expected - or that we didn't entirely grasp - is to do with the experience of New Labour government after 1997.

We did get a number of things absolutely right. What we predicted accurately - and grasped adeptly when it happened - was that a) Blair would be a dismal failure and impose right-wing policies, b) millions of people would grow disillusioned with New Labour, c) this would NOT lead to a Tory revival because there was such strong and wide class feeling against them, and d) the failures in office would have effects like lower voter turnout at elections and creating some space for left-of-Labour challenges.
What we somewhat overstated was the extent to which disillusionment with Labour in office would lead people to the revolutionary left. This was on the context of the continuing absence of any improvement in trade union struggle. One factor in this is that our mantra that New Labour represented 'reformism without reforms' was correct, but not the whole story. Most of its policies were rotten. But there was a genuine increase - a big increase - in spending on health and education, there was a minimum wage, there were Sure Start centres, and so on.

These good reforms were mostly paltry. The increased spending in health and education was accompanied by PFIs, outsourcing and a load of ideological nonsense to justify privatisation. And any positive reforms didn't counter-balance all that was rotten or stop the overall trajectory being to the right, to the embrace of unthinking neoliberalism. But the point is that relative prosperity between 1997 and 2007 allowed for some reforms being granted. There wasn't the erosion of living standards that we are now seeing in an era of economic crisis and austerity.  
This had some effect on working class consciousness and on the scope of  trade union resistance. During the Blair/Brown years there was massive revulsion at all sorts of aspects of the New Labour project, reaching its peak over Iraq but spreading across a wide range of issues, but there wasn't a squeeze on living standards or an all-out attack on the working class like we're seeing now. It was bad, but for most working class people it really wasn’t quite as terribly bad as we made out at the time. Of course the reasons we didn't have a slump during those years are not because of the policies of the then Chancellor, but that's not the point here.

It is worth recalling that much of the opposition to New Labour, from the left, was driven by what might be considered political questions more than directly economic questions (without wanting to drive an artificial wedge between politics and economics here). Most obviously there was Iraq, but there were other issues too, such as the regressive changes in education (once summed up as the three Ts of targets, testing and tables) or racism (whether Islamophobia or the baiting of asylum seekers). Political issues often provided a focus for left-wing activists.

Consequences of the New Labour years

Three observations here. Firstly, the (shallow) boom accompanied by increases in public spending and some other reforms goes some way to explaining why there wasn't more opposition to New Labour's domestic policies. I don't think it provides the primary or overwhelming explanation, but it is a factor.
Secondly, I think it goes some way to explaining why the break from Labourism marked by Respect (in England and Wales) and the SSP (in Scotland) wasn't more durable, why those electoral projects could make breakthroughs but go no further. The disasters and betrayals of Blairism prompted huge numbers of people to leave the Labour Party, opened up an unprecedented debate about political funds in some sections of the union movement, and created a significant space for a left-of-Labour alternative.

But the economic conditions of the mid-noughties also helped Labourism sustain itself, exerted some right-wing pressure on the more moderate elements in Respect (look at George Galloway's political direction in 2006/7), and prevented more of the Labour and trade union left from making the break from New Labour (which was the absolutely critical thing that stopped Respect growing - everything else is froth by comparison).
I should stress that I think other factors were at work - in the difficulties for our electoral challenges - too. The decline of the anti-war movement's mobilising power, pressures of electoral opportunism, First Past the Post, Brown replacing Blair as prime minister - all these made it more difficult for a left-wing alternative to flourish.

Thirdly, we need to understand how Labourism has revived since May 2010. This revival - not as politically significant as the early 80s or on the scale of the mid-90s, but real nonetheless - has disoriented most socialists who remain outside the Labour Party. They quite reasonably ask 'But don't all these left-wingers joining the Labour Party remember how terrible the last Labour government was?' and 'How can they possibly think that such a hollowed-out neoliberal party can be reclaimed?' Most socialists who are oriented on the Labour Party would probably reply that yes they do remember how bad it was. They might well say they don't seriously think the party can be reclaimed, but they have more modest hopes.  
They still feel it is better than nothing, or better than any other alternatives on offer. When there's a Tory hurricane, any shelter - however pathetic and flimsy - is better than nothing at all. In the absence of any credible left-of-Labour electoral vehicles, and with the unions still weak, many socialists feel it is at least something (while fiercely criticising the leadership's failings). I think they are mistaken in believing Labour is worth bothering with, but I can see their point.

There's another reason for the enduring (if decayed) power of Labourism, though, which takes me back to my earlier point: however bad New Labour were, they weren't as bad as this lot. Labour ministers of 1997-2010 were mostly seen as sell-outs and disappointments, whereas the Tories are the out-and-out enemy, representatives of the rich waging class war against us. They are the bankers, capitalists and old Etonians, not just politicians who are being far too friendly to the bankers, capitalists and old Etonians. There is a sharp, bitter political polarisation going on now that feels quite different from what we had before 2010.

A Labour government would be doing very little differently from the government we've got (look at the recent record of Pasok in Greece and other social democratic parties if you doubt this). The big change has been the economic crisis, not the change in who holds office. The system's crisis and the bank bailouts have shut down the space for even the flimsiest of reforms (in the old-fashioned positive, social democratic sense) and accentuated the phenomenon of politics being nothing more than technocratic tweaking of a shared neoliberal consensus. But lots of left-leaning people don't see it like that: they overestimate the extent to which we're currently seeing something distinctively Tory. 

Problems for the revolutionary left

The context for discussing the Left’s marginalisation is threefold. Firstly, we are in a major crisis of capitalism. Secondly - as I've just explained - social democracy is hollowed out, so other (more radical) elements of the Left might be expected to thrive. Thirdly, there is a lot of resistance and radicalisation. Put these factors together and the failure to grow appears baffling.

Before going further, let’s be clear that the Left isn’t growing. Most people recognise this, but I’ve seen some appearing to suggest otherwise. They tend to point to the Arab revolutions or the Occupy movement or general strikes in Greece as evidence of left-wing revival, when – however welcome they are – they really are no such thing. There are loads of reasons to be cheerful, or hopeful, with myriad revolts and a deeper sense of anti-establishment (and often anti-capitalist) feeling than we’ve known for a very long time. Or they point to the growth of interest in Marxism, illustrated for example by well-attended Historical Materialism conferences, or the popularity of some Marxism-influenced writers or academics, to suggest the revolutionary left isn’t faring too badly.

But the point about waves of resistance is this: why are they not giving rise to new or bigger left-wing organisations? The point about a revived interest in Marxism is this: why is it not leading to people joining the organisations that embody those ideas and turn them into political practice? It’s great that David Harvey’s wonderful animated video on the crisis has been seen by so many people, but two million YouTube views haven’t led to people joining the Left in any meaningful sense (despite Harvey saying, towards the end, that it makes sense to “join an anti-capitalist organisation” in the wake of the crisis).
I think a big part of the answer lies in the sketch of neoliberalism’s victorious assault on the working class that I outlined above. One way or another it shattered the left. The baseline we start from is low. It’s not just that we are organisationally small, but the fact that left-wing language and concepts are not familiar to people.

For revolutionaries, there’s a large gap between a loose anti-capitalist understanding among layers of people and the more precise, distinctive set of theories we have. Those wider anti-capitalist layers are close to us, but in another sense there is distance.

In my view the biggest dimension of this gap concerns the way that many people know what they are against but not what they are for. It’s a cliché to point this out and I mean something more precise than many who make this observation. What I’m getting at is really a gap between structure and agency: people getting it that the capitalist system is the problem, but they are buggered if they know who is going to change it. It’s only a tiny minority who reach the conclusion that the working class acting collectively is the agent of social change, and that such change will be brought about by mass demonstrations and strikes, and at a higher level by revolution involving the creation of popular assemblies etc.
One reason for this is that class politics have been so thoroughly marginalised. There is some media discussion of class - and Occupy has popularised and embodied notions of them and us, the 99% versus the 1%, putting inequality on the agenda. But there’s little real understanding of class.

The notion of class politics, of class struggle - of the working class, as a class, being responsible for changing society – is more marginal than ever. This surely has a lot to do with the long-term pattern of low strike levels. The idea of ‘working class struggle’ is for most people precisely that: an idea, not a living reality.

Types of organisation
It is sometimes suggested that revolutionary organisations have failed to build out of protest movements (anti-capitalist, anti-war, Occupy etc) because their organisational forms are anachronistic and unattractive: nobody wants to join a ‘vanguardist’ group any more, they instead want loose networks or pluralism. It is also sometimes suggested that people – especially young people - just don’t join organisations any more (not just political parties, but any kind of organisation).

There may be some truth in these points, but they are flawed and limited as explanations. I think that in many cases revolutionary groups haven’t adapted themselves well, but have instead been sectarian or dogmatic, or they have appeared exclusive or old-fashioned. That is clearly a big problem. But there is simply no reason to believe that the particular type of organisation associated with Leninism or Trotskyism – i.e. a cohesive revolutionary socialist group, operating according to principles of democratic centralism – cannot be relevant or appealing in today’s world.
The oft-recycled charge of ‘But revolutionary organisations haven’t toppled capitalism’ carries no weight because the same can be said of any type of radical organisation, coalition or network. It often happens that socialists who have previously been involved in Leninist groups advocate some sort of ‘pluralist’ approach, or a ‘broad party’, or other variations on this theme. But those projects have encountered at least as many problems, and had as many setbacks, as anything experienced by Leninist groups. I agree that any revolutionary group needs structures, a culture and ways of operating that fit the world we live in, there’s no convincing case that such groups are inherently a hopeless enterprise.

What of the claim that people generally don’t join organisations nowadays? There is some substance here: I think that now, even compared to 20 years ago when I first joined a socialist organisation, there’s more of an instinct to support or get involved in something but not automatically join it. But this change needs to be kept in perspective – and I think many people will join an organisation if they clear about why it matters.

So where does that leave us?
I will point towards a few things that I regard as important. The first thing to get clear is that there are objective conditions – to do with the damaging impact of neoliberalism, defeats for the working class and the historic marginalisation of the left - which place limits on what can reasonably be expected in a revival either of the Left broadly defined or of its revolutionary components.

But there are grounds for arguing that the revolutionary left could do better. This is grounded in both the existence of significant anti-systemic movements and struggles and, furthermore, in a diffuse but tangible political radicalisation among layers of people.
The revolutionary left’s prospects are to some extent bound up with a wider Left revival, but – and this is extremely important – they are also somewhat distinct. Social democracy has been thoroughly discredited and battered. It will survive and get at least partial new leases of life depending on circumstances – never write it off – but the historic decline is permanent. Official Communism has decayed massively and won’t revive. It is possible for more radical currents, outside social democracy and variants of Stalinism, to be renewed despite those phenomena being in permanent decay.

What does that leave, if we are thinking about left-wing renewal? There seem to be three possibilities here. One possible avenue is broad or pluralist parties – Syriza being, justifiably, the shining light on this particular path, though there have been other examples in the last decade (at least for a while). 

Another area of left renewal is inspired by the Bolivarian Revolution and related developments in Latin America, often captured by references to 'socialism for the 21st century'. But while they can provide inspiration for many socialists in Europe – and at the very least deserve support as major challenges to neoliberal capitalism and imperialism - it’s hard to see the practical relevance for us.

The other possible area of renewal is the revolutionary left.
These are not mutually exclusive options. It is possible to build a revolutionary organisation while also working with others in a broader radical party (yes, there’s a minefield of complications, but let’s not go there right now). I don’t think this particular route is a pressing one for revolutionaries in the UK right now, but in a country like Greece it is a very different story.

The prospects for left-of-Labour electoral challenges in the UK are, frankly, grim. We have to be honest about that. I don't see any serious chance of that changing prior to the (likely) election of a Labour government in 2015. In Scotland, circumstances will change dramatically if there is a Yes vote in the independence referendum. But this is very long-term thinking and doesn't address our current conjuncture.

What is needed to grow?

For those of us committed to revolutionary politics and the need for revolutionary organisation, what is needed to grow? Some of my tentative conclusions have already been at least implied. Revolutionaries need to operate in ways that fit 2013. That means such things as an open and transparent democratic culture, utilising available technologies properly (and not being attached to fetishes such as the compulsion to have a weekly newspaper), communicating in language that is clear and resonates with people (there’s still a real problem with stale jargon in radical left circles), and so on.
But it’s more than that. Two things seem to me to be fundamental. One is alluded to by Chris Bambery when he writes: 'Why is the left not growing now, with some honourable exceptions? Because it does not feel and look like it’s an integral part of the real movements which are taking place. On both sides of the border we need a vibrant left which can draw anti-capitalists together.'

Any revolutionary organisation has to be part of wider movements, not simply relating to them or operating in a parasitic manner. Of central importance today are the anti-cuts and anti-war movements. The former in particular is fundamental: if a revolutionary organisation doesn't develop an effective anti-cuts strategy and orientation, it will become stuck.

The trend towards a more sectarian approach is disastrous and guarantees failure. Revolutionaries only have influence if they build broader movements with non-revolutionaries. These are important in their own right, but can also earn an organisation the political authority – at least with some activists and sympathisers – that can help it grow. Such activity can demonstrate the relevance of socialist ideas.

The second necessity is to do with precisely that: socialists ideas. Marxism has to be constantly refreshed and re-thought. Stale dogma and a propagandist approach will win some recruits, but ultimately trap any organisation in a far-left ghetto, becoming increasingly irrelevant over time.
Ideas have always been the most powerful weapons in the revolutionary left’s arsenal. That does not mean having an ossified body of doctrine that you display proudly – to emphasise your distinctiveness compared to other groups – and will take to your grave.
It means, instead, recalling that Marxism is the distillation of the historical and international experience of the working class, and as that experience changes Marxism must inevitably change too. So ideas and analysis must be constantly updated, discussed among wider layers of activists, and communicated clearly and creatively. Ideas that can make sense of today’s world and how it can be changed must be given flesh and blood through campaigns and activity.  

There are numerous issues and phenomena that revolutionaries have to wrestle with: the long-term restructuring of the working class, the politics of threatened ecological destruction, imperialism in the wake of the Arab revolutions, how to challenge not just austerity but the neoliberal order, and more. Theoretical clarity – not fudging issues in the forlorn hope of achieving a broader and bigger organisation – is more vital than ever.



  1. Maybe the formation of local support networks that help people to deal with the impact of austerity through the distribution of food and other necessities alongside legal and financial advice would give the left more credibility by making it immediately relevant and useful rather than appearing as reactive and clueless about how to actually run the country.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

    1. I certainly agree that left-wing activists have to be involved in local anti-cuts campaigning to have credibility, make an impact and be relevant to wider layers of people. This involves finding ways of being "immediately relevant" as you put it (rather than simply propagandising, etc).

      I'm not sure if we're well-placed to do the specific things you suggest, though I have nothing against them. They are perhaps things that could best be done through trade union branches, with the involvement of left-wing activists and anti-cuts groups. Here in Newcastle the RMT ran a Christmas Eve soup kitchen, tied in with some of its members (low-paid Metro cleaners) taking strike action over XMAS.

  2. Parties like Labour(UK) and the Democrats(US) have taken the left to the center, and by doing so have made many thinking that they still represent the "modern" left, but nothing could be futher from the truth, we've been watered down with propaganda telling us how left those respected parties are but nothing could be further from the truth.

    1. Indeed. The rightwards shift of parties like Labour has affected the whole terms of political debate. It has clearly marginalised any sort of authentic left and made it harder for us to get a hearing. This is an international and long-term phenomenon. At the same time, many millions of people do have ideas and values which are substantially to the left of that mainstream. A key question underpinning all of this is how we express and organise that sentiment, beyond the (very important) level of protests, campaigns etc.

  3. saltleygates@gmail.com5 January 2013 at 17:12

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    Albert Einstein

    Ten reasons the Left fails

    1.The leadership of the Left is self serving, often unelected, exploitative, unaccountable and sectarian Look at any recent left meeting the Priests and a few priestesess at the top table/altar giving the same old sermons to the passive layiety Same old leaders same old story same old result The Lefts leadership and their strategic political / organisational theories have failed miserably.

    2. Left organisations Lack Transparency, Honesty and DEMOCRACY

    3. Lack of any mechanism or capacity for self reflection or self criticism

    4.The lack of basic humanity, empathy and humour

    5. Lack of clear goals Why is there is no Left supported Paper, Radio or plans to produce them?

    6 Lack of a sense of urgency

    7. Lack of the capacity of the LEFT to communicate amongst themselves and see the differences in apparently similar and the similarities in apparently different leads to an inability to learn from reality

    8.The inability to communicate ideas with working people, the chasm between those on left and working class communities Many Left do not live, work or play in the same places as the poor, unemployed etc

    9.The narcissism of Left leaders and the hatred of small difference

    10. The lack of direct activity, a lack of integrity

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think, however, that most of those points are too sweeping and general. They might be true in some cases, but not in others.

      As I've explained above in the main post, I am not convinced by the idea that problems of democracy, leadership etc are at the heart of the revolutionary left's problems. Organisations vary in the kind of democratic culture they have - and clearly some could be much better - but our thinking about this needs to be linked to understanding their political and strategic direction. Organisational problems and political problems go together. Focusing on the former at the expense of the latter is, I think, a common error in these sorts of discussions.

    2. spot on saltleygates

  4. This comment is from Brian Reuter (he experienced some difficulty with the commenting facility, so emailed me this)...

    My thoughts on the stagnation of the left are:

    1. Association with the failed communist experiments of Russia etc.
    2. Language of the left is often clumsy and cumbersome, making it difficult to follow arguments.
    3. The public image of the left is still that of Citizen Smith in the eyes of many.
    4. No mainstream left leaning party. Labour shares the right of centre with the Tories and Libdems.
    5. Vale of the term "left" is dubious. It's about equality and fairness
    6. Corporatism within politics will make it nigh on impossible to make changes. Corporate power must be curbed.
    7. No real discussion on what capitalism is to be or can be replaced with, or indeed whether or not to rein it in.
    8. The left appears to be divorced from its working class roots.

    I'm sure there are more but will do for now.

    1. Brian, my own views on your points is roughly as follows.

      I think points 1-4 are certainly all valid. The remaining points are perhaps a bit trickier. In relation to point 5, I agree that we need to articulate things in terms of equality, fairness etc, though I don't think this excludes referring to things being 'left-wing'. The concepts of right-wing and left-wing go back to the French Revolution and have been integral to European (including British) political language for generations. They still, it seems to me, have a place.

      I think points 6 and 7 are linked to the Left being relatively weak and small. There is certainly discussion about the things you refer to within the left, but we're limited in conveying these arguments in a wider context, like mainstream media. Getting more such opportunities, and creating bigger spaces for left-wing ideas to flourish, depends partly on building resistance and opposition, partly on socialists getting our act together on a more organisational level.

      There are several things that could be said on point 8, but I will limit myself to this observation. The left, in my view, is largely rooted in the working class and gives expression to working class interests. But what is still a live, not entirely resolved, issue is the whole business of how the working class has changed over time and what that actually means for building a Left. The class has in some ways changed, so what does that mean for changes in left-wing organising?

    2. Problem is the term "left" still has derogatory overtones and will take a lot of traction and persuasion to get past it. Ideally the left need a consistent set of ideas which can agreed on by the various groups involved with none of the infighting and bickering

    3. Yes, there are some problems with connotations of 'the left', but I'm not convinced that's a major issue. A lot of people are happy to identify themselves as on the left of the political spectrum. The more substantial issues, in my view, are about how to channel that into effective forms of organisation.

  5. Yes, "many people know what they are against but not what they are for."

    But 'the vision of the new society is an indispensable part of the case for changing the old society.' - Paul Foot (Red Shelley)

    'The left' has plenty of (correct AND accepted) critique of the 'old society', but not enough vision of the new. WE NEED SOME INSPIRATION.

    As Foot went on to say, "Our world, like his [Shelley's], needs agitators. People's aspirations need to be lifted & guided into action."

    1. I agree that inspiration is important and we always need an alternative vision of a different sort of society. But the more pressing questions at present are very practical and certainly won't be solved by talking more about what sort of world we are fighting for.

      We need to be thinking through immediate political questions - especially over austerity - and how they are translated into activity and organisation. The crucial missing link is a serious coalition against austerity. Coalition of Resistance is the closest we've got, but what's missing is a sizeable base of socialist activists to drive it forward and get it rooted in local areas.

  6. I adopt an entirely different approach, and look at wider structural and theoretical issues that help explain why the far left (in the UK, and elsewhere) has stagnated over the last ten years or more, here:

    1. I know you do, Rosa. And I'm *still* not convinced that it's the answer to our problems!

  7. Dear Luna
    Right question, wrong answers. Chris Bambery's deeply moralistic trotskyist mash-up as represented by the IST certainly don't help either.
    Robert Kurz outlines some important problems, as published by Chronos publications in a small book called 'No Revolution Anywhere' available from Housmans books, and elsewhere.
    Sean Delaney

    1. Sean, I have no idea what a 'deeply moralistic Trotskyist mash-up' is, but it looks suspiciously like name-calling in place of thoughtful critique.

  8. I think your analysis ignores two things

    a) the fact of the cultural revolution (and that's not too strong a word - think of Cameron and gay marriage, or Cameron supporting Hope not Hate) since the 1960s

    b) the fact that mass immigration means that in an upturn, it's not a sellers market for labour, and in a downturn - like the last few years - it's absolutely a buyers market, with all that implies (negatively) for working class solidarity, terms and conditions, militancy.

    As Marx put it:

    "The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it"

    c) and the fact that a) facilitated b). It's no accident that the "left" cultural agenda has completely triumphed even as the economic agenda has been utterly defeated.

    This Canadian academic nails it :

    "In late capitalism, the elites are no longer restrained by ties of national identity and are thus freer to enrich themselves at the expense of their host society. This clash of interests lies at the heart of the globalist project: on the one hand, jobs are outsourced to low-wage countries; on the other, low-wage labor is insourced for jobs that cannot be relocated, such as in the construction and service industries.

    This two-way movement redistributes wealth from owners of labor to owners of capital. Business people benefit from access to lower-paid workers and weaker labor and environmental standards. Working people are meanwhile thrown into competition with these other workers. As a result, the top 10% of society is pulling farther and farther ahead of everyone else, and this trend is taking place throughout the developed world. The rich are getting richer … not by making a better product but by making the same product with cheaper and less troublesome inputs of labor."

    Now I don't see today's left being able to square this circle. Because being against immigration is what the Bad People do. And they're the Good People.

    So we're probably looking at the end of the Welfare State in the next twenty or thirty years.

    1. Just a brief comment on this. Yes, it's true that there has been a big shift on what might broadly be described as 'cultural questions', or what are sometimes associated with being 'socially liberal' rather than 'socially conservative'. I think 'cultural revolution' is an exaggeration and there's much more to be done in these areas, but it's fair to point to a major change here.

      I agree that the left - broadly defined - has generally been more successful at achieving progress in these respects than on economic questions (whether at the level of ideas or the level of practical change). This is a long term phenomenon and, as yet, shows no sign of changing.

      What difference does this make to questions of political organisation? I'll leave that as an open question.

  9. Your article speaks volumes about why the left ain't working. It's written in a language that only those on the far left could decipher. Here is some more:
    1)Where was the support for the August 2011 rioters on the streets? In Brum; some lads lured the police in to attack them with guns. That's Black Panther stuff. Far more revolutionary than selling boring papers.
    2)I don't see you on my estate. Your perceived as being separate to working class stuggle; with some noble exceptions amongst the IWW and some anarchists. Alex C is an Oxford professor FFS.
    3) Where is the fun? Reclaim the Streets had some success in the nineties because their actions were a laugh.
    4) If you attach yourself to a movement that has risen in spite of you like Occupy or UK Uncut, don't fuck it up with boring Trot nonsense. Go with it, don't deaden it.
    5) Lets not march from A to B anymore. Lets be original.
    6)Judean Peoples Front anyone?
    7)Central organising commitees. "Don't tell me what to do?"
    8)Predatory men
    These are criticisms, but they are not hostile. It all can be done. Don't think of new groups, think of new actions.

    1. This is essentially an anarchist critique. Its tone and stance sum up many of the problems faced by various left-wing and progressive currents. Why? Because instead of reflecting on the failures of your own strand of politics and organisation (anarchism), you indulge in point-scoring and sweeping generalisations about a very different political current (revolutionary socialism).

      You appear not to have noticed that your own preferred political approaches have got into a rut. Citing Reclaim the Streets as an example - rather than something more recent - sums this up. There has been a marked decline in the anarchist or anarchist-influenced milieu you allude to - and appear to advocate - over the last 10-20 years. It's therefore very hard to have any authority for making such criticisms. Reflect, be self-critical, think afresh. Don't just instinctively lash out with all the tired clichés of those who want to bash anyone in the Leninist tradition.

    2. "In Brum; some lads lured the police in to attack them with guns"

      Weren't those the same people who burned the Barton Arms, a beautiful listed Victorian pub?

      I tell you this. The coalition would love it - love it - if August 2011 kicked off again. If anyone thinks looting Carphone Warehouse (bookshops and DIY stores were untouched) and killing elderly people is the future of opposition politics, they're sadly deluded. Even when the police hate this government - which they do.

    3. Alex,
      Since you would like Anonymous to site "something more recent", you'll be glad to see that they site Occupy, UK Uncut & the 2011 Peoples Olympics.

      I don't believe that those were "The same people who burned the Barton Arms". I don't believe that anybody has the views that you describe as deluded. Expropriation, people who need things like food taking them, is the most vital ingredient of a successful communist revolution.
      The police shot Mark Duggan because he was encouraging London gangs to not shoot each other.

    4. Anonymous - you might not believe the Brum shooters burned the Barton Arms, but it seems to be true.

      "Expropriation, people who need things like food taking them, is the most vital ingredient of a successful communist revolution."

      Do trainers and mobiles count as food?

  10. In the period of growth of the socialist movement they were arguing FOR something. Much of the left stance now is arguing AGAINST (the cuts etc.). People need an alternative, which is not just 'what we have now or had yesteryear'

    1. It's always a combination of both, isn't it? The times of major growth for the left have been in reaction to war or economic crisis (or both). Of course any left that wants to gain serious popular traction has to offer alternatives, but it's as much to do with our capacity for delivering alternatives, i.e. the state of resistance, of class struggle, as the coherence and attractiveness of the alternatives being offered.

  11. Thanks for a very interesting article! But the different ten-point-comments seems not so toughen-through or at least seams quite super-fiscal to me, as a swedish resident. But all, of course, have some interesting points.
    I have one critic of the article though, it seems to me that most of your points to explain the problems of the left (world-wide) begins right, with a worldwide perspective, but in the chapter "revisiting three hypothesis" you speak almost exclusively about British politics, which may show why SWP, SSP and likewise had wrong analysis or problems with growing, but I don´t see the simple parallel to other countries, or at least I miss an explanation to how this fits the wider (world-wider:) picture.
    But I could´t agree more to your conclusions

    1. Yes, it's true that any analysis of the UK can't simply be transplanted to other countries, although interestingly there's often far more in common than people realise. If I had more time I'd investigate the situation elsewhere more thoroughly. It would certainly be useful to have insights from socialists in a number of different countries.

  12. Thanks for a very thoughtful article addressing a crucial issue for all of us on the Left and concisely stated by your question "For those of us committed to revolutionary politics and the need for revolutionary organisation, what is needed to grow?" While the examples you refer to in the article reference the experiences of the Left in the UK, I see many similarities with what has happened here in Canada where I am from and my experiences as a former member of the Communist Party of Canada. The objective conditions that you identify as being responsible for the stagnation of the Left,(1)the damaging impact of neo-liberalism, (2)the defeats for the working class, and (3)the historic marginalization of the left, generally coincide with the historical trend throughout the world. I disagree however with your assessment of the importance and significance of the role of "organizational" issues as being "flawed and limited explanations" for this phenomenon. As Tom Walker observed in his piece 'Lenin versus Leninism'; If you have ‘forty years of experience’ of Leninism, and your organisation is about the same size now as it was when you started, you’re doing it wrong. Current crisis and expulsions by the CC of the SWP are solid proof of the need to address the "organizational" aspects both in understanding the lack of growth of the Left in the past, and on how we go about rebuilding a Left opposition in the future. Pham Bhin's comments on the organizational structure of the SWP could apply to almost any of the sects on the Left claiming to be part of the Leninist legacy - "Paid full-time leaders of “Leninist” groups stay in power for many years and decades; they accumulate huge gaps in their resumes and professional development that make returning to the labor market almost impossible; therefore, they have a very personal stake in maintaining their paychecks and livelihoods which are derived from their office. So they institute closed slate systems to make their removal all but impossible; they expel dissidents; they prevent horizontal communication and discussion between branches of the organization; they appoint reliable yes-men and yes-women to positions of power over the membership; and they accuse anyone who objects to any of this of being anti-Leninist and opposed to democratic centralism, as if these practices remotely resemble those of Lenin or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party!

    This is all par for the “Leninist” course and ends up recreating the alienation of capitalism in the name of anti-capitalism, perpetuating ruling cliques in the name of eradicating 1% rule, and fostering male chauvinism internally while championing anti-sexism in the world at large."

    Dave Pouliot (