Friday, 26 July 2013

'Movementism': what it is, what it isn't, and why it matters

People's Assembly, London, 22 June 2013.

This is essentially a sequel to my article on renewing the revolutionary left. It specifically takes up the question of ‘movementism’.

One characteristic of debates on the radical left in recent years is a fondness for wantonly throwing the term 'movementism' around as a term of disparagement. This political trend, we are led to believe, is a rightward-deviating break from the revolutionary tradition. It simultaneously rejects the working class as the agent of social change and rejects the need for independent revolutionary organisation (two things which - combined together - are regarded as the very definition of what it means to be a Leninist).

Most recently, the charge of 'movementism' was made by Alex Callinicos, the SWP's leading theoretician, and directed (it seems) towards a rather indiscriminate range of targets, but principally a dig at those of us in Counterfire. Here is one brief account:

‘Alex paid tribute to the intellectual and political abilities of John Rees, a former leading member of the party. But since John Rees had left the SWP he had broken with certain Marxist fundamentals, said Alex, particularly by claiming generalised forms of protest were as important as strikes by workers. Consequently John Rees was now acting as a cover for the insurgent left reformism Alex had been warning of. This demonstrated that the SWP’s model of Leninism was “precious” and should not be toyed with: life outside the party could only lead to the swamp of reformism.’

This is rather cynical rhetoric, of course. Denouncing someone on the outside - someone who used to be a leading figure but is now persona non grata - is a way of undermining internal critics (guilt by association) and diverting attention from your own problems (the passage above reminded me of the last 3 paragraphs of this chapter from Animal Farm).

'He made a sharp distinction between the Leninist approach and what he described as the political degeneration of John Rees, who provided left cover for the reformism of the trade union bureaucracy by asserting that it is “ridiculous” to believe that strikes are superior to demonstrations and direct action. This opportunist formulation, Callinicos argued, replaced proletarian class struggle with “movementism”. (see the footnote in Le Blanc’s article for what John Rees actually said at the People’s Assembly)

In the Callinicos worldview there are basically three tendencies on the radical left: Leninism, left reformism and movementism. The first is struggling, while the latter two trends are apparently thriving.

And these latter two trends are really two variants on a theme, or two sides of the same coin: left reformism is focused on parliament and the Labour Party while movementism is concerned with street-based protest movements, but they both apparently involve a rejection of revolutionary organisation and a downplaying of the role of 'organised workers' (trade unions) in social change. This downplaying is treated as synonymous with writing off the working class as a political actor.

The accusation of 'movementism'

In very general terms the phenomenon of 'movementism' - according to this perspective - involves such things as Occupy and UK Uncut, but it is really meant as a criticism of elements on the radical left who have supposedly over-emphasised direct action, protests, etc, at the expense of trade unions and strike action. This is how the SWP leadership defines itself against Counterfire. It is also, by extension, an attempt to smear internal opponents to the current leadership, i.e. by associating the internal Opposition with an external enemy, the opposition can be cowed and the loyalist cadres can be rallied to support the leadership.

The critique of 'movementism' involves, then,  identifying three linked characteristics: giving up the project of building a revolutionary party, rejecting the agency of the working class, and (in place of these two rejections) a commitment to movement building. This trend of 'movementism' is also generally conflated with other non-Leninist currents such as 'autonomism' and 'feminism', which are in fact distinct phenomena.

The most succinct version of this critique I've ever read - one sentence, in fact - comes from a SWP pre-conference bulletin in December 2012, in which 'Gareth (Hackney)' wrote:
'One type of frustration – thinking there are short cuts in the form of Stop the War-type united fronts – can be seen in the way the split from our organisation [Counterfire] has developed: a movementism complemented by a theoretical downplaying of the working class and the role of revolutionary organisation.'

In recent history the term was first revived in 2008/09, as a way of justifying the SWP leadership's sharp turn away from the sort of united front building (Stop the War, Respect, anti-capitalism) that had characterised the previous period. A positive project of movement-building was swiftly turned into a negative trend of 'movementism', with lots of dark mutterings about the dangers of 'liquidationism' and 'dilution' of Marxist politics. This has now reached the point where Alex Callinicos can - apparently with a straight face - characterise perfectly sensible remarks about needing to deploy a range of tactics as a break from Leninism.

A brief history of 'movementism'

I will return to the current debate about 'movementism' below, but first let's consider where the concept comes from. It is basically a creature of the retreat and downturn for working-class struggle that began in the mid-1970s. The disorientation of the revolutionary left after the international upturn in working class struggles ended in around 1975 - with the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution, Italy's 'historic compromise', Britain's 'social contract', the end of mass workers' unrest and so on - was accompanied by a general shift to the Right and a profound weakening of rank-and-file workers' organisation. This was accompanied by the marginalisation of Marxist ideas (replaced, over time, with ideas labelled 'poststructuralist', 'postmodernist' etc).

One aspect of the rightwards shift, the downturn in struggle and the marginalisation of revolutionary socialism was a growth in what was sometimes termed 'movementism', linked to the 'new movements' or 'social movements'. This trend was regarded on the revolutionary left as a shift to the right because it downplayed class politics, wrote off any need for independent revolutionary organisation (with much rhetoric about how 'Leninism' was dated, undemocratic and patriarchal), and paid little attention to trade union activity.

Criticising such 'movementism', it should be stressed, did not mean neglecting the kind of issues that it tended to promote: gender, race, sexuality, and so on. It did mean - and rightly so - having a distinct Marxist analysis of such issues combined with a practical approach that emphasised connections between oppressed groups and the working class movement (and a stress on mass activity, where possible, rather than elitist and isolationist forms of action).
Having acritical stance towards 'movementism' was important for the revolutionary left: in a hostile climate, where there was considerable pressure from the right, it was necessary to maintain a distinctive Marxist pole and that often meant emphasising differences with others, while nonetheless working with non-Marxists and ex-Marxists in joint political action where viable.

So, a critique of 'movementism' was never the same thing as rejecting joint political activity with others. It never meant neglecting issues of women's oppression, racism and so on. It was a historically specific critique that responded to a fashionable - and all-too-real - rejection of revolutionary organisation coupled with a downplaying of class politics (especially any emphasis on the working class as collective agent of social change).

It's also worth mentioning the SWP's actual political practice in the period between 1975 and the early 1980s. Many party activists were involved in the defence of abortion rights in the mid-1970s, through protests and other campaigning activity. The Anti Nazi League was launched in 1977 and formed a huge part of the party's activities until 1979. The Right to Work Campaign began as a rather low-key affair, but became a bigger priority once it was clear that it had greater traction than the union-based Rank and File Movements (which petered out in the context of the Social Contract, which saw union leaders make massive compromises to the Labour government's attacks on workers).

The SWP took the riots in Brixton and elsewhere very seriously (they were not a distraction from the 'class struggle'). The CND demonstrations of the early 1980s were important for the party, while the period also saw attempts - only partially successful - to relate to fights over oppression through publications like Women's Voice and Flame. (see Ian Birchall's biography of Tony Cliff for more on this period).  

Put simply: there may have been a strong critique of 'movementism' (rightly so), but this was not a period of abstention from real-live movements. In the context of defeats for the trade unions, and a serious erosion of rank-and-file strength, there was increased emphasis on struggles and forms of organisation that went beyond the trade unions. This did not mean abandoning the unions - far from it. It should also be noted that a big priority for the SWP was winning people within broader campaigns to class politics and - in concrete terms - there was a stress on utilising the unions to build the movements.

Seattle and after

The year 2000 marked a watershed. In the aftermath of the big Seattle anti-WTO protests of November/December 1999, there was a turn towards anti-capitalist organising by the SWP. This was particularly marked by mobilisations to the large-scale anti-capitalist protests in Prague, Genoa and elsewhere, participation in the World and European Social Forums, and by attempts to develop stronger networks domestically, e.g. a Globalise Resistance speaking tour in early 2001 (which the party was central to) drew turnouts that make it comparable to the recent People's Assembly public rallies around the country.

A key element in this anti-capitalist work was an emphasis on winning trade union backing for initiatives - while more anarchist or autonomist elements in the movement tended to be dismissive of this - and articulating a resolutely anti-systemic politics against the movement's more moderate elements.

Simultaneous to this growth of anti-capitalism was the opening of a new chapter in left-wing electoral politics. This took different forms on different sides of the border, but the SWP everywhere across the UK became centrally involved in important new electoral initiatives, while continually endeavouring to link what we did in elections to broader efforts to build the left and the movement.

From September 2001 onwards the Stop the War Coalition became a major priority and gave fresh impetus to both the anti-capitalist networks and the electoral work: the former was reflected, for example, in the centrality of anti-imperialist politics to London's European Social Forum in October 2004, and the latter found expression in the emergence of Respect from the anti-war movement (in particular, but not limited to, the relationships we developed with some Muslims who had not previously associated with the radical left). 

None of this movement-building was an example of the kind of 'movementist' thinking which had previously been criticised. It reflected new opportunities which were opening up. The anti-capitalist movement was an extremely welcome shift in our political direction and provided a vital new audience for us; it was in no way a retreat from trade union struggle or a shift to the right.

Stop the War was never, as Gareth from Hackney suggested above, seen as a 'short cut' to anything: it was a crucial forum of resistance in its own right (and an enormously effective one!) and a means of demonstrating the relevance of revolutionary organisation, thus allowing us opportunities to articulate Marxist ideas and build distinctively revolutionary organisation. We had mixed results in doing this, but that was our aim and orientation.
Finally, the electoral formations we participated in were an extension of these anti-capitalist and anti-war struggles into the electoral sphere, while reaching out to a layer of disillusioned 'old Labour' people who were moving away from an allegiance to Labourism but who weren't convinced by explicitly revolutionary ideas.

Building the party in an age of mass movements?

All of this was valuable. All of it was compatible with the revolutionary socialist tradition. None of it meant an abandonment of either revolutionary organisation or the working class as the agent of social change.

It did, however, reflect two core understandings: in an era of political radicalisation and protest movements, revolutionaries can most effectively build their own organisation and spread their ideas by participating centrally in the movements; and, secondly, movement-building is not an alternative to the working class, but rather a particular expression of working class resistance and organisation. Trade unions remain hugely important and need to be an arena of political action for revolutionaries, but limiting ourselves to them would be foolish.

From 2008 onwards - burnt by the demoralising and difficult experience of Respect's collapse - the SWP's leadership and a majority of its cadre backed the idea that a new perspective was required: one that turned away from united fronts and emphasised 'party building' largely in isolation from the shaping of broader coalitions. I won't recount here what I have already written, but I will add that this shift in perspective involved the caricaturing of the old perspective as 'movementism'. Increasingly there was revisionism towards the party's own recent history - Respect had been misguided from the start, Stop the War's achievements were downplayed, the anti-capitalist work was rarely mentioned.

Most important, however, was the idea that such a movement-building perspective was not relevant to the age of economic crisis and, after May 2010, the age of austerity. Instead of a strategic focus on building united fronts, a combination of three things was necessary: trade union work, narrow 'party fronts' (Right to Work, Unite the Resistance) and socialist propaganda about the capitalist crisis (embodied in party routines of branch meetings and paper sales).

In this context the rhetoric of 'movementism' became a useful way of disparaging those of us who promoted broad coalition-building against austerity that could link trade unions with campaigns groups, deploying the full range of methods in the process.

The future of Leninism

What is falsely characterised as ‘movementism’ today is completely different from what was correctly referred to as ‘movementism’ in the radically different circumstances of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Revolutionary strategy which stresses the building of broad movements against austerity, racism and war is a strategy with class politics at its heart. It involves a commitment to using the strengths of the protest movements to reinvigorate the trade unions and, especially, to encourage confidence in workers to use strike action as well as other methods to challenge the government and employers.

This is, indeed, a key characteristic of the People’s Assembly, which emphasises a range of tactics and explicitly refers to strikes – and solidarity action with strikes – as an integral component of the fight to end austerity. This, it seems to me, is precisely how socialists should be shaping a wider movement - a movement which also contains people who largely dismiss trade unions altogether and, conversely, people who are part of the union movement but reluctant to pursue the kind of mass co-ordinated strike action we need to win.

Finally, this commitment to the People’s Assembly does not for a moment mean abandoning distinctively revolutionary organisation. The building of united fronts and the building of revolutionary organisation are mutually complementary poles. The fact that people have rejected one particular organisation does not mean they have rejected revolutionary organisation altogether.

Marxists in today’s world need political analysis of capitalism and the working class as they really are today, a strategy that reflects actual social forces, and ways of organising that connect with current forms of resistance and organisation. The defensive repetition of dogma and abstract truths is no substitute for this.


1 comment:

  1. The People's Assemblies are subsitutionism. Counterfire setting up SWP-like fronts that pretend to be the movement but actually try to substitute for it in the most opportunist manner in order to consort with left reformists and other opportunists without the need of a principled programme. This is not the united front this is frontism or movementism or subsitutionism. It is certainly opportunism.