In June Counterfire published my review of Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy (Merlin, 2012) in two separate parts, due to its length (around 6000 words). I am belatedly posting it here as a single, hopefully coherent review article. Much of this material first appeared in a different, rougher form on Luna17, when I was thinking through the issues, but this version represents a synthesis of my ideas about left-wing strategy today.
What is to be done? The question posed by the title of Lenin’s short book over a century ago is always demanding an answer. For socialist activists, seeking to not only understand the world but to change it, this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is, as the title of this volume puts it, the question of strategy. Fundamentally this means considering: who has the capacity to change the world, and how can they do so?
At a time of deep crisis across a number of overlapping fields – economic, imperial and ecological – the question of strategy demands urgent and persuasive answers. But the crisis of the system has not automatically generated a convincing response from the left. Indeed it is often suggested that the crisis of the system is matched by a crisis of the left. The multiple crises of capitalism, matched by the difficulties faced by the contemporary left in responding to them, are the background to this new, wide-ranging volume of nineteen essays.
Socialist Register began in the early 1960s as part of the post-1956 New Left. Every year there is a fresh volume, always with a theme, drawing together diverse contributions from an international range of socialist writers and activists. Rather than attempting to summarise every contribution, however, I will pay fairly detailed attention to several very stimulating contributions in particular. These engage directly with the question of strategy for the radical left in the ‘old capitalist heartlands’ of Europe and North America.
Three aspects are in the foreground here: protest movements (specifically Occupy and anti-austerity), electoral left-wing parties and the revolutionary left. The relationship between these different elements is of fundamental importance if we are to both develop a successful strategy for defeating austerity and create a new left capable of leading a challenge to the entire system.
Crisis, austerity, alternatives
Greg Albo’s ‘The crisis and economic alternatives’ is the opening essay and provides a useful framework for the whole book. Albo’s starting point is the systemic crisis of capitalism that has wracked the core economies since 2008 and the far-reaching political and social implications of that crisis. He observes that in North America, Japan and Europe this crisis is comparable in scale and severity to three earlier periods of ‘major crisis’: the Long Depression of 1873-96, the Great Depression in the 1930s and the period of successive recessions which began in 1973.
One political consequence has been a renewal of critiques of neoliberalism, opening up space for political opposition. Albo refers to three trends in particular. The first is an upsurge of protest identified with the likes of Occupy and UK Uncut, ‘demonstrating a tactical inventiveness that the left very much could use’ (p2). The second is the development of radical-left parties in the electoral arena in Europe. He mentions five by name, ‘Syriza in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Left Front in France, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark’, and most commentators would also regard Germany’s Die Linke (the subject of an essay in this volume) as deserving inclusion in the list.
The third trend is Albo’s main focus: renewed interest in alternatives to neoliberal economics and the strategic question of posing an alternative to dominant austerity. He is concerned that the formulation of such alternatives has so far been ‘sputtering’ and hopes that the growth of anti-austerity struggles will expand the space in which alternatives can be debated. Albo develops some detailed ideas along these lines, but the most pertinent part of his essay is when he considers how alternative economic strategies, which can easily seem utopian and distant, might be translated into demands guiding the anti-austerity movement.
Albo notes that we do not yet have ‘focused campaigning demands animating the movements’ (p11), so he proposes what these demands might be. This is not meant as a coherent ‘transitional programme’, but rather as ‘a distinctive socialist contribution to struggles over an exit to the crisis’ (p11). It consists of five elements: debt audits and defaults, bank nationalisation and democratic control, a radical programme of public works, a ‘green new deal’ which links climate justice and anti-austerity struggles, and a number of transnational measures grouped under the heading ‘confronting the world market’.
Albo makes the important point that ‘the position of financial capital within the neoliberal power bloc makes [bank] nationalization under political control a struggle of the first order’ (p12). It is a struggle that pushes beyond the limits of neoliberal capitalism. Nationalisation of the banks is viewed here as integral to breaking the power of finance capital. The demands for mass public works and a ‘green new deal’ also cut against the core tenets of neoliberalism, seeking to stimulate the economy through public investment rather than adopting policies of cuts and privatisation.
All this leaves open the question of agency - of how such demands can be pursued - which is a more central focus in a number of the other essays. Albo, however, is aware of the difficulties here: he observes that both the crisis and the resistance to it have proceeded in profoundly uneven ways in different countries, so that inevitably in some countries there is greater scope (but also greater urgency) for raising these demands in practical ways, as a direct challenge to nation states and the international institutions backing them. The PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) are the countries where the crisis has been deepest and the challenge to austerity has been fiercest, therefore posing such questions most urgently.
Revolutionaries and new parties of the European left
This leads us on to the state of the anti-austerity left in Europe. A number of essays cover this territory. Charles Post’s ‘What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective’ sounds audacious - and it is. One of the very strongest pieces in the whole volume, it goes back to the pre-1917 development of socialism to help understand current divisions and debates on the radical left. Post provides a sweeping historical survey of the twentieth-century revolutionary left. This includes the development of a number of mass Communist Parties in the early 1920s and, during the Stalinist era, their political degeneration. However, it is the analysis of the radical left since 1968 that I want to focus on here.
In 1968-75 there was substantial growth in Trotskyist and Maoist organisations. Shaped by the upsurge of student and worker militancy of those years, they offered an alternative to both social democracy and official Communism. There was a widespread view among revolutionaries that conditions were comparable to the post-1917 period and the growth of genuinely mass revolutionary parties was a viable prospect, just as happened in much of Europe (and to an extent beyond) during the years following the Russian Revolution.
These prospects were dashed as a period of working-class retreat began in the mid-1970s and the neoliberal offensive commenced. The European revolutionary left was thoroughly disoriented and suffered a series of splits. Some groups collapsed, others declined. The authentic non-Stalinist revolutionary left of the 1970s never grew to the scale seen in some countries during the Third International period of the early 1920s.
The downturn period saw a largely successful neoliberal assault on the working class, with a weakening of trade-union power, a shift in weight from the rank and file to the union bureaucracy and a decisive move rightwards in the Labour Party and its continental equivalents. This was complemented by the marginalisation of the radical left and its ideas (intellectually Marxism came under sustained assault). Post observes that only two small but substantial revolutionary organisations survived the downturn period with membership largely intact and a credible base among militant workers: the British International Socialists (IS) and the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Both of these were Trotskyist organisations; the Maoist left, meanwhile, had almost entirely collapsed by the end of the 1970s.
The IS, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, adapted well to changing circumstances and took important initiatives like the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, a united front that was successful in beating back the threat of the far right, while also sustaining a base in the trade unions despite vastly more difficult circumstances than the early-1970s upturn in struggle. The SWP came through the 1980s and 1990s with a solid activist base intact, with roots in an admittedly weakened organised working class, so that in the early years of this century it could play an impressive role in anti-capitalist and anti-war movements (and for a time in new left-wing electoral formations). The LCR, similarly, maintained a credible layer of working-class activists throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so that it was able to intervene in fresh workers’ struggles from the mid-1990s onwards and, a little later, in the anti-capitalist movement.
Post argues that these organisations were about as successful as could reasonably be expected in harsh circumstances. The aspiration to develop new mass revolutionary parties that could challenge reformists (in parliament and the trade unions) for leadership of the working-class movement was, however, unfulfilled. The revolutionary left remained a small minority current, marginal to the broad labour movement.
This was not simply, argues Post, because there was a period of defeats for the working class or a crude result of economic and social changes. It was largely due to circumstances beyond revolutionaries’ control, but these were as much to do with the nature of the working-class movement as anything, i.e. the political and organisational domination of the working class by reformism, manifested in the weight of the trade-union bureaucracy, the strength of long-established social-democratic parties (like the British Labour Party) and the role of Communist Parties which had long since accommodated to the system. The revolutionary left repeatedly found itself confronting these obstacles within the broader movement. When a new wave of anti-capitalist mobilising developed at the start of this century, radical consciousness tended not to translate into specifically Marxist ideas and allegiance to the revolutionary left.
This brings us to the development of new parties of the European left over the last decade or so. The space for such parties was created primarily by the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism and - to a lesser but still important degree - the collapse of the Communist parties after 1989 and the fact that revolutionary organisations were too small to fill the gap. The character of these parties was also influenced by the development of generally street-based protest movements. In the early 2000s, with the rapid growth of anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, Italy’s Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) held out great promise. But the PRC made enormous concessions to parties to its right, which effectively finished it as a credible left-wing force.
Since that time a number of new left-wing parties have emerged, some of which have since collapsed or fragmented, while a few have been sustained fairly successfully. Germany’s Die Linke, formed in 2007, resulted principally from a fusion of an old Communist left (based mainly in the East) with the left-wing of social democracy disenchanted with the neoliberal trajectory of that political tradition (based mainly in the West). Die Linke has had some difficulties recently and it is currently unclear how it will develop.
Some parties, like the earlier (2004-07) version of Respect in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party, have been quite different in character: the revolutionary left has been the principal driving force, lending them considerable radicalism, but without the benefits brought by large-scale cracks in the mainstream parties of social democracy or in the union movement. Reformism has remained a more powerful block than many revolutionary activists anticipated, despite a deepening loss of faith in mainstream politics among millions of people and the poor record of social democracy in office.
Newer parties of the left are sometimes held up as shining lights for us to follow, but Post argues that they have in fact suffered from a whole series of problems and, furthermore, they are incapable of successfully moving beyond the old divide in the socialist movement between reformism and revolutionary politics. Most of them have had an important degree of success, some continue to be successful, and they have generally been worthy of support and participation. Yet they have had difficulty grappling with such questions as how to connect parliamentary and electoral activity to extra-parliamentary activity, how to overcome the weaknesses of the trade unions, and how to prevent sliding to the right and into compromises with neo-liberal politics.
Crucially, Post argues, it is simply impossible to be successfully both post-social-democratic and post-Leninist. Ultimately, it is still necessary for the most advanced, revolutionary elements of the working class to organise independently in their own organisations, separate from reformist parties. This is one of the central lessons of 1917 and the period which followed the Russian Revolution. The new parties of the left have not ‘transcended the pre-1914 social-democratic “twin pillars” organisational norm where the party focused on electoral politics, while the union officialdom directed day-to-day class struggle in the workplace and beyond’ (p191). These new parties have reproduced the old challenges of social democracy, dating back to before 1914: ‘the contradictions of entering capitalist governments, the relationship of electoral and routine trade union activity and mass, extra-parliamentary struggles, and the issues of war and peace’ (p191).
None of this remotely means that the new left parties are unimportant and should be disregarded. It does, however, strongly suggest that independent revolutionary organisation and the united front method, whereby revolutionaries work with those who have reformist consciousness in extra-parliamentary struggles over shared demands, are as necessary as ever. Post looks to ‘the revival of the rational core of Leninism - the transcendence of the division of labour between party and unions and movements through the organisation of radical and revolutionary activists who attempt to contest the forces of official reformism over the conduct of mass struggle’ (p192).
Finally, Post points out that the political development of left-wing parties is shaped by two especially important factors: the outcome of extra-parliamentary struggles against austerity, and the relative strength within these parties of radical anti-capitalists, who can counter the pressures which are liable to pull such parties in a more moderate direction. Revolutionaries, if they can organise effectively, can influence the direction of credible left-wing parties where they exist. In all countries, whether there is such a party or not, revolutionaries have the challenge of shaping anti-austerity struggle beyond the realm of electoral politics and strengthening the radical anti-capitalist pole within those movements.
Occupy and the new anti-capitalist left
Two essays engage with issues arising from the Occupy movement, which emerged from September 2011 onwards, first in New York and rapidly spreading nationwide (and to an extent beyond the US). These two particular contributions look especially at the experiences of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, placing them in context, and sketching conclusions that might be more generally applicable.
Occupy Wall Street signposted a resurgence of radical protest in the US and generated political debate about social and economic inequality. The Occupy movement can be seen as opening up new possibilities for the American left. After the initial Occupy moment - galvanising, exciting, hopeful - different directions were (and are) possible. There are naturally different ideas about what the movement is for, what it can become, and how it should organise. Jodi Dean’s ‘Occupy Wall Street: after the anarchist moment’, highlights the strengths of Occupy, but also notes that initially attractive qualities – inclusive, leaderless, participatory, and consensus-seeking - brought serious problems too. The focus on ‘consensus’ masked political and tactical differences, so there was a tendency to fudge issues that actually needed thrashing out and resolving in order for action to be taken.
The need for democratic structures which can guide effective action was too often evaded. If there are not accountable leaders or leadership bodies then unaccountable leaders emerge. The rhetoric of being ‘leaderless’, however well-intentioned and genuine, is soon complemented by unaccountable leadership and weak democracy. This reduces the capacity for collective action around coherent demands.
In New York the biggest Occupy-related protests resulted from trade-union participation. However, without coherent strategy there was a failure to build fully on the successes. Instead the tendency was for fragmentation into disparate campaigns and projects. Without a clear, agreed strategy for reaching out to broader layers of support, sustaining the occupation was increasingly seen as an end in itself. The movement was liable to turn in on itself; ‘obsessively reflecting on its failures adequately to include’ (p54). Questions of process became more important than questions of action.
Dean observes that Occupy ‘mobilised not a proletariat bound to the factory but the proletarianised, extended throughout uneven, unequal cities’ (p55). This is a valuable insight: in a period of low levels of industrial struggle, protests and occupations are the primary expression of resistance. But that does not mean abandoning any notion of working-class struggle or politics: it is a question of forms of resistance, shaped by the realities of today’s working class and the legacy of defeats for the organised working class during the long neoliberal offensive.
Dean suggests, provocatively and, in my view, correctly, that the occupiers effectively formed a ‘self-selected vanguard’ in a broader struggle, taking on the kind of responsibilities Lenin attributed to professional revolutionaries or Bolshevik cadre. She writes that they were ‘establishing and maintaining a continuity, a persistence, that enables broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. This continuity combats the fragmentation, localism and transitoriness of much of contemporary left politics’ (p56).
In the Leninist tradition the two crucial points about any vanguard are that they are organised in a coherent and collective body, and that they are in constant interaction with wider layers of the class. This is the basis for needing two interconnected things: revolutionary organisation and the united front. Occupy was, by its very nature, a politically-disparate phenomenon. It was not as (relatively) politically and ideologically homogenous as a revolutionary organisation. It also struggled to establish forms of long-term organisation, limited instead by the transient character of a specific tactic: the occupation of public space.
Occupy activists’ relationship with wider layers of support was complex. Some elements were outward-looking and determined to build wider (and long-term) alliances, especially with working class organisations. However, there was also a strong pull - due to both material and political pressures - to be inward-looking and overly focused on simply maintaining the occupation itself (and on its own internal dynamics).
Occupy, direct action and the broad movement
Barbara Epstein’s ‘Occupy Oakland: the question of violence’ has relevance way beyond Oakland, and the question of violence is only one of a number explored here. She focuses on a number of issues arising from Occupy Oakland, which was one of the most high-profile parts of the movement: ‘the balance between non-violent tactics and militancy, between a focus on tactics and internal processes on the one hand, and on goals and strategy on the other, and the question of how to respond to police violence’ (p64).
Anarchist-influenced ideas have become prominent in the last thirty years of protest movements. She suggests the first wave was in the 1980s with a particular focus on anti-nuclear activity, with feminist and environmentalist concerns at the fore. The second wave was the anti-capitalist movement after the great Seattle demonstration in late 1999, which benefited from a wider anti-system critique but borrowed many of the same preoccupations: inclusivity, horizontalism, consensus, etc. The third wave is Occupy.
Internationally the predominance of such ideas and forms of organisation is influenced by the weakness of traditions that were once stronger: trade unions, social democracy, official Communism and the organised left. There is often a deep distrust of ‘politics’ and also of organisation: taken together, this feeds an emphasis on direct action, and a certain dynamism and militancy, but with little connection to mass politics or mass organisations it also encourages a degree of elitism and sectarianism.
Epstein explains that various occupations, including Occupy Oakland, modelled themselves on Occupy Wall Street: ‘adopting, along with encampment, the General Assembly, some modified form of consensus process, the hand motions, the use of the human mic’ (p70). She points out that these tactics have strengths but also drawbacks: consensus, or even modified consensus, can allow a small minority to block the will of the majority; meetings can be long, tedious and unproductive; an appearance of consensus can disguise important differences.
In Occupy Oakland the issue of responding to police violence became a central one. Influential elements within the activist base of OO, heavily influenced by variants of anarchism, foregrounded physical confrontation with the forces of the state. This was coupled with a highly antagonistic attitude to anything deemed part of ‘official politics’. There were two interconnected problems. Firstly, these forms of organisation privilege the commitment of relatively small numbers of activists over the capacity to mobilise large numbers. Yet, if you want to isolate and defeat state forces, it makes sense to mobilise the largest numbers possible. The other problem is that distrust of authority even extended to sympathetic elected politicians: at one demonstration, progressive local politicians were refused any opportunity to speak. Epstein writes: ‘a suspicious attitude towards progressive groups that engage in electoral politics deprives Occupy Oakland of potential allies’ (p74).
The response to a police attack on the Oakland camp on 25 October 2011 was to call a ‘general strike’, which in fact was a day of demonstrations supported by unions, as agreed at a General Assembly of over 1000 people. Twenty thousand people took part in the demonstrations on 2 November, with many taking the day off work. In the evening a much smaller number, many dressed in black and wearing masks, gathered. A confrontation with police ensued, with over 100 arrests. Debate raged afterwards about this adoption of confrontational, small-scale ‘militancy’ by some of those involved in Occupy Oakland. The debate tended to be framed in terms of whether only ‘non-violent’ tactics should be used or if a ‘diversity of tactics’ (including confrontational tactics) was preferable.
But, as Epstein observes, that confuses the issues. The real debate needs to be about what tactics can successfully build on widespread popular enthusiasm for Occupy. Continued mass mobilisations, outreach and strengthening links with unions were all tactics for doing this; small-scale actions involving dedicated activists, by contrast, alienated broad support and risked diverting the movement down a blind alley. The truly radical aspect of 2 November 2011 was not any ‘Black Bloc’ heroics, but rather the mass movement opposing state repression and providing solidarity with Occupy’s stand against social inequality and injustice.
Epstein considers what options were open to Occupy activists when the occupations ended in late 2011. She suggests that perhaps the most successful development for Occupy Wall Street was a campaign over housing, taking direct action in response to evictions. This indicated the potential that exists: addressing issues that are important to millions of working-class people, allying with campaigns and community groups, extending the movement beyond a single, highly visible but transient tactic. Such action can enable community participation and build new coalitions. Occupy Oakland had some similar experience with a protest march against school closures attracting around 5000 people. OO’s most effective work was through its links with trade unions, but, as indicated above, this was in tension with other elements of the movement. It is also not clear if it has been sustained.
‘The Occupy movement as a whole faces the problem of any movement whose identity is tied to a tactic and an internal process rather than to a clearly defined goal: what to do when the tactic reaches its limit and the process loses its glow, when internal differences, or fatigue and declining numbers, call for more stable forms of organising’ (p79).
This implies that a clearer sense of goals and demands is necessary. That is one part of what is meant when we refer to strategy. However, it also points towards other aspects of strategy: who is involved in the movement, and what mechanisms are deployed for mobilising them and co-ordinating their efforts. It is, fundamentally, a question of how a small and committed activist minority can, in a sustained, long-term way, connect with much larger layers of people in joint activity towards meaningful shared demands.
Trade unions and the American Left
In ‘Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism’, Sam Gindin’s starting point is American trade unions’ ‘generally anaemic response to the Great Financial Crisis’ (p26). Gindin, a Canadian academic who has a long association with North America’s union movements, observes that the US-union movement failed to build out of the activist and political space opened up by Occupy. The struggle in Wisconsin was exemplary, but its eventual defeat may be one reason why there has not been a general upswing in trade-union action.
The key question Gindin addresses is this: ‘does the rejuvenation of unions still really remain possible, or are unions now exhausted as an effective historical form through which working people organise themselves?’ (p26). The last comparable economic and social crisis (in the 1930s) prompted a response that, in the US, had industrial unionism at the fore. Is it bound to be different this time? In the 1930s the American left was very much shaped by participation in workers’ struggles. Gindin considers the decline and weakened state of today’s left, noting that there is a huge gap between the poor state of socialist organisation and the crying need for a socialist response to the crisis.
Gindin is conscious of the limits of trade-union sectionalism, which pulls the unions away from co-ordination and from a generalised political response to the crisis. The unions are particularly weak after over three decades of neoliberal workforce restructuring, which has eroded workplace organisation. It is exceptionally difficult for union militants to build rank-and-file organisations when they are isolated in often small workplaces, operating in a context of low union density and low levels of strike action.
Gindin suggests a way forward suited to this context of low levels of confidence within the labour movement (and a very small organised left) co-existing with widespread working-class anger and the radicalism signified by Occupy. His proposal is for workers’ assemblies, which would have ‘four elements - individual membership, community-based, class-focused and anti-capitalist in the ultimate goal’ (p37). These would be locally-based and encompass a range of issues, offering a way for left-wing activists to both group together and reach out to wider layers, with a radical political dynamic.
This has attractive elements: it reflects a correct understanding that organisation is more likely to be area-based than workplace-based (in a period of low industrial struggle and taking into account long-term workforce restructuring), it aims to make connections between different elements of the working class to overcome sectionalism, and has a general political perspective rather than being limited to single issues. However, it does seem a rather speculative model because it is not, to the best of my knowledge, rooted in any existing processes. It is not clear who would initiate such assemblies: is this a call to the unions to take such an initiative, or perhaps to small groupings of socialist activists, or a wider appeal to the broad progressive movement? Also, as Gindin acknowledges, in the absence of real workers’ struggles they risk becoming talking shops and could turn inwards.
I also think there is a lack of clarity in Gindin’s ideas about how such workers’ assemblies actually relate to trade-union renewal. The idea is that they could play a vital role in stimulating a renewal of workers’ struggles, but how this might unfold is not explained. What is missing here, it seems, is the concept of the united front, or a sense of how it might be applied in current circumstances. I am reluctant to offer prescriptions from my location in another continent - and of course there will already be at least localised or partial examples of this anyway - so I will just indicate roughly what that might imply. It means that socialist activists initiate broader formations opposed to key aspects of the neoliberal offensive. In Europe this overwhelmingly means austerity; in the US it is not quite so straightforward, but there is (as Occupy testified) a sense that the vast majority are being made to pay for a crisis generated by a tiny, wealthy minority, with growth in inequality and a squeeze on working-class living standards.
It is in the context of wider struggles, which can involve sometimes large numbers of people from non-activist or non-left backgrounds, that the American Left can find a way forward. These will often be broader-based and more ostensibly single-issue (though of course specific issues tend to be a lightning rod for wider grievances) than the workers’ assemblies model implies. In this context it is possible for there to both a broad left renewal - a left equivalent of the Tea Party phenomenon, if you will - and also a strengthening of the radical left. In this context arguments about the need for fundamental system change can resonate at least with a small minority of those involved in joint activity.
Socialists, elections and movements
I want, finally, to make some synoptic comments on the question of how socialists should organise in the current period, especially on the prospects for new left-wing parties. This is a central theme of A Question of Strategy, which includes three very insightful contributions devoted specifically to Syriza. The Greek party is undoubtedly the brightest hope of the European left and a focus for a great deal of political and strategic debate.
What are the conditions for the growth of new left parties? The last decade has provided numerous examples of left-wing electoral initiatives in the political space opened up by social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberal orthodoxies. This wider experience, in countries like Greece, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and Holland as well as in the UK, can be distilled into several key elements which provide the conditions for new left-wing parties being a plausible endeavour.
Firstly, a crisis of established social democracy opens up political space. In other words, a country’s traditional social-democratic party has disillusioned its supporters by imposing cuts and privatisation while in office. It is the adoption of neoliberalism by European left-of-centre parties, especially from the mid-1990s onwards (typified by Blair’s ‘Third Way’, but far more widespread), that provides the broader political context for the rise of newer left-wing formations in recent years.
Secondly, there have been consequent fractures in social democracy as an organised force. The crisis of trust in the traditional labour parties leads to breakaways by left wingers, either in those parties themselves or the trade unions linked to them. Die Linke provides a powerful example of this. Thirdly, mass movements or mass struggles have given impetus to new parties. This country’s Stop the War movement was the practical context that shaped the formation of Respect, especially the involvement of Muslim anti-war activists in alliance with the radical left, when it was launched in January 2004. The most advanced example is of course Syriza, the growth of which is organically connected to the mass strikes and mass protests in Greece.
Fourthly, a significant layer of activists is required. An obvious example is France’s Fronte de Gauche, which is dominated by the French Communist Party, an organisation that claims 70,000 subs-paying members (i.e. several times the membership of the entire UK organised radical left combined). On a smaller scale, though, recall that the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect were both made possible by decent-sized socialist organisations investing time in building them.
Fifthly, an electoral system that is favourable to minor parties is helpful if not absolutely essential. Our ‘first past the post’ system is a major barrier to minor parties. Many European countries (including Greece) have systems that provide better opportunities for small parties actually to get people elected, which in turn takes them to a higher level of public awareness, provides a certain political credibility and motivates activists to keep on campaigning. Finally, an existing electoral vacuum is not an absolute precondition - look at how Syriza has flourished despite competition from the Communist KKE and the radical left Antarsya - but it helps a new left-wing party’s chances if there are not already a number of left-wing alternatives on offer to voters. A range of options on the left not only splits the vote, but also generates cynicism among voters (and many potential activists) about the left’s inability to unite.
What overall conclusions can be taken from the above? It should be obvious that past UK successes, several SSP candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the election of George Galloway as a Respect MP followed by a batch of east London councillors in 2006, are not easily replicated. It would also be naïve to imagine that breakthroughs on the continent can be readily emulated here. We also need to recall that initial breakthroughs, here and elsewhere, have in most cases not been sustained or built upon. In fact a number of electoral formations have declined or even collapsed, as the wider circumstances have changed or as difficult-to-balance political tensions have ultimately become irreconcilable.
The central question, however, is what our priorities on the left ought to be. In the UK the primary locus of struggle is clearly extra-parliamentary activity, especially in the form of street protests and principally oriented on the struggle against austerity. This includes a great deal of trade-union activity - although strike levels have been low, unions have played a major role in mobilising anti-cuts feeling on the streets - but also protests by a wide range of groups encompassing all sorts of issues, from the bedroom tax to the NHS, from workfare to library closures.
There has been a fragmented and localised quality to most anti-cuts campaigning. The People’s Assembly offers the hope of utilising the energy and dynamism in much of this campaigning and channelling it into a more co-ordinated assault on the government, developing a unified and coherent movement that combines the myriad campaigns and organisations. Such working-class unity in action is surely the central priority for the left today. This has the capacity to confront urgently the Tory assault on working-class living standards, welfare and public services, mobilising popular opposition on the streets and hopefully, increasingly, through workplace action too.
This does not mean pursuing blind activity or downplaying politics: indeed the People’s Assembly process provides a chance to unite activity and politics on a sustained, on-going basis. It is through this process that we can unite and renew the left, drawing in new layers of activists and supporters, making left-wing politics relevant through meaningful mass activity against the cuts.
The corollary of united front building is the renewal of the revolutionary socialist tradition. Revolutionaries need to articulate an anti-capitalist politics that points the way to total system change, linking together the numerous different issues and locating them as having the same roots in capitalism. Doing this effectively requires organisation. We start from a low base, due to the weakened state of the revolutionary left and (in the UK) the political and sectarian degeneration of the SWP, but nonetheless a new revolutionary organisation must be built. As John Rees recently wrote for Counterfire:
‘The revolutionary left has a crucial role to play here since the conception of the united front and of the necessary predominance of extra-parliamentary struggle is at the heart of the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. The revolutionary left may be weakened, in Britain at least, by internal degeneration produced by sectarian politics. But it can and must recover to play a vital ideological and practical role in the reconstruction of a fighting and united working class movement.’ (http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/55-the-crisis/16388-the-crisis-in-europe-and-the-response-of-the-left)
The construction of broad united fronts capable of confronting austerity and the renewal of revolutionary organisation are two sides of the same coin. Grasping the centrality of both these challenges, and the relationship between them, is at the core of any answers we might give to the question of strategy.