Recently I was discussing the state of the left with fellow activists. It occurred to me that it often happens that people complain about what’s done badly and focus on what is wrong in the existing Left. It is, however, somewhat rarer to find a positive case for how we can build a stronger and more effective left-wing pole in British society. This prompted me to come up with the fairly broad-brush outline below. Much of it is timeless; much of it is more specifically relevant to where we find ourselves now.
1. Address the big issues. I’m thinking of war, racism, climate change and, above all, austerity. The left has to be active on the issues that matter most to the future of the planet because a) that is our duty and b) that is what makes us relevant to people. Simply commenting on these issues isn’t going to make much difference. Fetishising minor differences on them won’t impress anyone either. Developing united action on them might just make a difference.
A vital component of this is the battle of ideas. Tearing apart myths about immigrants goes together with building opposition to austerity. Understanding (and explaining) the forces driving instability and violence in today’s world is tied up with campaigning to stop the drive to war and further military interventions. Many people will engage with something bigger than their own personal experiences, and are capable of seeing how their own specific circumstances are linked to broader political phenomena. Ideas are crucial for mobilising people – an experience isn’t enough in itself, because it can be interpreted and understood in very different ways. Our job as socialists is to connect ideas and action.
2. Do stuff that makes the left relevant. The health of the left is determined largely by how relevant it, and its activity, is to millions of people. Making a difference, overwhelmingly through extra-parliamentary activity (campaigns, protests, direct action, rallies, strikes etc), is somewhat more consequential than winning an argument with other people on the left. The left has a track record of movement building that has, at times, made it highly relevant and influential.
Examples include the unemployed workers’ movements and hunger marches of the 1930s, the solidarity movement with the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascist mobilisations (especially in the 1930s and 1970s, but again more recently), the anti-Vietnam war protests, workers’ struggles in a number of periods, the movement against the poll tax, the great Stop the War mobilisations, and more. All of these movements have had socialist organisations at the core of them; all have a made a difference to politics and society. This kind of mass politics is key.3. Help build a bigger left. In the current political climate, we need a stronger and bigger left – regardless of what specific tradition or set of positions you might adhere to. The left as a whole has shrunk – it has been pushed to the margins, its ideas and arguments often unknown to people. This is not to deny a place for championing your own particular organisation, tradition or set of ideas, but it means acknowledging the urgent need for a broader reconstitution of a left-wing political culture.
All strands of the left are at their best, and most effective, when they serve a larger purpose than themselves. Conversely, they are at their most irrelevant and impotent when they shrink their horizons and focus on building their own particular bit of the left as an end in itself. For those of us who are revolutionaries, the building of revolutionary organisation has to be part and parcel of a larger left-wing renewal. A revolutionary organisation is a tool for political action, not a self-justifying sect.4. Remember it is possible to win. A lot more campaigns are winnable than people often realise. If the stakes are extremely high – like whether to invade Iraq or not – even the biggest protests in British history might not suffice. But most issues are not of this magnitude – and on these issues it is possible to at least win concessions, even to win outright. And even the 'failures' can have positive long-term consequences, rippling for many years to come.
By scoring smaller victories we go some way to re-shaping the terms of political debate and embolden others to do likewise. It is in fact these small victories that sustain individuals, groups and movements.5. Engage with reality! The starting point should not be some past argument, but the reality around us. History and tradition are there for us to learn from, to pilfer for relevant precedents, to be inspired by. They should not shape everything about how we respond to current challenges.
We need, above all, to wrestle with the changes wrought by neoliberalism: to capitalism, to the working class, to the ideas people hold, to the state of working class organisations, to the left, and so on. Then there is the climate emergency, developments in imperialism, and much more. Analysis of the state we are in is a precondition for effective political action.
6. Use all methods at your disposal. There is too much fretting about whether ‘clicktivism’ really makes any difference, or alternatively there is hyping of social media. It is all useful, so use what you can when you can. An effective campaign will almost certainly combine a range of methods, from online petitions to street protests. Use them all and combine them skilfully, but the aim should be to involve the maximum number of people in collective action.
Furthermore, if people are going to use the internet politically I’d prefer it was for campaigning than for moralising or mud-slinging. The online world can often be a place of retreat for the left, with moralistic denunciation replacing any attempt to shape the direction of politics. Use the tools the internet provides and subordinate them to building a movement.7. Create a climate for left renewal. In some circles there is talk of ‘revolutionary realignment’. Cobbling together the tiny fragments of the existing far left will make no great impact on anything. There is a world, thankfully, beyond the far-left ghetto.
Left renewal is a more ambitious and worthy aim. It is sometimes suggested that grouping together the existing fragments is a precondition for building a bigger left and attracting new people. Actually, historical experience suggests otherwise. It is in building broad movements of opposition that we create the conditions for new left-wing formations. The life is in the movement.8. Follow the action. Socialists often have an idea of what should be happening and ignore or downplay what is actually happening. For example, some assume that strike action is what really matters, so they miss the other things that are happening. Yet a wide-ranging and attentive view of history reveals that struggles outside the workplace have almost always been enormously important. That is the rule, not the exception.
I’d like to see co-ordinated mass strike action by trade unions to oppose austerity. But if it isn’t happening (yet) then let’s focus on what can be done. The People’s Assembly, in which I am active, is a response to where we find ourselves, not where we would ideally like to be. Even when strikes do happen it doesn’t invalidate other forms of struggle: for example, the story of Red Clydeside in the First World War is, or should be, the story of thousands of Glasgow tenants withholding their rents and protesting at evictions as much as it is the story of striking engineers. Follow the action, relate to it, and build it.9. Use language that people understand. Left-wing politics has never been more closely related to the academic world, something which is evident in the unfortunate academic prose style of some left-wing writing: articles you can only understand with a prior grasp of a set of obscure references, using language that is divorced from any kind of living movement or struggle. Another problem is the refusal to move on from various clichés and jargon phrases which may have once sounded fresh, but no longer do.
The dry language is linked to marginalisation for the left. Having an audience is always a useful prompt to communicate effectively, but the lack of an audience only encourages a self-referential and closed language that alienates more than it engages. It’s always been the case that we are most effective when we find ways of communicating ideas and demands in a popular style that connects with millions of people.
10. Join an organisation. The phrase ‘independent socialist’ is as oxymoronic as 'compassionate Conservatism'. Effective political action depends upon combining together. This is especially so for socialists. The working class has only two things on its side: numbers and organisation. The latter is needed to bind the former together, to make our potential real.We are many, they are few; but the many are dispersed, isolated and atomised unless we get organised. This is, above all, true at the level of broad movements of resistance, but the same principle applies at the level of specifically socialist organisation.
Tony Benn apparently had a stock reply to those who told him they had left the Labour Party because of Blair and Iraq: ‘What are you going to do now?’ He understood that leaving the Labour Party was just moralistic posturing unless you channelled your time into something else more constructive. The same applies to those who have left socialist organisations. It is easy to abandon a sinking ship. Building something new requires real work.