The Left: There’s no success like failure
Tony Greenstein bemoans the continuing self-marginalisation of Britains far left
It is ironic that the various socialist groups, having predicted the crisis of capitalism for years, are too weak to take advantage of it. We have the greatest financial crisis since the South Sea bubble nearly 200 years ago.
That rallying cry of monetarist orthodoxy, letting lame ducks go the wall, has been jettisoned. Banks that would be bankrupt in an instant are too big too fail and have consequently received unlimited government bailouts. Real unemployment is over 3.5 million and, as with the 1834 Poor Law and the abolition of Speenhamland parish relief, the unemployed are being held responsible for their own predicament. There is a wholesale reversal of the post-war settlement, which involved the creation of the welfare state, the 1948 National Assistance Act and the national health service.
The queen is alleged to have asked a group of economists why they did not predict the economic crisis. Perhaps we should ask the same of the socialist gurus and the pet economists who preside over their fiefdoms. Marxism is supposed to be scientific socialism, yet it operates in code, with dialectics being reserved for the socialist high priests. Socialist groups have no greater understanding of the crisis of world capitalism than any bourgeois party. I make no claims to an understanding of the dismal science myself, but it seems to me that we have witnessed the transfer of production to the third world and Asia, whose labour western societies have lived off, having defined the rules of the game via the dollar and euro. If this is true, then it raises questions about whether revolutionary change is possible in the west, even theoretically.
We have three major political parties between whom you would be hard pressed to slip a piece of paper. Ed Miliband’s big idea consists of a call to return to Disraeli’s one-nation Toryism! It is difficult to imagine a more favourable climate for Marxist and socialist groups, yet they have almost shrunk into insignificance.
Sectarianism and the left’s crisis
Nearly a decade ago the Socialist Workers Party successfully destroyed the Socialist Alliance after it became mesmerised by George Galloway and the prospect of a Muslim block vote. Today Respect is in free-fall and the far left’s electoral front is the misnamed Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Despite their abject failure to sink any roots or develop any coherent analysis to explain their predicament, socialist and Marxist groups run a mile rather than confront their own failures. There is no debate about the reasons for the left’s failure - merely a call for greater activity. There is therefore little possibility of this failure being reversed, since the left seems incapable of even recognising it. Members therefore draw their own conclusions and leave, disenchanted or burnt-out or both. Both the principal groups on the left - the SWP and Socialist Party - would run a mile rather than accepting that their strategy might need rethinking. It is not the message that needs changing, still less the messenger - the fault lies with the audience. What none of the larger groups on the left, including the Communist Party of Britain, will do is draw up any kind of honest assessment or balance sheet of where they have gone wrong and why.
Whereas the secret state and MI5 have long since transferred their attentions to anarchist and environmental groups, the sects and grouplets of Britain’s far left measure failure as success and survival as an achievement in itself. Recruiting in ones or twos is the key to a socialist revolution. It is far more important than seeking to change the balance of class forces.
The reasons lies in the fact that the most important battles are with each other. The SWP in particular is an unstable, Stalinoid group, which best resembles a revolving door. As long as ‘members in’ are greater than ‘members out’ then all is well. And if that requires a statistical sleight of hand that would embarrass George Osborne, then so be it.
Perhaps I can declare an interest here. I joined the International Socialists (later SWP) when I was 16, having just led a school strike. Within three years I was expelled for breaking the rules of ‘democratic (ie, bureaucratic) centralism’, when I voted publicly against the IS’s attempt to wind up the Anti-Internment League. I considered the anti-imperialist struggle and the fight for self-determination of the Irish people as more important than the sectarian interests of the IS leadership. After the branch had twice hesitated to do the deed, Roger Rosewall - the IS’s industrial organiser at the time - was brought up to Liverpool to crack the whip and affect my expulsion. Amongst those abstaining was John Bloxham, later to become a pillar of Socialist Organiser/Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
For his part, Rosewell ended up as Shirley Porter’s bag carrier, an employee of Aims of Industry, leader writer for the Daily Mail and a member of the industrial committee of the Social Democratic Party! Clearly he had been a state asset, but to this day neither I nor IS’s membership have received an explanation from the central committee over the role that Rosewell played. He simply disappeared down an Orwellian memory hole. Although by the time he wrote Days of the locust he had changed his views, at the time it was national secretary Jim Higgins who saw through my expulsion.
My case was in no way exceptional, but it is precisely such behaviour that has alienated thousands of potential revolutionaries over the years. Although the IS/SWP had a formal appeal system, I doubt if any of the hundreds of expelled SWP members has ever successfully appealed. It should be a matter of shame that the bourgeois courts, by way of comparison, are models of democracy. Socialist and Marxist groups treat democratic rights and debate as a luxury rather than a precondition for socialism.
Of course, there are objective reasons for the weakness of the socialist left. Prime amongst which is the restructuring of the working class itself consequent on the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Long gone are the big trade union battalions - the miners, dockers, shipyard workers, engineers and car workers. The working class has not disappeared - people still need to sell their labour - but it has been fragmented, atomised and depoliticised. There has been a catastrophic decline in union membership, the abolition of the closed shop and a massive decrease in union militancy. One of the few blue-collar unions remaining, the RMT, despite moving to the left, is weak and fragmented as a result of rail privatisation.
The question that arises is what is the purpose of an organised far left? If we are merely the creatures of forces beyond our control then perhaps we should own up to our impotence: let us be honest reformists rather than dishonest revolutionaries.
Internationally capitalism is not only undergoing a massive economic crisis, the worst of which is probably to come, but it has also become more savage and warlike. Where once the US only tiptoed around the Middle East, preferring to rely on its surrogates, since the first Gulf War it has preferred to do the job itself. We are in a state of permanent war, yet the left, apart from the million-plus march in 2003, has had virtually no impact. Whereas the international left played a major part in the withdrawal from Vietnam, it has had little impact on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Is it any wonder that some of us have retreated into single-issue campaigns?
The traditional divide in the socialist movement was between reform and revolution. Yet today the Labour Party does not even pretend to want to reform capitalism. One question that we have never faced up to is whether it is possible to replace capitalism, given the weakness of our own side. The emphasis by Marx and Lenin on the organised working class as the gravedigger of capitalism was predicated upon the fact that industrial capitalism had thrown together, in factories, large numbers of workers, whose consciousness would rapidly be transformed from the economic to the political. It was not that the working class was any more oppressed or exploited, in the commonly understood sense of the term, than a slave or peasant of the feudal era, but that the working class was able to do something about it. Further, that capitalism laid the basis for a society where humanity was free of want, if only it could be organised on the basis of human need, not market imperatives.
Yet in the 130 years since Marx’s death there has just been one successful socialist revolution, in Russia - and that quickly degenerated, as it was left isolated. The factors that enabled the Bolsheviks to gain power - an alliance with the peasantry in the middle of a world war and a weak aristocracy - are unlikely to be emulated.
In Britain, as Lenin recognised, the working class’s conservatism was a direct product of the fact that it too was a beneficiary of British imperialism. The Attlee government in 1945 came into office in the midst of a financial crisis, even though the nature of the crisis was very different from today. Europe had been bankrupted by war, whilst the USA towered above them economically and had surplus capital aplenty. European communist parties preferred to salvage rather than overthrow capitalism. What the US needed was investment opportunities and export economies, hence the Marshall Plan. Only a £3 billion loan from the USA kept Britain afloat.
Yet the Labour government embarked on a process of nationalisation, even as it created the NHS and a welfare state that provided a safety net. This was only possible because Attlee’s government super-exploited its African and Asian colonies (whilst conceding independence to India, Sri Lanka and Burma). The rubber plantations of Malaya and the cocoa plantations of west Africa, in addition to the forced loans that constituted the sterling area, financed Labour’s reforms. Today the City of London and the invisible trade balance continues that tradition in a different guise.
The left groups
I stood at the last local elections in Brighton for Tusc alongside supporters of the Socialist Party and Socialist Resistance. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, mid-campaign, that the SP had produced its own leaflet naming only its own candidate. In essence two campaigns were being fought - the electoral campaign and a recruitment campaign for the SP. To me this symbolised the contradiction of having parties within parties. As long as Tusc continues as a Heath-Robinson contraption - a coalition of convenience between sections of the RMT bureaucracy and the SP, with the SWP occasionally tagging along and nobody putting anything in between elections - it has no future. How can you have a credible electoral organisation if it does not even have an individual membership?
The SP argues that ‘one person, one vote’ was responsible for the Labour Party moving to the right. In fact the lack of real support amongst the membership was a symptom of the left’s weakness, even at the height of Tony Benn’s campaign for the deputy leadership. But to imagine you can create a viable organisation without a membership, which does not even allow a vote at its national conference, because that would mean the RMT leadership no longer retaining control, is self-defeating. Such a stance all but guarantees that the RMT will ditch Tusc for failing to make an electoral impact.
It is, of course, positive that the RMT executive supports Tusc. Political currents are welcome within such a party, but loyalty ought to be to the ‘party’ (Tusc is registered as a political party with the electoral commission), not the current. Why? Because the priority is building for socialism and no political sect or current is capable of doing this.
Instead the different sects believe that the route to socialism lies in building and retaining control of front groups. The SP believes a party can only be created by the trade unions: ie, the left trade union bureaucracies. Such a stance is inherently reformist, since trade unions exist to mediate between capital and labour, not to overthrow the former. A mass party based on individual membership, but to which unions could affiliate, would attract the membership of trade unions. But this is not a road that even the left union bureaucracies want to take. The SP’s position is an adaptation to existing economic and trade union consciousness.
One of its model unions is the Prison Officers Association - a bunch of unreconstructed Neanderthals, many of whose members identify with the far right. It has never shown the slightest degree of sympathy or support for political prisoners. The SP’s economism helps explain why it is not involved in international solidarity work or indeed virtually any other campaign outside those with direct economic demands. Yet in comparison with the SWP, the SP is a serious socialist organisation.
The politics of the SWP are eclectic. Although it is more likely to be involved in international, environmental and anti-war campaigns, at the end of the day its main purpose is to recruit to its own sect. One Brighton anarchist pamphlet describes the SWP as the vampires of the left! It never ceases to amaze me that groups led, as in the SWP’s case, by a distinguished professor are not able to see that building one’s own group at the expense of the class is a recipe for disaster. Is it any wonder that the British left is so weak?
Long gone are the days when the IS/SWP organised a six-week strike in a Manchester engineering company because of the victimisation of a shop steward (John Deason). Its lack of a base in the working class has meant that its politics have lacked any firm grounding or social base. The anti-war struggle became a love-in with Islamic mullahs and small businessmen. Respect was founded on the most opportunistic electoralism. And when it woke up to the fact that non-Islamic SWP members were unlikely to benefit from an Islamic vote, the SWP first tried to destroy Respect and then broke from it.
The Socialist Party is more consistent and has a base within some unions: in particular the PCS. However, this is at the expense of raising any political demands. The savage attacks on department for work and pensions members are a direct consequence of New Labour’s abolition of the divide between the employment and benefits service. This was symbolised by the creation of Job Centre Plus, yet PCS failed to oppose New Labour’s ideological attack on the very concept of benefits (renamed tax credits). Instead of instructing their members to refuse to sanction claimants and to refuse to work with privatised companies, the SP concentrated on economic demands, ignoring the fact that politics determines economics. By accepting the involvement of Atos, Maximus, A4E and all the other crooked companies that the New Labour and the Tories have employed, PCS has accepted savage cuts to jobs and the eventual demise of the entire DWP labour force.
The major political groups on the left have their own peculiar definition of sectarianism, which goes something like: ‘If you criticise us then you are being sectarian.’ In other words, people are expected to work alongside them, put up with party-building at the expense of joint work and if you query what they are doing then you are the sectarian!
The Communist Party of Britain has failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Instead the CPB sent a delegation to ‘socialist’ China recently, which queried whether the country would remain socialist amidst the sweatshops of Apple Inc. I only hope it was not put up in the same hotel as the International Monetary Fund delegation! The CPB operates at the fringes of the TUC and trade union bureaucracy and because it is vastly weakened compared with the days of Harry Pollitt, it has had to cooperate with its hated Trotskyist rivals.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is barely worth mentioning. It has crossed the international class divide, refusing during the Iraq war to oppose the occupation. It has done the same in Afghanistan. Its slide began with Ireland and then developed into support for Zionism.
What is left of the old International Marxist Group are two groups and a couple of splinters. Socialist Action operates in a semi-submerged state, its politics combining neo-Stalinism and a third-worldist approach to national liberation movements. Alone among the groups, it has no paper. It is active in Palestine and Venezuela Solidarity Campaigns. Having tied its fortunes to Ken Livingstone, it has seen them decline alongside him.
The other group is Socialist Resistance. On an individual basis I have a high regard for many of its members, but as a group it leaves a lot to be desired. Marginalised in Tusc, it is led by Alan Thornett, who first earned his spurs in the Workers Revolutionary Party. It has barely a hundred members.
Next to zero
Most organisations and sects on the far left are today propaganda groups. Their intervention in either class or related social struggles is next to zero. One of the more remarkable features is that it is the anarchists and direct-action activists and groups who are more vibrant. UK Uncut, Occupy - these are the targets of police repression. In Brighton we have a vibrant anarchist social centre, the Cowley Club. When the English Defence League came to town, it was not the SP or the SWP (Unite Against Fascism) which took the lead, but the anarchists, together with old unaligned far-left socialists. The result was a mass campaign which led to Sussex police being unable to force a path through Brighton for the fascists. After marching just one-third of the way along their route, they were diverted down the backstreets. It was as magnificent a victory as anything we saw in the 1970s and 1980s, when the SWP was committed to direct physical opposition to fascist marches and activities. The anarchists had learnt the lessons the Trotskyists had forgotten.
In the lead-up to the march I spoke to a packed meeting of students at Sussex University - the kind that the far left would once have put on. During the demonstration against the EDL one young woman who was at the meeting came up to me and asked pointedly whether our achievements in stopping the fascists matched those I had talked about a few days previously. I agreed they had! These are young people for whom the far left currently holds no attraction.
One group I have not mentioned is the Communist Party of Great Britain! The CPGB is committed to building a Marxist party. However, this is a purely theoretical position without any practical relevance or possibility. The CPGB was part of the Socialist Alliance and even Respect. Yet despite this it proudly proclaims that there are no halfway houses. Either a Marxist party or nothing. The problem is that a Marxist party consisting of all the sects would resemble nothing so much as rats in a bag. It would not be the capitalists I had to fear, but my own comrades!
The one thing the CPGB has going for it is the most open paper on the left. The SP’s The Socialist is as dull as ditchwater. Socialist Worker is as predictable as ever. Neither publication has an open letters page, because debate is frowned upon. One of the smallest groups on the left boasts a paper with perhaps the largest readership. It is an asset that it would be foolish to dispense with.
The one silver lining in a grey-clouded sky was the Scottish Socialist Party. Circumstances were more favourable, with proportional-representation elections to the assembly and the previously successful fight against the poll tax. Nonetheless, it pointed the way and that was why the RMT, which was expelled by Labour for supporting the SSP, has ended up backing Tusc. The SP opposed Scottish Militant Labour’s formation of the SSP, but was forced to follow in its footsteps.
That the SSP ultimately collapsed in the wake of Tommy Sheridan’s disastrous libel and perjury trials should not blind us to its successes. Whether you call it a Labour Party mark two or a halfway house, the fact is that half the way is better than not even setting out on the journey. To broaden the base of socialist ideas and support can never be a bad idea.
What of the Labour Party, to which the CPGB is increasingly drawn? Having been a ward chairperson and active at the time of the Benn deputy leadership campaign, before being subject to the Kinnock purge, there is no doubt that the SP is essentially correct. Whether you call it a bourgeois workers’ party or an openly pro-capitalist party along the lines of the Democrats, the fact is that socialists no longer have any purchase in it.
There was a time when the Labour Party proclaimed its belief in the reform of capitalism. As Alan Bullock wrote in his biography of Labour’s post-war foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, the ghost of the 1930s stalked the Labour cabinet. By that he meant mass unemployment. Today’s party is only too eager to get into bed with the Liberal Democrats. When Aneurin Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned from the Labour cabinet in 1951, over the introduction of prescription charges, to form Keep Left (later Tribune), their support lay in the constituencies. The trade union barons - Arthur Deakin of the TGWU and Lord Carron of the AUEW - were viciously anti-left. When New Labour gained office and Gordon Brown opposed restoring the link between pensions and earnings, it was the union block vote that passed the successful motion. The CLPs voted by nearly two to one against. When the individual membership of a party swings in such a dramatic fashion from left to right - a swing that is as much in evidence today as it was 15 years ago - then it is time to draw conclusions - one of which is that the Labour Party can only be the graveyard of socialism.
What is clear from the Labour Party conference and Miliband’s appeal to the spirit of Disraeli is that Blue Labour is going to be out of power for some time to come. The only real question is whether the Tories will win the next election outright. It is not only irrelevant whether the union leaders still retain their clout inside the Labour Party. It is political folly to believe it matters. When Labour ditched clause four, it openly espoused capitalism. Our task is to build an alternative, not to play games in someone else’s party.