Left Unity: Let’s go all the way

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Cat Rylance and Chris Strafford reflect upon the debates on radical unity today taking place in the Anticapitalist Initiative

For decades the left, in Britain, has had no party it could unite under. We are stuck on the margins, with mass struggle continuously stalled and diverted. In this space we have fractured, sought refuge in trade union bureaucracies, drop-out counter cultures, reformism and the ‘sect’. This fragmentation of the left is more than just the squabbling of irrelevant cranks and hobbyists, it is the inheritance we have received from changes in capitalism, the defeats we have suffered and inflicted upon ourselves. As a movement, our intervention into the political life of the country is negligible. We compete against each other duplicating work and wasting resources. For example, there is hardly any difference between Unite the Resistance, the National Shop Stewards Network and the Coalition of Resistance, beyond which left group is pulling the strings.

It is in this landscape that Ken Loach made a call for a new party of the left, gaining the support of over 8000 people and the establishing of several local groups across the country. This is a fantastic start towards a process of creating a new party and we support this call. But if this is to be meaningful we must try to avoid repeating  the mistakes of the past few decades – broader organisation projects, like Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and Respect, came and went leaving our movement weaker. Left Unity must go a different way to those failed projects. That different way, we think, is to develop democratically, from below, and with a political approach that links the immediate struggle with the overthrow of capitalism.

When the crisis hit, in 2008, complete catastrophe was averted through state intervention, socialising the massive losses of large banks and going on the offensive to make workers pick up the bill. Capitalism was shaken, questions were raised about the viability of the system and movements like Occupy and the Los Indignados, though they gave few answers, were the organic expression of this process. Such a situation should have seen the left move out of the shadows of social democracy and Stalinism, yet old mistakes are being made again. We have a bizarre situation where capitalism is incapable of finding a solution to the crisis and yet there are, ostensibly, left-wing writers coming up with plenty of ideas for growth and stability. So often the left, in pursuit of short term gains that almost never materialise, pushes politics that are, at the very least, inadequate and, at worst, counter-productive to the growth of an independent working class movement.

Against this widespread and quite disorientated reformism, we concur with Simon Hardy from the ACI: what we need to be working towards are political parties “that put down roots in working class communities and rebuild belief in an alternative to capitalism…[that]…promote the idea that human society need not live in want and scarcity, but that a communist alternative is possible – one that is radically democratic, and recognises autonomy and diversity. They will need to be parties of struggle, seeking to develop active resistance, and not fall back into the facile parliamentarism of social democracy, and the hopeless illusion that we can return to a golden age of moderated, corporatist capitalist production”.

 

The ACI and Left Unity

We wholly believe that supporters of the ACI should be involved in Left Unity as best they can. But we think that, to do this properly, we must answer some important questions. What is the basis of our involvement? What perspective is informing our involvement? What does Left Unity mean for the project of the ACI? These are the questions we are trying to deal with here because so far, we think, the answers have been unclear.

From its very earliest beginnings, ACI activists, especially in London, have contributed to the Left Unity project. This is good and very positive work. But here we want to raise some problems too, with the intention of being constructive. It has not been entirely clear, to us, what this contribution has involved. What are the thoughts and perspectives we have been bringing to Left Unity? It would be good to have basic reports of meetings and activity. It would also be good to have more discussion pieces outlining the different perspectives on Left Unity. The recent article by Ishan Cader is a great start to this debate.

As part of this process, we will try, here, to clarify our perspective on Left Unity and the ACI – along with the more general question, behind this, of revolutionary organisation and the broad party. And we will do this, in part, by making some criticisms of a ‘two processes’ approach that we have seen advanced in different ways by people both inside and outside the ACI [E.g. – Socialist Resistance].

Betwixt and Between

The project of the ACI, as we would see it at least, is to have a positive contribution to advancing anti-capitalist politics and revolutionary organisation. This is something we should try to consider in any work we do. So in terms of the Left Unity call – how does this fit in with the project of the ACI?

It has been talked about in terms of ‘two processes’ – the process of bringing together the wider worker’s movement into a broad, anti-austerity party (Left Unity) and the process of re-forging revolutionary organisation. These two processes are seen as being complementary. We don’t think they are, and this is for two reasons. First, this approach doesn’t deal with the problem at the heart of the ACI and its work – the problem of how revolutionary politics can take on a mass character – it only has the appearance of dealing with it. Second, this approach doesn’t encourage the positive overcoming of the stagnant practice and method of the left.

Behind the ‘two processes’ is a more general method – that of revolutionary organisation being a smaller component in a broader mass party. This is presented as a situation that we should be working towards. And tied up in this are arguments about it being ‘unwise’ for us to push for the broader party to be explicitly anti-capitalist or socialist – that advancing these politics, which ‘very few people support’, would lead to our isolation.

There is a dilemma, here, between advancing explicit revolutionary politics and being a mass organisation – where in neither, without the other, can take us where we need to be. This problem was highlighted by Rosa Luxemburg: the movement, she argued, was constantly threatened by these two dangers, “one is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform”. Her advice was to tag “betwixt and between” the two. We think this could be done, best, through an organisation that linked our day-to-day work with the overall goal of overthrowing capitalism.

The common approach to this problem by the left, however, is actually to separate it out – separating out the need for mass organisation and the need for revolutionary organisation. This leaves ‘two processes’, and this leaves the building of an organisation on broad politics as a positive process, rather than simply a political reality. We don’t think this does overcome this problem, however, and we think it brings with it more problems.

This method is actually a part of the material basis which reproduces the sect. It allows us to continue in our small groups and to justify this existence. It is a comfortable situation. For revolutionaries to, as a positive method, approach the movement through a secondary, politically far softer, organisation gives us the appearance of being an organic component of the movement, allowing us to move and be active in wider spheres, whilst preserving and ‘continuing’ socialist theory in the small group. This method does not demand cracking open and positively overcoming the sect and it does not provide a serious answer to the capitalist offensive.

For the ACI, too, it has unintended echoes of the old methods of the old organisations from which we are trying to break. It separates our identities off into the private revolutionary (in the small group, at the summer school, in the journal) and the public reformist (in the movement as a whole). It extends the chasm between our ideas and our practice. And, in its worst case, it can be a method of political dishonesty. We think this is a failed method and that it bears some responsibility for holding back the advancement of revolutionary politics and organisation.[1]

Indeed, on this question, we think, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto had the correct approach: “communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement” and, as they further added, “communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”. In practice, today, this would mean not ditching revolutionary politics and not reviving social democracy for short term gains. It would mean revolutionaries having the honesty to argue for what they believe in not what may win votes.

The Left Unity project is an important and uplifting development. But, we think, it is necessary for us to take the time to think through our long term perspectives. And what the long term perspective involved in us trying to build Left Unity as a broad party on broad politics is, is very unclear to us. Is our perspective for it to take government and reverse the austerity agenda of capital? Even if this was a viable option, where does the fight for systemic change fit into this picture? Or are we the small cog driving the big wheel, pushing for demands of an ‘implicitly’ anti-capitalist dynamic, demands which would, themselves, unconsciously destabilise capitalism? As though that was all systemic change entailed? And in the meantime are we siphoning off the promising ones into the ‘real party’?

These kind of long term perspectives do govern this method on the left – and so it is important to think our approach through properly and be clear in what exactly it is we are arguing. We should try to avoid getting caught up in the trap of short term thinking. Left Unity and what it represents is a great opportunity – but we have to be patient and thoughtful if we want to respond to it in a worthwhile and constructive way. And we have to be careful, too, not to lose sight of the importance of the project of the ACI in the face of this opportunity.

 

Keynesianism, the left and Capitalist Realism

From the beginning of this current crisis, the capitalist class have moved swiftly, using this opportunity to accelerate the assault on post-war gains. Our side, however, has been slow to respond and resistance has been held back by bureaucratic inertia. It seems like common sense, that in such a period, we should focus on opposing austerity and arguing for a Keynesian-style tax and spend policy for growth and jobs.  This year the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) released a report, Britain needs a pay rise: the effects of the falling value of wages on the UK economy , detailing initiatives government could take to “increase the value of wages and stimulate demand”. The People’s Charter, organised by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, similarly argues: “More jobs mean more spending power to stimulate the economy, increased tax revenue and fewer people on benefit. Build full employment.” The other broad campaigns and party fronts have much the same approach.

Yet, as Antonio Negri commented, whatever Keynesian style reforms we win, “exploitation is not eliminated – only its anarchic and competitive aspects. Profit and interest are not eliminated either – they are merely prevented from exceeding the average”. Where the left should be developing a real alternative, it tends to offer, with varying degrees of opportunism, a shopping list of reforms. To many, Keynesian style reforms look to be a good rallying point and a way to draw in more people and build an anti-austerity movement. To others, Keynesian economics are a solution. For revolutionaries, however, it is a strategy for capitalism to overcome the crisis in favour of the status-quo.

The gains that we do win are never safe, they can only be maintained through mass struggle and even if we manage to turn the tide on privatisation and austerity, this would not be the end of the capitalist offensive. As Mark Fisher argues – in his idea of ‘capitalist realism’ as the pervading sense of there being no alternative – “we can now see that, while neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist, capitalist realism need not be neoliberal. In order to save itself, capitalism could revert to a model of social democracy or to a Children of Men-like authoritarianism. Without a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism, capitalist realism will continue to rule the political-economic unconscious” (p 78).

Finding itself in a new environment where the traditional blocs of working class opposition to capitalism no longer exist has caused widespread disorientation across the left.  We are told that Karl Marx has made a bit of a come-back over recent years. But the truth is that Karl Marx is still exiled from the political practice of most of the left – victim in its own way, too, to this ‘capitalist realism’, unable, in its practice, to project a vision of an alternative to capitalism.

The successful capitalist offensive against the post-war gains, the collapse of the Stalinist states  and the breakdown of social solidarity, have eradicated from popular discourse the very idea that we may live differently, that the drive for profit could be abolished and replaced with collective planning for need. And this somewhat accounts for the decline and the timidity of the left in raising revolutionary politics. Lynne Segal notes, our movement “nowadays [has] less political cohesion, hope or anything like an agreed alternative vision between the different forms of resistance to this Tory-led coalition that there was when Margaret Thatcher was elected at the close of the 1970s. With the ethos of market forces so comprehensively triumphant over the last thirty years, fear eats the soul of the British left. Even the once widely approved word, ‘socialism’, to describe the goal of the radically egalitarian, democratic society many of us hoped to build back in the 1970s, has largely fallen into disuse.” [2]

Left Unity will need to make a choice between whether to give half-answers and seek to reform, yet maintain, capitalist relations or, as Ken Loach appealed, to try and articulate a political alternative that is centred on the overthrow of capitalist relations and their replacement with socialism.

 

Beyond the Fragments,

We believe that the period we are in requires, first and foremost, that an alternative be developed in struggle, in the broadest sense. That is a struggle to oppose the current strategy of the capitalist class, austerity at home and war abroad; and a struggle to create communist politics that are relevant. A step towards this would be to try to overcome this separation between theory and practice where we have endless fake front campaigns controlled by this or that tiny organisation that generally gather little or no support. Where revolutionary politics are kept for the journals and the small rooms, but the masses can only be spoken to in the language of social democracy. Broad campaigns and so-called ‘united fronts’ have failed to open a way forward. The small disciplined and homogenous group has also failed in terms of the politics that the vast majority of them defend and in terms of how they carry out their work. There is much talk of ‘leaderships in waiting’ and the ‘correct programme’, but little to show for decades of work.

We think that what is needed is a more substantial organisation, bringing together the widest sections of the left on the basis of working class independence, democratic control from below, merging socialism with the working class movement, and fighting for the overthrow of capitalism. That requires one party.

Working within Left Unity, we have to make the case that there should be room for both a right and a left. There will be those on the social democratic side of the movement who will want to keep the left quiet, or out, in a mistaken belief that it would make the project more desirable to disaffected Labour Party activists. We, however, should make no attempt to exclude the right. But this does not mean we should tone down our politics and seek agreement on immediate tasks and social democratic slogans only. We must fight patiently for what is necessary: a party that seeks to abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.

 

Moving forward

So what are we arguing as a long term perspective? And what are we saying in terms of the ACI and its involvement in Left Unity?

We don’t think the model of a broad party within which we can be a revolutionary strand is a situation the ACI should be aspiring to. We think the situation the ACI should be aspiring to is the model of a mass pluralist revolutionary organisation. Not two processes, but one. And we think that this should be the long term perspective behind our work in the here and now – both inside and outside Left Unity.

We aren’t talking about laying down a Marxist programme to the Left Unity project as some kind of ultimatum. We are talking about patient and thoughtful work. Making a proper and genuine contribution to the organisation, even when we are not winning the arguments, but doing so as open and honest revolutionary activists. And trying, through our work, to put forwards key arguments and principles. About capitalism, about transforming society, about working class agency, about the state and internationalism [3]. Finding ways to link up the immediate, the day to day, with this wider vision and taking the time to understand where people are at and how best to advance these ideas in direct and understandable ways. And to do this always under the clear perspective that what is necessary is a mass communist organisation, and that is what we are struggling towards.

 

References

1. These points are actually explored in Cooper, L. and Hardy, S. Beyond Capitalism; The Future of Radical Politics (Zero 2013). For example, they write of initiatives like the New Anticapitalist Party in France, ‘These projects combine openness and pluralism with an openly revolutionary perspective; the Marxist view that the act of emancipation of the working class will come through its own actions, its own struggles, rather than through parliamentary reform. This makes these projects attractive examples for our argument; they represent attempts to transcend the ‘sect logic’ of the left but ones that still retain a genuinely anticapitalist perspective and so explicitly challenge capitalist realism’ (p. 145).

2. Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Merline Press, 2013), p.65.

3. The proposal [http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=2118] to the 11/05/13 Left Unity meeting from Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network was a good start in this direction.

 

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18 Comments

  1. Bob Lyons
    May 22, 2013 at 12:12 am · Reply

    Comrades, let me say at the outset that the issues you raise are ones which will have to be dealt with by all those who are members of existing political formations attracted to the Left Unity project. In that sense, they are vital and are at the heart of the discussions around unity.

    However I disagree with the conclusions you have drawn as I believe you start from a wrong premise, one summed up by your question: “What does Left Unity mean for the project of the ACI?” Behind this question lies a number of assumptions which you then proceed to make your argument upon. The primary one of these is that you see the ACI existing off into the future, which may not be the case.

    Suppose you had posed the question the other way round: What does ACI mean to Left Unity? It is well recognized that the comrades of the ACI have played a very real and positive role in animating the dynamic towards building the notion of Left Unity as an important step forward in finding ways to challenge the hegemony of the social democrats, the labour lieutenants of capital. You recognize this yourselves in your contribution. But what are the next steps in taking the process forward?

    Despite your rejection of a two track process, which I really believe is a misreading of the position of Socialist Resistance, for example, the bald facts of the matter are that there indeed are two processes occuring simultaneously: the creation of a broad, anticapitalist political formation made up of those who reject the neo-liberalism of the Labourites, that is, of a generation of activists who have broken politically with social democracy to a greater or lesser extent.

    The second process, one which is as crucially important to the first as it is to itself, is the question of Marxist unity. Because of your focus on the meaning of Left Unity to the political project to which you are presently attached, you do not touch on this question. I would be interested to read your thoughts on this matter. I and other old timers believe that the conjunctures of history allowing for game changing events do not come along all that often. We believe we are at such a point in history that the ferocity of the attacks unleashed against the working class and popular sectors has provided sufficient clarity to make even the blind see: the pathetic overall response of the Left of Labour rooted in its secterianism. As indeed you have pointed.

    In going all the way, might I suggest that the ACI comrades consider the other process as well. Its is time for all Marxists to join together to fight for revolutionary politics and working class unity within a common organisation. May I also suggest that comrades look to the unity process of Marxist organisations in Australia presently underway as providing valuable ideas and experiances in bringing that unity about.

    Long Live International Revolutionary Unity!

    • Chris Strafford
      May 27, 2013 at 12:43 am · Reply

      Thanks for commenting. In my opinion, whether the ACI exists going forward is contingent on whether the project we embarked on 12 months ago can evolve into something bigger with other forces who are on a similar wave length. So what does ACI mean to Left Unity? My feeling is that we should join with the voices calling for real unity, an open and democratic organisation and a party committed to the overthrow of capitalism. On top of that we should be involved, building local organisations, linking up with struggles and helping to bring more people into the process and debate. I have to disagree that there are two processes going on at present, there is no mass struggle against austerity resulting in a significant break from social democracy like there is in Greece, Spain etc. So the space to the left of Labour, long held up as the place to build, has not opened up enough to create such a party. A British Syriza would be a poor replica with no mass movement to propel it forward. Being solely opposed to austerity and neoliberalism doesn’t offer up a long term solution or basis for a working class party. It would only take a rhetorical shift by the Labour Party to occupy the anti-austerity ground in Britain unless there is a mass movement similar to those that undermined social democracy in Spain and Greece. Opposition solely based on a nicer version of capitalism keeps the left as the defenders of the status-quo or relics from a period now finished. We would need to offer a positive alternative alongside defending what we have.

      Our starting point should be what organisation and what politics can best serve to rebuild the working class movement and fight capitalism. Will it be a party where left groups maintain their own outside existence, recruiting ones and twos, defending this or that “tradition” and keeping communism for the weekend? We have had such unity and it doesn’t work, TUSC is a perfect example of this kind of approach. The left comes together to lose a deposit every now and again but then goes back to building the real “party”. In my opinion we have to break with this approach and have the confidence to attempt to build a party on the foundations of socialism. A party that offers a real alternative, offers a space to organise and to act as the memory of the class whilst demolishing the basis of having dozens of left groups. It’s so comfortable for the left groups to think of unity on the politics of labourism because it doesn’t actually challenge the culture, methods and political inertia of the left sects. They all still get to exist as leaderships in waiting or playing being a mini-Militant in a mini-Labour Party.

      Even if Left Unity does not adopt a socialist platform then we should continue to play a part in building and transforming it. Outside of this, I do believe in the unity of communists as communists. Yet, I do not think it is then the duty of whatever communist organisation to rebuild labourism inside or outside of Labour. What is the point of arguing for a set of politics we know to be utterly bankrupt? Should we not have the patience to get unity right this time and look beyond next year’s elections and opposition to austerity?

      The unity process in Australia is a refreshing break from the broad left and electoral lash-ups we have had in Britain though I am not sure it is involving all the forces it should do.

      • Luke Cooper
        May 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm · Reply

        It’s not true as Chris says here, and also said at the recent ACI coordination, that the formation of Syriza was conditional on mass struggles against austerity. It was not.

        It was formed in 2004. This was *prior* to any mention of crisis in the Greek economy. It was *prior* to any outbreaks of mass social struggle against the government on a significant level. The circumstances were, in fact, comparable to the situation in Britain: a fragmented radical left and an experience of social movements (the students were active at the time and there were also mobilisations connected to the anticapitalist movement. This was important in the run up to the 2006 European Social Forum in Athens). Syriza was until very recently a coalition of different tendencies, and not a party. This did not stop it gaining significant electoral appeal as the crisis deepened. It is wrong to infer from the Tusc experience that a coalition-party is ipso facto doomed.

        The turn to Syriza, a broad coalition of the radical left, including within it reformist and revolutionary elements, plainly succeeded in raising the political consciousness of the Greek working class, in a manner that Antarsya, still on the fringes with a “full revolutionary programme”, did not succeed in doing. If you insist on a merely formal critique, and rule out any process involving a united front with people who disagree with you, then you basically rule out playing a central role in a left of Labour party. I don’t see how this would do anything to help the development of communist politics.

        Saying all this, I am critical of the Syriza leadership, and thought Tsipras speech in London was uber-moderate, and poor. But there is no sense, either in your more thoughtful article or your cruder comments, of *process*. The idea that, as a result of a political evolution involving different elements, a working class movement can go through an experience out of which it becomes stronger, and more radical. This will nearly always involve moving through different stages of political consciousness. Its our job to create organisations that help this process along, and foster a space where strategies can be debated, and different programmes put to the test of struggle. Left Unity has provided an important space for new political experiments, but it will be still born if the left in left unity rushes to impose a “full Marxist programme” on the project.

        • Chris Strafford
          May 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm · Reply

          I should probably have been clearer so I’ll clarify for you. Before the mass movement against austerity, the break from social democracy and the social chaos caused by the capitalist offensive Syriza was a small electoral umbrella for Eurocommunists, Maoists, left-social democrats and bits and pieces of the Greek Trotskyist movement. What enabled its transformation from this to a mass party commanding the support and participation of millions of workers was the development of a mass movement and crucially a break from social democracy to the left. A positive but also troubled development. Positive because Syriza has opened up the possibility of an alternative and sought the unity of the working class against austerity. Negative because the politics Syriza advocates are only a more left version of social democracy. (See: http://anticapitalists.org/2012/06/16/syrizas-programme/)

          It is a bit silly to put “full Marxist programme” in quotation marks below an article which calls for no such ultimatum in Left Unity. In fact we have argued that we should patiently debate these issues out but start from a position of honesty from day one that capitalism can’t be reformed away and must be overthrown and replaced with socialism. An exceptionally basic proposition which all revolutionaries can defend. As the motion we passed in March read:

          “1. This ACI meeting reaffirms our perspective of bringing about a revolutionary regroupment on the British left. We are trying to build a new democratic, pluralist and revolutionary organisation committed to the overthrow of capitalism.”

          That is what we should be fighting for, nothing less.

          • Luke Cooper
            May 28, 2013 at 6:30 pm ·

            Sure, but that is the full Marxist programme (ie because its the maximum element, and I’m assuming you would also argue for the minimum element, hence its uncontroversial to say you arguing for the full Marxist programme, no?).

          • Chris Strafford
            May 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm ·

            In short, no. A marxist programme is not just a commitment to overthrowing capitalism. It also lays out the principles and positions of a workers party such as internationalism, women’s liberation, the armed forces etc. Questions which any new party must take time to debate and decide upon at greater length than the time we have between now and the founding congress in November. And, as Cat wrote last year, a programme must also be a “democratic anchor” [http://anticapitalists.org/2012/11/28/now-or-never-the-case-for-programme/]. So what should our approach be?

            Our argument in this article is that we should take a patient approach from the start listening as well as proposing a possible way forward. We believe, and I think as a communist you would agree, that what we need in the long-term is a mass communist organisation. Yet, to get there we have to win the debate within the movement, draw in the necessary forces and overcome the sect life of the left. Now we can’t set about doing that if, at the time of great crisis and capitalist offensive, we do not argue for even the most basic idea that we must have a process to build a party that articulates an alternative that goes beyond capitalism.

          • Luke Cooper
            May 29, 2013 at 11:39 am ·

            But why would you not argue for the more minimal elements if you were arguing for the maximum element? Its an important question, because the maximum element of the strategy – the overthrow of capitalism, the decisive ‘push’ as it were – isn’t on the agenda in Britain today, for many cultural and economic reasons. You said earlier that the development of a mass reformist party is conditional on social breakdown and intensified class struggle. But isn’t the development of a mass communist party also conditional on these things? If so, and it seems likely that is the case, how can you really square your analysis of low levels of class struggle with the idea that Left Unity should become a communist party?

            In any case, I can’t help feeling, there is too much formalism here. Don’t you see the problem that Left Unity could adopt your programme tomorrow and still commit reformist errors? Being formally committed to the overthrow of capitalism did not do the official communist movement much good when it came to opportunism in the last century. You need to put forward more concrete policies rather than these abstract principles, if you really want to ensure that Left Unity does not succumb to reformism and centrism. I’ve raised two: advocacy of anti-cuts councillors and total opposition to austerity and cuts in all its forms. But there are no shortage of others. This debate needs to be more rooted in practice, IMHO. That’s why I’m against Left Unity ‘becoming a reformist party’, because I’d define this as having a perspective of managing the system for capital through parliamentary institutions. I’m opposed to this happening, which is why the call for anti-cuts councillors is much more important, in terms of where I’m coming from, than the formal, i.e. ‘future’, not applicable at the moment, aspects of Marxist strategy (overthrow of capitalism / ‘insurrection’ etc).

          • Chris Strafford
            May 30, 2013 at 11:23 pm ·

            Our article argued that we should situate the immediate struggle within an overall movement towards communism. We wrote that: “We believe that the period we are in requires, first and foremost, that an alternative be developed in struggle, in the broadest sense. That is a struggle to oppose the current strategy of the capitalist class, austerity at home and war abroad; and a struggle to create communist politics that are relevant.”

            So our differences with you boil down to not whether we build through struggle (what you call “minimal elements”) or whether we isolate ourselves further by expressing only a longer term goal like the overthrow of the capitalist state (what you call a “maximum element”). Our differences seemingly stem from the understanding of the crisis and the communist response to it. On the former, we see this as a systemic crisis and not only a crisis of neoliberalism and its austerity life raft. On the latter, we see a communist response as asking real questions of the system, fighting for what we have but acknowledging that the defeat for austerity and neoliberalism will not herald the end of the capitalist offensive. Our article urges communists, like yourself, to have the patience to build the party we need on the politics that can make a difference in the here and now but also in the future. We do not think that there are any shortcuts to mass politics for the anti-capitalist left by arguing for some watered down version of our politics or the politics of social democracy.

            I do not think seeing opposing austerity or opposing capitalism is a difference of formalism versus being “concrete”. In reality it was precisely the lack of “abstract principles” and democracy within Die Linke that helped sections of the party’s representatives impose cuts and attacks on workers. This was despite Die Linke being formally committed to opposing austerity. I have to say your argument is pretty contradictory at the end, maybe you can clarify, because for me having a party that is defined by opposing cuts in the council chamber would be about managing capital. This is not say we do not support such councilors or councils but if you want to develop a perspective of not “managing the system for capital through parliamentary institutions” then we need to develop a political alternative that goes deeper than opposing the capitalists current strategy.

          • Luke Cooper
            May 31, 2013 at 10:59 am ·

            But the points you are saying are fundamental are not on the agenda in Britain today. It is untenable from a historical materialist standpoint, to see a communist revolution as simply the result of people arguing for communism. Never before in the history of capitalism has a revolution occurred for this reason. The Russian Revolution, for example, emerged out of the disintegration of Tsarism under the pressures of capitalist modernisation and world war. You don’t offer an analysis of the situation beyond saying ‘its not just a crisis of neoliberalism but a crisis of capitalism’ which is a curious thing to say. How, again from a historical materialist perspective, could it ‘just’ be a crisis of neoliberalism? All crises express a contradictory unity of thought and actions, of base and superstructure, of cultural conceptions of the world and material realities. You then argue that a political party that refuses to implement cuts, occupies council chambers rather than forces them through, organises on the streets and workplaces to defeat them, is engaged in “managing the system for capital”. With respect, this is absurd. If that’s what capital wanted parties to do, then why are none of the main (capitalist) parties doing it? Taking a ‘no cuts’ approach plainly advances anticapitalist politics. And might be able to contribute to the development of social conditions that puts revolutionary change on the agenda.

          • Chris Strafford
            May 31, 2013 at 1:52 pm ·

            I think you’re a bit confused or possibly even being disingenuous here. We are well aware that revolution is not currently on the agenda and we did not write that all we had to do was argue for communism and we would get it. What we wrote, as I explained in my last reply, was that we need to link everyday struggle with an overall goal of systemic change. So I’m not sure how you can take from that we are proposing some kind of idealist/propagandist approach.

            At least on the capitalist crisis you ask the right question: “How, again from a historical materialist perspective, could it ‘just’ be a crisis of neoliberalism?” It isn’t, which is why having a perspective of building opposition to austerity only is exceptionally limited and offers a party built out of such a perspective a very short life span. It is why simply opposing austerity does not lead to an anti-capitalist politics. The quote we used from Capitalist Realism in our article puts the communist position very well:

            “we can now see that, while neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist, capitalist realism need not be neoliberal. In order to save itself, capitalism could revert to a model of social democracy or to a Children of Men-like authoritarianism. Without a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism, capitalist realism will continue to rule the political-economic unconscious”

            I’m not sure what is controversial in saying a party that does not implement cuts in office would still be managing capitalism or will it magically disappear if/when we defeat the cuts? This is not to say we do no support such councilors or councils but we must recognise the limits of such an approach.

            I have to say, I do find this discussion interesting but also quite frustrating. You help write a book called ‘Beyond Capitalism’ that has a whole chapter on capitalist realism yet the way you approach the rebuilding the left via Left Unity is firmly within a left reformist perspective and you don’t support the simple idea that the struggle today against austerity must be explicitly fused with the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

        • Cat Rylance
          May 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm · Reply

          Luke,

          In terms of the process, that you talk about, the political evolution of the working class movement, moving through different stages of political consciousness etc. Yes, this space and this process is fundamental. And yes, it is our job to help this process along.

          But communists building a reformist party as a reformist party? I think that there are a lot of problems, well indicated in the history of reformist parties, in arguing that this is the process, the space, in which working class political consciousness positively develops. But maybe you can say more on this.

          I also think that the questions that we raised in the article still need to be addressed. The long term perspective behind this method needs to be spelled out. Because for me, at least, it is not clear. You say we should “foster a space where strategies can be debated, and different programmes put to the test of struggle” – but in this space we *shouldn’t* be trying to advance our communist strategies, our communist politics and our communist programmes? When do we start doing this? Do we ever start doing this, or are we subtely nudging and guiding?

          For me, when we talk about the space in which the working class evolves and develops politically, when we talk about this process, these stages etc – this space is the movement itself, and not a party. So I think that the contribution we can make to the development of the political consciousness of the working class, is to defend, build and expand this movement and this space, and to do this as communists trying to advance the ideas of communism.

          Hopefully this clarifies where we are (or where I am, at least!) coming from in terms of those points.

          Cat

          • Luke Cooper
            May 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm ·

            But who has argued for communists to build a reformist party as a reformist party? That’s a straw man – I don’t think anyone has argued that at all.

            The problem is that you assume the best way to advance communist politics is to insist that it is the basis for unity, i.e. a doctrinal attachment to ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (I know you didn’t say that, but I think that’s what you’re arguing, no? If you’re not arguing this, then surely there are two processes, because I would have thought you’d argue this as the basis for a revolutionary regroupment?).

            I tend to think there are better ways in the here and now to illustrate the difference between revolutionary and reformist approaches. For instance, intransigent opposition to cuts, and insisting electoral representatives don’t push through cuts, is a good way of keeping out / challenging careerist elements within Left Unity that caused a big problem in Respect.

            In this sense, I think it’s really problematic on lots of levels to draw the kind of distinction between movement and party that you have just done, Cat. A political party that claims to be a genuine party of the working class will arise – as Chris has emphasised above – out of the development of a mass movement. Ie the creation of political space through which it can come to its own conclusions about politics, and can contest the hegemony of the capitalist parties, in elections, but also on the streets and in workplaces, etc.

            In short, Marxists can’t, or rather shouldn’t, try to construct strict mutually exclusive categories, when a party we want will have many of the elements of a movement, and the movement we want should point towards a party. The classical Marxist movement certainly saw these as bound up together. And that meant that elements of a ‘united front’ strategy underpinned – even though they did not pose the question in these terms – all attempts to build mass Marxist parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Given how fragmented the left is an attempt to build a new party of the working class that doesn’t see it as a united front is pretty much doomed if you ask me.

        • May 31, 2013 at 3:48 pm · Reply

          The Left Bloc in Portugal and the SP in the Netherlands are two examples of regroupment efforts that succeeded despite not having a mass base or splitting off from a mass organization the way SYRIZA came out of KKE decades ago to begin with.

  2. oskarsdrum
    May 24, 2013 at 6:40 am · Reply

    Thanks for this interesting and insightful piece. However I am sure the rhetoric of “revolution” is due a rethink some time soon. Given Labour’s trajectory of the last 3 decades there really are precious few “reformist” or electoralist socialists around – this dividing line seems rather antiquated now. Instead of course there are sadly few socialists left of any type.

    What might be better is discussing anti-capitalist approaches in terms of strategies for transformation. This certainly would highlight the shortcomings of a parliament-only perspective, but would also raise more uncomfortable questions around the abstractness of most conceptions of “revolution” and sudden rupture. A symbiotic transformation, by contrast, relies less on guesswork and is also organic to working class struggle the world over. Of course there are lots of tensions and dilemmas in combining this with democratic self-organisation, but hasn’t socialist thinking been ever thus?

    One other thing, is stopping (or radically slowing) climate change. I know there are some arguments that any form of capitalism is systemicatically incompatible with the measures needed to avert climate catastrophe, but usually they’re brought out in a taken for granted, undeveloped fashion. Actually there’s a strong case that regulatory mechanisms may be capable of achieving a drastic reduction in CO2 output in a capitalist economy. Of course it would be a very different sort of capitalist economy — but given the small likelihood of revolutionary global transition to socialism in the imminent future, and the potential viability of “green social democracy” as an outcome of anti-neoliberal struggle, I think we’d be much better keeping all options open to enabling humanity’s future on the planet.

  3. May 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm · Reply

    What does it mean to “link” the fight for revolution with struggles for reforms? Do you show up to a picket line with a leaflet explaining why their strike will not solve all their problems or why revolution is the only long-term guarantor of whatever they win?

  4. Luke Cooper
    June 1, 2013 at 8:13 am · Reply

    Chris, the idea I have a left reformist perspective for building Left Unity is so ridiculous I don’t really see the point of continuing this discussion. For what it’s worth, I agree with David Harvey’s argument made in London yesterday that we can’t get stuck in defending the status quo – like the left did with industrialisation in the West – or look back to a mythical golden age of Keynesianism. Rather, we have to work out how the multitude of exploited and oppressed that make up the modern working class can utilise technological transformations to develop a transition to a new mode of production. I have every intention of making this argument in Left Unity. The difference between us is that I want to create a space in Left Unity where I can debate the question with more moderate and reformist elements without pushing them away by defining the project around my own politics from day one. Unless you have that perspective then you will never create a process capable of cohering people around a genuinely communist perspective. That, recognising the process, *is* linking the day to day struggle with the overthrow of capitalism, not rejecting it.

  5. Chris Strafford
    June 1, 2013 at 6:54 pm · Reply

    Come on, where did we say that we want to push people out or not debate with others? We didn’t. We said the opposite. We wrote:

    “Working within Left Unity, we have to make the case that there should be room for both a right and a left. There will be those on the social democratic side of the movement who will want to keep the left quiet, or out, in a mistaken belief that it would make the project more desirable to disaffected Labour Party activists. We, however, should make no attempt to exclude the right. But this does not mean we should tone down our politics and seek agreement on immediate tasks and social democratic slogans only. We must fight patiently for what is necessary: a party that seeks to abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.”

    So we do not differ on wanting to have Left Unity as a space for discussion but differ on what we want to say in that debate. We’ll stick with honestly and patiently arguing for a communist perspective I can only hope you’ll join us.

  6. September 4, 2013 at 12:09 am · Reply

    UK readers and supporters of the Anticapitalist Initiative might also be interested in the Canadian originated website: http://www.greensocialdemocracy.org which features six essays in support of a green social democratic alternative to global capitalism and neoliberal ideology. Included are theoretical, economic, cultural, strategic and policy perspectives and an essay on “Socialist Alternatives to Capitalism: Green social democracy in historical perspective”.

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