Left Unity: Let’s go all the way
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.
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.” 
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.
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 . 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.
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.