Sunday 24 August 2008

Please, not Another Party Invite!

Seldom do I engage in debate about the state of the Left with members of small left-wing groups, for the simple reason that on past experience they tend to take disagreement rather badly and starting throwing insults.

Check out the level of some of the debate on the Socialist Unity blog if you want examples

But because an old friend and comrade edits the journal of The United Socialist Party (TUSP), because this (very) small group was set up by those involved in the Liverpool Dockers strike and because there needs to be more debate about why the anti-war movement failed to live up to its potential, I've written the following response to a TUSP statement from December 2007 on the need for a 'mass workers' party'.

Please, not Another Party Invite!

Gather together a group of old comrades and soon they’ll be talking with sadness and longing about the triumphs and defeats of the past. Anyone who has been a political activist since their teens and has now turned forty knows this is true; we’ve all done it. The defeats, unfortunately, have been so many that the temptation to mythologize even the smallest of rare victories is hard to resist. But basing an entire political perspective on harking back to a fabled golden age and discounting anything new if it fails to fit in with those fallible memories is a particular talent of large sections of the Left in Britain.

So, having read for the first time a copy of ‘Socialist Studies’ magazine given to me by an old friend and comrade, it was therefore very disappointed to read The United Socialist Party statement setting out its case for the need to create a ‘mass workers party’. Notwithstanding some sound analysis on capitalism’s international crisis, the statement draws some alarmingly simplistic conclusions about the anti-war movement and new movements such as those that embraced horizontalidad in Argentina. And it rather fails to make a convincing case for its central argument – that the setting up of another ‘mass workers party’ is, in the words used in the statement’s title, “the main issue of the day”.

The main issue? I know of no independent socialists and campaigners, the very people who in the past have dropped out in disgust from either the Labour Party or one of the many factional left groups, who would make such a bold assertion. A new party may be the main issue for the increasingly dwindling numbers that make up the Trotskyist Left: indeed party-building has arguably always been their main preoccupation, if not the overriding doctrine of the faithful. Little wonder, then, in the face of yet another lost opportunity, there were five competing events on 17 November 2007, all purporting to launch THE new party of the working class. But why does the Left continually fall back onto setting up a new party as the apparently unavoidable first step to renewing itself?

A cynic might argue that it’s because the Left has frankly had so much practice, given its track record. But at least one possibility is that this is the way things have always been done. Falling back on the old and familiar is tempting even if it has consistently failed in the past: what might be characterised as the ‘reaching for the Bolshevik template’. Each of the five events last year offered their participants the comforting possibility of a new beginning, a clean slate and in most cases, the absence of former comrades who have ‘lost their way’. In most cases this also meant a smaller gathering of activists. Nevertheless, I’m sure all those who gathered last year at one of November’s Left conferences believed it was a purer gathering: one that, against all the evidence of the Left’s continuous mitosis and factionalism over the last forty years, would this time be different.

Starting afresh almost always means avoiding too any recognition or analysis that it is not just the allies we make, or the “downplaying in practice… of the importance of the working class”, or even the soul-destroying sectarianism, that alone have caused a collapse of former attempts at party-building. There is at least a possibility that the top-down, hierarchical and authoritarian models of political organisation that are so prevalent within the Left, that indeed are in my view central to the concept of ‘the party’, have played an equally important role, particularly in alienating those who have walked away. It’s a possibility that is almost always ignored and it’s certainly one that TUSP’s statement, which talks about a ‘mass workers’ party’ without giving any hint of its character or organisation, fails to address.

So let’s look at whether putting the business of party building is itself an obstacle to encouraging ordinary people to embrace socialist ideas, by looking at the anti-war movement. TUSP’s statement is correct in acknowledging the broad popular support for anti-war movements across the world in 2003, culminating in the massive marches worldwide that brought over a million people on the streets on London. It is quite wrong, however, to argue that “the methods of middle class protest were tested in the movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq and were found to be inadequate.” Whilst it is certainly true that ‘the state loves a parade’, one that does nothing to change anything tangible in terms of the functioning of power, attempting to characterise the huge march on 15 February 2003 as “middle class protest” is to enormously downplay its significance.

The prelude to the invasion of Iraq was an exhilarating time. For a brief moment, those who participated in the anti-war movement in Britain genuinely believed that they could do more than simply bear witness. People felt they could actually stop British involvement in the war in Iraq, despite Tony Blair’s messianic belief that he alone knew what was right and wrong. There was ample evidence around the country of optimism, spontaneity and fizzing energy from working class people who had never been involved in campaigning before. As a result, there was also genuine panic in government ranks as it prepared for the vote in Parliament in March 2003; one that led to the biggest Labour rebellion against Blair and that was carried with the support of the Tories.

So why did that energy and enthusiasm dissipate? The invasion itself undoubtedly slowed the momentum of the anti-war movement. The naively optimistic, those who believed the war in Iraq could itself be completely prevented, were bitterly disappointed despite the ample evidence that the drive to war had little to do with events in Baghdad but was driven by neo-conservative ideology in Washington, which had long planned to remake the Middle East for the benefit of international capitalism and the security of Israel.

But the most prominent players in the anti-war movement, the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and the Socialist Workers Party that dominated it, must also bear a large measure of responsibility. Not unlike the Bush administration’s post-invasion occupation, it had no Plan B. There was no apparent recognition that a movement facing a long haul needs roots, that local groups that might be better placed to underpin the spontaneity and energy that brought so many out onto the streets needed support. Instead, time and resources were devoted to organising the same central London protest, over and over again, which quickly amounted to little more than bearing witness and was essentially a parade that the state could comfortably tolerate.

Why did this happen? Largely because the senior figures in the Socialist Workers Party who controlled decision-making in the StWC had come to see themselves as the movement’s ‘leaders’, or perhaps a better word might be ‘vanguard’. They were the generals who believed they could mobilise and direct an army of hundreds of thousands, even when the decline in numbers on each subsequent march made it evident that anti-war movement didn’t want to be led in this way. And to prevent any challenge to their ‘leadership’, spontaneity and energy were actively discouraged: the leaders alone knew what was right and wrong, as is so often the case. Local Stop the War groups contracted and local campaigns that were not SWP dominated were ignored (such as the protests near where I live, against the international arms fair in Canning Town – surely an obvious target for anti-war campaigners). StWC at a local level became little more than an irregular e-mail from a loyal local SWP member, advertising yet another march.

Then, when it was clear that StWC was going nowhere, its ‘leadership’ fell back on the old and familiar and set up the RESPECT party, an uneasy electoral alliance that at best can hardly be described as emerging naturally from debate within the anti-war movement. With the benefit of hindsight, RESPECT was never thought through properly either and its ignominious collapse revealed the same hierarchical and authoritarian approach to leadership and control that so often discredits the Left.

None of this is considered in TUSP’s statement, which instead identifies the failure of the anti-war movement to embrace “the action of the working class and its allies using the weapons of working class struggle, mass strikes and refusal to transport munitions and military stores” as “the best way to fight militarism and war.” This is the kind of demand that sounds good but is meaningless idealism in the context of the current position of the Left and the trade union movement. It also seems to be based on the classic Marxist assumption that working class identities are determined solely by our jobs and occupations, which leads me to the TUSP’s statement’s fundamentally misunderstand the significance of the economic and political crisis in Argentina in 2001-2003.

Criticising writers like Naomi Klein, the “fashionable theoreticians of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement”, for attempting to draw conclusions from the popular working-class movements that emerged in Argentina, is easy when the only conclusion you are willing to draw is that these movements failed for want of a ‘mass workers’ party’. If success or failure were the only measure of working class resistance to an enemy as powerful as capitalism, we’d all have given up in despair years ago. However, the most important impact of the movements that occupied factories, organised protests and set up neighbourhood assemblies is not what they achieved, but how they responded to the economic collapse created by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The spontaneous demonstrations that began in Argentina in December 2001 were more than simply calling for the “removal of all the corrupt politicians” of the day, although that was the undoubted starting point. This is a misrepresentation of Klein’s analysis. The movements that emerged from these protests were instead both in opposition to the period of neo-liberalism that had begun with the military coup in 1976 and reflected the disillusionment in the 1990s with forms of democracy within all political parties as institutions.

Horizontalidad (horizontalism), the idea that these movements are most closely associated with, is a specific rejection of the idea of political parties, of leaders and representatives, of those who command and those who obey. It is not some form of new ideology but a non-idealised way of people relating to one another in a directly democratic manner and working towards decisions collectively. It was undoubtedly a more difficult and time-consuming means of organisation than having a small group of leaders making all the decisions but the result was the creation of linked movements, some that later folded but many that continue to this day, which responded to the 2001 crisis in practical ways. These ranged from occupied but functioning factories to neighbourhood assemblies, piquetero (picket) groups that blocked roads, popular education centres, the Movement of Unemployed Workers and neighbourhood kitchens. Crucially though, horizontalism helped to define working class identities not simply through people’s jobs and occupations but also through the relationships between each other and through solidarity beyond the workplace. It had a particular impact on the participation of women, who had been largely sidelined from political activism but who made up the majority of the new movements that were created in 2001. I’d recommend reading the oral histories in Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, edited by Marina Sitrin, for a better understanding of the first-hand experiences of this new method of organising.

Whilst the circumstances that led to the growth of horizontalism may be peculiar to Argentina’s history, the methods of organising that developed point to some important lessons for the Left in this country, lessons that the TUSP statement should perhaps not so easily dismiss. Are hierarchical and authoritarian forms of organisation really the only option, especially as they have failed so badly and so often in the past? Why do we need ‘leadership’ and another rigid programme as the starting point, when both have proven so divisive and such an obstacle to collaboration? Do we have to always fall back on the old and familiar, always ‘reaching for the Bolshevik template’ and dismissing anything new that fails to fit within it, simply because it’s easier and less time-consuming? Is solidarity more than just an issue for organised labour in confrontation with capitalism, or also an antidote to individualism and competition for dominance and control, a way of conducting ourselves that should be an integral part of how working class movements operate on a day-to-day basis? And if so, why do we need one ‘mass workers’ party’ when a ‘movement of movements’ is an equally realistic possibility?

Whilst much of the organised Left has continued to repeat its mistakes, stuck rigidly to its favoured means of organisation and, in doing so, too often undermined and demoralised movements such as those against war, it has failed to progress and arguably has shrunk further. Few would deny that increasingly it has become distrusted by many potential allies, which is why so many activists have looked elsewhere for people to work with and ways to organise. Indeed, whilst there are comrades I respect enough to spend time writing a 2000+ word discussion article, there are plenty more that I would probably think twice about ever working with again. Multiply that by the number of independent socialists and campaigners who have quit or drifted away from the mainstream Left and there’s some measure of the problem that Left organisations currently face.

If anything is “the main issue of the day”, that must be pretty near the top.

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