I thought long and hard over writing this blog post because of a number of things – am I being disloyal by writing it? I have thought long and hard about it because I don’t know whether I will change my mind later or not or whether my current state of disaffection has come about due to factors like not being able to see comrades as much as I’d like, having no money, not being able to get to things, etc.
The recent scandals in the SWP have provoked an inevitable bout of navel gazing on the part of the far-left in this country, as if its members don’t do enough of it already. It has reached beyond the SWP and has led to many members of far-left organisations asking serious questions about the leaderships of those organisations, the democracy and accountability within the organisation and ability to respond effectively to a similar situation, how they would themselves respond to a case of this nature – or made people who were already dissatisfied feel more confident in speaking up. I have a lot more to say about all of these things but I am writing this post as a contribution to what I hope will be an ongoing discussion about organisation on the far left in the wake of the SWP scandal.
This blog post is in no way intended to be a criticism of the many good people i know in the SP, or even in the leadership of that organisation. I think there are a lot of things the party does right and I have seen how effective it can be – for example intervening in strikes and helping to organise them in my local area to such an extent that the SP members were branded as troublemakers by their own union.
I do however think there needs to be a serious reevaluation of what’s going on in the far left. At a time when “capitalist crisis” seems at its most extreme for a long time why do we keep failing? Are we actually failing for that matter?
According to some critiques of the left it might not actually be failing at all. Groups like the ICC and the CWO (who publish the “Revolutionary Perspectives” magazine which I can strongly suggest buying) critique the various trotskyist and leninist groups as being part of the “left of capital” and, like the trade unions, acting as a brake on the struggle, wanting to direct it down certain lines (ie being happy with some of the actions at Millbank or other forms of direct action, cooperating with the police, keeping strikes within trade union confines rather than trying to encourage people to seriously extend it) and as well as this promote an unrealistic state capitalist ideology (equating “nationalising X amount of companies” with “socialism” for example) and leaving people who join with some sort of critique of capitalism and class consciousness burnt out and demoralised.
While I would personally perhaps not be as harsh as this, I am sorry to say that I think their criticism has a lot of truth in it. During the last few months since first hearing about Comrade Delta’s sordid exploits and how “democratic centralism” was used to cover them up and silence any opposition, I have been critically looking at trotskyism in general and the SP in particular. In all honesty theoretically I think I am fairly far from trotskyism and probably have more sympathy with council communists like Paul Mattick and his “anti-Bolshevik communism”, part of the central thesis of this is that Lenin’s regime within the party and the country led directly to Stalin and Stalinism and Lenin in fact laid the groundwork for Stalin to consolidate. In reality Lenin and the Bolsheviks hijacked the revolution and where workers had taken control of factories they frequently reinstated the old bosses under a policy of “one-man management” and sidelined the workers’ councils.
However, I don’t think they are entirely right and they are obviously doing some things wrong (or else why would they find it almost impossible to get their memberships out of double figures?) I also think the ICC’s dogmatism on things like anti-fascism and the unions and the way there is very little in the way of an “accessible” (to people who don’t already know about this stuff) introduction that you don’t have to read several times in order to understand it, is probably just as damaging as that of the “left of capital” they’re criticising. The CWO’s position is a lot better and less dogmatic than simply insisting that the members don’t join unions – although while I see relatively little in Revolutionary Perspectives I disagree with, the obvious question is why are they not able to grow and what are they doing to put roots down in w/c communities? Could their criticisms not also apply to these organisations themselves? And is it not the case that even in the party leaderships many people are not motivated by a desire to channel the struggle down meaningless paths on behalf of the bourgeoisie but because they sincerely believe their strategies are right (even if they are wrong?)
I have come to some conclusions which may be controversial but which I think are essential if things are ever going to progress further. I think we actually get a lot of things right as well as wrong. However so much of what we get wrong is based on a flawed understanding of the class struggle which in my view is gonna have to change if things are ever going to get better.
I don’t think that these left wing organisations are completely worthless or that the work that I and many other comrades have done is worthless and I don’t think that they are doomed to be part of the “left of capital” for ever, I do think things could change and an organisation like the SP or even the SWP could keep the good parts and still play a useful part in the class struggle and the struggle against capitalism itself.
There are a load of criticisms that I have but I think ultimately they all stem from one thing. What is that thing?
I think we need to get away from the Bolsheviks and their conception of what a revolutionary party should be like. What the Russian revolution led to in a few years, what was already happening in Russia at the time of Stalin’s “coup” within the Bolshevik party, the fact that somebody like Stalin was able to gain such a position in the first place – should start you thinking critically about how democratic Lenin’s regime really was and just how it was that Stalin was able to take over so easily if “the working class” had really come to power in Russia. I strongly suggest, that if you are interested in the first few years of Bolshevik rule, that you read the book “The Guillotine at Work” by Russian anarchist Grigori Maximov, it shows the true nature of Lenin’s regime. We should stop looking at the Bolshevik party as a model for how revolutions should be for all times and look at current conditions today.
So what does this mean for today then?
I think a lot of the problems are from a certain aspect of Leninism which says that the working class can never attain a “revolutionary consciousness” on its own. Left to their own devices, the working class as a whole can only get “trade union consciousness” and only those within the Leninist party will actually have a revolutionary consciousness. In other words if you just think about all of this stuff on your own without being exposed to Leninism you’ll only think within the limits of supporting your trade union and the most basic forms of solidarity. Lenin advocated a party of “professional revolutionaries” separate from the working class, but whose task would be to convince the masses of the need for revolution – and, of course, the need for leadership by a “revolutionary party”.
While I think that the SP and other trotskyist groups have actually in practice abandoned a lot of this thinking, which in my view is a good thing unless you want an organisation like the Sparts who if given any sort of power would create a new North Korea, you can still see signs of it. When for example they talk about how “consciousness is lagging” because of the low levels of industrial action and the like. In actual fact this is confusing the idea that people don’t really know what’s going on with the idea of accepting the solutions proposed for it by the SP and other Marxist groups. In my experience people are perfectly well aware of what’s going on.
The language itself tends to alienate people – another comrade said to me that this talk of “layers” and “advanced consciousness” and so on was alienating to people and indicated a subculture that had retreated into only talking to each other rather than talking and listening to the people they are supposed to represent. Outside of a left wing bubble people don’t know what the hell we’re on about. In addition the procedures of trade unionism, “motions” and so on at meetings aren’t something which many people these days, especially young people, often know a great deal about. It serves to alienate a lot of people and in so doing exclude them from things and put them off. Not an appealing thought if you want to overthrow capitalism and replace it with something better – what makes them think that what would replace it would be better?
In addition I think this whole idea of “consciousness” affects other aspects of their politics as well. For example, the opposition to direct action and the initially less than supportive reaction to the Fortnum and Mason occupiers and the Millbank protesters on the grounds that it is alienating, on the grounds that it’s “not organised” and that it will put people off – especially right-leaning trade unionists. In my experience the opposite is often true – people who may not agree with the need for “revolution” right here and now or may not even disagree with, for example, some of the cuts may still be inspired by direct action as we saw at Fortnum and Mason’s on March 26th, they might think “good for them” and be horrified by the disproportionate police response to it. I think some of this opposition stems not necessarily as some anarchists would say, because they weren’t in control of it, but because of this “level of consciousness” idea and the idea of “not jumping ahead of the class” and that people must be introduced to revolutionary ideas slowly. In reality some people who aren’t in the least interested in socialist politics are still impressed by direct action and have been surprised by my (albeit somewhat lukewarm) opposition to it!
I think part of this also stems from a desire to lump for example, “anarchists” in together and assume that all anarchists and all direct action is like those twats who blew up the signalling boxes in Bristol. To caricature their positions and say that they’re all opposed to “organisation” and so on whereas there have been some very successful organisations organised on anarchist lines like Solfed and the IWW.
In reality the whole “jumping ahead of the class” idea is a bit suspect too, as well as being very patronising. The experience of history, as well as my own experience on stalls and talking to people when trying to sell the paper etc, suggests that it may in fact be the other way round – when revolutions do happen, the “revolutionaries” desperately try and catch up with events and with the class they’re supposed to be “leading”. The fact that workers are not flocking to join trade unions, too, is not a sign of “lagging consciousness” in my opinion but out of cynicism with these organisations and what they represent, as well as the fact that they have become increasingly irrelevant to many people’s lives. People do not necessarily think that a largely symbolic strike which lasts 1 or 2 days is the best way to struggle when none of the strikes such as November 30th etc have been successful and led within a few days to the capitulation of the trade unions, even if they’re “given a lead”! Can you blame people for not being wildly enthusiastic about these types of actions if they have worse than no effect?
In my experience it is easier sometimes to say outright that capitalism has failed than to try and convince people of “transitional demands” which people know full well are unachievable – even the most basic reforms are largely unachievable under capitalism and so much of the class struggle has become a desperate losing battle to prevent even the most basic living standards from being lost. People know this and I think to some people the idea of capitalism having failed and a new system being needed probably sounds more realistic than saying that the minimum wage needs to be raised to £10 an hour or whatever when there is no guarantee that there will even be a minimum wage within a couple of years at all. Again this comes down to this idea about consciousness. And people within “revolutionary” parties can be more “backward” if you want to look at it that way than the average person in the street!
I know I have a few backward ideas and probably a few more that I haven’t even thought about or know are “backward”, being a Marxist doesn’t exactly prevent it! Why not just say you disagree with somebody, why do they have to be part of a backward layer? Doesn’t it just promote even more of a separation between you and them and prevent you considering their arguments and why – if they’re wrong – why they would think so? Why do they see themselves and their interests the way they do? What is it about the backward explanation that’s more convincing than yours? It may even be that you have to look again at who’s really backward?
I am also unconvinced that top-down electoral lashups are the way forward. They are unlikely to be successful unless you get a George Galloway type situation where one person is elected on the grounds of their personality. I am not convinced that trying to create another reformist party along the lines of an “improved” version of the Labour Party is the answer. But let’s for arguement’s sake say that it is. In that case why not try to put down roots in the local community outside elections, make a name known for it outside elections and transform that party into something other than an electoral vehicle for existing groups? Why not try to build a few local successes on the back of successful local campaigns and then build them in to something of a federation from the bottom up, rather than letting union bureaucrats and other left groups dictate the agenda? The most successful campaigns the SP have had are ones where we already had a local support base in the area and did just that on the back of existing campaigns we were involved in – we should be continuing to do this. One real strength the SP’s electoral strategy, despite its problems, has had is the fact that by and large they haven’t capitulated to nationalism or communalism or played the sectarian politics game like RESPECT and George Galloway have. Worse than “socialism in one country” is the idea of reformism for a few identity politics groups!
I have a lot more to say about the issue of the trade unions and electoral strategy and so on, and I’ve already gone on enough about the theoretical side of things, so this is a topic for another blog post. I’m going to end this post by putting a few proposals forward.
- The slate system needs to be abolished. Despite the arguments in favour of the slate system, that it discourages competition, that encourages a group of people to work together in favour of the good of the party, I think that what it does is reproduce a bureaucratic leadership and since nobody ever puts forward an alternative slate, makes removing them extremely difficult. We are told that if we want we could put forward an alternative slate but in practice nobody ever does and it would cause huge controversy in the party if somebody did.
In addition it encourages an unthinking and uncritical mindset because people tend to see some of the names on there and if they recognise them they will think that the others on there who they don’t know must be all right and not question it.
- In fact the whole system of voting within ours and other trotskyist groups needs to be completely reformed. The idea that the outgoing CC in particular can appoint a new one and all that needs doing after that is just for it to get approved by the membership is in general deeply problematic . It’s not really democratic at all. How can we say that socialism would be more democratic if the revolutionary party is a mini replica of what we want the country to be like under socialism, yet there are few ways of getting rid of the leaders?Resolutions should be voted on under a secret ballot rather than a show of hands and each time people should be aware of exactly what it is that we are voting on. Ballot papers should be sent to every member of the party rather than people who have the time to physically be at the conference when voting is taking place. A show of hands could work in “one man and his dog” groups but anything larger than that, it’s not really democratic is it?
- Related to the question of electoral reform within the party is the tendency within many, perhaps most left wing groups, for an elite to form at the top who are insulated, comparatively speaking, from the conditions of life of the party membership, and from the class as a whole. Living in a bourgeois society tends to recreate the same hierarchies you see in other organisations under capitalism. While I do not think this could be eliminated completely this tendency could perhaps be minimised by imposing rules on how many times people are allowed to serve on the EC, perhaps for a maximum of two years, with a set period until they are allowed to stand again for election.Full-timers and EC members should be subject to recall by the membership as well.
- Encourage people to be critical. By that I mean by encouraging people to read widely outside party literature, not only the old “classics” by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky but also from other traditions – and other left groups – as well. I think the Marxist discussion groups set up by the SP around the country are a very important initiative. There should be more real debates within the paper and where the party has got it badly wrong people should be encouraged to say so not just within the branch but at every level.
- If you’re going to have a paper, it shouldn’t have only politics in it. It should contain things which appeal to people who don’t have that much of an interest in politics – for example, culture, cartoons, humour, stories, sport, TV and so on. The Labour Party and even the old Communist Party was able to put down roots in local communities through Labour Clubs and cultural events not solely related to politics, anarchist groups have done this in Greece and Italy through squatted social centres and so on. Worryingly the people trying to do this type of community grassroots organising seem to be the extreme right and they seem to be having a lot of success at it.
- Last but not least it must be a safe space and party members MUST feel able to report troublesome incidents or raise criticisms without being subject to direct or indirect pressures. I think that the idea of causing damage to the party must have been a factor in stopping the Comrade Delta incidents coming out for such a long time in the SWP, even when it was not stated outright there would be a feeling that speaking up would have been disloyal. I think the whole idea of democratic centralism and “Leninist discipline” has something to do with this, but perhaps even more than this is the fact that as a Leninist party is viewed as the vehicle for revolution whatever “helps” the party is often deemed to be good and something like openly exposing a rape scandal is deemed to be bad. People need to feel that if they report something something will get done about it, and they will be BELIEVED – and if they leave the party for whatever reason it won’t be blamed on “feminism” or some other bogeyman (or woman).The personal is political and any attempt to view sexual violence as something that’s “outside of their remit” can only have a toxic effect and call into question the entire credentials of the organisation – people will rightly ask why they should support a version of “justice” that is, as we can see from what’s happened in the SWP, no better than bourgeois justice, and actually could be worse.As it happens the SP are far better on this point than other organisations but a lot more could still be done. In addition there is the question of what to do about members expelled over sexual or other misconduct, does the party have a duty to alert other revolutionary organisations or the local community? There needs to be an open discussion about this.
This has taken me a long time to write and think about and I would appreciate anyone’s comments or thoughts about it. I hope this can serve as a useful contribution to a debate which many of us are thinking about and having at the moment.