This is a guest post by Mark Perryman
On the eve of the carcrash of last weekend’s SWP conference, which has consumed all the anger and energy of a small fragment of the British Left for the past week , Alex Snowdon of Counterfire posted an assessment of the state of the ‘Revolutionary Left’ on his blog here. I hold no brief for Counterfire, they do some things with a degree of flair and imagination, other things not so well and I’m personally unfamiliar with the backhistory of the key figures involved. Nevertheless I would cite Alex’s piece as an interesting and thought-provoking piece, reflective too of a recent online debate at the Socialist Unity Website. Unfortunately by and large though this isn’t being reflected in any kind of wider, more organic discussion, the reasons for that I’ll return to at the end of this contribution below.
Since the Socialist Unity and Alex Snowdon piece’s appeared the SWP fallout has erupted of course. Within a small circle this is of some considerable import, but beyond? Laurie Penny’s excellent New Statesman piece points to some potential broader ramifications for Left practice, reminiscent of the Beyond The Fragments debate of over thirty years ago. Spookily the book is being reissued in an updated edition in March of this year by Merlin Press perhaps now to be read by a new generation of Left activists with fresh interest.
Richard Seymour’s equally excellent post on his blog is of interest to non-SWP members for different reasons. It is internally focussed yet reveals the basic problem with enforcing Democratic Centralism short of a party holding state power. Without the full force of the state to wield this Leninist-inclined structure depends on a high degree of collective self-discipline, which has immense strengths when it holds but once that ‘spell’ is broken is shattered entirely. Richard is boldly asserting the right to dissent from a majority decision because he believes that this particular majority decision was corrupted. Either he will be part of forming a new majority, agree to abide by the former majority’s decision, be expelled or leave. There is no other end game, he and the SWP must know that.
Both Laurie and Richard’s contributions hint at the broader debate that perhaps should be taking place and this is where Alex Snowdon”s piece is most useful as a beginning
Some brief points then in response to Alex.
Firstly on issues on terminology. I assume by ‘revolutionary left’ Alex means mainly a Trotskyist influenced left , I would also include the Communist Party and its off-shoots, Respect and other outside Left formations. Where does the Labour Left fit in? And the Red-Greens in the Green Party?
Secondly, the European dimension. In Greece the Left are doing very well, with good results in France and Holland too. In all three countries though the Far Right are also doing very well. In Germany and Italy the Left is facing significant setbacks. In the Irish Republic, Spain and Portugal the position is stagnation at best. In Scotland there are new signs of hope with the two SNP MSPs now standing as independents but the legacy of the SSP implosion remains.
It is vital to learn from these experiences across Europe but it is wrong to generalise and even more wrong to only listen to those there who share your own tendency’s viewpoint at home. Any Left grouping here that engaged seriously with the European Left would be a significant step forward.
Beyond Europe advances in Latin America remains key, the Arab Spring in the balance. Internationalism will be shaped by both, the practical lessons for the home Left however are less clear.
Now to Alex’s notes on the ‘Revolutionary Left’
I take it he would include the SWP, SP, Counterfire, AWL, Socialist Resistance. We might add the CPB and Respect.
These can count membership numbers in hundreds, the SWP in thousands. There are other groups but these are mainly in the tens of members.
None of this list are enjoying anything resembling dynamic growth. Most do at least one or two things of some importance , eg The Marxism Festival, Coalition of Resistance, The Morning Star, winning in Bradford West. None have anything resembling a significant footprint in society nor a local base of any great measure either (that might develop in Bradford for Respect but not much sign of it yet).
Beyond the parameters of this list the Green Party isn’t making much of a breakthrough and with Labour shamefully announcing it is to prioritise targeting Caroline Lucas’s seat has a real fight on to hold on to its MP. The Greens though can claim some kind of local base, Brighton, Norwich and elsewhere. However despite the efforts of ‘Green Left’ ,the Red-Green element is scarcely visible, and mostly The Green Party appeals to voters as a left-wing Liberal-Democrat Party (I don’t mean that as an insult, more a shorthand electoral characterisation).
Inside Labour Compass has a strong media profile and does some interesting things. But its version of pluralism looks mainly rightwards, to left-wing Lib Dems, most recently here and it hasn’t the activist base that the impressively large size, numbering tens of thousands, of the Compass email subscription list might indicate it would be able to boast. The more orthodox Labour Left depends on a declining and ageing group of MPs which is most unlikely to either grow or be renewed. Neither Compass nor the Labour Hard Left have any kind of meaningful strategy to shift Labour Leftwards.
For those who don’t join up to any such group, the web is full of sites and blogs to gravitate towards, or indeed set one up yourself if the fancy takes you. But, including Red Pepper, few have any kind of life outside online contributions and none have any sort of social footprint.
The latter is made the more severe, and is partially caused by, the lack of any mass movement, certainly on the scale and with the roots of Stop the War, The Miners Strike, The Poll Tax, CND or Anti Nazi League. We cannot simply wish that lack out of existence, we have to address the reasons.
UK Uncut remains incrediby dynamic and creative but has been fatally wounded by the March 2011 criminalisation of protest at the Fortnum & Masons action and elsewhere. Student protest has to date proved transitory, the marketisation of HE threatens to consumerise educaton and it is unclear if any resistance wll take shape rather than doleful resignation, from staff and students. Occupy has come and gone, it also remains unclear whether what is left reaches far beyond a pre-existing milieu of diract actionists, brave yet socially marginal.
Where does this leave us? With a left-wing audience, bigger and less tied to Labour than ever before. But neither the ideas and forms of either Alex’s ‘revolutionary left’ nor my broader definition, appeal to many of this constituency.
It is remarkably difficult to develop a dialogue between contesting experiences, some of which are fiercely competitive and shaped by fallouts, splits and expulsions but this is a vital process which must also engage with those on the Outside Left yet entirely disconnected from the organised, parties of the Left’s. A broader, outsider, dissident leftism is much bigger and broader than the combined membership of all these small groups added together. Yet our aspirations are shaped for a Left we’d like to be part of are inevitably affected by these experiences of an organised left we’re not part of. Its called a dialectic. It is unlikely, in fact impossible, that a single group could construct such a process but without one it is hard to see a better Left emerging.
Which returns me to the SWP fallout. In the past week I have had two lengthy conversations, one with a current (and in terms of the party conference, a dissident) SWP member and one ex. The conversations were open-ended, enriched by their experience and opinions, and will remain confidential. I’ve never made any bones of my respect for some of what the SWP does at its best and my deep-seated criticism of much else. I’ve never been a member, and as a ‘Euro’ in my long past CP days might have been regarded almost as a hostile element, a wobbly reformist perhaps would have been the nicest way of putting it. None of this infected our conversations. We need a practice that gets past the petty-squabbles, the name-calling, the arcane historic point-scoring. We need a space where instead of trying in the first instance to build a party we simply have a conversation about how we arrived in this place, the twists and turns on the way, the lessons learned, the better Left most of us want to be part of.
If we can begin to detect the recognition that such a conversation, however difficult, is key then that would at least be a start towards establishing how.