A moment for revolutionary ambition

You can make opportunities
You can make opportunities

This piece by Tom Walker first appeared on the International Socialist Network’s site. We are republishing it here because we strongly agree with it.

2013 was, to put it mildly, a bad year for the far left in Britain. It began with the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) bursting out publicly, and ended with the second mass resignation from that party after a year-long battle over the basic principles of women’s liberation.

This essay is about how, as 2014 begins, we can move on and build something better. It is primarily addressed to the latest wave of resignees, and is based on my own experiences of the past year, as someone who resigned from the SWP in January 2013 and was involved in founding the International Socialist Network after the first mass resignation in March. I don’t speak for the IS Network (I’m sure plenty of IS Network members will disagree with much of this) and I certainly don’t intend to tell you what to do. But hopefully my writing this will let you learn from my experiences – and from my mistakes.

What do you mean, ambition? 

Let’s start with the central point. Consider a few numbers. The SWP’s membership figures are much disputed, but while there may still be a higher number paying subs, I feel reasonably confident from reported aggregate attendances that its active membership is now below 1,000 – and likely to shrink further. Its closest “competitor”, the Socialist Party, is generally thought to be slightly smaller than that. There is little else of any size. Your proto-group is, at least in theory, already in third place.

The far left, then, is small – much smaller than we previously believed it to be. A group of a few hundred might not seem very many, yet it is enough to put you into contention. A group of 400-500 would seem quite large, in a relative sense. A few hundred more and you’d have a serious chance of challenging for the top spot, especially if your organisation was young and dynamic versus one that…well, isn’t. There is nothing that says we have to remain in our small groups – as if it’s only the SWP that can be the biggest.

Of course, it’s not some kind of league table. Becoming the largest group isn’t an end in itself. But if you have left the SWP, you have clearly concluded that it is not fit for purpose. Therefore, surely, the task we face is to attempt to replace the SWP. This doesn’t mean founding an “SWP Mark II” – far from it: it means looking for a way to build something of an equivalent size and profile, but on a much better basis, having learned the lessons of the SWP crisis. The argument of this essay is that such an organisation is within reach – if you are willing to take the initiative. Nothing about what happens next is inevitable.

“Slow down!”

The most common objection to the above is not so much the principle of it as the speed. This argument has been and remains strong in the IS Network, and clearly has some weight among the former SWP opposition as well. We need to take it slow, the argument goes – we have just been through a draining factional battle, and left a party we’ve been in for, in some cases, decades. Before we do anything wider, we need time to think – we need to clarify our own politics.

My intent is not to caricature this argument – it is a serious point. On leaving the SWP, people experience a combination of a parallax shift, demoralisation, a newfound sense of freedom, grief, anger, and what some might call political disorientation, though I’d pose it more positively as an openness to new and different ideas. In this situation it is sorely tempting to retreat into your shell, read a pile of books a mile high and attempt to discover yourself anew. Indeed, I’d never suggest you shouldn’t read lots of books and explore a much wider horizon of revolutionary politics. But I need to introduce you to your number one enemy: drift.

Drift is, in essence, caused by reflection without activity. Let’s look at the IS Network’s experience. A relatively significant number of people left the SWP, signed up for the network, and then were never heard from again. Why did this happen? In the early days (and do take these as criticisms of myself rather than aimed at others) we did not pay enough attention to the most persistent complaint in the network, namely, “the IS Network doesn’t do anything”. Personally I used to respond, “You are the IS Network – do whatever you want to do,” but such appeals to the DIY spirit didn’t cut much ice. Individuals were doing plenty, but often didn’t really see the point of being in a group if everything was left to them as individuals.

What they were flagging up is that, while they like the idea of a loose network and certainly didn’t want an overbearing apparatus breathing down their necks, they really expected a higher level of organisation. Ex-SWP members are used to being, at the very least, heavily prompted. Members were crying out for regular phone calls, more emails, text messages, meetings to go to, a publication, and everything else we have been used to – a bit of direction! Some get along fine without this kind of thing, but many more do not. We spent too much time saying, “What’s the rush?” And – if we are honest – we shrank as a consequence.

Two hundred members can so easily become 100, or lower – in fact this is a recurring feature in the history of splits. Whatever their professed intentions, people do not hang around for long waiting for things to get started. Before you know it, you are too small to sustain regular meetings in most towns, too small to make an impact, too small to test your ideas in practice – and, in something of a catch 22, too small to be an attractive prospect for people to join.

Any talk of urgency tends to get people’s backs up, particularly because of the way the concept was stretched to its breaking point inside the SWP, but comrades, you do not have the luxury of years to get a new group up and running and active after a split. If you want to avoid drift, you have a matter of months. You can say “What’s the rush?” but a large number of your members and potential members will say, “This is going nowhere, I’m off.”

I don’t want to sound apocalyptic: the IS Network has achieved things, particularly in its openness to new theory and to an extent in its internal structure and democracy (the steering committee, to take one example, has guaranteed gender balance, caucus reps and open publication of all its minutes). To look back on its early days is to see how far we’ve come politically on issues such as feminism and intersectionality, neoliberalism and the changing working class, and so on. It has also picked up members beyond the faction it came out of, most of them ex-SWP members of various vintages, who were drawn in by its political direction. As I said at IS Network conference, the network has lots of good ideas – but it lacks the levels of membership and organisation needed to put them into practice. Without being too crude, this is mostly a result of moving too slowly.

Politics first?

The deeper root of the problem is the separation of theory from activity: the notion that we need “a period of discussion”, to achieve clarity, before we can begin to organise. Once this idea takes hold, the analysis is never quite perfect enough, and somehow the time to start organising never comes. Of course, there is also an opposite danger: that we throw ourselves into “mindless activism”, building demonstrations and such in the classic SWP mode, without rethinking the model and its political problems – but I believe this is currently less of a threat. We do not currently suffer from hyperactivism, but from a general lack of activism.

In any case, the way out of this dichotomy is that theory and activity must not be sequential but simultaneous. (You can use the word “dialectic” if you must.) We will not build better theory through “time off” from activity, but through experimenting with new types of activity and drawing theoretical conclusions as we go. Of course you may feel you need some time with your partner, relative or children, or just with your own thoughts, and no one should ever begrudge you that after what you’ve been through. But many will find that activity is, so to speak, “the best medicine”.

To give a personal example, after I left the SWP I did plenty of thinking and writing – on what went wrong, on Leninism, you know the kind of thing. But it was only after I got involved in Left Unity, and began working to build it as a new party of the left – debating with and campaigning alongside current and former members of various left groups, ex-Labour people, ex-Greens and people who’d not been a member of anything before – that my politics began once more to crystallise. You may not be too keen on my current positions, but the point stands: political clarity does not appear in a vacuum.

Clarity is, in any case, a slippery concept. In the early days of the IS Network, and now again among the recent SWP leavers, there is the idea that we will clarify our ideas over time – that whatever we set up, the most important question is not organisational but the politics we share. Well, yes and no. While we may all be on a journey towards clarity, we are also travelling on different trajectories. In the IS Network, some have become more orthodox Trotskyist, some more left communist, some more anarchist. Some see the best hope as the construction of a new approach fit for 2013, based on contemporary theoretical work instead of a return to any particular canon. (Yes, I see myself in the latter group.) As we followed the logic of our new courses, the political space between us has widened.

While you may feel you have a surer footing in the IS tradition, don’t think that something similar won’t happen to you. There are two factors driving it. First, you no longer have the artificial consensus that prevailed in the SWP, where the only way to disagree with anything was through tactical nuances – you’re now free to outline your own direction, no matter how “heretical”. This is absolutely a good thing, but it also lends itself to rapid travel in different directions. Second, it’s obvious even at this remove that there was never one unitary opposition inside the party: the various declared factions were in reality coalitions of informal groupings based in part on shared politics but also significantly on social circles. It seems more likely than not that these informal groupings will continue to develop their politics in different ways. That dynamic could, if we are not careful, see the various ex-SWP groupings split into a dozen shards within a few years. (Look at the fate of the fragments of the Workers Revolutionary Party to see where this can end.)

Being too specific

Even if it were possible to set up a group of the former faction members based on a very high level of political agreement, would it be desirable? If a new group is too specific, too much a product of this factional battle, then it will find it difficult to recruit beyond that milieu. To put it bluntly, there is only one way its membership of such groups can go: down. An ability to incorporate a diversity of viewpoints, on the other hand, gives a group a fighting chance at growing.

This means a spirit of heterodoxy – there cannot be one single political “line” that everyone is expected to hold to. An organisation that is going to grow in the 21st century (in particular, in the age of the internet) cannot dedicate itself to the construction of a new orthodoxy, and cannot be a monolith. Young people, shaped by online discussions, the student movements and Occupy, will either refuse to join such a group or begin to break it apart if they do.

Hold your horses…are you advocating, gasp, permanent factions? No – and please, let us leave permanent factions where they belong, in the central committee’s big box of red herrings. Factions formed in the SWP in recent years not because there was too much freedom, but because there was too little – if you wanted to disagree about anything in an organised way, forming a faction was the only way to do it. In a healthier organisation, it is perfectly possible to, for example, agree with somebody (or informal grouping) about anti-fascism just as vehemently as you disagree with them about the trade unions, then come back at the next meeting and find your positions reversed. Factions are not the same thing as open disagreement and debate.

None of this means, either, that I am advocating a “talking shop”. The aim of our discussions must be unity around specific, agreed actions, as the result of a productive debate between differing perspectives that leads to the best achievable synthesis. It means actively looking for commonalities as a basis for action. You already have “camps” of a sort, and it’s little use denying that: the question is how to structure the debate to avoid them becoming entrenched – and to avoid minorities being harshly treated. It is necessary to draw out not only the areas of disagreement but the areas of agreement, in particular those that can lead to common activity.

There is one other corollary here: a group that can tolerate differences internally will soon find that its differences with other sensible far-left groups no longer appear so insurmountable. Many are assuming that you (the former faction) have a set of shared politics, and that this is different to what you assume are the shared politics of the IS Network. Neither assumption stands up. In truth there are more differences within our groups than between them. This is what gives an opportunity to aim for a revolutionary regroupment.

The road to regroupment

The best antidote to the danger of fragmentation discussed above is surely a conscious and sustained drive towards the maximum achievable unity. We cannot simply hope that a joint organisation will emerge from working together – unity does not come out of nowhere, even with common work: it requires conscious and sustained effort. We have to deliberately attempt to wear down the divides that have unfortunately begun to appear. The best way to do this, in my view, is to build a pluralist organisation – that is, one open to revolutionaries beyond those who were recently in the SWP.

The IS Network has been talking about revolutionary regroupment since its inception, and participating in unity talks and joint work with other groups. What we have in common with the groups we have worked most closely with, Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance, is that they have rejected the road of the left sect – in fact they are already modest regroupment initiatives in and of themselves. The most significant results of this so far have been a part-fusion with Anticapitalist Initiative, whose London members have recently joined the IS Network and whose conference voted to continue on the path towards full fusion, and the development of a joint free magazine between the three groups, The Exchange.

It’s no secret that if I had my way we’d be in one organisation already, but all the same the process of unity continues to move along – and all involved have expressed their desire for you to be part of it. Socialist Resistance, in its most recent formal letter to the IS Network (11 December 2013), say they believe the best outcome would be “regroupment between our three organisations…along with any new groupings which might come out of the SWP after its conference if they share this kind of perspective. In fact if such groupings did emerge involving them in this process would be an important priority.” We have agreed to hold an open conference on revolutionary unity in March 2014, which is in the process of being organised and, depending on what happens, could prove well timed as a focus for further discussion.

The product of this would not simply be a bigger IS Network (or a bigger Socialist Resistance etc). These groups can be the raw materials of a larger regroupment: a new united revolutionary organisation that would be greater than the sum of its parts, laying down a marker after the SWP crisis and, vitally, drawing in significant numbers who are currently non-aligned. It’s not just about size either – people from other traditions (and no fixed tradition) bring their own rich wells of theory and experience to the table, helping us break out of the orthodoxy we could otherwise lapse into.

I am regularly asked when we’re going to set up such a thing by people who know we’ve been talking about it and want to join it. Importantly, if it was set up on a pluralist and democratic basis, it would be more habitable for such people than any current project – it could be in with a chance of ending or at least curtailing the “revolving door” nature of membership of revolutionary groups. This would be revolutionary ambition: a project with the potential to grow large enough to fill the space described at the start of this article.

Unity without “merger”

Does that mean spending the next year or so in unity talks, talks about unity talks, cautious joint meetings and so on? I see no reason why it needs to. A new group could, instead, take the form of an open invitation: you could say, “We’re setting up a new organisation, and if you agree with these fundamental principles, you are welcome to join, right now.” The specifics would be for you to decide – but we know that we agree, at the very least, not only on the need for revolution, but also on socialism from below, anti-oppression, anti-imperialism and more besides. This already places us in something like 0.001% of society. Do we really need to be any narrower than that?

Within such a framework we could work out further details through democratic debate and discussion. Current members of the other groups mentioned above could be invited to join now and dissolve their groups when they are ready. For what it’s worth, if this happened then I for one would argue for immediate dissolution of the IS Network (in fact, the IS Network has already voted that it would reconstitute itself together with you if the opportunity arose, which isn’t too far off this suggestion). There is little point in our little network – an in my view innovative but essentially half-constituted and unorganised project – acting as a barrier between us. I see no reason why any of the projects IS Network members are involved in, from working in Left Unity to the planned women’s publication, would be stopped or hindered by joining this new group. We should be ready to simply sign up without some extended programme of grand negotiations.

This would not be a “merger” – it would be the founding of a whole new organisation, involving you and us alongside those who are, for the moment, members of other groups. It’s not about you relating to the IS Network, per se, but seizing the moment and setting up something we can all be part of, alongside hopefully hundreds of others beyond our collective ranks.

If I had my time again, I would have pushed for the IS Network to take this kind of form on day one instead of setting itself up as a separate group and then holding “talks” with other groups. After all, if we are serious about setting up a new revolutionary organisation, don’t we need to draw in the widest numbers we can at the earliest opportunity? If you want to replace the SWP, why draw the boundaries of a new group in such a way that it only includes ourselves?

This, in sum, is my message to you. On leaving the SWP you have a moment where nothing is fixed, anything is possible, and all eyes are on what you’re going to do next. This moment does not last forever – to wait is to squander it. What happens this year will shape the far left in Britain for decades to come. You have the opportunity to take the initiative, and to regroup the healthy parts of the revolutionary left around you. If I were in your shoes next weekend, I’d take it. Another left is possible.

1 Comment

  1. This is a very good article. I just want to add a few points about the importance of avoiding what Tom calls ‘drift’ after leaving a left group. My own experience of this process goes back to 1985 when I was in a tendency and later a faction in the FI section whose best known predecessor was the IMG. After several years of being in a tendency fighting for an orientation to the Bennite left the then majority of the group did a 180 degree turn and agreed to relate to these developments in the LP. They did so in an opportunist way and became the uncritical supporters of Benn, Scargill and Livingston. We formed a faction during the latter phases of the Miner’s strike because we were excluded from winning the leadership of the group by an unprincipled coalition of two other tendencies whose only agreement was to keep us at bay. This led to our leaving on the basis that democracy in the group no longer existed.

    We were 109 people, nearly all of whom had been in the tendency for some time. We had two projects: one was to continue our work in the LP by increasing our support for Labour Briefing, the second was to pursue unity discussions with Alan Thornett’s group with whom we had been working in Briefing and with whom we had a common analysis of the defeat of the Miner’s strike.

    We rented a small office, set up the group with a leadership, appointed two full-timers and launched a new journal – ‘International’.

    We also wrote documents on what had gone wrong in the group we had left and successfully fought to be given status in the FI.

    The fusion with Alan Thornett’s group was also carried through – though the fusion conference was not until a year later. This new fused organisation (the ISG) was indeed new, with the WSL’s experiences in the trade union movement complementing the International Group’s experience in campaigns, understanding of the importance of women’s liberation and our allegiance to the FI.

    Lastly this new group attracted others to join.

    So, Tom is right to stress the importance of timescale. It is not possible to hold people together without a project. There are obviously two at present. Left Unity is one (though there may be disagreements about the importance of this) the other is the potential for regroupment. It is indeed time for ‘ambition’!

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