If there’s one thing the Trotskyist left is known for, it’s splitting. “What if we could do something different?” asks Tom Walker.
I write as a member of the International Socialist Network, a group founded by those who left the Socialist Workers Party earlier this year. Given the scale of the crisis over rape inside that organisation, and its continuing degeneration since, this was a split that was clearly justified. We are proud of what we have built already in the short time since. Yet we are still conscious that we have added, yet again, to the total number of groups on the far left – another flavour for the ’57 varieties’, even if we think it’s quite a tasty one.
That’s why, from its beginning, the IS Network has been talking about unity. At our first national meeting in April, we voted to seek talks on a new realignment of the revolutionary left, and to respond positively to requests to participate from Socialist Resistance and the Anticapitalist Initiative. Since then we have not only held several rounds of talks but started holding joint meetings of the three groups in localities where there is crossover.
At this point you might ask: why these groups in particular? After all, there is a whole menu to choose from on the left. I think what unites these groups is some basic convergences of approach: we have learned the same lessons, albeit at different times and in different ways.
One of the greatest differences between the IS Network and our former party is the recognition that feminism must be central to our politics. There must be no place for sexism in our organisation, and this can never be treated as somehow a ‘secondary’ issue. Linked is the key importance of gender balance on all elected bodies, and of self-organised caucuses in making sure we fight all forms of oppression, including within the network itself.
We’ve also learned about the failure of the ‘sect’ model of organisation. A lot flows from this. We need to discuss our differences openly, not say that internal arguments are for our eyes only. We must reject the King Canutes who demand ‘democratic centralist’ control over what members write on Facebook, and their suspicion of the internet (and novelty in general). We cannot ever have debate closed down by bureaucratic diktat. As the three groups’ joint statement after the latest round of talks put it, we need to ‘move away from the top down and monolithic conception of revolutionary organisation’.
This was a model that, let’s face it, was unappealing even before the SWP leadership hit the self-destruct button. The party had utterly failed to grow despite years of protracted capitalist crisis and the new resistance it has sparked – it was able to recruit some activists from these struggles, but it proved too inhospitable an environment for the vast majority of them.
We need to look, really look, at the world once more – not refracted through dogma and long-stale formula, but as it is, as we experience it every day. We need to admit that neoliberalism did change the working class. Young workers in particular are today far more likely to find themselves in unorganised workplaces than organised ones. The most depressing thing about the recent furore over zero-hours contracts was realising how many people I know who have one. We can see pretty clearly that we aren’t part of a 1970s-style militant trade union movement, so why pretend we are? Instead we need to ask what we can do to organise our generation, and rebuild the basics of solidarity.
At the same time the new wave of feminism is booming. More and more people are getting involved in politics through campaigns against Page 3, lads’ mags and rape culture, and being inspired by new theoretical work around intersectionality and privilege. We are seeing a revival of the environmental movement over the threat of fracking. A pattern forms: young, decentralised, non-hierarchical movements with an accent on social media and direct action. No doubt the seeds of the next are being planted as I write. Are we going to turn up and try to sell them a newspaper with all the ‘answers’, or are we going to genuinely participate, engage – and learn?
We may not all agree with all of the above, especially as it is becoming clearer over time that IS Network is a relatively heterogeneous grouping. Nevertheless, there is a common direction of travel. Most of all it is a shared willingness to rethink the big questions, instead of asserting our eternal correctness on all things.
OK, so we’re thinking along similar lines. Still, why not just work together while staying in our separate groups? Why talk about a new organisation?
We’ve been floating the idea for long enough now that we’ve almost become casual about it. The truth is that this is not the kind of situation that comes around every day. The largest group on the revolutionary left has all but collapsed, leaving a substantial political space – and the opportunity to fill it with something much better than what has existed before. An organisation on the far left that didn’t burn out and drive out its members would, in turn, strengthen the left as a whole.
A new, pluralist organisation would be greater than the sum of its parts. Having people in the room from different traditions gives us a chance to have genuine, productive debate – not the kind of debate where a minority gets smashed into tiny pieces, but a discussion where people on all sides shift at least a little, and we come to a better overall position together than we might have alone.
Importantly, many would join this new united revolutionary organisation. After all, the left almost never does this! Imagine: not another split, but this time a fusion – one dedicated to making itself fit for the 21st century. It has bags of potential to grow, and quickly. Several people have already told us directly: when you set it up, I’ll join it.
Of course, I can’t pretend it’s all onwards and upwards for the unity talks. Some are concerned about it all moving too fast. Many within IS Network want more time for us to discuss and decide our own politics before we become part of something bigger. An additional complicating factor is that members inside each of our groups have found themselves supporting different platforms within the founding process of Left Unity. The overall question of exactly how a new revolutionary organisation would work both within and alongside Left Unity remains to be discussed, among plenty of other issues.
Within a democratic, pluralist, multi-tendency organisation, however, it should be possible to organise together while debating and at times – gasp – not all doing and arguing the same thing. The age of the ‘line’ being delivered from high is over. We can do much better than that.
Likewise, unity cannot be declared from above: that’s why the groups have a joint national meeting in the works on the issue of revolutionary regroupment, and why we’re continuing to develop our joint work locally. Yet while joint local work is good, and vital if we are to build up mutual trust, a national fusion would make a far bigger impact on the landscape of the left – and one pluralist organisation, after all, is surely better than three different ones. The time is coming when we will have to decide whether to take the plunge. We have an unusual chance to do something new and interesting. If you ask me, we should grab it.
Tom Walker is a member of the International Socialist Network. He writes in a personal capacity