Socialism from Below (Unkant publishers, 2013. 161 pages)
A critical look at the IS tradition reviewed by Dave Kellaway
Sometimes the classical tidiness of the book form is less important than its relevance to current political debate on the left. This is certainly the case with Dave Renton’s book which is essentially a collection of articles posted on his blog during 2013. What unifies the varied collection of reflections is a passionate effort to re-examine the IS (International Socialist – forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, SWP) tradition and to detach the best of it from current SWP practice. He rescues the legacy of some of the original thinkers from this tradition such as Cliff, Harman, Hallas, Sedgewick, Widgery and others. Renton himself has recently resigned from the SWP along with the several hundred other ‘Decembrists’ and is part of the newly founded Revolutionary Socialism for the 21st Century group. The launch statement of the latter shows that those who have left, in what is the third major split from the SWP in as many years, intend to remain committed to building a revolutionary socialist current engaged in practical political intervention and open to discussions of revolutionary regroupment.
The book provides a very useful service for those activists committed to building a bigger, regrouped revolutionary organisation because not all of us are familiar with key aspects of the IS tradition. The tone of the book encourages us to be modest and critical about our own political traditions and be open to the positive contributions of other ones. As Jules Alford points out in his excellent preface,
“We must be wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and we should conduct a proper balance sheet of the IS tradition, its debit and credit side, while striving to ensure that the two sides of the opposition find their way back to each other (…) the process of clarification is never-ending because the struggle perpetually gives rise to new problems and questions. This is true for the IS Network but also for militants who identify with other traditions such as the Fourth International or anarcho-syndicalism, or the unaligned.” p. vii
Thankfully this approach is light years away from formalistic appeals to proclaiming our Leninism and swearing allegiance to a rigid 1917 model.
Flawed theories with some positive results
Whatever we may think of the coherence and analytical capacity of two of the key IS tradition’s theories – state capitalism (Cliff) and the permanent arms economy (Kidron) they allowed the IS group to avoid the catastrophism of other Trotskyist currents which failed to understand the post-war boom and to stay well clear of any adaptation to campism or tailending of third world anti-imperialist movements. Consequently as the author argues this kept alive the key concept of socialism from below and it explains why it emerged stronger than the Healy current which was both catastrophist and adapted to foreign ‘anti-imperialists. It was able to emerge and grow in the post 1968 period and link up with both students and militant worker activists. In other words at least these theories meant it had a better hold on reality than some other revolutionary currents. Whether because of, or in spite of, such theories the fact is that the IS/SWP related to the working class more effectively that the old International Marxist Group. It was less intellectual and developed a press with a real impact – the brochures on Incomes Policy in the 1970s sold tens of thousands and helped the SWP build a base among the shop stewards movement. Similarly such theories did not stop it doing good work in building the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War coalitions. You wonder if the present SWP will be ever able to repeat such successes.
On the other hand it could be argued that these theories were a lot less useful in understanding struggles and politics internationally. The IS took a neutral position on the Korean War. It called both Cuba, where the capitalist state had been destroyed, and Egypt, where the state remained intact, state capitalist. These are less glorious examples of the IS tradition. Indeed Renton rhetorically suggests a problem with the elasticity of the theory:
“If state capitalism could take in societies created by workers’ revolution (and its subsequent internal defeat), societies created by tanks, urbanised European societies and rural China, and much of the developing world was there a danger that the concept had been extended beyond breaking?” p 97
I would agree but he goes on to recuperate the theory through emphasising the role of military spending, state industries and centralised production. He claims it meant the SWP could explain why workers in the East revolted against their ‘socialist’ governments as well as why western states were centralising production. He then says how this has all changed since 1989 and we now have neo-liberal, private capitalism. I would suggest that the massive upheavals in the ex-Soviet Union were of a different scale to anything that happened in the West with the transition to more neo-liberal policies. Hence in my opinion we are talking about different states with different types of economic/social relations.
Of course the Fourth International tradition which used the degenerated workers’ state (Russia) and the deformed worker states/structural assimilation (Eastern Europe) theories did not protect that current from political errors – look at the subsequent political evolution of Pablo or the US SWP who did adapt to campism. Leading theorists such as Bensaid began to use the term bureaucratic dictatorship rather than deformed or degenerated workers states. You could argue that neither theory could completely explain the transition that took place in 1989.
There is an implication from the author (p96) that you could only understand or work in solidarity with the opposition in the East if you had a state capitalist position. The record of the work done supporting Petr Uhl in Czechoslovakia or Solidarnosc in Poland by comrades from the more classical Trotskyist tradition would tend to contradict that opinion. Labour Focus on Eastern Europe did a lot of good work and one of its main leaders was the late Peter Gowan who was a leading member of the IMG.
Moving beyond such debates, Renton correctly suggests that the SWP has ‘tended to emphasise the continuities between periods (…) and too many comrades have claimed that capitalism has remained unchanged, the same system as before’. I would say this inflexibility is partly down to the clumsiness and over application of the State Capitalism/Permanent Arms economy framework but that is of secondary importance if we all agree that we have to, as he says, ‘renew our ideas’ and analyse globalisation, flexible working , theories of the New Poor and the precariat. It is more important to be broadly on the same road rather than totally agree on how we arrived there.
‘The private sector looks less and less like a staff common room’
If you have time to only read part of this book then devour the three chapters, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, When Trade Unionism changed 1888 to 1891 and Back to Class. They include some very important insights that all of us need to think about if we are going to build any revolutionary movement involving working people. He suggests that even a group like the SWP, that has more of a trade union base than other left groups, is failing to have a real impact among private sector workers, who have very low rates of unionisation, or among the most exploited temporary, female or part time workers. Its trade union implantation is overwhelmingly in the public sector and a lot of time is spent building up alliances with left leaders to build Unite the Resistance, seen as a Minority movement mark two. Generations of trade union activists have to be understood too – he recalls how the layer of CP/Broad Left activists are long retired now and how the SWP and other left group public sector militants are going that way too.
His excellent summary of the rise of new unionism organising the unskilled and semi-skilled in Britain in the 1880s exemplifies the role of political militants like Annie Besant and others from the Social Democratic Federation. The obvious implication is that today we need to be bold and imaginative as well as developing a more political, community or area-based trade unionism not necessarily tied to a narrow sector. He cites the experience of pop up unions and suggests activists need to look at the growth sectors of employment even if these workers are less unionised and we should be attempting to develop new, younger workers representatives. The tactical idea of looking at unorganised workers in sectors where there are well organised groups adjacent to them is a good one and he gives the example of London Underground. A degree of voluntarism is also perhaps required and he quotes the patient work of Lutte Ouvriere in France who has built up a solid working class implantation through years of factory bulletins, sometimes started from outside a workplace. Of course the weakness of Lutte Ouvriere is that they deprioritise working in the movements, around feminism or ecology so have a more narrow appeal which means they have less political impact that groups like the NPA which does not necessarily have a stronger working class membership.
Class experience, class feeling and class consciousness
Dave Renton’s few pages defining the differences and the interconnectedness of class experience, class feeling and class consciousness are some of the stand out ideas in the book. Their clarity helps us understand the sort of contradictory situation we have today where there is a very low level of class struggle but certainly the majority still define themselves as working class and there is definitely a degree of anger and a sense that working people are getting a rough deal:
“Class experience and feeling have not diminished; the problem is rather a lack of class consciousness.”
He questions the SWP explanation of this situation as the class’s lack of confidence and the restraint of the trade union leaders by looking at the way in which capitalism at particular moments in history ‘reshapes the entire labour market, by changing the lives of key groups of workers’. It was not just the fact that Thatcher closed the mines and steel works but what happened next – new jobs were in areas of the country like Reading or Swindon where there were relatively low levels of unionisation and in the context of organised labour’s recent defeat. Many of the companies were new and started with an approach that was anti-union and contracts were structured to make organising difficult. Worker density was much less too. If you add the way both Tories and Labour reinforced a neo-liberal political hegemony you can see why there has not been a new wave of industrial militancy.
People’s Assembly and Left Unity
A whole chapter is entitled People’s Assembly – an auto-critique. It implies the author has come around to supporting the People’s Assembly as the main united campaign against austerity and it looks like he is clearly backing it and it appears this is the feeling of this new organisation. Great. However in my opinion the actual text overdoes the critique of John Rees/Lindsay German role in the leadership of it and defines it as just another left group ‘front’. One can accept that there are times when these Counterfire leaders have tried to over direct the campaign, for example there was the paranoia about Ken Loach being too critical at the national event or the debate about representing those living anti-cuts committees that pre-existed PA in the upcoming delegate conference. However the national campaign which brings in all the unions is sound enough and does allow local groups to build activities with local branches of the labour movement. Local groups have a lot of autonomy – neither Counterfire or Unite have the cadre to control local campaigns. The national demands of the PA have been principled, it has not capitulated to any pressure to limit its anti-austerity line. It has not encouraged illusions that a Miliband government will solve the problems working people face. If the crticisms of top down commandist methods are aimed at Counterfire they may or may not be true but certainly I do not think you can compare PA to a real front like Unite the Resistance or the National Shop Stewards front the SP run. Maybe this chapter is coloured by the debates in the SWP between Dave and John Rees over Respect and other issues.
The references to Left Unity are positive in the book although it is not a topic he deals with given the focus on the internal SWP debate. The internal democracy is praised and it is seen as an interesting alliance. Jules Alford in the preface speaks about the need for revolutionary regroupment to be accompanied by working together in common political activity. Left Unity presents a great opportunity to overcome past errors in forming broader class struggle political alliances. It represents a possible next step in involving broad forces in constructing a socialism from below. We look forward to Dave’s take on this process.