This article by Dave Kellaway first appeared on Left Unity’s site.
My dad used to say that if the other side are ignoring you then you are failing or not working hard enough. The activists supporting Left Unity(LU) must be having some impact because the two major revolutionary left groups, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party(SP) and a former significant split from the SWP, Counterfire, have all written significant political articles referring, often rather obliquely, to LU. But definitely not ignoring us.
Alex Callinicos (SWP) seems to suggest that it isn’t such a bad thing that there is the appeal around Ken Loach. He is not stupid enough to condemn it. However the difficulties are emphasised and he states:
“Paradoxically, this revival of the Labour left dovetails with the enthusiastic response that film director Ken Loach’s call for a new party of the left has received.(…)
Defending these achievements—above all the National Health Service—also provides the Labour left with their benchmark. So what we have is, in effect, two different projects for reviving the reformist tradition in Britain.
Both have to be taken seriously. My hunch is that the drive to revive Labour will prove the stronger of the two. (my italics –DK)This is of course problematic, because all Labour governments—including the one elected in 1945—have chosen to manage rather than transform capitalism. The structures of the party are now so undemocratic that it’s hard to see how any attempt to “reclaim” Labour can hope to succeed.
This makes it all the more important that all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together. There are plenty of obstacles in our path as well, but the scale of the crisis and the suffering it is causing demand that we overcome them.”
In this week’s SWP Party notes it states:
Ken Loach has put out a call for a left alternative to Labour.
It’s an aim we share and we want to be part of any such discussions. But we also know that making this into a reality is more difficult and requires engaging with others who are involved in similar projects.
Of course Callinicos or SWP Party Notes will not specifically mention Left Unity’s name or even better refer to our website so that members or readers can make their own judgements. He suggests that a revival of the Labour left is more likely that the LU project and also incidentally already defines the Loach/LU project as reviving the reformist tradition. He does not see any distinction between Owen Jones and his reclaiming Labour idea and the Loach/LU organised party project which is implicitly positioned as a clear rejection of Labour. Obviously the national meeting coming up in May will further begin to clarify this position but reading the statements and political practice of most of the people expressing themselves on the LU website it is clear that there is difference between the Owen Jones position and Left Unity, there are not two sides of the same labourist reformism. Putting money on an Owen Jones left labour revival is a little risky – the record of the internal Labour left since Bennism has at least been as bad as the radical external left and I cannot recall them leading the Stop the War Coalition. Personally I would be quite happy for the LU project to grow alongside any Owen Jones led revival. It would provide a fertile field of engagement for a stronger external force. Any official left revival will come up against the iron fist of the internal party structures and the ideological pressure to knuckle under to elect Miliband.
I suppose Callinicos is repeating here something similar to his position on Syrizia – emphasising what he considers its overall reformist nature. It is not clear in the final paragraph above whether his call for ‘all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together’ includes Left Unity or not. However the SWP still has not lost all its reflexes in relation to what is going on so in its Party Notes it keeps the door open while emphasising how difficult the process will be. Interestingly enough there are reports of SWP members going along to some local LU meet ups.
Currently his ex colleague from the SWP John Rees has a long analytical piece on the Counterfire website http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/55-the-crisis/16388-the-crisis-in-europe-and-the-response-of-the-left that again does not mention LU by name but alludes to left electoral projects.
He puts forward as an abstractly correct line of building the revolutionary party and carrying out the united front tactic properly. He distinguishes between the correct way Counterfire is doing it with the implicitly incorrect way of his ertswhile comrades in the SWP. He takes up the issue of developing new left parties and briefly refers to the experience of Portugal, Greece, Germany, France and Italy where we have seen significant new left parties emerge over the last ten years or so. Comparing the failure of Respect or the SSP (Scotland) to the others he states: “the most successful left electoral projects have been those that were based on the largest movements in the first place and/or on the largest splits from mainstream social democracy”. However if we look at these parties from the point of view of lasting impact rather than just votes, this is not entirely the case since Rifondazione barely exists and came from a massive split in the PCI in Italy while the Bloco in Portugal, which came out of fusion between Trotskyist, Maoist and ex-CP groups, is still going strong and is nationally significant. Die Linke is also experiencing real problems despite coming out of a mass party split. The Front de Gauche, at least the Melenchon part, did not come out of a very large split from the SP and indeed got lower votes than the NPA for a whole period. The CP part of the FdG has always been a component and does not represent a split. Nevertheless both in the cases of failure or success it was right for revolutionary forces to participate in such projects (although the FdG is a more complex issue). You could even argue that the error of the French NPA was that it defined itself too narrowly on revolutionary positions rather than on a broader basis and this led to its later crisis and opened up the space for the FdG. So if revolutionaries keep away from such parties it is no guarantee of success. Revolutionary parties who stayed out of the broad parties did not generally grow any more strongly than those who went in.
John correctly criticises ultraleft and movementist positions which refuse to develop united campaigns on concrete class struggle question with the reformist leaderships of the unions or the Labour party. I suppose he may be alluding to the ACI when he talks below of horizontalist activists and implicitly puts them in the LU project. There is no mention of Left Unity or the Ken Loach appeal in the article or as far as I know on the Counterfire website and we do not have even the limp nameless endorsement issued by SWP party notes. I remember the Communist Party used to do the same thing with the emergent New Left in the old days.
A different answer to the question of what activists should do is given by those on the left who answer this question with proposals for left of centre electoral projects that can challenge the mainstream social democratic parties.(…)
There is, in Britain at the moment at any rate, a peculiar symbiosis developing between the advocates of electoralism and the horizontalist activists. And of course in a way it’s not surprising. If one rejects the model of working class unity that depends on a revolutionary organisation aiming to sustain unity through the mechanism of the united front then activity and politics fall into two separate but mutually reinforcing poles, ‘grass roots activism’ and electoralism. The two are isolated from each other, and so cannot inform each other. The same people who decry ‘top down campaigns’ then end up with the most restricted form of general politics, electoral participation. This is of course a common phenomena: where no effective dialectically unifying practice is found then two wrong poles reinforce one another.
He, like Callinicos, seems to suggest nothing exists politically between some sort of major developments/splits in Labour movement and the steady task of building the revolutionary party along with correct united front work. The detonator of such splits and monumental changes will be struggles with the trade unions playing a major role although recently Counterfire have taken a more savvy, open approach to the new movements than the SWP.
He is presenting a false opposition between united front work/building the revolutionary party and building intermediary class struggle movements/parties like the LU. He seems to suggest it is not possible to develop the revolutionary party, to support and build left moving parties or movements rejecting the worst of Labourism and carrying out successful united front work. As far as I know the central initiators of Left Unity have supported and often played leadership roles in the work of the Coalition of Resistance which John suggests (correctly) is a good example of united front work. It implies that only struggles, presented in rather an economist or objectivist way in my opinion, will unblock everything. Like Callinicos he appears to counterpose waiting for major shifts in the Labour movement and consolidating the pure party rather that getting involved in projects like the LU.
Finally we have a key piece from Peter Taaffe, leader of the Socialist Party. First of course he condemns the Peoples Assembly against the Cuts because there may be Green party members supporting it and we have a Brighton council making cuts. He says it is not sufficiently based on trade unions. Here I think John Rees provides a very good analysis of why this is a propagandistic sectarian line. The SP activists often participate in events with reformists – they are supporting Len McCluskey against the left militant Jerry Hicks. To compare their anti-cuts vehicle, the National Shops Stewards Network, to initiatives like the People’s Assembly is just in the worse traditions of British ‘Leninism’. Then he takes a considerable swipe at Left Unity, although he does have the grace to name the group. He welcomes Ken Loach’s appeal as opening a debate but rubbishes any actual organisation around it.
“Ken Loach, the socialist, radical film director, understands that New Labour represents a dead end and therefore it is necessary to seek a new road; hence his call for people to sign up to a new ‘left unity’. By so doing, he has opened up a very welcome discussion on the need for a viable alternative to the Labour Party for working class people engaged in the anti-cuts campaigns as well as working people generally looking for an alternative to New Labour.
“But this is not the first time that Ken and others have sought to create a new left force. We have seen previous attempts to form a left party: Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance that Ken Loach himself was involved in. These failed either because of sectarianism – the completely intolerant approach of Arthur Scargill – or the equally narrow and ultimately opportunist approach of the SWP in the Socialist Alliance and in Respect.
Learning from this, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is the first serious attempt to create the foundations of a new movement expressing the voice of the working class for their own independent party. It is in the best traditions of the labour movement with a federal constitution, and, moreover, unlike other attempts, is firmly based in the trade union movement.
Therefore, any discussion that is opening up with Ken Loach and his supporters cannot ignore the importance of TUSC. Some, including many of those gathering around Ken Loach, are political grasshoppers leaping light-mindedly from one project to another. Their ‘projects’ invariably failed.
We do not need at this critical juncture miracle workers searching for an easy route to the solution of the problems of the working class. We need, instead, a mass movement to defeat the cuts – and the trade unions offer the best hope for the vehicle that can do this. On a political level TUSC also offers the best hope for furthering the process of creating a viable new mass workers’ party.”
So Peter crudely presents the great ‘success’ of a federal based TUSC against the LU project, referring to the great traditions of the British labour movement to theoretically underpin this. He assumes somehow that the 7000 or so people who have signed up to the Ken Loach appeal and the 80 organisers of the local groups are all completely alien to the trade union movement. His assertion that TUSC is based on the trade union movement is because…the RMT is affiliated – the only trade union, he does not seem able to persuade the PCS, strongly influenced by the SP to join. It is not clear how the TUSC is developing incisive mass struggle currents in the trade unions. Generally the SP does that through its own party structures or the NSSN. Nobody is underestimating the importance of the trade unions Peter but we do not abstractly fetishise them ignoring all other sources of resistance and building blocks for a new mass workers party – the unemployed, students, precarious workers, the womens and gay movements, anti-racist struggles, ecological movements, the labour party activists and so on.
The icing on his tirade is his rather offensive epithet of Ken Loach, Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin, Alan Thornett, Teresa Conway, Nick Wrack and many, many others as political grasshoppers. Apart from being offensive to grasshoppers, that fulfil an important role in the ecosystem and provide protein for humans in some cultures, this is just a ridiculous argument. It would be relatively easy to look back at the history of the SP as a current and identify a whole number of turns and political projects. Lenin and Bolsheviks, so reverentially referenced by Peter, also made lots of moves. The question is always how to relate to the concrete political situation. At the moment there are thousands of individual activists who are looking for an alternative to Miliband’s Labour. They are excited about a new party, most of them are not deluded, they do not think it will be easy (thank you Alex C. for your concerns) and some have gone through Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Hopefully we will learn from our mistakes. The biggest lesson is precisely the opposite to the one Peter draws when he rabbits on about the wonders of federalist structure.
If we want to demoralise and lose all the people coming into the LU project the quickest way of doing it will be to give special status or privileges to existing left currents or parties. The latter have to earn any leadership they might aspire to by building the project locally and nationally. Recent events in the SWP over rape allegations make this approach even more unpalatable to independent activists. Our Left Unity has to be a beacon of internal democracy and run a mile from faux-charismatic leaders a la Galloway or Sheridan. Luckily Ken Loach is probably extremely unlikely to follow their paths and in any case the structures will hopefully be established to prevent even him having a turn and doing anything crazy.
Left Unity represents an understanding that radicalising forces do not pass immediately from reformism to revolutionary positions in one go. It is obvious that the whole process is uneven. Clearly we do not accept closed off stages in the revolutionary process or transition which can lead to the revolution being strangled by cautious, reformist forces who say this far and no further. This was what happened in a number of revolutionary processes in the 20th century where Stalinist parties following the interests of the Russian bureaucracy would hold back (even repress) revolutionary forces in favour of the alliance with national bourgeoisies Ken Loach’s film, Land and Freedom, tells this story.
However an awareness of the stages in the development of revolutionary consciousness is a different matter. Building a party or movement to challenge capitalism itself and fight for socialism requires the understanding of how this consciousness will develop. Left Unity is not the revolutionary party but it may be a party where all those activists who see themselves to the left of labour can work in practice together. We cannot predict its evolution but by definition it will include a wider range of political forces than the SWP or the SP. It will bring together – it is bringing together – forces from the historic Trotskyist tradtition, people who were in the CP, many people who always had a home in the Labour party, people from the movements who are understandably wary of certain Leninist practices developed in Britain and just people who were inspired by a film, who are fed up of Miliband’s grovelling and want to do something.
Far better for revolutionary currents like the SWP, Counterfire and the Socialist Party to be working together with thousands of people not previously organised by the radical left than to be pontificating about the united front from the outside. Comrades inside those groups should be asking why their leaderships are adopting these positions and are not discussing with Left Unity about building something which really might make an impact on British politics.