Monday, April 16, 2007

The left's long journey

One of the best sources for informed debate in the labour movement is often overlooked. The Morning Star (requires subscription – well worth just £40 for a year) has opened its pages to a diverse set of voices in recent years, and for example provides a regular column for Gregor Gall I am a bit slow of the mark commenting on a column Gregor wrote ten days ago, that was particularly interesting, not least because it received a thought provoking reply by Jim Addington in the following Saturday’s paper.

Gregor argues an interesting point that part of the failures of the left have been inability to work upon tasks within their grasp. This is perhaps complementary to my habitual argument that the ostensible difference between “reformist” socialists and “revolutionary” socialists, at a time when neither reform or revolution are actually on the historical agenda is irrelevant. The real distinctions are between those serious about rebuilding class confidence and organisation (the class struggle left) and those who capitulate to neo-liberalism and the myths of humanitarian wars. Anyway, this is what Gregor argues:

“Other than one or two exceptions at certain points in history, the far left has always been far, far smaller than the numbers needed to achieve the historic project that it has set itself. And, again, you might say that the far left has to aim high and then "go forth and multiply." Former fellow travellers of the far left would castigate the lofty ambition as laudable but naive and unrealistic. But the point is that the gap between the aspiration and the forces to hand has had, more often than not, a detrimental and distorting impact on the far left. This distortion has further compounded the far left's weaknesses.

“The roots of this distortion have been the general inability to relate the far left's political credo to workers' everyday concerns in a way which draws masses of workers to-wards the left, making the far left more credible and respected. In turn, the consequences of the isolation and marginalisation of the far left have been frustration, sectarianism and impatience.

“The frustration felt by the far left at being utterly convinced of the "rightness" and "correctness" of its views, perspectives and beliefs, which are rejected or ignored by the mass of workers, has meant that, every time an opportunity for making headway arises, it is vastly blown out of proportion. Every new opportunity is the next big thing. Every new period is more favourable and exciting than the last. The size and strength of the opportunities, especially for party building, are exaggerated to motivate members and supporters.

“Then exhortation to members and supporters to go all-out in their efforts to take advantage of the opportunity outweighs reasoned analysis and reasoned actions. So desperate and so keen is the left to realise the next opportunity that it forgets that you need the numbers on the ground to do so. But the other side of the far left's myopia here is that it never stops to look back at why it did not connect with the masses of workers in the way that it wanted and in the numbers that it wanted to. Seldom looking back, seldom engaging in critical self-appraisal or self-reflection, the far left is always looking forward to the next campaign and next battle. Consequently, lessons are not learnt and the same ill-thought-out approaches are used the next time round, with the same predictable and poor results.“

As a useful partial corrective, Jim Addington, points to the success of the Stop the war Coalition: “This campaign came to a head … with the largest anti-war march numbering over a million people. … That event drew hundreds of thousands who were not aware that the anti-war coalition was supported by left-wing groups”. Jim then goes on to argue that the greatest problem for the left are the lack of money and power of the mainstream media in marginalising the left.

Generally I don’t think Jim’s analysis stacks up, because the left have always lacked money, and the media have always been dominated by the rich and powerful, yet the left has been stronger in that past. However, it is useful to point out that in campaigns like the Stop the War Coalition the resources of the left groups, the infrastructure, publications, people and ideas, can be used as cogs that can move much larger forces into action.

Does this mean Gregor is wrong? No, I think it actually vindicates him still further, because the left over estimated the potential and depth of the anti-war movement, just as we overestimated the Poll Tax campaign, or other campaigns. Had we concentrated thorough all these campaigns on the steady. patient and long term tasks of networking the activists, building participation in the unions and mass membership campaigns, and promoting broad based socialist organisations then we would be in a much stronger position now.

The alternative of building idelogically pure "Bolshevik parties", in preparation for a British version of the Russian revolution (that will surley never come) has been an utter failure, being totally unrealistic in the traditions and history of the british Labour movement - it is the long term failure of this model of organisation to prosper that has led the left groups into one get rich quick scheme after another.

yet neither should we make the opposite mistake of assuming that the left groups are simply a hinderence and an obstacle. The Stop the War Coalition could not have been built without the left groups, and it has been a major acheivement, but it is an organisation that shares both the weaknesses and strengths of its genesis.

14 comments:

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Dave Riley said...

To some degree this 'model' --albeit in a warped & crude form -- did prosper under the sway of Stalinism, but has not since, when it has been embraced by the post sixties new left.

I think that's very clear but maybe you too neatly equate organisational attributes with the political history as though it was the organisational form that sentenced the far left to marginalisation.

I don't think it can be so neat.

Over at Marxmail they make that mistake big time. and wallow in it, I fear, such that their core and pristine position , their shibboleth,is almost apolitical in nature.

I've often wondered, nonetheless, if the history here in Australia would have been very different IF the Alliance existed thirty or more years ago.

And the answer is that that is an impossible call because the Alliance exists BECAUSE of the history these last thirty years and what the organisational forms did was to help to ensure a political continuity. It needed that quantative component before change came begging. Because what happened in the sixties and seventies, as you point out, was a schematic belief that BOTH Stalinism and social democracy would be transcended by this new left.

That didn't happen so the mistake wasn't in the organisational form but in the mistaken perspectives embraced.

Looser and different organisational forms, such as the US SDS -- OR the Black Panthers, etc -- simply failed to prosper and died,(Was that "form" or politics in play?)

You also miss the point, I think, in not recognising the significance of the rise of the greens especially in the eighties and especially in Germany because this was indeed "the last hesitation to socialism'.

So that was the wake up call -- not so much the debates that may be had today. The greens posed the issue but this new left in the main failed to respond(as it still fails to today unfortunately).

You also fall into the trap that in being pre-occupied with organisational issues you cannot explain why 'social democracy' has more or less continued to prosper despite its shallow engagement with its membership and internal lack of democracy. Shouldn't that be its massive handicap?

Is that what you are advocating -- the social democratic model as being better than these others -- because of what it isn't?

The other mistake you make is that you fetishize the organisational form and presume that some structural thing is at issue -- say how much democracy and how much centralisation -- when, in fact, these organisational questions are core political questions. You don't organise for its own sake.You merge the organisational tool with the politics you advocate and embrace. It's dialectical and has a learn-as-you-go sort of dynamic.

Granted that the far left has so often been rigidly loyal to organisation for its own sake.

Here the organisational nature of the SA -- its structure -- is very fluid as the template is fiddled with all the time. Thats' not because we seek an unLeninish way of organising for its own sake, or a Leninist way by deceit --but because the form we adopt has the merge with the politics we do.

And I guess that's the lesson that has not been learnt in other contexts. Nonetheless, how the SA organises will develop and change over the time ahead and in the debate that will ensure over what constitutes good practice has to include an open ended debate about the forms of organisation you criticize here.

But as Jim Cannon asserted, and I agree, because it is the key question regardless of any model or template pursued: the question of the party is the question of the leadership of the party. That's as true for green, "combat" and social democratic parties as anything else .

J.B said...

it's an interesting article. I think it slightly overlooks the role of theory (a point I mentioned in my blog) in sustaining activism - and provides a perhaps flawed reading of 'the left' but otherwise yus.

Dave Riley said...

oops. I guess I get keyed up over this organisational question because I think a lot of it is a distraction and so many comrades simply don't understand it because form has so often been allowed to rule rather than the substance.

So ignore my rant, Andy....

Ken said...

Going only by the excerpts, Gregor Gall's article seems to generalise too much from the SWP. His picture doesn't fit Militant and its descendants, or the CPB, nearly so well.

AN said...

Don't apologise dave

You are making a substantive point. I am in a hotel in Oslo at the moment with just limited internet access, so I will respond more fully when i get home.

Phil said...

It sounds as if Jim A.'s argument exemplifies the historical myopia Gall talks about. The anti-Poll Tax movement was huge; the mobilisation behind the Miners' Strike was huge; the peace movement was pretty sizeable in its day. All gone now. (Come to that, even something as small, relatively speaking, as the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign looks pretty big by today's standards.)

The problem has always been developing a level of mobilisation that will sustain itself in the absence of an obvious external threat or target. I don't think you can get there without a lot of time being put in by members of parties with their own agendas - or, in the best case, ex-members of ditto.

That's an ideah - perhaps we should be trying to convert members into ex-members, with a view to an eventual agenda-free regrouping (Trots Reunited?). My old group (defunct these ten years or thereabouts) had cadre who were ex-IMG, ex-IS, ex-WRP and in at least one case ex-Spart - not to mention the Pabloites (we kicked them out). We got on fine.

Phil said...

...well, apart from the Pabloites, obviously.

Anonymous said...

Gregor Gall's contributions are just about the only reason any serious socialist would want to read the 'Star': the rest of it is pro-"Respect" garbage. misrepresentation of trade union affairs and letters from geriatric anti-semites.
-Jim Denham

AN said...

JIm

That is clearly a load of hogswash, as a brief look at recent contributers to the "features" section will show, a broad range of opinion from JOhn McDonnell and felicity Arbuthnot to Fidel Castro and Jeremy Corbyn.

AN said...

Oh yeah, check the features here:
http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index2.php/ex/examples/features

AN said...

Dave.

To return to your argument (back from oslo now).

The question of organisational form cannot be divorced from the politics, but just as importantly the form and politics cannot be divorced from its context.

The experience of the British left has had certain peculiarities, and I simply don't know to what degree it is applicable elsewhere.

What we describe as "leninist" in the British context is the Healy/Cliff/Grant model, which was itself very much influenced by the ealrly years of the CPGB.

Now I know that the LCR would for example describe themselves as a leninist organisation, but has almost no similarity with the british model.

It is to a certain extent true Ii think what Ken says that his description is colouyred by the SWP, but Phil hearse's description of life in the Militant is similar, and anyone who remembers the Militant during the time of the poll tax campaign would recognise how his description fits their behaviour at that time - and in particular their difficulty with developing long term relationshios with activists who were not willing to accept their "leadership"

I accept we need leadership, and I accept that groups have a right to caucus. But the british model has been for groups to assume their fitness to "lead", and dictate to other activists.

I also accepot that a democratic party of militants is what we should be aiming for, rather than networks and loose associations, but starting from where we are now in England, that is not on the short to medium term agenda.

Louisefeminista said...

Jim: Actually the Star has had articles by Liz Davies on the changes to legal aid and how this will impact on people gaining access to justice both criminal and civil, which other leftie papers have not bothered to find out about.

Anonymous said...

But: is what the "Star" says on any given issue actually *true*? No! They're a bunch of liars! So why do you lot give them any credit?
-Jim Denham