Left Unity: Background, prospects and secret trials
Jack Conrad introduced a session on Left Unity at this year’s Communist University
Uphold free speech
We have all spoken to so-called ‘ordinary people’ about politics ... and faced the inevitable string of questions: ‘Why are there so many different leftwing groups?’ ‘Why are there so many splits?’ ‘Why don’t you lot get together?’ Only the complacent, the smug, the plain deluded would dismiss such remarks as evidence of irredeemable backwardness. The left’s divisions, the morbid fear of open debate, the duplication of effort is irrational and self-defeating.
That does not mean that different historical interpretations and theoretical arguments are unimportant, irrelevant or in themselves problematic. They are not. Without enriching our theory, without interrogating the past, without the right to challenge accepted wisdom, we can never make progress towards revealing the truth, let alone win the battle of ideas. That said, without deep social roots and organising masses of people, there is no possibility of properly testing our strategy and tactics. Marxism, after all, is not only out to interpret the world, but to fundamentally change it.
So setting up Left Unity - an organisation of the left which all people on the left can join - was a welcome development. Yet, when we listen to those who constitute Left Unity’s leadership, there are reasons for concern. Like many before them they want to ‘do politics differently’. But, instead of applying the lessons of the past to our concrete conditions, what this ‘doing politics differently’ amounts to is dismissing classical Marxism, rejecting the Bolshevik model and not bothering with the fate of the Russian Revolution. The ‘old’ politics are outdated, no longer relevant, off-putting, etc. We heard it in the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and Respect. We hear it in Left Unity too. There is much talk about original thinking, pushing the boundaries and new kinds of organisation. But, on examination, most of it turns out to be an eclectic rehash of Bernstein revisionism, Stalinist popular-frontism, soft Maoist feminism and Eurocommunism.
Once the model was Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and Die Linke in Germany. Now it is Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Such broad-party projects quickly show their limits and dash all the early optimistic aspirations and pipe dreams. Supporting the lesser evil, trying to appear respectable in front of the media, agreeing to coalition deals - all trump the radical claims. In many respects therefore Left Unity is another case of the triumph of hope over experience.
There is, of course, a big problem with transposing Rifondazione Comunista, Die Linke or Syriza onto the conditions of Britain. Such organisations have their origins in historically established parties. Namely ‘official communist’ parties.
Take Rifondazione Comunista. It claimed to be the continuation of the Italian Communist Party that in 1947 boasted 2.3 million members and in 1976 secured 34.4% of the popular vote. What about Die Linke? Well, one of the founding strands, if by far the smallest, came as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Party in western Germany. That is Oskar Lafontaine and ‘Labour and Social Justice - the Electoral Alternative’. The other founding strand was, of course, the Party of Democratic Socialism: ie, the inheritor party of the Socialist Unity Party, which until 1989 ran the German Democratic Republic. Die Linke gets 20% of the vote in some eastern districts. In other words, the explanation of the strength of the Die Linke, at least in part, lies in its existence as a former ruling party.
Nor did Syriza come into existence out of thin air. It began as one of the wings of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Greece: ie, KKE (Interior), which staged a split with the KKE (Exterior) in 1968. Despite formally dissolving in 1986, in effect it became Synaspismos in 1991 and finally Syriza in 2004. Needless to say, the left in Greece has throughout been a substantial force.
Certainly, when it comes to Britain, we need to recognise what is immediately possible and what is not immediately possible. Left Unity is not on the cusp of becoming a mass party. The Labour Party is not about to collapse. Nor is Left Unity going to replace Labour as a party which commands the loyalty of the trade unions. LU consists of a small number of small left groups and one or two thousand, largely atomised, dues-paying members. Perhaps it could carve out an electoral niche and consolidate an organisation of five or six thousand (though it has to be admitted that the first-past-the-post system mitigates against any Westminster electoral breakthrough in the short term). But, as long as we do not judge ourselves by numbers of MPs and councillors, as long as the right politics are adopted, the prospects of growth appear good. After all, there is a crying need for a fighting party of the working class that can point the way to socialism. Capitalism is deep in crisis, is visibly wrecking the ecosystem and consigns millions to a soulless existence. Meanwhile, the mainstream parties, including the Labour Party, are committed to maintaining wage-slavery, rolling back the socioeconomic gains of the past and promoting capitalist growth for the sake of growth.
There is a widespread belief in Left Unity that, because the Labour Party has moved to the right over the last 30 years, there is a reformist space to the left of Labour. This is illusory, not least because reformism is illusory. The fact of the matter is that reformism - the old reformism of Bernstein, Fabianism, the British road to socialism and Bennism - was based on a false premise. Namely that it was possible to use the existingstate machine, the existing constitutional order, the existing trade union bureaucracy to bring about - one small step being followed by another small step - a fundamental shift in wealth and power till the realisation of some kind of national socialism. Then there is the nostalgia for the government of Clement Attlee. Yes, the national health service was founded, masses of council were houses built and incomes doubled. Hence the ‘spirit of 1945’ and Keynesian economics. But the long post-World War II boom was based on the US replacing Britain as the world hegemon and the massive destruction and millions of deaths in World War II. Do we want a new capitalist hegemon and a new world war? Hardly.
The history of the 20th century has surely proved beyond all reasonable doubt that reformism disempowers the working class. Long-term aims are sold for short-term gains. Nationalism is promoted. Eventually capitalism is accepted and the conditions are created for demoralisation, disorientation and the politics of despair.
Given this, it is strange, to say the least, that the Left Party Platform in Left Unity was dedicated to watering down demands and perspectives. Sweeping away the existing state, working class rule and socialism were deemed to be barriers, sectarian shibboleths. The most militant upholder of this dismal line was Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International (no wonder that nowadays it is dubbed Resisting Socialism). That was the task it set itself in Left Unity. True, when it comes to private meetings, and when it comes to its own paper, there are speeches and articles about revolution and socialism. But the real value of these speeches and articles is demonstrated by the fact that there is no attempt to equip Left Unity with such a perspective.
Socialist Resistance’s only excuse for what is rank opportunism lies in the ‘bottom-up’ theory of spontaneity upheld by Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists against Marx and Engels. Nowadays that is what the so-called transitional method amounts to. Basically the notion is that capitalism is so corrupting, so pervasive that the majority can never be won over by the strength of our arguments. But steer them into action, put them into motion, lead them from one moderate demand to ever more bolder demands and eventually the aim of working class power can be realised. Only the revolutionary elite knows what is really going on. And, of course, there are self-appointed elites by the dozen all aspiring to be the directing hand. So the trick is to carefully insert the right revolutionary elite in the right movement at the right time. Socialist Resistance and its predecessors have gone from left communism to Bennism, from Labour Party entryism to the industrial turn, from Respect to Left Unity.
Though there is a consistency in the inconsistency, the strategy is thoroughly mistaken. Not only does it not work, but it breeds a generation of rightists. What begins sincerely morphs into cynicism. But people cannot operate on a permanently cynical basis. Activists become the message.
The Socialist Workers Party shares essentially the same method. That explains the deeply disappointing splits. There has been a process of degeneration on the left. The International Socialist Network walked out of the SWP over the ‘comrade Delta’ fiasco, only to undergo a split itself on the basis of a piece of furniture. That is, Bjarne Malgaard’s take on Allen Jones’s Chair (1969).
Looking back to the late 1960s and early 70s, the splits were, if I remember rightly, far more serious. Eg, today’s Workers Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Revolutionary Communist Group, Spiked, etc. It is not that these splits were always justified. After all, not a few came in the form of expulsions. But at least they were carried out on the basis of big political questions. Not trivia.
Nevertheless, that is what years of training in the SWP’s atrophied internal life has produced ... and it has subsequently found its way into Left Unity. Reading the SWP annual Pre-conference Bulletins, I still experience a combination of amazement and sadness. The contents are dull, small-minded, technical and often apolitical. It makes a poor showing, even compared with the old ‘official’ CPGB. The biennial CPGB congress saw the publication of internal discussion papers with a 2,000 word limit and open discussion in the fortnightly journal Comment. Incidentally, we took full advantage of the pre-congress discussion publication to launch blistering salvo after blistering salvo against the Marxism Today, Straight Left and Morning Starliquidationists. There was, yes, a brief flowering of debate in the SWP - ie, over 2012-13 - but the oppositionists were without exception theoretically blinkered, politically confused and ultimately hopeless.
It was obvious from the start that the ISN did not stand a chance of doing anything serious. Despite having little more than a hundred members, the comrades really seem to have believed that they could mimic the SWP ... but only do better. Richard Seymour wanted to be the media face of the left, China Miéville wanted a publishing house, Tim Nelson wanted a rank-and-file trade union paper, Bev Keenan wanted a women’s magazine. But they did not want to open talks with the CPGB. They did not want to seriously rethink the so-called International Socialist tradition. They did not want to think about programme. And what goes for the ISN goes for Socialism in the 21st Century too.
The contemporary left owes far more to Bakunin than Marx. The contemporary left is committed to the politics of spontaneity; the contemporary left is elitist and manipulative. This inexorably leads to the worship of strikes, demonstrations and occupations. Action, action, action is the alpha and omega of the contemporary left. Debate, critical journalism, polemic, historical investigation, theoretical development - these are at best tolerated, at worst frowned upon.
Hence in some Left Unity branches there is a deep-seated culture of ‘anti-politics politics’. Everything is subordinated to the imagined level of the so-called ‘ordinary people’. Patronising, insulting, but revealing. Always expected, like Godot, these so-called ‘ordinary people’ never arrive. However, in their name an intolerant, fearful, bullying culture has developed. Political debate is closed down, those who dare to think differently are subject to hectoring and votes of censure. In the case of Laurie McCauley he has found himself indefinitely suspended by Manchester branch. Did he disrupt meetings by shouting and bellowing? No. Did he kick and punch opponents? No. Did he threaten them? No. So what was his offence? He had the temerity to report the arguments between himself and some other members of the branch in the Weekly Worker.
That was in June 2014. And the disputes committee refuses to even hear his case because he is unwilling to submit to a secret trial. The DC demand that its proceedings be ‘confidential’ is surely a denial of natural justice. After all, for justice to be done it must be seen to be done.
It would be wrong to say the McCauley incident characterises Left Unity as a whole. It does not. LU’s national council is regularly reported in these pages. Who said what, who kept quiet, who voted one way, who voted another ... all that has been covered without objections by the leadership.
More than that, Left Unity’s founding conference was live-streamed and publicly minuted by leadership arrangement. I am sure that will be the case with future conferences. A model of openness which the whole left, resources permitting, should seek to emulate. Eg, we in the CPGB report our membership aggregates, publicly broadcast our weekly political report from the Provisional Central Committee, etc.
Given Left Unity’s commitment to openness and transparency, it is therefore a surprise, a matter of concern, that no-one has stepped in to positively resolve the situation in Manchester. A polite phone call from Kate Hudson would surely have done the job. That or the offer of mediation.
But then comrade McCauley is a member of the Communist Platform and there are forces to the right that presumably must be conciliated. There are certainly influential ‘anti-sectarian sectarians’ who are demanding that Left Unity must purge the ‘sectarians’. Who want to get rid of individuals and groups that refuse to submit to secret trials.
There are unofficial executive committee minutes to that effect.