Monday, 25 March 2013

Left unity and the IS Network

Another article in our series on the IS Tradition and the way forward for the left. Each piece reflects the views of the author and not an agreed position of the IS Network.

Guest post by Paris Thompson

There is currently a debate raging across our movement concerning “Where Next?” for the left. The recent split within the Socialist Workers Party by a number of comrades has resulted in the formation of the IS Network, a group that is currently debating the basis of its own formation, and will hopefully be an important step forward in the realignment of the left in Britain. Below is intended as a contribution to that debate, for both members of the IS Network and other activists within the movement that seek to build a stronger, more unified left.

The starting point of any analysis should begin with a concrete assessment of the situation facing the working class in Britain. Any honest appraisal of the current situation must lead to the conclusion that working class unity is not only objectively necessary, but should be an integral part of the work done by the socialist movement in Britain. The current attack on the working class both ideologically and materially, by its very nature of being a full frontal assault on ALL sections of the class, objectively requires the maximum amount of unity in resisting, and ultimately defeating, the government. The strikes on the 30th November and the half a million march on March 26th showed quite clearly that where a concerted, unified opposition was organised people were willing to fight. In the many local struggles over services and cuts, we can see that the anger amongst the working class population towards the government's austerity consensus is substantial and growing. 

The ability the left has to shape this is currently minimal considering its small size and social weight when faced with the union bureaucracy and the influence of Labourism. However, in the two areas where the left could help to shape the fightback, where its forces are concentrated and in places disproportionate, are the two places where the fundamental weakness of the British left, its division and sectarianism, has the potential to destroy any possibility of a serious opposition to austerity.

Firstly, within the anti-cuts movement. It is incredible that, despite several years of austerity, the development of serious campaigns on a local level around Sure Start, local services, Bedroom Tax etc. there is not as of yet a single, national, federated anti-cuts campaign bringing in each of the different groups. In every town and city there is a local anti-cuts campaign, often encompassing the majority of the labour movement, and often with the backing of the local trades council. Despite their fluctuating sizes, each often involves the active participation or support of most of the left, including many of the activists involved in local anti-cuts work. The fact that the opportunity to bring these groups together on a national level, in an organisation built from the bottom up, has been missed, is a shameful indictment of the state of the movement in Britain. And unfortunately, the blame for this lies a little closer to home than with the Labour leadership or the Union tops - the single biggest block to unity of the anti-cuts groups has been the far left.

The flourishing of front groupings in competition with one another has now reached the level of farce, with every group on the left seemingly enjoying the domination of some petty fiefdom of its own (I'm sure the readers of this article won't need me to list each of the groups in question). Each front has it own nuances and USP (what front could exist without one?!), but what each does is prevent the effective unity of the anti-cuts movement. While this not only hampers the unity of the movement, it also allows the continuation of bureaucratic manoeuvring and endless top table rallies which prevent the flourishing of a mass, grass roots movement. It also leaves the door open to conservative forces where one of the sects or its fronts has a blind spot (e.g. the NHS, which has been dominated by Labourite, Unison bureaucracy type politics - with the admirable exceptions of places like Lewisham). The anti-cuts movement is a clear example of where the sectarianism of the far left not only damages the Marxist left itself, but has dire consequences for the class as a whole.

In the short term I think this means having a principled, and critical, approach to the People's Assembly, which attempts to use it to reinvigorate the anti-cuts movement, but built democratically from below in each region. This would mean launching local People's Assemblies which can bring together all the different elements of the movement. While the People's Assembly follows an extremely tired formula (big names, long speeches), the opportunity this provides for the left should not be missed. 

The second area is in the political arena. Again the sectarianism of the left has prevented a meaningful build up of forces as a challenge to Labourism. Leaving aside the disasters of the Socialist Alliance, Respect or No 2 EU, TUSC is arguably the classic example of the British left recognising the necessity of left organisation, then destroying its potential through sectarian hostility and back room manoeuvring. That the opportunity to turn TUSC into a genuine organiastion, with membership and elected leadership has been turned down in favour of behind the scenes stitch ups and a federated structure with an unaccountable leadership, is symptomatic of the deeply sectarian approach to left organisation that has infected our movement. In Britain there is a huge potential to draw in a lot of activists into any new formation. I don't believe the "anti-partyism" that has developed in parts of Europe, that may be understandable considering the betrayals of Labour, has sufficiently developed in Britain to prevent this formation. On the contrary, from my own experience I believe that many, many activists that are currently non-aligned (and many that are) would be drawn into any new grouping, enticed by the prospect of a serious, united left party. This would not only provide a much needed realignment of the left and facilitate more co-ordinated work within the anti-cuts movement, it would also provide an audience for the ideas of the Marxist left.

Therefore, I think we should support any call or move towards left unity (for instance the recent proposals put forward by Ken Loach), on the proviso that it is a) not simply another electoral front, but is an activist organisation b) it is a member-led organisation with a democratically elected leadership both locally and nationally c) there is freedom for organisations such as the IS Network to maintain its own press and organisation. On this basis we may be able to build an organisation in this country which can act as a pole of attraction to thousands of working class people who reject the austerity consensus.

Finally, there is the problem of the Trotskyist sects. There are many objective reasons for the division of the far left that I'm sure could be discussed at length. The reality though, is that the maintenance of several different groupings, who differ on little besides tactical questions or the finer points of Marxist obscurantism, only serves the interests of the petty-bureaucrats that run those organisations. The formation of a revolutionary communist party, which is a shared end goal of almost the entirety of the Marxist left, can only be hampered by the division of the left into innumerable sects and grouplets, each with their own shibboleths to defend. For years, workers and activists that have looked at the state of the far left, and laughed at the madness of the 57 Varieties, have been treated as if they're naive, not sufficiently read up on Marxist theory to understand the complexities and subtleties of the revolutionary movement. The fact is, the class are far ahead of us on this question. When the CPGB was formed in 1921, the sectarianism of the British left was much more rooted, and the divisions within the movement were much more serious (parliamentary question, Labour Party etc.). Yet they were able to come together on a democratic basis on a fairly minimal set of principles (revolution - Dictatorship of the proletariat - workers councils - defend Russia). Unfortunately we don't have Lenin here to bang our heads together, but we do have a revolutionary movement spreading across the Middle East and the most serious crisis in capitalism for 70 odd years. The society we will be left with if the international ruling class is able to complete its assault on the working class hardly bares thinking about. The threat of impoverishment, fascism, war and ecological disaster (all issues around which the revolutionary left agree) pose the alternatives of Socialism or Barbarism much more starkly.

For these reasons we should be aiming to draw in as many people as possible into a revolutionary unity project, which can seek to unite the far left on the basis of the many principles upon which we agree. The scale of the international crisis is not only making the possibility of Marxist unification a much more realistic prospect, it is making it an absolute necessity. I believe the IS Network should place itself at the centre of these discussions, and should see its role as bringing about a much needed realignment within the British working class movement.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I try again to pass on the links I wanted to.

    There's some positive developments on unity among the far left in Australia. See here on the state of discussions and work between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, including significant involvement of the former in the latter's Marxism conference over easter, and here on a June 2 day Socialist Alliance seminar on socialist organising today with Paul Le Blanc and Socialist Alternative members speaking.

  3. Good article. As someone speaking from the International Socialist Group in Scotland, who was also formerly a member of the SWP, we had a sharp learning curve to follow in terms of un-learning a lot of the - frankly - lies that the SWP leadership had poisoned us with over the years, particularly with regards to the Counterfire comrades.

    I think it important to note that the roots of why the ISG, Counterfire and now the IS Network left our 'parent' organisation are fundamentally the same and as such we should make an effort to maintain good relations. One of the more immediate measures that the ISG very deliberately undertook to effect co-operation and build trust was to help Counterfire in building the Coalition of Resistance, rather than setting up yet another front group.

    I feel that if the IS Network can get involved in building the People's Assembly and the wider CoR organisation it would not only be a positive step for the anti-cuts movement as a whole, but help foster good relations with the new sections of the organised left that are serious about unity.

  4. Good Article. To the three main ideas you want any united left party to emobdy I would add two key ideas.

    Firstly that its a working class socialist organisation in the broadest possible sense. There is a lot of talk of Anti Capitalism that somehow being based on the working class and socialism limits yourself to the "last century left" and alienates Occupy and all that. The collapse of Occupy was linked to its inability to move beyond the mildest of Social Democratic slogans and inability to articulate what kind of society it was for. If this new party is to articulate a view on ehat society should be and what it stands for. Socialism articulates that. A large number of people know what Socialism means and in a way some of the work is done for us. In terms of the working class there is a crisis in working class representation this is what we need to address. After all the rulling class and the middle classes have enough parties to represent them.

    Secondly it needs to not have the sectarian approach of saying "we are the party" everyone else join us or fuck off. The early CPGB is instructive in how it approached the unions, the ILP and the Labour Party. It took a United Front approach of trying to work to build a rank and file movement in the unions (the National Minority Movement) and a left wing opposition in the Labour Party (the National Left Wing Movement). That doesnt mean entryism necessarily and still less does it mean tailing union Bureaucrats but it does mean active engagement in the anti cuts fight rather then the TUSC approach of moralistic sloganeering against anyone who doesnt see TUSC as a nascent workers party or vote for immediate union disaffiliation.

  5. on the proviso that it is a) not simply another electoral front, but is an activist organisation b) it is a member-led organisation with a democratically elected leadership both locally and nationally c) there is freedom for organisations such as the IS Network to maintain its own press and organisation

    It all depends what you mean by "democratically elected". At least on one interpretation, b) and c) go together - if the FMO* is not a federation or an umbrella group, if the only category of membership is individual, then there's no reason to ban dual membership and no reason for other organisations to shut up shop.

    We tried, some years ago, to build an organisation something like this in the form of the Socialist Movement (cdes reading here may not be familiar with the history, as the SWP pointedly ignored us throughout). I was involved personally in the drafting of the SM constitution, which was a ghastly bureaucratic fudge combining individual membership, organisational affiliates and rights for groups within the movement defined along sectoral and political lines. As far as I can remember, the idea was that if we built in rights for tendencies within the movement, the sectoral groups (such as Labour Party Socialists) would work better, as they wouldn't get captured by a tendency & could be open to all members within a particular sector. So if you were a Posadist, a Labour Party member and a member of the Socialist Movement, you could go along to Labour Party Socialists meetings to think like a Labour Party member and work within Labour Party campaigns; you'd then go along to Socialist Movement (Posadist) tendency meetings to do your Posadist thang. What we forgot to do was to think of any reason why a tendency wouldn't want to pocket its tendency rights and capture a sectoral group as well (Labour Party Socialists was captured by almost immediately the AWL (as they then weren't)). I'm not sure in retrospect whether to call this naive or just stupid.

    The point of all that is that building in group representation builds in scope for factional manoeuvring, and if you try and counterbalance one lot of group rights with another you're liable to end up just building in even more scope for factional manoeuvring. I'd say keep it simple - go for individual membership, no group rights, no affiliates, and let the chips fall where they may. It'll make the FMO* vulnerable to organised entryism, but if it's a national (and democratically structured) organisation the damage will be self-limiting - unless the entryist is big enough to take over the entire organisation, in which case they're big enough that they probably should.

    *Future Mystery Organisation

  6. Well said. It seems to me there are a few basic organisational steps that can avoid the problem of bureaucratic left sects trying to flood any new network, in no particular order;

    1) ban fulltimers - no paid apparatus officials of any group allowed - they are by definition loyal to their own group not the new collective
    2) everyone has to participate in a local group on a regular basis
    3) autonomy of local organisations
    4) all participating groups must have no prescriptions on their members discussing their internal affairs in public
    5) a simple set of principles that keeps out the Zionists.
    6) all members of any "leading" bodies are delegates from an actual local organisation that can recall them at any time

    1. How about a simple set of rules that keeps out the anti-Semites instead.

  7. How about an even simpler set of rules that keeps out all racists and bigots, which includes zionists and other antisemites.

  8. Oh dear, from what sounded like the idea for how a open working class Socialist axtivists organisation that can unite the left and make a real difference in the prosecution of the class struggle Bill has just designed another left sect.

    Bill- If your perscriptions where to be adopted it would lead to a you and Socialist Fight in a room arguing about the class nature of Yugoslavia. I will adress your point one by one.
    1, No paid full timer's- what does that mean. Some lay members are operators and Apparat's. Is Callinicos a lay member? I think its a dangerously undemocratic perscription and a adminsistrative bureacratic solution to a political problem.
    2, I thought we were not talking about another micro group but a broad working class socialist party which will have many members who will not come to branch meetings. if some one turns out on demo's and to campaign at elections are they excluded from membership. What about Parents, Carer's, Shift workers?
    3, Agreed but we do need to have a single democraticly derived programme and direction of struggle. What we dont want is electoral block where everyone does what they want and no one feels able to criticise each other.
    4, I agree groups should not have rules like this but unfortunatly thats the left we have. If this rule was in place the SWP, SP and WP would be excluded. If this is what you want it will just be a another small grouping. Again its a bureacratic solution to a political problem
    5, what do you mean by "Zionist"? are Poale Zion likley to join? If you mean lefties who belive in the two state solution that would keep out most palestinian's and half of the left. Also why single out zionists? Do you have no problem with Anti Semites, racists, misogynists, homophobes and other bigots?
    6, There should definately be delegate element and recallability is important. However conference electing the NC I think is important and actually a completely delegate structure is more open to abuse as minority tendencies can be either totally excluded or massivley over represented. However all this kind of stuff would have to be hammered out.

    Phil I think you make good points. OMOV should be a way forward. However are you going to accept groups having autonomy of press, political lines and to caucus? There FMO should obviosuly also have its own system of press controlled by the membership.

    We should not obsess over organisation but think about the politics. Is there an objective need for a broad acttivist socialist organisation that unites the left and takes an active part in class struggle-yes?
    So that would need to be- broad, democatic, activist, working class and responsive.
    Lets get on with it and details can be fleshed out during concrete discussions.

    1. There can be a few key principles that all agree on.
      It wouldn't exclude the SWP and SP, they wouldn't be involved. It would exclude WP, what's the loss?
      By Zionist I mean the AWL.
      I think that all leaders need to be accountable to an actual body, that actually meets, and that can actually re-call them. An annually meeting annual conference doesn't meet and cannot re-call its leaders. In fact its generally the other way round, the leaders re-call the conference.

  9. are you going to accept groups having autonomy of press, political lines and to caucus?

    This is all off the top of my head, but it seems to me that OMOV and complete liberty of groups to operate within the organisation go together. If you prohibit dual membership you'll exclude an awful lot of good activists, and essentially turn the new organisation into the ISN writ very slightly larger. If you allow dual membership, other groups will caucus, run slates & all the rest of it - you can't stop them. Or rather, the only way to stop them would be to formalise the relationship between the new organisation and other groups - so that group A can use mechanism X but group B can't use mechanism Y - and that would just be setting yourself up for unintended consequences, internal wrangles & new and different forms of factionalising.

    1. Course, this does mean that there will be factions - and that the factions will be permanent. Call me an optimist, but I honestly think that shouldn't be much of a problem, as long as the new organisation has work to do - organising for marches, supporting strikers & occupiers, etc.

  10. The focus shouldn't just be on a 'Party' & electoral politics. Vast numbers of people instinctively know that so-called 'representative' democracy is nothing of the sort, but most, understandably, can't see any alternative. They know the system screws them every which way. Hence the danger of over-focusing on electoral politics is you come across as another group of wanna-be's wanting power. In this pursuit of votes the temptation will be to moderate the message because of a hostile media. Falling into the Syriza trap of looking to be a credible government presiding over a less harsh form of capitalism - a bit of nationalisation here & there, a bit of redistribution, but still capitalism.
    What is needed is to present an alternative system rather than an alternative party. That means building an alternative system now. Not vote for us who believe in an alternative system & when we get power, then we'll give it to you. Building an alternative system now is like the Occupy movement, or the structure of the IOPS website. It is direct democracy now. Giving people an equal say in decision-making now. Not another group of politicians, however well intentioned, separated from the people.
    We can do this through Facebook. Already The Commune have local commune groups, not just in Britain but also in places like Cairo. These can be opened up to all who want the common ownership of the means of production rather than the private ownership. The embryonic 21st century on-line Soviets, or councils, or assemblies, or whatever people want to call them. We've gone for the name communes after the Paris Commune of 1871. The hope is that as they attract enough people they meet regularly & become a parallel system of power eventually challenging & supplanting the capitalist political institutions. Being Facebook this can be done internationally & can take on its own momentum.
    For a list of the communes currently in existence, see The Commune website. Just contact me or the Commune directly for a new one to be set up, or just set one up yourself & invite your contacts in that locality along. Isn't this worth a go?

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