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.