I am making this post to try and kick off a discussion about something I have become interested in, but am not sure if it is a good or bad idea. Even if it is a bad idea, as a friend said to me, we ought to at least be clear why we don't agree with it.
I attended one of the early Left Unity meetings called by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson in Central London in February and was interested by the mix of people who'd come. It is not true that it was all people who had been around the Left for over a decade and had been through the experience of RESPECT or previous attempts at Left realignment. There was a layer of younger people, some of whom were yet to be convinced that elections are the way to fight capitalism and it was from some of these people that I started thinking about what I will call, for shorthand, the Social Project Strategy.
One guy expressed frustration about something I hadn't previously considered: involvement in a food bank. Food banks were, of course, a rare thing in Britain until the ConDems came to power and the explosion in their numbers is one of the most damning facts about what sort of government they are. The young man lives in South London and the one most local to him is run by evangelical Christians. Not being a Christian, he felt that this was something he could not easily join, but he also questioned whether or not there was something in the fact that people who go to the food bank – inevitably – end up in a discussion about God (note: no-one is suggesting that these Christians were refusing to help anyone who was not of their religion). He put a question – if we, as socialists/communists/anarchists/whatever believe that the solution to the problems of working class people today lie in transforming society and not the great hereafter, do we not want these people to hear about that instead?
I spoke to a few people about this notion and was told that there has been engagement in this in South London. I have since found out that the very interesting People Before Profit group has been looking at instituting food banks in Lewisham and Greenwich were they are contesting elections with some success. The idea comes from a slightly romantic view of the Black Panther Party and its celebrated “Survival Programmes” - things like free breakfast for school kids, volunteer medical programmes, addiction support and so on. I The Panthers picked up these strategies partially as result of their interest in Maoism, and they weren't the only ones. Maoism may now be quite rare in Europe, but two Maoist-derived parties that have both survived the twentieth century and remain influential are the Belgian Workers' Party (WPB) and the Dutch Socialist Party (SPN), both of which managed to outgrow the 'official' Communist Parties in their states with strategies that involved providing “proletarian services” - a range of provisions that ended up including medical, educational and advise centres. In the case of the SPN, the party has grown to become a viable electoral party that is a significant player in parliament – the Dutch equivalent of SYRIZA or Die Linke.
Now, in the Trotskyist-derived Left, particularly in Britain, we haven't previously had much experience or consideration for this sort of activity. There are perfectly sensible historical reasons for this – the far Left in this part of the world after World War Two did not grow and develop by organising primarily among oppressed and marginalised workers like black Americans, it became rooted in student radicalism and organised workers and in any case the welfare state had become much more progressive and effective. The thing is, this post-1945 settlement has been done away with and this has massively changed the structure and shape of working class life. It is only logical that would change the way that revolutionary socialists would attempt to organise the class.
The SWP has maintained a number of organisational traditions carried over from the pre-neoliberal era that are of questionable relevance today. Consider the words “Educator, agitator, organiser.”, every SWP member can recite the phrase that is used to explain the role of the paper. But what evidence do we have that it fills any of those roles? The party was famously reluctant to gather any proper data on the success and effectiveness of its activities, but I think that if I claim that Lenin's Tomb is more read than the paper, that weekly paper sales are sporadic events at which people you never see again are abstractly propagandised to and that sales figures of the paper outside and inside work places have likely not left double figures in a very long time, it would not be controversial. Personally, I have always been treated as very odd for trying to sell a paper to workmates, it has become a bizarre thing to do! I don't think Socialist Worker has really been an effective organising tool since the early 2000s. If a revolutionary paper isn't the scaffolding of the party, what could we use instead?
I think one possibility is that we could try launching “Social Projects” with a view to growing our membership and organisation.
What would this mean and how would it help?
Here's a thing I bet you have never done – go on the website of the BNP, download the .PDF of their “activists' manual” and see what the very first thing it instructs BNP members to do is. I'm sure most of you have better things to do, so I'll tell you what I'm talking about: it advises members that the first thing to do in an area where the BNP is targeting is to organise days out and about litter-picking, trimming hedges and helping old people get around. This is scarcely the first thing we associate with the BNP, but that's the point isn't it? In his book Bloody Nasty People, Daniel Trilling has identified this innovation by the fascists as something they successfully imported from the Front National and other French “New Right” “thinkers” partly inspired by a reading of, of all the things, Gramsci's theories of seeking cultural hegemony before trying for power. New Rightists have sought, with considerable success in many countries, to enable fascism to reorganise and gain new respectability by presenting themselves as socially useful and relevant – Greek Golden Dawn are currently doing an extreme version of this, taking on many of the social provisions that have been left undone by the crumbling welfare state. It is coming to something if the fascists are not only stealing from communists not just our symbols and rhetoric, but our theories as well!
Obviously the way that fascists seek to organise and relate to people is not the same as ours – they are seeking the most isolated and bitter people, ideally not from the working class in their view. But the gaps in social provision that the fascists have exploited could be filled in other ways. That's not say, by the way, that people might not think that organising litter-picking and recycling would be such an awful thing to do.
The food bank issue is one example – suppose food banks could be organised not as charity, but solidarity. Could we initiate the self-organisation of working class people in their own interest, to make them into an expression of the victims of austerity taking control of their destinies, rather than being hostage to generosity? Could, and this would be making a real leap, we provide an immediate solution to the problem of hunger in such a way as to show people that the problem of people lacking food is not linked to shortages, but to the logic of a market that puts the profitability of food ahead of ensuring that people can eat?
In the past few months I have a read of a number of other developments that are also interesting and do recall some of the things that the WPB and SPN did successfully in the Low Countries. SolFed supporters experimented with trying to set up unemployed advice centres in Liverpool, Unite Community have collaborated with the National Union of Mineworkers on a more serious (but presumably less radical) project in Yorkshire. If the Left could be seen as a source of, often vital, advice on how to cope with life under the crisis, this could be used a means to move away from abstract propaganda into real relevance. Whether these service could, or should, be extended into the field of medical services (surely, we should be fighting to preserve our hither-to world-class NHS!) I am not qualified to say.
One idea that was put into my mind by the ever-inventive Roobin was to take 'cultural hegemony' a little more literally: working class kids have nothing like the access to art and culture they had in previous generations. The SWP paid a load of money to some jazz musicians to play on stage, more or less forced us all to watch them in the style of commercial gig and called it 'Cultures of Resistance'. Imagine turning that on its head: getting people to participate in making the music – creating culture as resistance. One might get some decent art out of it, if nothing else.
These sort of activities could enable socialists to talk to, influence and ultimately organise potentially large numbers of working class people and reach beyond the circles we have previously been trapped in. Yes, it is all work and requires commitment, but it might be a lot more rewarding, even fun, then the declining practises of just turning up to places to do the increasingly anachronistic task of selling a newspaper.
Why might we not do this?
As I began to write this, two horrible words jumped out and hit me in the face: “Big Society”. In many ways I've described is precisely the idea of using voluntary labour as salve for Call Me Dave stealing away the rights and entitlements of the working classes. An example of this pitfall being very effectively averted that I know of close to home (literally for me) is that of the Frien Barnet Library occupation. When the Ultra-Tory council in Barnet shut the library about a year ago, the initial response was a group of activists setting up a novel form of protest: the pop-up library, a form education-as-direct action that saw the grounds of the building used as the centre of volunteer organised library-in-a-tent that was directly linked to the wider and ongoing to campaign against neoliberal policies in the borough. The people driving this had a very healthy attitude towards this: that they were doing it to show that a library was both wanted and needed in the area and not that they were happy with voluntary labour would fill that gap. Things went a stage further when a group of activists who had been enthusiastic for Occupy London squatted the library premises: the building reopened as the People's Library, and despite bitter moaning from the Tories, has been restored to use. It's nice to have a both a positive example and victory, but also important that if occupiers had been less politically aware and had not been directly linked to the Barnet Alliance for Public Services which links the issue of public sector jobs to the provision of services (and perhaps, if Barnet Tories were not so thuggish and Neanderthal), one can see how this could have been co-opted into the opposite of what it wanted to be.
That's not the only danger, some of the things I've discussed are really complicated and take serious organising. There is a real danger that a socialist organisation that tries to go down this route might become completely bogged down in the administration and logistics of making its operations look professional. I've been a Team Member at many Marxisms and volunteer for the Workers' Beer Company every summer, so I have a very clear idea of how quickly the ostensibly simple activities of having lots of meetings in a university or selling beer in a field rapidly become challenging if you want to do them properly and do it on the same scale as a commercial operation. There is also the issue of responsibility – if you giving people help, aid or advice, you have an ethical duty to do it properly and safely and this requires expertise and training.
Something to Think About
The implosion of the SWP has had a significant effect on the whole of the rest of the Left. A landscape that had previously been extremely fixed and stagnant has suddenly been severely stirred up. It's easy to point out that the Ken Loach led Left Unity declaration does not say anything amazingly new, but the scale of its resonance (over 3,000 signatures) is in itself significant. What the Left Unity project could potentially create is still highly debatable. There is a serious argument to be had about many aspects of this and a lot so far has been said about electoral possibilities – and I do think that we need to debate when, where and how to stand in elections, but what I've tried to do with this is open up a different front in discussion.
Anyone who knows me will know that I've been critical of the SWP's overarching strategies for some time, while I was still a confirmed member. We need a thorough debate on how we can build up working class organisation in this new landscape that is the product of a generation of neoliberalism, and if we can't find it inside the unions as they currently exist, we need to think about where we can find it.