Friday, 29 March 2013

The Social Project Strategy

Guest post by Kieran C

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.


  1. Coming from the CWI tradition, I keep finding myself surprised by the interesting articles here. This strikes me as an excellent idea, and I'm sure that the left led unions could be convinced to fund things like food banks.

  2. Very interesting piece by Kieran. Still thinking it through but my concerns (the dark side if you like) would be how this relates to an idea of self-emancipation and the connection to the NGOisation of the left. There are reasons why the revolutionary left tended to orientate on organised workers etc aside from the greater strength of organised workers then. I tend to think a more vital area might be attempts to organise groups of workers who have yet to be organised. Reading of the role of the old CP's in the unionisation of new industries etc, I was struck by how the far left in the contemporary period has done very little in systematic way around this sort of thing. Despite very large numbers of workers in precisely this sort of a situation. Part of the crisis of the revolutionary left has in part been driven by an older membership concentrated in older industries. I'd be quite interested in the possibilities of the far left breaking out of this. Are social projects the key thing here? (I'm also horribly reminded of George Orwell's account of how annoying it was to have people pray and preach at you in return for food when you were desperate. In some ways I don't think its much better if its socialism being preached in such a situation then Christianity. )

  3. You can never lose sight of the fact that when we are few and not many, there are physical and mental limits to what can be done. My experience tells me that the Left of Labour scene has been bedevilled by organisations over-reaching themselves in what they thought they could achieve. Or, put another way, something is achieved but it's achieved with burnout. Before anything can be discussed about what is or is not possible, I would suggest that people look quite seriously at what kinds of hours work for a political organisation are realistic - and ones that don't involve one person doing the work relying on someone at home to make their meals, not doing 'the work'.

    1. You're right, but your comment does seem to presuppose that the current discussion should aim to decide on a correct practice, which should then be rolled out on a national scale (by who?). Perhaps, though, the role of a national organisation should simply be to encourage its local sections/members to use their judgement in selecting their campaigns and managing their energies? A bit of experimentation would be worthwhile too: Kieran's right, the old strategies aren't working, but we can't say a priori that one of these suggestions will be best, most productive, for everyone concerned. Partly, due to local differences, partly due to differences in the personality of activists. So let's have some experimentation.

      One key function of a national party should then be to serve as a kind of revolutionary consultancy, raising problems, proposing solutions or alternatives, passing on knowledge gained from previous struggle - much as people are in this thread--and through this, to provide the theoretical, cultural and political unification of these causes. This seems to me an alternative to Lenin's conception which attempts something similar, but allows little creativity to the cadres: the party generalises the creativity of the workers, by relaying it to the leadership, who may or may not include it in their recipe for best practice for all the activists. In my opinion, one of the problems with the SWP is that they couldn't absorb the energies of all those attracted to the movement: it's simply not attractive work parroting a line, on an issue you've been told to campaign on, even if in principle you agree with the line. This was a limit on their growth in at least one case - it's the main reason I never joined.

  4. Partly on that (and continuing my dark side dogmatism: hell, its my role): It brings out for me some of my wider problems a. I don't believe, as it happens, that real movements are built on the basis of filling the gap of the decline of welfarism. I think what happens is that real movements exist and then strengthen themselves by filling the gap of welfarism (I think this is true of a range of movements reactionary and progressive around the world: I think the existing literature vastly overstates the 'filling the gap motif'). I think in Britain there is a growing frustration amongst us because unlike in other parts of Europe the 'real movements' seem in short supply. I think a problem with many of our discussions is a constant attempt to short circuit their creation. If this could be done I'd be all in favour. I don't think it can. I think the way forward is for the left to relate seriously to actual movements that are independent of us (and of course that might include some of the social project stuff). I think comrades should reflect on the fact that when the trade unions called demonstrations we were so tiny and marginal we weren't even capable of doing this. Of course one can cover up for this by suggesting that the trade unions are conservative and out of step etc, which some on the left have done. It doesn't really explain why we're so small though.

  5. So for instance I think the BNP's fortunes rise and fall with racism (and of course an ability to outflank softer varieties of bigotry represented by the likes of UKIP). They can of course extend their networks with hedge trimming and community activism of various kinds, but its a mistake to think that they could ever have built themselves on this basis alone. Something similar is true of, for instance, religious political organisations of various kinds ranging from resistance organisations like Hezbollah to much more ambiguous formations like the MB to outright reactionary organisations like the Hindu nationalists. My feeling is that you can't build an ideological movement purely by material inducements. There has to be some sort of basis before you start. I think that's why in Britain organisations which have been the best at this sort of work have tended to be local representatives of the three main parties. One interesting feature of the present crisis is their crisis as mass membership organisations which has of course co-incided with the crisis (or their attack on) more formal kinds of welfarism. This may appear to leave a vacuum but unfortunately the crisis of the kind of mass membership organisations which make this sort of activity so effective (and possible: here I'm thinking of Mike Rosen's observation) is one that effects us as well. Indeed its the reason we're having this conversation....

  6. This is a really interesting article. If it’s an indication of the level of re-thinking the ISN are up for then that’s very encouraging. I’m involved with a nascent political organisation called Plan C, which is an attempt at a rethinking and regroupment in response to the crisis. It’s fair to say that so far most of the participants have a background in the autonomist movement.
    A major focus for us has been thinking through the possibilities and drawbacks of the sort of social projects talked about here. We’ve found the concept of social reproduction really useful in this, drawing on the work of Marxist feminists such as Sylvia Federici, the wages for housework movement, etc. (Good god autonomism and feminism the SWP CC will have a fucking field day).
    Part of what we’ve found useful with the category of social reproduction is that is it can help us change our perspective on the crisis. We’re used to interpreting the crisis from the perspective of capital. A recession is two quarters of negative growth, etc. So the crisis is a crisis of capital accumulation. But that’s not how we experience the crisis. We experience it as a collapse in living standards, an inability to pay the bills, pay the rent/mortgage, etc. An inability to continue to reproduce ourselves as full participants in 21st century society. In other words, we experience the crisis as a crisis of social reproduction. The thing is that we’re used to thinking that the solution to the former is the only solution to the latter – eg. The problem is to get growth going again and we can solve the crisis of social reproduction – we have to face up to the fact that for a growing strata of society this might no longer be the case. The thing with a crisis of social reproduction is that it has to be addressed. It is quite literally a matter of life and death. The question is whether we can influence the manner in which it is addressed through social projects, etc. There are lots of questions about resources and capacity not to mention the problem of making projects self-organising rather than sacrificial service provision but this does seem like the terrain on which we might move from defensive to offensive struggle.
    I, and my other writing partners make a similarish argument here:

  7. Very very interesting article. I do agree that selling a newspaper is today an anachronistic activity and has been for some time, quite apart from the fact that most of the time spent consisted of not selling it. And although a website or a blog can fill most of the gap of communicating ideas very effectively, it does not adequately replace face to face contact. I am very unsure about the social project though - and I think Kieran himself raises most of the objections. I worry as has been remarked that it could become about organising the marginal (though the Barnet Library example is not that), when there are many workers who have considerable potential economic power who are not organised at all, such as most private sector IT workers. Probably one does not preclude the other in theory, but as Michael points out, there are only so many hours in the day. And I feel, as someone who was a member of the SWP for 20 years, one of the party's mistakes was being too demanding on people's time and as a result (along with other factors) tending to strain or even sever the relationships members had with wider groups of people outside the party, including friends and relatives, or driving people out of the party, both of which in the end were counterproductive.

  8. Very exciting to see comrades questioning so much we think and do. This post reminded me of seeing Stuart Lee (co author of Jerry springer the opera) in a small documentary about the christian protests that shut it down asking a priest about his concerns regarding the Opera. The priest said something like "None really. If god exists and is indeed the true way, nothing you do or say can or will change that." I found this statement incredibly refreshing as it showed a confidence that Marxists could learn from.

    In relation to the paper, I do think it is past time for a wholesale rethink. I don't know if the paper is essential or obsolete but suspect something inbetween. I do know that I want my information at hand on my phone, sub £100 android tablet or laptop. Maybe I overestimate who has this kind of access at the moment, but it will only become more and more widespread and I would suggest at an accelerating rate. I also want my topical arguments more upto date than once a week and reading two or more day old articles can be very frustrating when on many occasions the debate has moved on hour by hour.

    As to using Social Projects, as a focus, I have many concerns about this. I seem to remember while the Panthers campaign had many successes, when push came to shove this tactic left them vulnerable to attack from the state. Those they "organised" did not have any real cohesion or "power" to defend them. I am sure the Panthers were vulnerable for other reasons, but part of it at least the the inability of these workers to organise to defend them.

    Another point to remember is that facist movements and christians are not looking to overthrow capitalism. They are merely looking to build their organisations to a point where they are powerful enough to have the influence they want to reform it to their advantage.

    I would however suggest that actions such as reclaiming empty buildings for housing the homeless, resisting evictions, defending community land against "for profit" developments are just as much "social projects" and lend themselves to the kind of questioning of the system we believe is needed to build a "network" of activists that can bring about a revolution. We also need to tackle them in a way that does not leave itself open to be accused of bandwagon hopping.

  9. What the author is talking about here is exactly the sort of thing that Sinn Fein have been doing for years, which is why despite being completely neo-liberal these days and abandoning the core principles of irish republicanism they have a huge following in the working class (something that I believe has already peaked BTW but still very real). The cultural initiatives talked a\bout could be very easily done with todays technology, the means of musical production and distribution exist easily to hand on the internet the base line ideology of most people on the underground music scene, particularly the rave scene are stridently anti-capitalist, I can think of a number of people outside the party who would positively embrace this.

  10. To open another enormous can of worms: the history of marxist parties and groups is a history of the relative success or failure of marxist ideas reaching or convincing the socialist and oppositionist and resistant groups. Obviously, socialist and resistant groups have won power many times, but marxist ideas about a switch in the ownership of the means of production and the distribution of the profit have hardly (if ever) been put into action. Possible conclusions: 1. Abandon marxist ideas, they never catch on. 2. Stick to marxist ideas they make sense and would bring justice, equality and peace, but do nothing about it. Just hope they catch on. 3. Intervene in struggles and campaigns as marxists but not as a party. More as federated groups, making alliances on a campaign by campaign basis. 4. Pretend you're not marxists and form a socialist party that will incorporate socialists, oppositionists and marxists. 5. Form a 'hard' marxist party, tell people that's what you are, and work on recruiting people to it. 6. Any combination of the above.

  11. Thank you for this, Kieran C. It articulates a lot of what I've wanted to say but I felt I wouldn't have been listened to in the SWP. Yes we should be educators, agitators and organisers and the first steps don't involve selling papers or asking people to sign petitions. We should be involved in organisations like Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty - 'run by poor people for poor people'. The horrendous cuts to legal aid and advice centers has left a void that we ought to be filling. 18 months ago I was one of a small Group of people who established Disability History Scotland with the aim of using our past to explore what is currently happening to disabled people. That's an illustration of a practical initiative. We also need to be more daring and funnier. Since we went head to head with Iain Duncan Smith on Wednesday our spoof website has had nearly 15,000 hits and we've got something else pretty damn good lined up. The SWP has never been comfortable with using social media, we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of how we can use it. And we need freedom to discuss our ideas and act on them without the dead hand of hierarchy holding us back.

  12. Wages for Housework institutionalises 'biology is destiny' for women; it's not necessarily progressive. Women currently working as eg domestic cleaners don't find the wages compensate for the isolated, repetitive drudgery. Socialisation of childcare and domestic labour is a better demand. Much could be learned from the example of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (Sylvia Pankhurst), their provision of social and health services and their subsequent involvement with Poplar Council.

    1. I can understand the caution about this idea and am assuming part of housework to be around childcare.As a man who gave up work to look after my children while my partner worked I don't see it has to necessarily go down the line of biology is destiny (if I understand the meaning of this).

      I would firstly say from my experience, women that work as domestic cleaners are in a better position (I do not argue they are in a good position as that is clearly not the case) than those that do it within the home, "unwaged". They at least have set hours, are covered by various labour laws, have some chance to join a union, are covered by health and safety legislation and possibly even get paid holidays. The isolation and drudgery is undeniable, but can be seen (less so the isolation) in many many historically male dominated industries (I am not arguing equality here, but pointing out it is not exclusively so).

      I am not sure if waged housework (childcare) could be won within capitalism, beyond the simple "child care" allowance model, but the demand does raise important arguments about the nature of the system and the exploitation within that.

      For sake of argument, If it was somehow achievable, then surely Union organisation could follow along with the possibility and ability of this workforce to push for a change in the way childcare is organised. For better working conditions in effect.

      In essence I am not sure there is a real difference between this and a call for Socialisation. If feels more like coming to the same issues from different angles. One calls for a full frontal attack on the "family" while the other attempts to undermine the very reason that the family is so useful to capitalism.

  13. I would like to thank Kieran for a thought provoking article.

    Where does being a revolutionary socialist end and being a reformist start? It’s simple all the time.
    We want to see a revolutionary change in how society is organised yet we live within the society we are trying to change and we operate in many aspects of life in a reformist way. Depending on the situation we find ourselves in this need not be a contradiction.

    Revolutionary socialist believe in the power of the organised working class to change society and I work with that in mind. However I also help out in a food bank! I believe in helping people in the here and now. A by-product of this is that I can talk to people about their life and yes about politics. About Unite community, the Bedroom Tax etc. etc and get people involved in activity.

    If we look at working class history we see there is a rich of history of ordinary working class people forming trades unions, friendly societies, building societies, co-operative societies, workers education associations, works clubs, social clubs, community centres all built on a socialistic base. This was and to some extent is our big society. We have to fight to re establish and strengthen these aspects of life that can help move politics to the left.

    WE must always remember we are revolutionary socialists, but we can and should take part in wider agitation, education and organisation. Michael Roses is right we are few, but we will remain few if we do not broaden out and meet people where they are active in the wider community.

    On the role of the revolutionary paper Socialist Worker is a good newspaper and I was always proud to sell it. I have come to the view that its main role was to holds the SWP membership and periphery together and as over the years done that well.

    I am no longer convinces that in the age of the Internet the paper is the main way of building revolutionary influence in the working class. Selling Socialist Worker as become a massive drain on member’s time that could be used in more productive ways.

  14. This is excellent thinking reminding me of something that was true of much radical activity in the US in the 60s/70s--the creation of "exemplary" institutions. There was a two-fold intent here: on the one hand to provide a resource that was useful in itself, and on the other, to encourage a space and culture of questioning, challenge, and freedom. I was among the originators of the Free University of Seattle, which was originally created by independent radical activists. The Free U was immensely popular, as it offered courses of greatly varied sorts at minimal cost that students at the nearby University of Washington found appealing. Needless to say, many of the classes had a radical edge to them, but importantly, it wasn't put together with any kind of ideological or even political requirement. Two of the most popular classes were Introduction to Calligraphic Writing and the other was Eastern Philosophy and the Existential Questions.

    People are more than political beings, and offering a mix of subjects was not a manipulative strategy but a real desire to satisfy creative interests that otherwise had no institutional vehicle (at that time and place). The intention I hope we share is to create a world more free than the one in which we live--and that does not translate to a strictly political form. In a real paradox, political ends were served by not leading with a solely or narrowly political intent. The Free U was democratically run by the students themselves (once the originators managed to get themselves out of the way), and that too was an example and a learning not available in any other academic setting.

    Don't be afraid to be "soft" or to dream--it's the dreamers and the open-hearted folks who are more likely to foster a humane society than the regimented and the merely correct. I rather think the current awfulness coming out of the SWP illustrates the latter strain of politicking. We can and must do better.

  15. It would be well worth looking at the experience of this sort of work across a variety of parties and places. The Belgian and Dutch post-maoists had many doctors and lawyers in their ranks which allowed them to provide medical and legal serices for free. In Israel the ODI/WP runs workers information centres mainly aimed at Palestinian workers in pre-48 zone. In Ireland SF and the Workers Party before them did do some work like this but it was closely tied to clientalism i.e. raising a particualar election candidate/public reps profile in a community. And so on...
    Could be the subject of a really useful booklet...looking at the what/how and the results both in terms of immediate gains as well as the long term trajectory of the parties involved, which all relates to the question of the relationship between these sorts of activities and revolutionary change.
    Any takers? Would be refreshing change from the usual fact-lite, rhetoric filled material published by many radical left groups!

    Paddy Walsh

  16. Very interesting and thought provoking article. This video from Reel News is about a very similar project in Greece.

    Real solidarity, of course, is about organising and empowering communities to set up their own food banks and share facilities, growing, sourcing or liberating their own food and premises.


  17. With regards to the 'very interesting people before profit'. The charlatan and fraud who set up their 'food bank' is a guy called Ray Woolford, a convicted fraudster who before setting up his latest scheme to save the poor tried to run a 'community cafe' of which I was the shop steward. It's a long and horrible story leading up to his closing the cafe rather than let there be a union amongst the staff there, you can get a flavour of it from the blog we set up during our dispute:

  18. I’ve only just had a chance to read this through. It’s a really interesting article and it takes on an important question of how socialists could reach out to wider layers of society.
    Personally I have no problem with the idea of socialists working in food banks if they have the time and energy to do this. I’m sure they play a very important role for communities and peoples lives. If I was to be involved in something like this I’d imagine I would speak to the people around me just as I would to anyone else, so I would naturally argue for socialist ideas. I would have serious issues with organising this as a left strategy though. This is mainly because people go to food banks not to listen to socialists, but because they need to in order to get by. I think people would easily be able to see through what would essentially be nothing more than a recruitment strategy for the left. I expect this would be the case whether we labled it as “Charity” or “Solidaity”.
    There is also something problematic about the power relationship between a socialist preaching to people in this way – just as there is when religious groups do it - as they would essentially be forced to listen to a sermon in exchange for a charity. I fear this approach, however well meaning it would be, would come across as exploitative. I’d imagine it would also be very hard for those who are reliant on the charity to challenge the ideas and take ownership over strategies which are being presented to them by people who they are particularly reliant on.
    I do like the idea of looking for different areas to organise in though, especially as community campaigns are looking increasingly strong with initiatives such as Unite the Community and the Bedroom tax demonstrations. I would agree with Kieran that there are several community campaigns which socialists have in the past been under-looked, and we need to constantly find new and innovative ways to reach wider layers of people. Maybe food banks are places socialists could publicise campaigns, but I’d be uncomfortable with running it as a strategy.

    1. I don't think Christians do force people to listen to "sermons" in exchange for food though. When Christians approach people, they usually ask questions like 'have you let the lord into your heart?' or 'do you want to know about the truth?', etc, and you can say no or argue with them. They usually known not to be unpleasant about it, because they know people will come around to them when they're 'ready', and can't be hectored into it. That's a conversation, not a sermon, and I don't really see anything exploitative about it. Certainly not if we use 'exploitative' in the Marxist sense. Of course, if you're an atheist you might find it annoying after a while, but I don't think the Christians are wrong to disregard that, from their perspective. If you think an idea's good, there's nothing dishonest about making the effort to convince others of it.

      I wouldn't see the food bank as a cynically adopted device either. Socialism is supposed to be a more genuinely social society, a society in which people are unified by active solidarity and not just market mechanisms. Charity represents that, demonstrating in practice, that socialists give a damn, and can be useful in people's lives. The major proviso, of course, is that charity positions people as essentially passive, it's inherently not empowering. Whether they could serve as an effective point of contact with workers, I don't know, but you're probably right we should also be looking at other forms of community campaign. But maybe that's not to say food banks couldn't play a role in a complex of left activities. Might they be a good kind of breaking in activity for inexperienced activists? - it's the kind of thing student volunteers do already. They might also have the advantage of being a constant communal presence, unlike the variety of local campaigns.

  19. I am in favour of being involved with food banks run by and for the community from local community centres. People who use the food banks are more often than not the very same people who will be on the receiving end of the bedroom tax, library and nursery closure, cuts to their local NHS and loss of jobs etc. These are all community issues and a socialist in that situation does not need to "preach" socialism, most people who use food banks are quite happy to talk about the above issues, some of them even get involved in campaigning over issues. If you are a thinking socialist you dont need to preach at anyone. We should keep in mind that we are there as an act of “Solidaity” and "Enpowerment" and what we are doing is nothing to do with “Charity.” I am not sure if the left should develop a "stratergy" of working with food banks, its important that as individuals are there because we want to be and not because we are there because of a stratergy Of course the two are not incompatable.

  20. Hi this is an interesting article and good to see that 'new' directions are being thought about on the British Left. One thing to note about 'culture as resistance'- I am in an organization (The Anticapitalist Initiative) that is trying to develop links with commnunity organisation who are already undertaking these kind of Social Projects. For example Platform London run the 'Shake' Project for BME youth from disadvantaged areas of London, a week-long intensive 'Art, Activism and Politics' course where the youth are given licence to develop art projects that speak to their own experiences of exclusion and marginalisation without being told what they should think. They are encourages mainly to learn how to think and articulate critically, rather than been hammered down by ideology. i think these kind of approaches- where both the culture and art produced is 'organic' AND showcases a vernacular critique of the system- are crucial for the radical left in britain to a) reach out into communities that are suffering the very worst of the current austerity measures and b) learn from the experience of these people, their culture as resistance, and use this learning ourselves to re-formulate how we should 'do' politics on the radical left.

  21. I would say that the idea that this would be a conversation between equals does not take into account the power dynamic created when one person is giving another free food they are desperately in need of. Many of these people will be feeling a massive hit to their self worth just by turning up to the bank. Many may not realise they have a choice about answering questions or engaging in "discussions". You could think of many ways to try and counteract this power dynamic, but I fear that it would always exist and have the tendency as those running the bank became more frustrated and/or less sensitive of to increase with time.

  22. I think the key thing is that, if socialists get involved in this stuff, it has to be part of a wider self-help movement. In other words, if working class people are self-organising to look after each other, it woud be mad for socialists not to be part of it. If socialists try to intitiate it themselves that's fine, so long as, again, they are encouraging self-organisation. If it is a party, or a group seperate from the majority of the class, organising it themselves, in order to "preach" socialism, like Martin suggested, that would be mad, and simply wouldn't work. If instead it were an actual organic movement in which socialists play a role, or even a leading role, it's of course valid. Tim N

  23. Interesting how this resonates across the left in Europe:

    "The Tailor of Ulm" by Lucio Magri speaks very elegantly about the powerful demoralising effect of the withdrawal of these types of resources after the dissolution of the PCI.

  24. The "Big Society" analogy is an apt one.
    The Government would be very happy for the left to concern itself with running "social projects" as this poses no threat to them whatsoever!
    Charity can't possibly substitute for the benefits the Coalition are now cutting.
    Forcing the users of libraries to run them, while cutting spending, is exactly what the they are now encouraging.

    The fashionable idea of "Social Unions" has to be treated with caution.
    It is important to organise claimants and the unemployed and to win popular support for union action.
    But this can easily become a substitute for organising effective action.

    I'd draw an analogy with the Miners Strike of 1984-5
    Organising collections and benefits was a vital activity, one that helped sustain the strikers for a year.
    But it couldn't win the strike.
    This required solidarity action by other unions, which was being blocked by Neil Kinnock and right wing union leaders.

    But in the period preceding the strike, the SWP had decided there was a "downturn"
    It wound down its rank and file organisations in the unions and adopted the ultra-left position of refusing to even standing for local union positions.
    Consequently the ability of the SWP to challenge the bureaucracy in the LP and Trade Unions was reduced.

    It strikes me that a turn to "social projects" would be another ill-judged lurch to the right.
    One that carries a serious risk of de-politicisation for both the organisers and recipients.

    (BTW, the Workers Party of Belgian aren't just "ex-Maoists", they're die-hard defenders of Stalinism)


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