The following article is a contribution to the debate that is taking place inside the Left in Britain. It is not intended to present a general picture or take a position on every issue.
It is true that in the fairly recent past, with the phenomena of Sanders and Corbyn, as well as Podemos and Syriza, there was an increasing international interest in left and socialist ideas, especially amongst the youth. However, recent events have shown a betrayal of these ideas by Syriza and Podemos, and a retreat from the fray by Corbyn and Sanders. These developments are linked to the prolonged crisis of capitalism in the present era. We need to soberly examine this situation and the effects it has on mass consciousness and the Left.
Movements and consciousness
Some years ago, Britain was in the spotlight due to the rise of Corbynism. Today, the situation is quite different. The detrimental effect on socialist consciousness coming out of the suppression of Corbynism by his own political party is testament to an increase in confusion. Corbyn’s inability to effectively fight back against these attacks has reinforced this confusion. This has led to disillusionment amongst Corbyn’s supporters, who on the whole, have not moved into political struggle themselves. Whether they resigned from the Labour Party or remained, in general they took a passive role. This has been a blow to socialist consciousness. Many Labour Party activists are burnt out and disillusioned and look to forms of organisation that might give them some fulfilment outside of the political struggle.
There has been a ralicalisation amongst layers of the youth, as well as a polarisation on the left and the right, but as a general picture people are politically pessimistic and disengaged. In some layers there is an anti-capitalist / anti-system mood, but this is also coupled by a general distrust of socialist ideas amongst youth coming into struggle. Obviously, there are also different types of consciousness: political, personal, group, mass, subject etc. In some of these areas e.g. around climate change, consciousness has moved forward, but at the same time the general consciousness around what is socialism remains confused within the Left as well as outside it. Early promise, by some on the Left, of socialist consciousness being adopted en masse by the climate change movement has failed to materialise, in spite of important interventions by socialist groups.
Counter-cultures do arise however and socialists should interact and work alongside them. This became the case during the climate change movement and Black Lives Matter especially. Any socialist worth their salt should have been working alongside these movements. At the same time, we should discuss how the Left might intervene in the movements. Does it have an open, democratic and patient approach or does it try to force slogans on them? For example, the slogan, “system change, not climate change”, is a progressive slogan at the present conjuncture. The insistence on using “socialist change not climate change” by some socialists, proved to be counter-productive. It is evident that socialists would seek to promote socialist ideas and of course they should, but placing one slogan above another, without qualification or consultation proved alienating for many climate activists. Socialists shouldn’t see every new movement as an opportunity only to recruit, but primarily as an opportunity to engage. Genuine engagement will lead to winning support for socialist ideas and ultimately to new people coming over to the Left.
United Front approach missing
For too long left groups have refused to unite in action. Attempts have been made and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) initiative did show some promise initially. Unfortunately, at present, the Socialist Party is left as the only socialist political party of any size present in it. This reflects the tendency of left groups to be insular. They have difficulty working across a broad front and until they learn how to do so, the possibilities for the wide-spread growth of socialist ideas will be hampered.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc did reduce socialist consciousness significantly. It may seem inevitable that at some point mass socialist consciousness will re-emerge. But this will not be an automatic process linked to the capitalist crisis, as some on the Left seem to expect. In past decades, there used to be mass left social democratic and communist parties as well as sizeable Trotskyist and other Left organisations, which is no longer the case. In addition, the divisions in the Left have given activists reasons to reject the current left formations.
On top of all of this, there has been an increase in conspiracy theories. The political weaknesses of the Left have only helped to increase the confusion that leads individuals along the route to conspiracy theories rather than clarity and science.
This has been especially true during the Covid pandemic, which some left organisations have tended to handle in a reactive and unscientific way. For example, some socialist organisations had comrades out on stalls at the height of the pandemic. This was particularly ill-advised as they were perceived as being out of touch with the science and the realities of life and as having an evangelical approach. Socially distanced protest and activity could and did take place, but a failure to be flexible in the forms these might take was evident from some left groups.
This is a significant new moment within the Labour Party, which is now a fully realised liberal democratic party in terms of its policies.
“How can we change it if we are not in it?” is often the question asked by Labour Party activists. “Starmer hasn’t shown his true colours yet” has recently been expressed to me by a long-standing left Labour member. “Socialism is a dirty word in Hartlepool” was expressed by another Labour Party activist, as if it’s got nothing to do with the Labour Party itself.
Some Labour Party activists still cling to the rump of this tortured political wreck. They hang on because of the lack of an alternative and the lack of their preparedness to fight when they had the chance. They put their faith in Corbyn – a man of limited vision and capability who they followed blindly. When Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party he showed his inability to take the Party forward in a socialist / progressive direction. There seemed to be no internal pressure on him to do so. Voices of criticism were silenced and derided while he was leader and the grip on the Party apparatus by the right was so effective that he couldn’t challenge the right in a serious way. “Momentum” was created as the Labour Party’s way of taming its radical fringe. Leadership roles were rigged, debate was stifled, the left opposition was vilified.
The mantra that “The dynamic enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition is the way to organise society”, Blairs formula to replace clause four of the Labour Party’s statutes which called for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, is now reborn with Starmer. Blairites are being thrust into positions of leadership. The Labour Party congress recently changed the rules to make the election of a left candidate as leader virtually impossible. It now requires 20% of MPs to support any leadership candidate (up from 10%). Starmer has also removed the registered “supporters” category (paying £3 for the right to be a supporter and to have a vote). In order to vote for the leader an individual will have to have been a full member of the Labour Party for at least six months. The threshold for trigger ballots has also been increased.
In Starmer’s latest pre-congress essay, he mentioned business 27 times, but the words “socialism”, “public ownership” and “nationalisation” were not mentioned at all. The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party has for some time collaborated with Starmer’s attack on Corbyn and the gross exaggerations around antisemitism.
Bourgeois ideas’ influence in the movements
The above processes can be seen reflected in other movements e.g. climate change, Extinction Rebellion (XR), etc.
The hope of the sharing of radical, even revolutionary ideas, which was present briefly in these movements was thwarted by bourgeois elements developing their own structures and imposing them on the movement. As with the People’s Assembly, these organisations viewed the movement through the prism of capitalist measures. They emphasised putting pressure on the politicians, not challenging their prerogative to lead society. There was also a focus on individual self-sacrifice, rather than collective responsibility with a worrying degree of libertarian thought thrown into the mix. Activism was emphasised and open political discussion prohibited. “We don’t want party politics because it divides people” was the mantra, so what evolved were discussions without any politics and with an over-reliance on “experts” to lead the debates. This was especially true of Extinction Rebellion.
Trade Unions and strikes
In general, the trade unions have slavishly followed Labour’s lead, keeping the same structures and maintaining the grip of the bureaucrats. The over-riding position of trade union leaderships has been to maintain the status quo. Although there have been successful strikes, the bureaucrats have shown time and again that they are there to keep order. To make promises and later break them and trap people in meetings where nothing really changes.
On the other hand, is it possible that some more unions might disaffiliate from Labour. The Bakers Union (BFAWU), recently voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate. There is some pressure from the rank and file for this to happen, but it’s hard to see the big unions UNISON or UNITE fully disaffiliating in the near future. It would require a rule change for UNITE to disaffiliate from Labour and the next UNITE rules congress doesn’t take place until 2023. It is encouraging however that UNITE, with Sharron Graham as General Secretary, has indicated that it will cut its funding of Labour still further. It previously cut its funding by 10% under Len McClusky. She also refused to offer financial support to Labour in the Midlands because of the Labour Council’s attempts to break a strike by refuse workers there. The election of Sharron Graham to general secretary of UNITE is a positive step. She had the best left policies amongst the candidates and was able to defeat the right-wing candidate in spite of another left candidate also running; this is one more example of the Left not working together.
On the other hand, Barnoldswick (Rolls Royce) and Camel Laird are examples of Trade Unions (UNITE) imaginatively entering into struggle and achieving victories. New approaches to industrial action are being tried, with some success. In the case of Barnoldswick, for example, it took only 17 fitters to go on strike to stop production in a factory of 350 workers. The fitters were supported by the rest of the work-force and were chosen to lead the strike because Rolls Royce couldn’t replace them due to their specialised skills.
At the same time, there seems no realistic prospect of a new worker’s party for the time being. The Socialist Party is still running with TUSC, but there is not much prospect of large numbers getting behind TUSC, because they are often perceived as having a sectarian approach. However, discussions are beginning to take place in trades unions and trades councils about supporting anti-austerity candidates in up-coming local elections and this could benefit TUSC candidates and other left candidates.
There have also been rumours the Jeremy Corbyn might provide a catalyst for a new left party, but at the current time they remain unsubstantiated.
The various splits on the Left have shown, among other things, how the socialist left in Britain doesn’t have the democratic structures to inspire new forces to come towards them in significant numbers. It is the issue of democracy that mostly gets in the way. Youth can see how static the structures are and their suspicion is not assuaged by the rhetorical language in the publications and the lack of transparency once they seek to learn more. People who have been in Labour Party meetings may feel the discussions on the socialist left are more open, which they are, but they still turn up to meetings and feel “lectured” at. They find the “lectures” (lead-offs) difficult and the discussions ultimately don’t take the room any deeper than the lead-off wanted them to go. There is too much certainty in the room expressed by the leaders and not enough dialectical “uncertainty” and real discussion.
There is some growing support for the Greens, but they offer no alternative and have capitulated completely to liberal democratic pressures in the councils where they hold any power. The recurring strikes of refuse workers in Brighton point to the lack of a radical programme when the Greens do get into power.
There are also new groupings: Northern Independence Party, Taking the Initiative Party (Black Lives Matter), Breakthrough Party (youth oriented), Workers’ Party (George Galloway).
Worker’s Party did win an echo in Batley and Spen with the slogan “Johnson and Starmer are two cheeks of the same arse.” However, Galloway’s politics has failed in the past to build a movement beyond his own ego and the result in Batley and Spen fell short of Galloways previous successes.
Problems of the revolutionary left
Another factor that impacts on consciousness is that neo-liberalism was dumped on people for so long that comrades on the Left are not aware that they are using neo-liberal approaches to organisation. Target driven approaches are an example of this. Of course, targets are not wrong in themselves and are an important element of building a revolutionary party, but the way this is realised needs to be carefully approached. Left organisations can reflect the structures of Stalinist or corporate organisations. These structures are created without an awareness of the societal factors that inhibit the development of open, democratic forms of organisation.
There is also an unreflective tendency on the Trotskyist left; for groups to say what they think, but have little interest in why they think the things they do. This reflects a behaviourist approach to ideas, rather than a Marxist one.
The Trotskyist movement has also had a tendency, at least in the modern period, to over-estimate the level of socialist consciousness that exists. There has been a tendency of Trotskyist organisations to over-state the political significance of groups making demands on the British state or challenging their employers. NHS workers began to struggle for a 15% pay rise and this was seen as the beginning of a mass struggle that could lead to radical reform. The teachers too, were seen in a similar light by many of the Left. There was a misunderstanding of the limited depth of these struggles and the strangle-hold the union leaderships have on the political organisation of the unions involved. In the end both movements failed to win effective gains for the workers involved in spite of some local successes. Let’s hope that a new spurt of activism from the recently formed SOS NHS group can lead to a positive outcome. It is at least a serious attempt to build a broad coalition around defending the gains made by the NHS and winning better conditions for workers.
In need of balance
All of the above does not contradict the fact that consciousness can move radically forward very quickly under certain conditions. Generally, consciousness will move forward, with contradictions, zig-zags and backs and forths. But when the conditions are not ripe, it is not helpful to the movement to promise leaps forward without a real basis. Comrades on the Left often point to momentous events that have taken place historically: the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, France in 1968 etc. These events did explode onto the scene of history, but each one was born out of a reality that was building up towards that explosion.
In this article Trotskyists groups are mentioned several times, but there are other currents on the Left that affect the reality we inhabit. The Communist Parties, anarchists, the Workers’ Party etc all take a particular path within this situation. All of the above are openly hostile to Trotskyists, at least in their literature and are in my view even less well equipped to bring any clarity around left consciousness. Indeed, they muddy the waters still further.
Splits and rivalries between Trotskyist groups also add to the confusion. These splits have invariably been the result of over-centralised bureaucratic leaderships developing, rather than political differences of principle. “Why should we trust you when you don’t trust each other and keep splitting?”. This was a question put to me by a young person I have been working with very closely. He and his young, unaligned comrades, didn’t trust Trotskyist parties at an organisational level and wanted to act independently of any political party. This is despite the fact that we had discussed socialist ideas in detail and had a great deal of agreement.
In other words, the Trotskyist left had failed to win workers and youth into a structured form of struggle. Neither was this helped by the nature of party meetings and the content and style of left publications. Many youth and workers find the language alienating and the content too rhetorical. Telling the reader what to accept, rather than encouraging them to think, question and argue, will not attract the best elements who are getting active and radicalised. There have been some attempts at improvement, but far from what is necessary. The main political tool remains the weekly or monthly paper in a form that fails to engage and use techniques of journalism and communication appropriate to the current age.
The time is right for new forms of organisation. Not horizontal ones, but organisations where positions of responsibility are earned and accountability is truly realised. Organisations where responsibility and leadership does not equate to power within the organisation. This is a subject which requires considerable discussion and constant refinement and evaluation.
It is vital that the Left finds ways of acting in unity with other groups as well as with each other and especially with the youth movements. Socialist groups will not achieve this by promoting their own parochial approach or views but by being open to the flux of the times and the nuanced positions surrounding each engagement and new situation. This is a task which requires socialists to listen and not just share their own perspectives.
There should be a continuous and open dialogue with the working class and youth layers. This approach demands time and sensitivity. Failures as well as successes are inevitable. It is engagement that is the key. Being there. Being open and empathic as well as, when the opportunity arises, decisive in action. Decisiveness in action though can only amount to anything when it is connected to the wider movement and those moving forward are doing so with the support and collaboration of forces broader than their own. At a pivotal point this can lead to a revolutionary shift in both action and consciousness but only when the socialist Left is part of the struggle not seeing themselves as somehow above it.