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we need: clarity. How we get it remains anyone's guess. In one sense, this problem - that of “um, so what do we do now?” - is common to the left internationally. Austerity continues, political establishments and the financial system discredit themselves, and explosive struggles occur of a variety of kinds. To think that the past month has seen a crisis of state power in Egypt, a planned park sell-off lead to tumults in Turkey and a hike in bus fares bring Brazil to a standstill, one would imagine there might be ease in arguing for socialist leadership. Yet the movements do not naturally fill the ranks of the socialist resistance, and the hold of capitalism even in just its current specific form, neoliberalism, is not in any immediate doubt. This tendency of the initiative to elude our grasp takes a particular form in Britain, given the continuing perplexity of the SWP. Taking a bit of a leap down then from issues of world historic importance to those of what you and I and those around us have been up to lately, this article offers, rather than a comprehensive set of answers, a consideration of how political strategy is formed. It pulls together some common comments I have heard from talking to socialists recently, and I have lost sight of whether any of it is original. This, however, is the point. Any strategy which aims for adequate effectiveness can only be arrived at through collective engagement, and amidst structures that enable openness and improvisation. Rather than plunge us into confusion, they offer a way out of it. SWP strategy has for some time been formed by the party's Central Committee tussling amongst themselves until what they like to call a perspective veers into focus. Any faith this may once have conjured in eminences rouges engaged in the art of revolution is now difficult to maintain. In the last six months at least, where the members have been better apprised than usual of the centre's standard operating procedures, there has been no point at which the actions of the party's Central Committee haven't served to make the situation worse, even from a perspective of its own self-advancement. Perhaps our recent clamorous fiascos can be explained as the result of attacks on the party, from inside and outside of its ranks, and we can collectively complain, like Don Quixote, that “Truly I was born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed”. This would however be to reject the materialist view of history, for it ignores that human actions shape circumstances. The party is increasingly isolated; but the point is that isolation is itself now how we view socialist leadership. The process leading up to the Special Conference, called “to reaffirm decisions already taken”, forced the Central Committee to articulate its role to “campaign amongst the party”, the underlying assumption being that the CC represents the party's brain. This philosophy has a fatal flaw, as it fails to ask how the party brain learns, or what to do when it malfunctions. In this perspective, learning comes, not from struggles and ideas that originate outside of the party, nor even from the militant experience of the members, but from a curatorial
guardianship of world socialist tradition to be undertaken by a couple of CC members. This has proved about as effective as trying to tune a radio by snapping off its antennae. In Ancient Greece, an 'idiot' referred to one who did not take part in the collective life of the polis, someone isolated from the group creation of daily life. Current official party strategy is, in a quite pure sense of the word, idiotic. The party's isolation reduces our ability to judge the outside world, causing further panicked centralisation in the party, giving us even fewer capacities to judge situations, thereby further reducing... you get the point. It seems odd that the Soviet leader we should most closely emulate would be Brezhnev, but the insistence from the stagnant breath of the CC that there is no real crisis is perhaps further proof of Trotsky's belief that to the red-hot iron of terminal decay we all respond alike. Our tradition - centralist discipline or unorthodox flexibility - is itself now the subject of debate. Thus, this year's Marxism includes a curious new topic, 'What is the real International Socialist tradition?' I do wonder if it will broach the fact that tradition is invented, and that it is invented so as to shape what we are today and what we will be tomorrow (and often so as to confer the authority of dead ages over the very current matter of how to deal with restless natives). One would rather prefer a debate on 'What strategies will actually be of use to socialists today and tomorrow?', but I admit it's a less snappy title. On this however, the speaker in the meeting, John Molyneux, has had little recently to offer, as evidenced in his response to two thoughtful suggestions about left regroupment, available on his blog. Suffice it to say that, after offering reassurance of his authority on the matter by reminding us of his participation in two failed attempts at left unity, he treats the reader to a brief sketch of apostate reformism in 1920s Germany. It is not only Molyneux who thinks this is an appropriate form of argument. The Socialist Review that will be on sale at Marxism features Callinicos “returning to the fundamentals of Leninist organization”, a promise about as specious as any other kind of fundamentalism. These are the politics of sectarianism - of defining yourself in terms of your difference with the rest of the world while holding onto cosy reminders of great things that other people did in the past. On the other hand, the SWP's relative loss of authority has accompanied a real opening of opportunities on the left. Firstly, a comment on the SWP opposition. In admitting there is a problem, we are edging towards the point reached by reformed alcoholics, who often claim to have been struck by what they call the moment of clarity; the point which they realised was rock bottom and that the only remedy to the damaged relationships, the paralysing dysfunction, the engulfing mess, is to kick the habit that masked the pain but worsened the problem. The SWP opposition is not quite at this point, closer to shaky nausea as it tries to remember where it is. But some real strategies are emerging, of varying effectiveness. There has been some talk of how we bargain with CC members, amidst hopes to detect a softening in their attitudes. This is a disempowering outlook which will trample the grassroots initiatives that currently offer hope. Continuing to fight with one hand behind our backs, playing by ad hoc rules set up by the centre, reliance upon the chicanery of back room shenanigans, will lead to our further decay. Alternatively, some comrades hold that an upturn in struggle, leading to a multitude of radicalised youth joining, will might shake up the deadening hold of the apparatus. It is always
possible that on throwing everything into the air, it may land back down in the position you want it to. But it isn't probable, and it doesn't amount to a political strategy, particularly not for a party which proved itself unable to capitalise on its leading role in the anti-war movement, whose instinctual reaction to disagreement is to split, and which has just driven out its youth. Mass struggle means chaos, and tends to be the death knell of parties who are not well positioned to benefit from it - '68 was, in the long term, the end of the Communist Party in this country. I really think that some comrades fail to understand just how well a party - even a small one needs to be rooted, the kind of work it has to do amongst the militants around it, to profit from apparently spontaneous explosions. Once again, such rootedness flows from and into an ability to have some decent assessment of the mood of the working class. A more practical response has been this blog, which aims to give space to people to think through various important issues. It has the advantage of encouraging a continued process of debate, but could be prone to repeat the same habits that have brought us to the current crisis: deference to an informal hierarchy and more especially, the error of seeking an answer amongst ourselves which we then present to the outside world. I would much rather that we draw in and on that outside world during the process of developing socialist strategy, to let go of the belief that ideas are formed principally by going off for a while and thinking about them. When Alex Callinicos stated that "we have a duty to ensure that, after a period of bruising internal debate, the SWP is re-united and turns outwards towards the struggles where we really live", he was aiming to unite the party by decree, rather than conviction. But probably unconsciously, he was also betraying a wider conception present in the party, and in the opposition, in which the formation of strategies and ideas is separate from their practical test. This, one more time, is precisely the problem - it ensures mistakes, misjudgments, isolation, and duller political sensibilities. We have to steer clear of any internal, inert, and disengaged solution to crisis, and rather closer to Antonio Gramsci's notion that it is passionate engagement that sharpens the intellect. A polar opposite to such small scale, party-based regroupment is the People's Assembly, by far the most successful event organised by the left recently. It offers evidence that if union heads, campaign leaders, and left-wing celebrities offer it, there is a serious audience for an anti-cuts alliance. The question remains as to how to turn an audience into a campaigning force, and the PA's top table dominance has been much criticised. However it's clearly now the main organisation for anti-austerity work. The SWP has not really embarked on a serious discussion of how revolutionaries organise in such a campaign, preferring to hope simply that our own grouping, UtR, will consequently grow so we can see off our sectarian enemies. A different response has come instead from the ISN, who are far more engaged than the SWP in attempting to confront the world not as we would like it but as it is. They point out that a revolutionary strategy that amounts to standing up in the assembly, shaming the union bureaucrats and demanding they call a general strike, cannot move beyond ineffectual posturing. This is because it means mouthing off narkily in place of applying any actual pressure of social force. In his piece outlining this criticism, Tom Walker sees the creation
of a party of the left, specifically Left Unity, as the way to achieve this pressure. This seems a weak conclusion, as it doesn't do away with the opening question - specifically, how do revolutionary socialists apply pressure? The starting point in forming an answer lies in a present fact of British life: there is a movement out there, and, although it is as not as big as we would like, it is a far larger one than we are adequately involved with. Just as some principal examples, the PA's size can be explained not only by its celebrity speakers, but because anti-cuts groups have sprung up across the country ever since the Tories first got into power; the debate on taxation has been shaped principally by UK Uncut; it was Occupy that touched a real chord against austerity; the Sussex pop-up union shows the continued innovations of workers' struggle; there is a new and popular feminism based in outrage at the persistence of sexism. Instead of contributing to their successes, we have been wary of each of these, maintained sectarian splits in the anti-austerity groups, taken fright when we aren't assured of our own control; and on the question of feminism... well, it's hard to make a charitable comment on our position there. So now again to the question, how are we to aim for an effective strategy? The left is changing, it is regrouping whether or not we want it to and the SWP's dominance on the far left is, at least for the medium term, over. If we were to draw lessons from who has best responded to and understood events in the recent past, we would be in far better stead if we were ready to rethink habits which have confined us to 'patiently explaining' on the sidelines while the rest of the world passes by getting its shopping in. We need to accept that there is no option open to us that involves being a party with a really effective national profile, that is granted a seat on any top table and rooted in all the major arenas of struggle; the SWP has through its own actions lost its claim to be that, and we must regroup either to transform the party fundamentally or think of how else to organise. Organisational form does not flow from politics; the two determine each other. If one side of the equation is emphasised to the detriment of the other, trouble follows. The SWP has privileged centralised and pure (or rather, obedient) organisation over political engagement. In the moves they have made to counter this, the ISN are to be highly commended. They have made a series of structural decisions to orient themselves towards the variety of campaigns and groupings of active radicals. They are purposefully pluralistic, and have so far made no binding statement about what their own formation will be in a year's time. This is the prospect which for some comrades proves their paltriness, but it is a simple recognition that there are no Lyons theses, no 21 conditions, no tablets of stone and no 12 step programme that will give us the answer of what to do right now. It is instead through regaining initiative, not arriving first at a chimerical clarity before acting, that we need to be thinking. Columbus got to America not because he knew it was there, but because he set out in the right direction. While the ISN have given a lead, there remains the question of how further to seize the initiative. This brings me to another structural point about recent political formation. It was much noted that the backbone of the SWP loyalist faction has been made up of comrades who joined the
party in the 1980s. Alongside this, the greatest disquiet has been amongst youth and student groups. This is not hard and fast: there are under 25's in the loyalist camp, just as there are people who choose to candidate themselves for the Liberal Democrat party; it’s just not very easy to understand why. The generational divide has been discussed, at very great length, in a piece written for the Special Conference Internal Bulletin by Mark Campbell and Sean Vernell. Along with 'In Defence of Leninism' it represents the sum total of what the loyalist faction’s intellectual efforts, and it amounts to this: the students haven't adequately understood our politics, and have made deviant shifts in outlook because they're down about the decline of the Millbank movement. This leaves unexplored a different explanatory framework: that students' political life involves questioning, heterogeneous daily contact with a range of groupings and requires thinking about the big questions alongside the particularities of any individual campus. In short, their daily experience of political life is more easily exemplary of a non-sectarian dive into the productive flux of life, a dive which might in fact improve one's political judgement. How we work now needs to be based in a regroupment that seeks to replicate, I am arguing, these good examples. Consequently, we would have a good chance of regaining some influence as socialists if we start right now setting up whatever political groupings we can, and which include people who are outside of the party (which they may be, we should also accept, for very good reasons). The Revolutionary Societies that are springing up on campuses are precisely the example of how solutions to crises can arise organically, and our participation in left regroupment means emulating some form of revolutionary society wherever you can - in your university, your union, your PA, your HOOPS organisation, your women's group, your anti-racist organisation, anywhere quite simply where you can link with other socialists, meet, govern campaigns together, write your leaflets, publications and work outwards from there. Get the email lists and Facebook groups together, and get a series of meetings, arguments, and actions going, anything that facilitates groupings, participation and collective thought, which one could hope could be rolled out across the country. This is the basis to rooting ourselves in the class and the movement. This is the basis for any aspiration to an organised and effective left. These are the ways to collect together forces that can apply social pressure. It may be a more humble model of political grouping than that desired by anyone whose aim is for the liberation of humanity. But at least it has potential, at least it is based in the real life of the political movement in this county, and at least it can diffuse leadership and experience to its widest points. It is the basis - nothing more - for a new organisation to strive for, one that is not a copy of the monolithic failures of the past but that can also go beyond what is available to a network. Those for whom clarity amounts to wise counsel granted by other people, none of this will be very reassuring. In thinking about the failures of the SWP I have often had in my head a remark made by a German general about the First World War, that in allying themselves, for reasons of tradition as much as anything else, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “we were to find that we had shackled ourselves to a corpse”. Our attachment to our habits and certainties has proved a
similarly deadening practice. The Germans' mistake led to a revolution; ours won't. For those, then, with some concern to clear up the mess in which we have awoken, and to do so as a group, it is hoped that the above ideas can contribute to some practical ideas for a different left.
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