How can the left unite? - Introduction
"The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce."
British working-class politics is in flux. The Blair machine is rapidly closing all the channels of trade-union representation which made Labour a working-class party, albeit one tied to capitalism. Already, although there is still a very great deal of passive support for Blair, some workers who hoped for change when they voted for New Labour in May 1997 talk about the government as "New Tories". The world economic crisis is causing many to question the Thatcher-Blair dogma that "you can't buck the market" and should not try. Most of those workers who are disillusioned and angry with New Labour are not yet sufficiently convinced that there is an alternative. They have not gained enough confidence to respond with mass action. But many are beginning - most of them just beginning - to look for answers. The left should be able to offer them the answers. To do so, we urgently need the added clout and effectiveness that working-class socialist unity could give us.
A more united left would impact far more forcefully on the working class and its movement, and on the capitalist world around us. It could hope to grow much more quickly than the left does now. It would also be forced by the conditions of its existence to talk about its own political divisions and disputes as a united left, and thus evolve a civilised and democratic party regime.
But if the left can not convince the workers and youth disillusioned and angry with New Labour, then many will turn to the far right. Fascism will become a menacing force in Britain as it is today in Austria, Belgium, France, Russia, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Left unity is desirable. But demagogic and sectarian playing with the call for unity, in the interests of sect-building, cannot but be confusing. Therefore it can only do harm. We propose to examine the question here, soberly and from all sides, treating it with the seriousness it deserves. We will also, as a necessary part of the picture, give an account of our own experiences over the years on the question of unity.
Because of its root ideas, the revolutionary left is the hope of humankind for a higher civilisation. Yet the revolutionary left in Britain is an archipelago of sects. In that paradox is summed up an immense working-class tragedy.
The outstanding characteristics of the islands that make up the archipelago are a predominant "outsider" attitude to the broad labour movement, isolation from each other, and undemocratic forms of organisation. The outsider attitude to the labour movement is the result not only of false ideas, but also of the middle-class composition of much of the revolutionary left. Members of different organisations encounter each other and sometimes collaborate in trade unions, and occasionally in campaigns, but dialogue about the main ideas which define and concern the left, and about the issues that divide the left, has been a very rare commodity for many, many years.
The island tribes of the archipelago are self-sufficient and self-defined against the inhabitants of the other atolls, about whom the most fantastic things are frequently believed. Cut off from each other, tribes who once had a common language develop dialects and eventually separate languages. So also the inhabitants of the atolls in the archipelago inbreed and learn to commune only with themselves. The catastrophic decline in the broad culture of the left, as a result of many decades of Stalinism, has been both cause and then effect of this fragmentation and the narrow monoculturalism it leads to.
It is easy to point to the first step we need to take, and Workers' Liberty has done it. We call for working-class socialists to unite. We propose maximum unity in action; dialogue where there are differences; serious discussion of the possibility of a united working-class socialist party.
But how do we do it? The British left should learn from France. There, the impact of the mass strikes of November-December 1995 has led the two main revolutionary organisations, Lutte Ouvriere and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, to come together to put up a joint slate for the Euro-elections in June 1999. This united slate can offer a real alternative to the far right for the millions disgusted and dissatisfied with established mainstream politics, and it can change workers' perceptions of the political options and about whom it is worth looking to as promoter of their interests. The LCR has not abandoned its ideas and its criticisms of its partner; neither has LO.
United action will mean more real debate about those ideas than when each group ploughed its own furrow regardless of the other. The British Marxist left, even united, is weaker in our working-class base than the French; we cannot realistically hope for the same immediate results. But we can and should learn from the example.
We can develop a determination to build on our own recent experience too - in the student movement, for example. In spring 1998, the SWP's student organisation "Stop the Fees" agreed to unite with the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and others in the Campaign for Free Education to run a joint slate in the elections for the National Union of Students leadership. The joint slate's presidential candidate, AWL member Kate Buckell, came within 15 votes of defeating the Blairite candidate of the official Labour Students. The student offshoot of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), "Save Free Education", also supported the joint slate.
For the SWP, it was a rare departure, but a particularly welcome move.
Contrast: the SWP's first response to the Gulf War in 1990-91 was to call a demonstration in its own name, ignoring and counterposing itself to a united-front anti-war committee that had already been set up by the AWL, Socialist Outlook, and some Labour left MPs. The SWP has also agreed a joint platform for the Euro-elections in London with the AWL, the Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Network, and Outlook. It has indicated at least passive support for the United Campaign for Trade Union Rights within which the main forces are the AWL and the Socialist Labour Party. The SWP has made another turn by launching through sympathetic union branches an Action Programme to save jobs and services. We can (and have elsewhere) criticised much in the Action Programme, but the very idea of such a programme is an advance on the old SWP approach of slogans chosen week-by-week to "fit the mood". By sponsoring the Action Programme through sympathetic union branches rather than just as SWP literature, the SWP is also indicating, however clumsily, that they are promoting it as a perspective for the whole organised working class rather than just as advertising material for the SWP.
Unfortunately, three or four swallows do not make it summer. On the ground and in day-to-day work the SWP is still disinclined to discuss politics. The Socialist Party also has taken important steps which may make possible some unity in action and political dialogue on differences among Marxists. It has supported the idea of joint left electoral slates, whereas in May 1997 it stood directly against the Socialist Labour Party in a number of constituencies and sought no mutual-support pact with the SLP. Some of its members have worked with the Welfare State Network, an initiative currently supported by the AWL and sections of the SLP and Outlook together with many individuals and single-issue campaigns.
That such small signs of change are so noteworthy is one measure of the self-disabling organisational sectarianism that has been dominant for so long.
Of course, it is not only a matter of uniting the British revolutionary left. Revolutionary socialist unity is needed at an international level, too. It is very urgently needed on a European level. It is shameful that the capitalists, and even the Social-Democratic politicians, coordinate their efforts across Europe better than the working-class left. We need a united revolutionary socialist movement organised right across the European Union, at least, with due autonomy for tactics in each national arena. Workers' Liberty strives to develop links with other working-class socialist groups in Europe and internationally, across the barriers of language and culture. Here, however, we focus most on what can be done where most of our readers are, in Britain.
What, fundamentally, can be done about the state of fragmentation that the British left is in? Can anything be done about it? Can the would-be revolutionary left ever be united?
We advocate a new approach for the left on at least three fronts.
- We propose political axes for unity which, we think, can allow the question of unity and disunity to be regulated in tune with the needs and development of the working-class struggle rather than calculations about how much of its ideological baggage each group is prepared to abandon.
- We argue for an approach which can reconcile and link the need to relate to the immediate concerns of workers and youth with the need to argue for socialist principle.
- And we suggest a way of organising which can allow minorities to feel unstifled, and debate to develop democratically, while maximising unity and effectiveness in action.
Let us start with the working class and its mass movement, for apart from that movement and our tasks in relation to it, the very idea of the left is, ultimately, meaningless. Political life is a process of grouping and regrouping around the political issues posed by the class struggle nationally and internationally. Serious Marxists seek the paths of struggle, arising from the real situation before us, which will organise the maximum number of activists around working-class politics adequate for the existing and foreseeable class battles.