Left unity with the movement of movements

Submitted by Anon on 22 April, 2003 - 5:56

In Solidarity 26 we printed an appeal for discussion and collaboration on the left so that we can united the maximum forces for effective action in the new political ferment around us. Over the coming weeks we will carry comments and responses, starting this week with a contribution from Alan Johnson, author of a forthcoming biography of Hal Draper. (Full text of the appeal here).
The call for unity on the revolutionary left issued by the AWL is very much to be welcomed. The opportunity for the growth of a rational, democratic, revolutionary, green, "from below" socialism is palpable. The conjuncture: the collapse of Stalinism and its malignant grip, de-social-democratisation and a resultant crisis of political representation, a rampant global capitalism lacking strong ideological legitimation, visibly eroding the democratic gains of 200 years, rapidly corroding the ecology of the planet, hurtling us to a permanent war society; and, its blow-back: a breath-taking global resistance movement: vibrant, young, innovative, instinctively, for now, resistant to incorporation, and actively linking capitalism, racism and war. There is no question about the opportunity. The question is what can the revolutionary left bring to the conjuncture? And, immediately, can it unite as an effective and creative, not destructive, force within the "movement of movements" that is, and will remain, the organisational form of the resistance?
Rather than rehearse my agreement with the politics of the AWL, I want to suggest the call for unity has got off on the wrong foot in relation to the two unities we need: within the rational revolutionary left and between that left and the wider "movement of movements".

Get Out More!

The first problem with the AWL call for unity is that it is UK-limited. Unity is better pursued at a European level. The call made no reference to the ongoing discussions that have involved a variety of revolutionary groups in Europe under the auspices of the LCR, the French section of the USFI, since the late 1990s, and have included the ISG, SWP and SSP. No mention of the lively Europe-wide debate that has surrounded, for instance, Murray Smith's stimulating intervention "Towards a New Anti-Capitalist Workers Party". No mention of forces such as the Italian Rifondazione, even though the possibility of an Europe-wide electoral pact involving Rifondazione, the Socialist Alliance, the LCR, the SSP and others is being canvassed.

The call does not mention the political spaces (WSF, ESF, the global summits, ATTAC) in which different revolutionary forces are gaining experience of co-operating with each other and with others. There is no balance sheet of that experience.

So, immediately the AWL needs to get out more! Its ideas - precious ideas about Stalinism, consistent democracy, the kind of anti-authoritarian yet activist organisation we need - and its rich experience - of building among the union rank and file, in the student unions, of Marxist electoral work, of organising brilliant broad work from the Rank and File Mobilising Committee in the Labour Party in the 1980s to model campaigns like No Sweat today - should be taken right inside these European discussions.

The AWL and the USFI

Immediately an approach to the ISG for discussions towards unity should be made. If there is a case of "the disease of needless disunity" it is the separation of the AWL from the USFI. What would separate a Parisian AWLer from a Parisian LCRer that could possibly justify separate organisations? If the answer to that is nothing - and it is - then unity with the ISG is possible. Such a process need not be rushed. Discussion, joint-work, trust building could take years. The point is to get started.

What about the SWP?

When I played American football I was a cornerback, on the defence. Apart from watching our basic "enemy", the wide receiver, we also had a saying, "beware the man in motion". The man in motion, often a burly and clumsy Tight End, being the one offensive player allowed to wander about the line of scrimmage before the "snap". He could cause havoc. I wonder if the SWP are not "in motion" along the scrimmage line between the resistance movement and capitalism today? The "Socialist Alliance" is set up, then left, blocking the road. "Globalise Resistance" is set up, then run like an SWP front, blocking another road and alienating the wider anti-capitalist left. The "Stop the War Coalition" is built with such energy but then weighed down with rubbish about "Radical Islam" and the "great step forward" of Cairo, and the alliance with the fundamentalists of MAB who chase uppity women out of anti-war meetings, and with talk of "People's Assemblies" in which the delegates are to be nominated by mosques. And before that was the shameful response to Milosevic's war against the Kosovars (to effectively ignore it and pretend the only war taking place was NATO's was on Serbia). And before that the call for the barbarous Iran-Iraq war to continue until the victory of the Mullahs. It does not seem a temporary aberration. I hope we are not living through the death of the "international socialist" tradition which dates back to the 1950s and has many important contributions to its name, but we might be. A snap-back, a coming-to-senses can't be ruled out. But there is a terrible and tragic loss of bearings for now. It is hard to see that a durable unity could be built with the "man in motion". Let's see where he stops first, at least.

The Movement of Movements

The second problem with the call is a certain timelessness that hangs about it. The key question today is how can the revolutionary left act so as to unite the forces of the labour movement and the movement of movements? What political alliances and organisational forms are needed (and which are not)? The constant repetition of the word "workers" does not answer these questions. It only highlights the terrain on which solutions might be politically constructed. In the 1980s the forerunner of the AWL, Socialist Organiser, used a supple language and practice - and used it inside the labour party and inside the women's movement, and inside the peace movement - summed up in the idea of the political necessity of a two-way movement between the labour movement and the struggles of the oppressed. Each, we said then, must submerge itself in the other, each fructifying the other, creating something more than the sum of its parts, a movement for human emancipation. Precious experience was gained using that perspective, such as the creation of Women's Fightback, broad student work, and the practice of Marxists "organising the left" rather than being a hectoring propaganda group in the Labour Party.

Harder times necessitated a retrenchment during which vital theoretical clarification was achieved, on Stalinism, imperialism, the national question. We studied the tradition of the US Workers Party-Independent Socialist League and learnt much.

But today the possibilities are boundless! But only if equally imaginative political answers can be developed: how can a fructifying two-way movement between labour movement and the movement of movements be made real today?

With the campaign No Sweat, in many ways a model of what would be possible for a united revolutionary left, the AWL is again pointing the way. But No Sweat must not become a reason not to engage with the movement of movements as a whole.

Talk of "workers' liberty", "working-class politics", "workers' government", "workers' Europe" and a "workers' paper" is shorthand for the core idea that self-emancipatory socialism is by definition a socialism of the majority remaking itself in the act of resisting exploitation and oppression. How many hear it as that is another matter. Depending on how the word is understood, by its speaker and its hearer, it can be an obstacle to clear thinking about the complex political relation - what it is now, what it might become, how to get there - between the organised working class and the movement of movements. At worst it can instil a kind of lazy self-satisfied "trade unionist politics" in its adherents.

The exploitations of global capitalism have seeped into every pore of every aspect of life. They are found damaging human lives not only in workplaces but in culture, the environment, in our forms of sociality, in our decayed and hollowed out polities, in the disappearance of childhood, in the commodification of sex, in the adulteration of our food. The new anti-capitalist movement - this is its strength! - has followed capitalism relentlessly and everywhere. It has taught us not to expect "working-class politics" and "anti-capitalism" to look exactly the same anymore. Anti-branding, culture-jamming, anti-debt, fair trade, anti-GMO, the rights of the indigenous, Indymedia, fighting the skin trade, creating public spaces, building social centres, and a plethora of other campaigns proliferate. These are not a distraction from something called "working-class politics". The anti-capitalist movement in the main understands perfectly well that there are no single issues. It is not waiting for us to teach them that! Rather, "working-class politics" in the 21st century confronts a new strategic horizon: how can a two-way movement between the organised working class and the social movement of movements be forged robust enough to make another world possible but democratic enough to make a self-organised society of equality, liberty/autonomy and fraternity. Which forces should be united with in pursuit of that goal?

What about the "dogs without collars"?

In Geneva, pouring over maps of the upcoming G8 protest sites, and planning a hot reception for Bush and Blair, a militant from the anarchist network People Global Action - with whom I also protested outside the WTO as well as talked politics for many hours - described himself to me as "a dog without a collar". It is an Italian expression apparently. And there are tens of thousands of "dogs without collars" in Europe who are anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, and who want to create a classless society of equality, liberty and fraternity by mass action from below. I don't think the priority of the AWL is to urgently persuade them that our collar is really very nice, that it is really quite loose, made of nice material, isn't really a collar at all but a kind of collective resource-school-brain-tool, and so on. Rather the AWL might explore every avenue for unity in action with the "dogs without collars". If we are what we say we are it will become clear enough. It will not be easy. It will require an absolute refusal to employ any of the manipulative political tactics employed against the entrenched bureaucracies of the bourgeois workers parties (entryism). It will require honest discussion about ideas and practical experience of working together in the new political spaces. But the prize is great. There is a new generation who mean business. They want to rip the head off the system and they are intensely anti-authoritarian. Their very "alternative" cultural forms have without any question been central to their ability to be unmoved by the pathologies of capitalism and to project a vision of another world, from Free Shops to No Borders camps, from new forms of global networks which undeniably have robustness without hierarchy, to the "pink" carnivalesque repertoire of protest seen at Prague. The revolutionary socialist left has much to learn from these forces. And something to teach. There is something awry in the outlook of many of even the best activists and the problem might be summed up as a kind of "anti-politics", a preference for the symbolic, the expressive, the gestural, the theatre of confrontation, and a fear of other political forces ("authoritarians!", "reformists!").

Plurality is now a permanent part of anti-capitalist politics. No one single political perspective holds sway. Those who present themselves as seeking such sway are suspect. Unity today will mean the acceptance that no one group is very likely to persuade all the others that it is right and so each group must conduct itself in ways that value the plurality and the practical unity-in-action as much as the differences. Unity will also mean an openness to the idea that one might learn from other traditions. And a new openness to the unpredictable processes of hybridisation that could strengthen the movement. There is a sense in the AWL call that unity is a product of agreement on questions. It is, partly, but unity despite disagreement is also the hallmark of much recent protest history. We can learn from that history, too.

Marxism and self-emancipation

The democratic revolutionary socialists do have ideas, and much practical experience, of vital import to the anti-capitalist movement about the new strategic horizon we face in the new conjuncture: contributions to make about how to build in the working class, about trade unions, about reformism, about the state, about transitional politics and what it looks like, about electoral work, about the dynamics of revolution, about the limits of utopian/counter-cultural alternatives. Fundamentally we can make a contribution in mapping a route from protest and counter-power/counter-institutions to a rounded politics of self-emancipation. The US writer and activist Kim Moody captured the essential point: "By itself, and despite its ability to breach police lines, this 'movement of movements' lacks the social weight to carry out the very task it has set itself - the dismantling of the mechanisms of capitalist globalisation… As scores of activists and analysts alike have stated, the great need is to pull these two forces together the mobility and audacity of the movement in the streets with the social weight and numbers of the organised working class."

"Unity" of the small groups of revolutionary socialists in the UK today must be framed by this wider strategic horizon. If it is then a range of fixed certainties will come under question for sure, but that process will be a fruitful one. For instance, the AWL call for unity includes the line: "For a workers' government - a government based on and accountable to the bedrock of the labour movement." But a 21st century Workers' Government will be a tribune of the people having emerged from an overflowing of struggles against the costs - social, economic, political, personal, environmental - of global capitalism and its pathologies. Dismissal of this as "populism" would miss what is new about rampant global capital: it is eating its own! It is eroding its own bases of support and opening up swathes of the population to recruitment to a new historical bloc.

A really existing "Workers' Government" would be accountable to a wider network of forms and centres of struggle, from national elected representative assemblies to direct democratic forms, and not just "the labour movement", that's for sure.

And what will the revolutionary party, the Modern Prince of the 21st century, look like? I don't know. But I would be amazed if was just like that of the 20th let alone the 19th. Gramsci wrote from his prison cell about "a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognised and to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form". He went on: "History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party." But "history", not having come to an end, might have something to teach us again. We might learn from, as well as offer our ideas to, the forms which are emergent "in action" today? Maybe, like the Zapatistas say, we have to "talk while walking".

But if we want to talk while walking we have to learn how not to confront our interlocutors with what the philosophers call conversation-stoppers. Here is one: "There can be no free discussion unless the organisation is free from… indifference to the great and clean revolutionary tradition of Lenin and Trotsky."

For one thing that tradition is not "clean". The "mistakes of the Bolsheviks" were not pratfalls from which we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again. The isolation and encirclement of the revolution, the failure of the European revolution, the backwardness of Russia, all took a terrible toll on the ideas and political practice of the Bolsheviks from the start. Our task is not to inherit a "great and clean" tradition but to sift and silt the experience like gold-miners taking the nuggets but throwing away the rocks. As Hal Draper has shown "Already by 1918 but sporadically, Lenin began to break out with attacks on 'democracy' which treated that sorely tried term as a purely and inherently bourgeois category, wholly negative in content." By the time of Lenin's awful book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky we have "implicit repudiation of the idea that the proletarian or socialist revolution was a revolution of the majority of the people". Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky were even worse. Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism, with its call for the militarisation of labour and the embrace of minority dictatorship leads us, as Draper put it, "so far from Marx's original concept… that there is no connection".

These were theoretical enormities and they took place before Stalinism. Yes, they were the inevitable product of human beings (not gods) struggling with isolation and backwardness, the tragic result of desperate efforts to hold on until the battalions of the European working class rescued the beleaguered fortress. But that tragedy is exactly why it is not a "great and clean" tradition able to be held up as the basis for revolutionary unity in 2003.

The politics of Lenin and Trotsky do have much to say to the present moment. Trotsky's relapse into authoritarianism in the early 1920s was an abberation not to be found in anything he wrote before or after. The seams of "gold" to be mined are rich indeed: intimations of a transitional politics for the present conjuncture that could take us beyond the current unstable combination of riot plus prefiguration, a rich legacy of theory and practice about the need for a grouping together of the advanced elements to win over the unconfident and ideologically dominated and to act in concert, about internationalism and its meaning, about self-determination for oppressed nations, about the state, about the nature of reformism, about the dynamics of revolutionary crises, about the united front against fascism, about art and revolution, and more. It is a rich and precious tradition. But it is not fully adequate to today and we should not expect it to be. We have to think for ourselves and think collectively as part of the movement of movements, knowing when to listen and learn and when to speak.

We should search for unity on the revolutionary left, immediately with the USFI. But we must also seek a wider unity, with the movement of movements resisting global capitalism, permanent war, and environmental devastation.

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