Monday, 15 January 2007

Reasons to be Active – A reply to Dave Osler

Warning: very long post!

The decomposition of the revolutionary left is a depressing fact of our times.

Since the big battles of the 1980s, tens of thousands have passed out of our movement. With no apparent alternative to neo-liberal capitalism some have learned not just to live with the enemy, but to love to it too. Others who fancied themselves Marxist theoreticians retreated into academia, discovered theory for theory’s sake and have since joined the bourgeois choir in praise, or at the very least in the uncritical acceptance of, globalisation. Many more did neither. A few found solace in other forms of radical political activity, but for the vast majority, politics was abandoned to the politicians. It is no surprise that when the class started losing its belief in its capacity to manage its destiny, the revolutionary left declined along with it.

Dave Osler is one of those who stayed the course. Currently a revolutionary without a revolutionary group, he has chosen to put his efforts into the John McDonnell leadership campaign, for want of a better arena of socialist activity. His site is also one of the most read and commented-on sites on the left side of blogland – hundreds of activists and keyboard class warriors regularly log on to see what he has to say.

This is why his recent post on the state of revolutionary politics deserves a response. After summing up the baleful effects of Social Democracy and Stalinism on our movement, he notes;
The far left is more shrivelled, splintered and ineffective than it has been in decades. It has not succeeded in developing social roots, let alone mass membership, in one single country on the planet.

At the root of all this is a sustained erosion of class consciousness and even the most basic levels of class organisation worldwide. Socialist ideology, even in its most distorted forms, is no longer hegemonic in movements of the oppressed.

This is perhaps why there was little working class resistance anywhere to the transformation in the class nature of social democratic parties.
There can be little to dispute with here. The left has come a long way since the old Communist Party could command the support of hundreds of thousands of workers in shop floor struggles. The problem is it’s all been in the wrong direction.

The roots Militant once had in the class have been cut back. A layer of workers may have fond memories of the Militant-led Liverpool City Council but they are of little consequence to the Socialist Party today. It along with the Independent Working Class Association, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, and Respect only have a very small number of bases. On a planetary scale the outlook is equally as grim. Where Trotskyists had a mass base in the past, in Bolivia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, it was either ruthlessly crushed by the Stalinists or pissed up the wall through incompetent leadership.

Looking at possible radical alternatives to socialism, Dave writes;
In as far as a new anti-capitalism can be said to exist at all – and let’s avoid the elementary mistake of conflating anti-globalisation with anti-capitalism, shall we? – it is on an eclectic ideological basis that dismisses socialism as just another species of ‘productivism’.
The global justice movement (which seems to be a more accurate term for it these days) is an eclectic beast and one a good number of Marxists has had difficulty understanding. It is possibly the most over-hyped radical movement of our time. Indeed can it really be called a movement given the diversity of forces and any lack of overall coherence beyond the notion that deregulated, unfettered capital is a bad thing?

It is easy to dismiss the GJM on this basis, which is precisely what many Marxists have done. This is mistaken in my view. While we in Britain tend only to associate it with carnivalesque displays and smashed-up Maccy D's, it has forged close international links with social movements in the semi-colonial, under-developed, and developing world. These are movements around land rights, water rights, slave labour, poverty and environmental despoliation. In other words they are movements of our class, movements by which it is becoming conscious of its interests independent of and against the predations of capital.

Taking socialist ideas into the GJM is one of the many tasks revolutionaries need to be engaged in. Why this hasn’t been pursued as seriously in the past requires some reflection, but the stakes are too high not to. Failure here does not run the risk of missing out on recruiting one or two middle class kids. Rather it gives those within the GJM – the protectionists, the neo-Keynesians, the UNists, the reformists, the NGO’s, etc. a free run of influencing real mass movements with real roots.

Turning to radical Islam, Dave writes;
There is a certain anti-imperialist content to political Islam. The trouble is, it is a reactionary anti-imperialist content.

Blinkered to the last, large sections of the left automatically consider all forms of anti-imperialism as implicitly progressive, as somehow on how side, and send their delegates to Cairo to seek an alignment with it.
Some of the left have tried to influence radical Islam by uncritically tailing and apologising for it. This has conjured up its mirror image of revolutionaries who display anything from mild antipathy to hysterical disavowal of Muslims who start getting active in politics as Muslims. Surely there is a third way between the two.

Indeed there is. Revolutionary socialists in Britain should extend the hand of friendship to socialist and communist parties in countries where radical Islam is a mass force. We should assist our sisters and brothers in building independent organisations of the class as and when we can (and not just sections of our own ‘internationals’).

With regard to radical Islamic movements themselves, none are monoliths. Neither do they operate in a vacuum. As movements consisting of Muslims from different walks of life, the contradictions of society will find a way of expressing themselves in these movements. Depending on the overall balance of forces some will be more open than others and may seek out allies in the imperialist countries themselves. The SWP didn’t crash the Cairo conference – they were invited. In my opinion this opportunity should have been used to demonstrate why the left are anti-imperialist and push socialist politics. Whether the SWP did this or not I’ll leave for others to judge.

In Britain, there is general agreement we need to win over Muslim sections of our class to socialist politics. Appealing to self-styled community leaders isn’t the answer, and neither is a constant blathering about how backward Islam is. I may not be au fait with my civil rights history but I’m pretty sure sections of the US left didn’t denounce those southern blacks who were motivated to struggle because of their faith. Socialists have to approach Muslims as sensitively as we would any oppressed group – but at the moment space prevents me from elaborating further.

Coming round to his conclusion, Dave notes;
Just to compound matters, the leadership of the remaining Marxist movement is almost to a man and woman far too stupid, far too backward-looking even to make an assessment of the world today and to seek the pathway to political renewal. As far as they are concerned, the old formulae work just fine.
No disagreement here, except to say the Socialist Party’s leadership is utterly perfect. It is the font from which contemporary Marxist wisdom flows ;)

I agree the revolutionary left can be very conservative. Much of what is exciting in Marxist research takes place outside its ranks. Often its literature is dull to the point of brain-numbing. The activities it engages in can be routinist. The culture of the left falls short of the socialist democracy we’re supposed to be the harbinger of.

On the other hand it is this self-same left that has kept the spark of revolutionary socialism alive. Seldom will you find activists as dedicated to the interests of our class, as keen to inflict defeats on our enemy and as willing to undertake the thankless tasks our politics demand. What’s more the conditions of its operation have undergone a significant change. Horizontal lines of communication between socialist activists have proliferated like never before. The ability to wall off memberships North Korean-style is a thing of the past. New leaders schooled in a revolutionary left more used to talking to each other do not have the same investments in the old ways of working as longer term activists do. They can learn from their own experiences that traditional practice fails to connect with our class. They will therefore be more likely to try new methods that will.

The left may have many problems but I firmly believe the seeds of renewal are there. It requires struggle, but then no one said revolutionary politics was an easy ride.

Finally, Dave writes,
There’s just one thing that stops me topping myself. For all the setbacks since the 1970s, global working class still possesses that unique combination of self-interest, capacity and social weight to provide the foundation for a rational, humanist and radical democratic politics.

And maybe - just maybe - enough of the left can somehow sober up in time to realise that if there is hope, it lies with the proles.
Amen to that.

The class now has more social weight and therefore potential power than at any other time in history. It will throw up organisations that represent its interests. It will engage in titanic battles in the years ahead. If the class is to be victorious, if we are to inflict a world historical defeat on capital and usher in the beginnings of a global socialist democracy.

What to do? Socialists in revolutionary organisations have a duty to make them fit for purpose. Those who aren’t should either join them to change them, or work where they think it’s the best place to promote socialist politics. All the time we need to keep talking to one another. The demands of the moment require we share ideas, knowledge and experiences, that the lessons one group or individual draws from their activist experiences be transmitted to others. We have no choice. We either act more cohesively, make ourselves relevant and assist the class in becoming self aware, or we carry on as normal. The choice between socialism and barbarism has never been so stark. We’d better get serious comrades. There isn’t much time left!


ejh said...

Another view would be that sometimes, when events are not moving in your favour, you just have to wait. You can't hurry to create this new organisation or that one because nothing will come of it. You can be in a period where society is remaking itself to some degree - where the old conceptions of socialism, class solidairty and so on are no longer making sense to large numbers of people, and people need to take time to rediscover what is valuable in those ideas and reinterpret them for a world that changes in some respects and does not change in others.

You can't hurry that process: you can't just keep shuffling the organisational pack until you come up with the right idea. In the meantime, ides need to be more general, rather than more specific. Defence of the public sector, rather than how-to-build-a-revolutionary-party. What unites and can unite people, rather than endless denunciations of one another.

Marx would have agreed: it was because he lived in a period of that nature that he detached himself from factional debate, took his time and wrote Capital. I often wonder what the surviving Chartists said and did - despaired at the way things had gone and blamed one another for it, probably. But, in time, the world swung round again.

Phil said...

You do have a point. I'm not pretending that by our efforts alone we'll be able to mobilise the class. But when an upsurge does come round, as it surely will, if we root ourselves in the class now we will be in a better position to act further down the line.

Must dash!

ejh said...

if we root ourselves in the class now we will be in a better position to act further down the line.

The trouble is that the amount of truth in this statement tends to be dwarfed by the amount of reality it obscures. Trotskyite organisations have been "rooteing themselves in the class" for more than seventy years now, to an effect that has, as time has gone on, declined from negligible to invisible. This is partly because said "rooting ourselves" tends to involve either ignoring what other leftists are doing, or denouncing it, or detaching themselves from it, opr participating on the edges but then not only "reserving the right to criticise it" (as is usually said) but engaging in that right at rather greater length than the aforesaid participation.

It's not been a successful model, for reasons which possibly have a good deal to do with the model itself.

Jim Jay said...

Sure, there's waiting and waiting though.

I think waiting doing nothing would be foolish - particularly because it is possible to make a difference through activity even when it isn't possible to make a revolution happen - and I'm not keen on the idea that somehow change that doesn't overthreow capitalism is somehow not very worthwhile.

The outcome of revolutions and struggles are often determined by the experience, understanding and affiliation of participants. All three of those you build well prior to the day of action

ejh said...

On your first paragraph, yeah, but there's a wide space between "doing nothing" and "carrying on with the same basic routine". And the second paragraph - well, it's another of these things that's true in principle, but in practice, I've been around for long enough to know what it will mean in practice: more Trotskyite party-building, burrowing away according to the old familar script: all in the cause of trying to get the line and the party just so.

It's worn out several generations of promising young leftists in the pursuit of ideas which are considerably less influential now than at any time since they started. It doesn't "root" anybody in anything - in practice they'll be isolated and unpopular. No doubt they will interpret that unpopularity as what happens when you differentiate yourself from the rest of an old and tired left....

...and so it goes on.

It's a waste of energy, comrades. You need less certainty, not more. Looser organisation, not tighter. More general ideas, not more specific. That way you can talk to people and you can listen.

neprimerimye said...

Another view of Oslers capitulation can be found here

Jim Jay said...

ejh - it doesn't necessarily mean that. I was careful to avoid writing that... I know exactly what you're refering to and whole heartedly agree.

I was thinking of examples like the strong, militant movement in bolivia at the moment is precisely an example of how you can develop a layer of independent minded socialists who are autonomous to parties - although they do relate to MAS they are not dictated to by it

ejh said...

Yeah, sorry - had I looked at when you posted I'd have realised it couldn't have been a one-minute reply to me!

I don't actually mind parties, at all. I think they're necessary. I tend to think that people who believe otherwise simply don't notice how much organisational work is necessary to get things done - and how much of it gets done by people who are members of political parties.

What I'm against, though, is tightly-organised parties trying to apply the same line regardless of results for decades and decades. It's a waste of energy, intellect and enthusaism. It involves too many shibboleths, too many assumptions and not enough learning from other people and other organisations. It's too inflexible, it involves being too distrustful of outsiders and it ends up with everybody being distrustful of the people who do it. Trotsky was a figure of great substance but Trotskyism is played out.

Phil said...

Sorry, haven't had much internet time lately.

I think we're more of one mind than initially appears, ejh. I would agree Trotskyism as a label is no longer appropriate today. I also believe the tight, almost monolithic mode of organisation adopted by the revolutionary left is not conducive to todays political conditions. I am for a broader, looser understanding of party discipline. I am against revolutionary groups putting their interests before those of the class.

I argue that the sorts of things I talk about in my reply be considered and acted on by socialists in the activist arena they find themselves, be it a revolutionary group, the Labour party, something else or whatever. What is absolutely essential to all this is socialists continue building networks, dialogues,and exchanges of ideas with one another over and above the divisions that have bedevilled us for so long.

This incidentally includes those who, for whatever reason, are no longer active. In my opinion practice enriches our theory and vice versa, but that's my opinion. I'm not interested in making people guilty because they don't "do stuff". But again if there are any Marx's out there beavering away on scientific work at the exclusion of all else they should be telling the rest of the movement about it. Marx's period of 'inactivity' was after all littered with letter exchanges, polemics, addressing meetings and so on.

Again time is short, must dash ...

Southpaw said...

I'd agree with nearly all of the original post - except on two things -

I can't see the Global Justice Movement as being that important - things like 'Make Poverty History' were big but so was Band Aid - it's all so nebulous, apolitical and passing - a bit like CND.

The big factor missed is outside Britain. The French Revolution had a major effect on political life in the UK 200 plus years ago.

Imagine how profound could be the impact on mass revolutionary socialist activity in Euope or further afield.

But then again it could also just pass the UK by - I haven't noticed any rub-off effect from more recent French actions.

Jim Jay said...

The thing about the French actions is they were direct responses to things that are not happening here so whilst we can admire them and relate to fucked offness we don't necessarily link it together with what we're doing and the second thing is that the movement in France is in a much better state - so they are starting from a firmer base.

I think that's very relavent discussion to this thread as parties in order to be effewctive have to be part of a wider movement which itself has experienced and militant members who act autonously from those organisations