Sunday 12 December 2010

In Praise of the Far Left

This article on Liberal Conspiracy really annoyed me. Emily Davis talks about the need for the left to unite and be nice to each other - which of course is a good thing: a bit more comradeship and genuine discussion beats zero-sum point scoring over entrenched positions any day. But where the plea for unity fails utterly is when she turns her thoughts to the far left. Out goes the warm glow of conviviality and in comes bilious animosity. She writes:
Communism never was a ‘nice idea’ – it always involved an advocation of ‘dictatorship’ and violent suppression of dissent, and evidence shows that this brutal attitude has always borne itself out in practice.

They [the far left] obviously have the right to say what they think, and to protest where they choose, but social-democrats and democratic-socialists can and should tell them and others that we think their views are comparable to Fascism in their disregard of human rights.

At this current time of fightback against the new Coalition government, we need a centre- and moderate left- coalition of opposition. What we don’t need and shouldn’t want are allies on the far-left who aren’t progressive in the slightest – they remain stuck in the past. We need to think about what is best in the long-term for our future.
Hi Emily, that was Harry's Place on the phone. They'd like their smelling salts back.

I'm not going to get into a convoluted and long-winded argument about the Marxist theory of communism. To identify the regimes that used and abused Marx's theories to legitimate their actions and privileges with the stateless post-class society of associated producers, a society for which the seeds are present in really existing technological capacities and concrete relationships demonstrates a very superficial understanding of what Marxism's all about.

But what I will say is if it wasn't for the Trots, if it wasn't for current and former members of the likes of the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, and the 57 varieties slogging their guts out in the trade unions, in the community campaigns, the social movement organisations, Emily's apologia for witch-hunting would be entirely academic.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the desire for effective action is in want of effective organisation. Currently many comparisons are being made with the scenes of 20 years ago when quarter of a million people took to London's streets in protest against the Poll Tax. That required organisation, which was provided by the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Whatever criticisms one can make of Militant's role within it, they provided dedicated activists and a leadership that helped get it off the ground. They worked as organisers of bailiff busts, did the unglamorous donkey work, organised demos, lobbies and public meetings, and acted as
McKenzie's Friends.

Another argument doing the rounds is the militancy and radicalism of the protest and occupation movement can be partially explained by the failure of the anti-war mobilisations in 2003. The largest demonstration in British political history was peaceful and law-abiding, but didn't stop Blair and Bush from carrying out their assault on Iraq. Again, whatever criticisms can be made of the SWP, if they had not taken the initiative of forming Stop the War Coalition after September 11th, not bothered with the invisible but necessary work around opposing the invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war movement would have been much, much weaker.

This isn't a bad record for people who hold views "comparable to fascism in their disregard for human rights" and "aren't progressive in the slightest". One wonders where Emily's "centre- and moderate left-coalition of opposition" were during anti-fascist mobilisations, anti-deportation campaigns, campaigns against privatisation and closures, and industrial disputes of recent years. Would the
Vestas Occupation have been a cause celebre if it wasn't for the advice and solidarity of Trotskyist organisations? Had it not been for the determined interventions of the Socialist Party, would the wildcat strike at Lindsey Oil Refinery been turned away from nationalist slogans and anti-foreigner sentiment?

Trade unions would definitely be all the poorer if it wasn't for the thankless work undertaken by thousands of Trotskyist shop stewards and lay activists over the last 20-30 years. I know our local trades council would be dead and buried if it wasn't for the persistence and patience of activists rooted in this tradition.

Luckily, because the far left are the ones who've done (and do) the necessary ground work for many contemporary social movements, Emily and other witch-hunters like
Luke Akehurst and Harry's Place are unlikely ever to be in a position to exclude anyone. And it's just as well: the energy, organisation and radicalism of the far left are a feather in the anti-cuts movement cap.

If we didn't have them, it would be necessary to invent them.


Anonymous said...


Im glad you wrote this; because, your totally right. The article was a joke. You cant call for left unity then say it should just be for those you agree with. I wouldn't consider myself far-left anymore (though I am sure there are those who would disagree) because of a certain desire to distance myself from the negative connotations of that (the sectarianism, the contempt for democracy etc, etc) but these comrades are still good comrades no matter how much I might disagree with them and their methods at times.

Joseph Edwards said...

This is a pretty convincing argument as to why I shouldn't blog, because I always go for the wrong tack and make a far weaker case than anyone else. :P.

Seriously, a very good piece, and one that illustrates very well the role of the far-left in opposition movements. It can be easy to forget at times with the whole narrative constructed by the media and others how so much of the action of the left has come from the myriad of activists that most of the Labour leadership would balk at even sharing a platform with.

On a side note, I do like how according to Liberal Conspiracy's own tracker this post has received more attention on Twitter than the original in the ten minutes it's been up.

Jon Stone said...

Absolutely 100% agree, excellent response. I was incensed by the LibCon article today on a variety of different levels.

To write such a thing in the aftermath of the student protests as well - when the left has taken such an initiative whilst the main organs of the center left have sat on their arses and completely failed to work out a coherent policy or be the strong parliamentary opposition that they're supposed to be so good at - it boggles the mind.

markwrightuk said...

i totally agree with your post phil, great post, i consider myself left wing. not this centre left stuff which people seem to use. I'm fully in favour of nationlising things again such as the railways and the utilities and post office etc. Great post and keep up the great work

Unknown said...

Is there not a contradiction between political characterisations which are centred on spatial metaphors relating to direction and distance AND appeals for unity?

David Ellis said...

Nice post. No doubt all that Emily has ever done for the movement is slot into `job' in a pre provided organisation where she enjoys a salary and conditions slightly if not substantially better than most.

By the way we are not `allies' of this layer of opportunist arse lickers. We come to conquer opportunism not to prop it up.

claude said...

though not a big fan of the so-called "far left" myself, I am totally with you on this one.
That article you quoted by Ms Davis really was lame. Patronising, petty, and -above all - navel gazing in the extreme, which was exactly what the author herself pontificated we shouldn't be doing.
It was actually borderline comical. You call for unity and then you start picking off one by one the peoople you don't like?
Also, what exactly is this "moderate centre left" that Ms Davis seem to class as SO NOBLE. The Peter Mandelsons and Tony Blairs who shattered the Labour Party to pieces? Rendition flights? Sucking up to zillionaires? The Iraq War? Etc?
Bad, bad faux pas there me thinks...

skidmarx said...

Someone pointed out that HP has had nothing to say about the student portests, hopefully this is a sign that you are right, and in times of struggle the provocateur faux left fades into irrelevance.
Reminds me of the BA negotiations fracas: the point I tried to make then is that you may disagree with the tactics the SWP employed then, but it would be best to set that in a context of knowing who the real enemy is.

Boffy said...


Liberals and Social democrats have always tried to tag Marxists in this terms like the Dictatorship of the Proletariat are easy targets. Actually, in Marx's day it was less so because the term was better understood and was not viewed in relation to the experience of personal Dictatorships of the 20th Century.

At the beginning of the 20th Century Liberals and Social Democrats who defended their own Colonial States and its actions that denied demcoracy and human rights to millions around the globe, were quick to try to exclude from their midst Marxists who would have no truck with such policies.

You are right to point out that members of the far left by far make up the majoprity of activists in organisations and campaigns, though I've known quite a few good militants who were not part of the Far left who gave an equally good account of themselves. Its right to point these things out to balance it up, but it has to viewed as that balancing things up, not apologising for the Far Left.

The reality is that large sections of the Far Left has been as guilty of turning a bit of a blind eye to the actions of regimes that are seen to be in its "Class Camp", as much as the Right have done that with its clients. Trotsky described Stalinism as differing from Nazism only in being even more brutal than the latter. Yet, in the post war period large sections of the USFI were marked by the degree to which they became cheerleaders for the Stalinist States. The worst example was the US SWP, who became virtually a mouthpiece for Castro. Most of the Left had a pretty uncritical attitude to the Khomeiniites in 1979, and were completely thrown when that regime began murdering thousands of Communists and progressives. Yet, of course, today, the SWP has a similarly crass attitude to such regimes and political Islam, as the USFI had towards Stalinism. Given that according to WW John Rees presents a TV programme on Islam TV, its clear that Counterire will continue those same politics. Socialist Appeal also has a similar cringeing attitude to Chavez in Venezuela.

That the liberals and Social democrats are hypocritical in their attacks, does not mean they are without foundation. And the reality is that most of the organisations of the Far Left are pretty undemocratic too. Most are ruled over by Patriarchs who have held their positions longer than Feudal rulers, and when their positions are seriously challenged the almost inevitable result is that the organisations split.

Although, I have high regard for Lenin in many respects, it has to be said that some of this goes back to him - though, of course, sects like the SDF as Engels describes had similar problems under Hyndman - though as Lars Li and others have pointe out even that is largely based on a disstortion of what he actually said, by those same sects.

Yet, I remember reading Trotsky's accounts of how frequently Lenin would threaten a split in order to get his own way, and the April Theses was passed largely on the basis of thousands of new members who came in after February, and was perhaps a precursor to the Lenin Levy used by Stalin later. But, more significantly, I recall Lenin's comments to Kollontai and the Workers Opposition, when at the Conference he stood up and said to Kollontai, "If you really beleive what you are saying about us, then you shouldn't be standing here arguing, but should be taking up arms against us." (paraphrased from memory).

Rather like Thatcher's attacks on Trades Union democracy in the 1980's, it did have some basis in reality, its up to us to deal with it, so that we don't provide our enemies with that opportunity.

Budapestkick said...

Boffy: I wouldn't agree with everything there, those those are some valid points.

I'll have to respond to some of these points later, but for the moment could you tell me when and where 'Trotsky described Stalinism as differing from Nazism only in being even more brutal than the latter.' It seems extremely out of kilter with Trotsky's overll analysis of the U.S.S.R.

Anonymous said...

Great article, well said.

Haven't seen much evidence of the organised "moderate Left" on the student demos recently.

Except the glowstick vigil Porter arranged while we were getting beaten up in Parliament Square.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, the right always seem so much more cohesive because they broadly agree and don't get bogged down in nit picking ideology. It's about time us on the left remembered what we DO agree on and stopped worrying so much about our differences.

Boffy said...

I was trying to get the actual quote that I thought I knew the location of, but it wasn't where I thought. However, both a close enough equivalent, and explanation of why there is no contradiction between this position and Trotsky's analysis of the Class Nature of the Soviet State can be found in The USSR In War, also to be found in "In Defence Of Marxism".

Here Trotsky accepts Bruno Rizzi's statement that Stalinism adopted the Totalitarian political Regime of Fascism, but shows why Rizzi's equation of both regimes does not follow.

As Trotsky demonstrates there is a differene between the class nature of a State, and the political regime. Feudal society came with a variety of political regimes, from the Absolute Monarchy, through various forms of Aristocratic rule and so on. Capitalist Society has seen political regimes that ran from Tsarist Absolutism, to Liberal Democracy with all sorts of variants in between - Bonapartism, Fascism, Republic, Constitutional Monarchy and so on.

Trotsky as a Marxist defined the class nature of the Soviet State on the basis of an objective analysis of the material foundations of the State. Those material conditions demonstrated that the economic and social roots of the old ruling classes had been torn up. Landlord and Capitalist property had been abolished, and with that property, the classes that arise from it, and are reproduced by it, disappear as well. The Working Class in the USSR became the ruling class on the basis of the new property relations established, Co-operative, collective property. The fact that the Class Rule of the proletariat was manifest in a political regime, in which the Bureaucracy, not the workers themselves were in control, was not different from the fact that the german Capitalist Class had had to abandon its direct political control to the Fascist Bureaucrats, because the German Capitalists had been too weak too rule directly themselves.

The Capitalists would and did get rid of the Nazi bureaucracy, and workers would have to engage in a similar political revolution to get rid of the Stalinist political regime.

Andrew Coates said...

Good article.

I'd add that because you can find a far-left faction that has a different position on just about every subject under the sun, that it acts as valuable resource for democracy.

But there are, er problems. What about the far-left's role in the dispute about the NSSM and the split in the anti-cuts movement?

Ken said...

I think the quote that Boffy is looking for is this:

'As in fascist countries, from which Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ, save in more unbridled savagery, only preparatory propagandistic work is possible today in the USSR.'

One should bear in mind that this was written in 1938, after the 'Great Terror' and before the Second World War. Also that it's almost a parenthetic remark, and I don't think it'll quite bear the weight of 'Trotsky described Stalinism as differing from Nazism only in being even more brutal than the latter'.

Boffy said...


That could be the one, htough my recollection of it was slightly different. However, the fact that its not alone, as I've shown in trhe alternative quote above, I think demonstrates that it was not an off the cuff remark. Given that Trotsky beleived that a Political revolution would be required against Stalinism that would be so deep going as to be almost indistinguishable from a Social Revolution, and his other writings about Stalinism, including his many writings about the way in which the GPU were working hand in glove with the Nazis in various countries, I think it does stand the weight I assigned to it.

I'd be interested to know, though why you think, these comments being made prior to WWII is significant. During, and after WWII Stalinism was hardly distinguished by being less totalitarian, just ask the workers in East Germany, Hungary or Czeckoslovakia who suffered at the hands of Russian Tanks, or the workers of Poland, Bulgaria, Roumania and so on who suffered from the totalitarianism of their own Stalinists. Come to that the Stalinists who murdered thousands of Trotskyists in Vietnam, and who carried out similar policies in China etc. are hardly models of progressive democracy either, let alone Marxism.

That is the problem. These regimes, of course, did have nothing to do with Marxism. Whether you define them as some variety of Workers State (irrespective of the political regime as I would), as State Capitalist, or Bureaucratic Collectivist the task of a Marxist was to separate out the need to defend the progressive historical material base of these societies, against a restoration of private Capitalism, whilst doing so in the context of the only effective means of achieving that i.e. through the most rigorous opposition to the reactionary political regimes that were driving them towards precisely such a restoration, and by arguing the need for ownership and control to pass directly into the hands of the workers.

In fact, it is precisely what Trotsky argued was the way forward, and is exactly the same approach we should take towards State Capitalism here in Britain e.g. the NHS, Public Sector.

Chris said...

“I'd be interested to know, though why you think, these comments being made prior to WWII is significant.”

A little thing called the holocaust

Chris said...

“That is the problem. These regimes, of course, did have nothing to do with Marxism”

Boffy has argued in the past that communism may not be possible, which must mean a society without ‘conflict’ is not possible. This means that while ownership is critical, political democratic forms are critical to thrash out how resources and surpluses get allocated. This means the need for some form of national decision making structure, I argue for more direct democracy.

Ken said...

Boffy - Chris has answered your question for me. The reason I didn't put it that way in the first place was that WW2 has far wider examples than the holocaust of the 'more unbridled savagery' of the Nazis.

Boffy said...


The trouble with that argument is that a)for two years when that savagery was taking place Stalin was in an alliance with Hitler and not just sitting back but committing similar atrocities such as in the Katyn Forest b) for a long time before Stalin had been supplying Hitler with war materials, and allowing him to operate within the USSR, c) for much of the 1930's, the GPU and the Gestapo worked hand in glove, d)whatever arguments there might be about whether on balance the USSR saved Jews from the Nazis, or were themselves guilty of similar atrocities or the fact that they failed to come to the assistance of the Warsaw Ghetto etc., there is no doubt that the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust is actually a smaller number of people than those who died at the hands of Stalin within the USSR itself as a result of mass purges, mass transportation of entire populations, and starvation. Its estimated these deaths came to something around 10 million. A similar figure is probably attributable to the actions of Mao in China.

But, I think the substantive point here is that if we are to define such atrocities and attitudes to basic human rights only on the basis of whether Stain killed a million more or less than Hitler then we end up doing precisely what I was arguing against, we end up apologising for a monstrous set of regimes. That is precisely what many supposed Trotskyists did after WWII.

Phil said...

Sorry for the late chipping-in.

None of the above is changed by the ongoing dispute in the NSSN - the far left contains some of the most self-sacrificing and dedicated socialists you can find. It may get it wrong and alienate people through unnecessary sectarian disputes, but on the whole there's a campaigning record there they can feel justly proud of.

Boffy said...


As I began by saying that is, of course true, and needed to be said to ensure balance. But, I was thinking about this too and was remembering something I wrote about some time ago. I have every sympathy with the activism argument, because for about 15 years I was literally out of the house every night of the week, and at weekends too. In any month there would be at least 4 WA/SO meetings, 1 TU Branch Meeting, 1 TC Meeting, 1 TC EC meeting, 1 Branch LP Meeting, and 1 EC Meeting, 1 CLP Meeting and 1 EC Meeting, 1 DLP Meeting and 1 EC Meeting. On top of that there would be normally more than one meeting a month of one of a variety of campaigns (Chile, CND, NORSCARF, Ireland, Cuts, Ant-Apartheid) and so on. On top of that there were also the many other campaigns such as Against The Witchhunt, which I was usually responsible for organising, let alone during the Miners Strike being Secretary of the Support Committee, and on at least one picket line every day as well as helping organise mass pickets and so on. At Weekends I'd be in London at the GLC for a labour Briefing Meeting or a CLPD meeting or a WSL NC meeting. But, I'd have to question how effective any of it was, and what most of it was actually geared to.

So, I wrote some time ago that in 1974 when I had just joined a revolutionary group my parents at the same time had their house blown up in a gas explosion. They had problems with the insurance, the gas company and the Council. Confidently, I told my Dad that the people I'd just signed up with were all really clever, active militant people who were part of a national organisation. They'd be able to help him. He came along with me on a cold night down to a Pub in Stoke, where the four of us including the speaker who had come up from London sat in what seemed like one of the longest evenings I can remember. In reality none of my new associates had anything to say to my Dad, no practical advice to give him. In the end, it was his local Labour Councillor who lived down the road who provided his solution, and got him sorted with his Council house. As far as I know the only activism she was involved in was attending the Branch meeting and Council meetings, and talking to ordinary workers every day, and trying to deal with their problems like that of my Dad.


Boffy said...


Ten years later, when I became a Councillor, I was involved in lots of activity against the Cuts and privatisation and so on, and stood on a platform of No Cuts, and No Rent or Rate Rises. One of the first problems I can remember was of going to see an old woman whose kitchen in her bungalow was being repeatedly wet by a leaking tap. Someone had been out eventually, but it was still leaking. She'd rang repeatedly, but was getting nowhere for someone to come out, and meanwhile some of her stuff was getting ruined. I got on to the Housing Department, and sure enough someone came out. But, they still didn't cure the problem. So I was out again. This was repeated another couple of times. Eventually, I spoke to a friend who was the Plumbers Shop Steward at City Works, and also a Councillor in the next Borough. He came out in his own time one weekend. He was pretty scathing about the "work" his members had done, and in the space of about half an hour resolved the problem.

This woman's problem WAS a political problem, it was a problem arising from Capitalism, but in truth it wasn't a problem arising from the Cuts or resolvable by that kind of politicl activism seen in all those many meetings. Her problem was one of the alienation of labour. As my plumber comrade basically said, no one in the department from top to bottom had any interest in doing a good job, because no one had ownership of anything. In fact, there was an economic incentive not to do things too well, or too quickly, because not doing so meant work was spread out, and you could always generate work going back to put it right. The real solution to her problem was to end the alienation of Labour.

Now, of course, the other kind of activity is no solution either, because without changing the basic framework in which you are operating, you will keep having to do that work too. Its what I used to call at the time being a Social Worker not a Socialist. The point is to combine the too, not just to provide the man with a fish, but also to show him how to fish. To be honest I think it is easier to move from the provision of day to day solutions for workers that immediately deal with their problems practically, but do so in a way that encourages those workers themselves to act collectively to provide that solution than it is from the hyper political activism represented in meeting after meeting, campaign after campaign that is usually designed to recruit to some organisation as much as to actually deal with workers problems.

Phil said...

Meant to reply to Skidders earlier ... I take your point. I still think that action was counter productive and daft, but the SWP is firmly on 'our side'. In fact I think the SWP's chief weakness - activism for activism's sake - could, in the conditions of an upsurge in radicalism and protest, become a virtue. With the usual caveats of course!

Anonymous said...

A slight correction perhaps...

BLAIRISM never was a ‘nice idea’ – it always involved an advocation of ‘dictatorship’ and violent suppression of dissent, and evidence shows that this brutal attitude has always borne itself out in practice.

Phil said...

Really? Did Blairite thugs going round thumping internal critics?