Has the left blown its big chance? Towards a response to Beckett…


A response to http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/17/left-politics-capitalism-recession and the ensuing discussion especially here: http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=4551

Andy Beckett’s assessment of the lefts potential in the face of capital’s crisis is a tad impressionistic – sketches of a rain-soaked sectarian stallholder here, the tempo of speakers at the SWP’s marxism fest there. Yet he also accurately reveals the potential that socialist ideas could have in the current crisis. Nevertheless, in assuming the ‘left’ could have taken immediate advantage of the crisis of capitals neo-liberal phase, he perhaps overlooks the real reasons why that ‘left’ has vanished and departed the stage of history.

There has for a long time been a crisis in working class politics, – a profound crisis for the labour movement and for socialism. . The central problem was the inability of the labour movement to adapt to the new conditions of the class struggle in the last quarter of the twentieth century .

Traditional Social Democratic politics fitted the phase of ‘organised capitalism’ (or state monopoly capitalism) – a model that flourished around the world in different forms in the mid twentieth century but then began to break up alongside the crisis of capitalism between 1968 and 1973. Capital soon formulated its response to its crisis – the advance of neoliberal globalisation, or what we once called ‘Thatcherism’. However, the traditional, conservative and nationalistic politics of social democracy and Stalinism were unable to respond.

We all know the history. Domestically the syndicalism and sectionalism of the British Trades Union movement was no match for Thatchers political and organised class war offensive, which mobilised the full powers of the state and the social alliances around the ruling class to crush the miners. Thatcher spent more on the war against the miners than on the Falklands War to crush the working class ‘enemy within’. In response, the Trades Union leaders stood by and failed to mobilise the necessary solidarity strike action across society that would match the determination of Thatcher. Then the Labour Party responded by totally capitulating ideologically and adopting Thatcherism or neoloberlism as its own creed for itself. At the same time, the centrally planned system of state organised capitalism in the Soviet Union (once the most advanced part of the world capitalist system at its mid twentieth century zenith) was unable to match the globalised networked economies that ‘western’ neoliberalism was now discovering. Social Democratic and Stalinist ideas finally disintegrated, removing the main ideological glue from an already defeated and decomposing working class. The end result of all this was ‘new labour’ and now the current reality of an exhausted and discredited rightwing labour government facing the beginning of a profound and protracted global crisis of capital.

Unfortunately rightwing racist and nationalistic ideas will find resonance in this situation, as we saw across Europe at the Euro-elections. But capital has long burst the bounds of its nationally organised social democratic forms, and gains its enhanced power over the working class from ever more globalised relations. Therefore it can only be successfully confronted by another globalised class. And at the same time capitalism has made the working class ever more international – through migration and globalisation, although this appears as the current source of working class weakness and division. Thus the current battles for the heart and soul of the working class – the attempt to combat the forces of racism and xenophobia – represent a key factor in the working classes recomposition as a global class, and the rediscovery or reforging of its power at a new level.

In order to transform this situation, however, we must not only wage battles over racism and nationalism, important as these are. To succeed, these struggles must be connected to the project of building mass united working class self-defence against the capitalist recession. As we have witnessed on a small scale at Vestas on the Isle of Wight – the workforce of a previously un-unionised factory in a conservative area can rise to significant heights of militancy and class consciousness very quickly if they take action for themselves. The tactic of occupation can sometimes now make sense in the face of job losses. Furthermore, it represents a new horizon of possibility, overcoming the associations that previous tactics of simple sectional strikes have with defeat – a memory stretching back to what became the great defeat of 1984-85.

Visteon and Vestas on their own have a limited (but growing) impact. But what if a site the size of Corus Steelworks with thousands of workers went into occupation against job josses? What if there were several regional such actions simultaneously? It is not inconceivable to start to talk about ‘tipping points’ in the balance of class forces.

Of course part and parcel of such a fightback would be the development of a new political programme to transcend the failures of the past, of social democracy, economism and reformism – as well as of both stalinism and sectarianism. One of the most significant new developments since the late twentieth century has been rise in consciousness about the environmental crisis. As capitalism proves unable to make the transition to a sustainable techno-economic base, other more cooperative social forms and forces must step in and take the lead. The vestas occupation represents the potential for a new counter-hegemonic alliance of environmentalism and trades unionism that can begin to challenge the logic of capital. Ecological socialist solutions must therefore become a key part of the new programme for the recomposition of the working class on a global scale – once more as a class for itself.

There are many other dimensions for this potential socialist renaissance that lie latent within our contemporary capitalist society: Capitalism relies on ever more cooperative forces of production – appropriating the ‘commons’ of scientific and academic knowledge for its ‘knowledge based economy’ or generating the possibility for the free flow and distribution of all knowledge, art, culture, entertainment via information technologies such as the internet. Marx’s original insights on the contradiction between capitalism’s increasing reliance on cooperative and socialised forces of production versus its dependance on their private appropriation grows more relevant as capitalism develops. The battles over these ‘commons’ therefore become more intense. For example, capitalists are currently attempting to stifle the potential of the free sharing of culture through shutting down the file sharing sites and imposing more rules of privatised intellectual property. But only this week it was reported that thousands of people were joining anew ‘pirate party’ for the UK to fight for the right to share against this privatising offensive (and also to fight against the surveillance, or database state) These are some of the new contours of the class struggle that the new programme must recognise and organise around.

Of course such a programme requires organisation. A new programme takes form as it becomes a focus for organising around, just as the experience of organising the class struggle help develop and refine the programme.   Organisation and programme are mutually constructed or dialectically co-produced by each other. 

And this will take its time, over the coming months and years, in the many new forms of struggle that emerge. Beckett assumes socialists would be the immediate and instant beneficiaries of the woes of neoliberal capitalism. But given the obsolescence and decay of all forms of social democracy, stalinism and nation-state organised capitalism this is not surprising. The new movement and its programme can only be developed in the concrete struggles that are coming as this crisis of the capitalist mode of production drags on over the coming years. The working class and many others will create new forms and locations of  resistance. Socialists must attempt to weave these together into a new political paradigm. This act of weaving new cloth requires the real threads of real social struggles, – it cannot be conjured from thin air in an instant. At the same time, this longer term perspective in no way negates the urgency of seizing the initiative in the struggles of the present.


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2 responses to “Has the left blown its big chance? Towards a response to Beckett…

  1. Barry,
    Many great points, thanks for this.

    As you very clearly show the complexity of modern capitalist development relies on a greater deal of co-operation then ever before, its supply lines are ever thinner and move diverse, is frontiers ever wider as it destroys the last vestiges of the ‘commons’ whether it be the environment or Intellectual Property, common forests or indigenous cultures.

    However if you do a quick scope of the sites of resistance to capitalism they are actually very broad but many fall outside of the traditional left’s radar, and very far outside the left’s organizing experience. Take copyfarleft as a counter movement to Intellectual Property, Opensource software development- both forms of resistance to the relentless expansion of property rights.

    Then there is the rehashing of community organisation and local economical development of the Transition movement. Its problematic on a number of levels but it is a push back against globalisation, done in the name of environmentalism.

    Local Economic Trading Schemes, sometime linked to Transition movement but many pre-dating them are also an attempt to escape the rule of money.

    Co-ops, something the left pays homage to, sometimes, but so often ignored, or dismissed as ‘self-exploitation’.

    Ramblers Association on going campaign for free to roam, community gardening schemes, (There were two list in the RHS The Gardener this month that have been designed particularly for asylum seekers), even the allotment movement working for the right to grow affordable and healthy seasonal crops.

    The whole Fairtrade consumer movement, which has a moral base in international solidarity- rather than say organic which is much more health orientated, and middle class base.

    The list goes on, and working class people can be found actively involved in all of them, but there is no discernible socialist presence in most. Many we would traditionally dismiss as Utopian rather than scientific with a quick toss of the head and we set off to to another Union meeting or to stand outside factory gates for the shift changes.

    That is not to say that the outbreaks of workers resistance to capitalism is not the bedrock upon which socialist resistance needs to stand, Vestas was/is a prime example, what exactly its long term impact will be remains to be seen. But the role played by both the activists who supported the strike, the broadening of the strike into the militant green movement and the key role of the RMT all lay good seeds for the future.

    The problem however lays in that tricky word organization. To effectively deal with that we have to confront the pros and cons of Leninism as practiced in the UK, and the internal culture of most hard left parties.

    Leninism in one form or another has been the underlying form of organization for most UK parties post war that laid a claim to Marxism, it can be amazingly effective in allowing small organizations to swim effectively in the larger social democratic labour movement, it gave the CPGB a large say in the TUC, and campaigns such as CND, AAM et al, it clever use has allowed Trotskyist parties to intervene in Unions and campaigns very effectively in the past. However in my experience over the last 20 years it has also been the single largest factor in reducing the left appeal to people who encounter it in wider campaigns. I’m sure we have all been in meetings in which no-one actually talks to each other, just speaker after speaker getting up and denouncing each other , with the same examples,phrases and even hand movements/accents. Is it no wonder that campaign after campaign falters after an encouraging start as the none aligned rapidly drop out leaving the same hacks, well hacking and scoffing over articles in the others papers. Leninism it strikes me in the UK tends to create a sort of Marxist geekiness, that is as off putting and exclusive as the IT variety.

    Leninism, UK variety, combined with militant activism which seems to centre around working younger comrades to death, or resignation and alienation, has created a rather unattractive and inward looking hard left culture that is both unwilling, and unable to engage effectively with broader issues.

    The culture of the left is equally exclusive, if you haven’t been in the trenches for years, or got a degree in the humanites, then so much of the debate is as the french say, fly fucking, that is getting very worked up about very little things. Is it any wonder than six months into any campaign the majority of the people left standing are either old lags or fresh card carriers, and all the ‘normal’ people have gone, why would they stay. People get can bored out of their heads watching the telly from the comfort of their own homes.

    So what is the alternative? Well the first thing to do is actually inverse the talk/do ratio that so many organisations/campaigns get stuck in. Again drawn from a massive research project done on a sample size of one, me, I would say that most campaigns spend at least 2/3rd of their time talking about what they are going to do and 1/3rd in actually doing it. The best way of creating left unity is actually doing things together rather than talking about it. Respect is built not on words but on actions- its also helps to reach out to other people.

    And mutual respect, with a small r, would be rather a good start. Outside readers of most left blogs would be hard to find any common ground let alone, likeable commentators, amongst the flury of abuse, personal attacks and character assassinations so common to many. The culture of internal hard left discourse shown to the world portrays the hard left as deeply unpleasant.

    As making an effort to change the way the left treats its present members, it would also be a good start to start looking for the positive rather than focus on the negative of movements outside of its traditional focus. There are more people engaged in the Transition Movement than in the SWP , instead of sneering at utopian ideas, better to get involved, work with people and maybe they will then have time to listen to your ideas, particularly if they think they happen to be your own and not just handed down. The left use to a have a tradition of being involved in a huge range of activities, from climbing and rambling clubs, to youth projects, gardening, workers education, workers holidays, cultural projects, writing courses. We need to regain that diversity, not by creating conveyer belt organisations but actively getting involved in existing broader movements that have anti-capitalist possibilities, and instead of treating idea flows as a one way street from us revolutionaries to them idealists, see it as a dialogue where we have as much to learn as to teach, and create a nimbleness of analysis than means we are fighting tomorrows battles today, in new and effective ways rather than yesterdays battles for ever.

    Right lunch break over

    Yeah I know I’m a utopian, left wing euro stalinist, anti-worker, business owning whatever..


  2. barrykade

    Cheers Pete, thanks for devoting a lunch break to posting your thoughtful and interesting comments! Yes, there are many new potential locations of resistance that the left should be able to inhabit and weave together into a new counter-hegemony to capital. However this can of course be quite a double edged sword. The fact that capitalism relies on ever more cooperative social forms and collective forces of production sometimes enables us to push forward this cooperative logic and set it against capitalism. But on the other hand, social cooperation – often generated by social movement resistance – is often coopted as a new resource for capital. Both moves often happen at the same time. How we might discern between the two dynamics – which might often appear as the same thing but in a different context – is an interesting challenge.

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