|Nigel Farage, the ‘hail fellow well met’ bloke at home with South Coast prejudices about how they should scrap benefits|
Historically Britain hasn’t had an equivalent of far-right European parties such as the Front Nationale or Italy’s Northern Leagues. One of the things that made it easier for the Left to operate and to defend the gains made after the 2nd world war, was the strength of the working class coupled with a post-war consensus that full-employment and the NHS were articles of faith, not to be touched. Pensions and welfare benefits were part of the civilising of capitalism.
No more. Thursday’s local election results produced a situation where, if it had been a General Election, Labour would have gained 29% under Millionaire Milliband, the Tories 25%, UKIP 23% and the Lib-Dems, who have acted as the government’s faithful nodding poodle, a mere 14%. The figures, compiled for the BBC by Professor John Curtice, suggest that on the basis of Thursday’s voting, Labour might have won 29 per cent in a general election, the Conservatives 25 per cent, Ukip 23 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 14 per cent, and “others” 9 per cent
Contrary to some of the cheaper jibes coming from Cameron and Clarke, UKIP isn’t a fundamentally racist as opposed to a chauvinist party. It hates’ ‘Johny Foreigner’ no matter who s/e might be. Although there will no doubt be found plenty of ckoset fascists and ex-fascists in the party, it isn’t like the BNP or National Front, derived from the bowels of British fascism but the country villages of the home countries.
|Ed Milliband – not an ounce of socialist politics or personality. Political programme identical to that of the Tories. His main claim to fame is that ‘blue Labour’ is just another establishment party|
|Laughing all the way to the voting bank – does anyone remember the rise of Robert Kilroy Silk, ex-Labour MP, BBC broadcaster and ex-UKIP MEP?|
Although many people believe that UKIP is just an anti-Europe party, beneath its rhetoric lies a belief that has never gone away. In the words of US Secretary under Truman, Dean Acheson, ‘Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.’ It was an attempt to solve that quandary that led to the so-called ‘special relationship’. In other words UKIP envisage an independent Britain carving out its own foreign policy. They should take a good look at Sir Anthony Eden and Suez and where that led.
The primary blame for the ascendancy is the socialist left, who have continued to insist that they are the main enemy rather than those who run capitalism. They fea ture on the bankers as if Chief Executives and Directors, with their massive 20%+ annual salary increases aren’t also a symptom of capitalism.
I was listening to one woman in the South-Shields by-election, where the Tories were knowced intto 3rd place by UKIP. ‘I’m voting UKIP’ she said. ‘I’m fed up with cuts and closures’.
The problem is that Farage, both himself and his party, are to the right of the Conservative Party. If that woman seriously believes a coutnry toff, whose trade-mark is a pin-striped suit, is going to come and reverse the iniquities of capitalism when she and others need to seriously think again.
But who can blame such people, the atomised working class of the North, when the manifestos of all 3 main parties, the Green Party being pretty irrelevant, is almost identical. All 3 agree the welfare state should be shrunk. All believe in the privatisation of public services (mainly the Post Office is left) and NHS – indeed New Labour under its previous war-criminal Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, pioneered such ‘reform’. All believe in cutting benefits to the unemployed and disabled. All believe in the holy grail of housing left to the market without any meaningful addition to the public housing stock. New Labour had 13 years to take Rail back into public ownership. Instead it squandered the money on Bush’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Below is an article I wrote late last year for Weekly Worker, in which I laid out the rod that the Left had made for its own back. That was before the SWP had imploded in a rape controversy concerning the ‘rights and privileges’ of members of the SWP Central Committee.
There’s No Success Like Failure
The Never Ending Retreat of the Far Left
|Alex Callinicos SWP Chief defended party hacks against accusations of rape|
It is somewhat ironic that the different socialist groups, having predicted the capitalist crisis for years, are now too weak to take advantage of it. We have the greatest financial crisis for over a century, if not ever. Banks that would be bankrupt in an instant but for government bailouts of financial lame ducks, real unemployment at over 3.5 million, a wholesale reversal of the post-war settlement as embodied in the welfare state, to say nothing of an environmental catastrophe around the corner. All this coupled with three major political parties between whom you would be hardpressed to slip a piece of paper. It is difficult to imagine a more favourable climate for Marxist and socialist groups, yet the truth is that at no time in the post-war era has the left been so weak.
Nearly a decade ago the SWP successfully destroyed the Socialist Alliance when their attention span, never great at the best of times, became distracted by the allure of Respect and George Galloway. Today the electoral embodiment of the far-Left is the misnamed Trade Union & Socialist Coalition, which manages to achieves fewer votes each time it stands for election. But despite their abject failure to sink roots, Marxist groups and self-declared parties run a mile rather than confront their own failures. There is no debate about the reasons for the Left’s failure in Britain or how such a failure can be reversed. The only option left to members is to leave, disenchanted or burnt-out or both. Both the principal groups on the left – the SWP and Socialist Party – take it as a personal affront when it is suggested that perhaps their strategy needs revising. Suggest to them that perhaps a balance sheet could be drawn on the successes and failures of the far left and they will look at you blankly as if you were an economist from outer space.
Whereas the secret state and MI5 have long ago transferred their attentions to anarchist and environmental groups, the sects and groups of Britain’s far-left see failure as success and survival as an achievement of its own. Recruiting in ones or twos is more important than effecting an overall change in the balance of class forces. The most important battles of all are with each other. The SWP in particular is an unstable, stalinoid group whose modus operandi is that of a revolving door. The secret is to ensure that recruits-in are more than recruits-out and any statistical sleight of land is employed to ensure that the first is greater than the second. What none of the larger groups on the Left will do however, and this includes the Communist Party of Britain, is to draw up any kind of honest assessment of where they have gone wrong as well as what they’ve got right.
Perhaps I can declare my own interest. I joined the International Socialists (later SWP) when I was still at school aged 16, having just led a school strike. Within 3 years I was expelled for breaking the rules of ‘democratic (i.e. bureaucratic) centralism’ when I voted publicly against IS’s attempt to wind up the Anti-Internment League. I considered the interests of the anti-imperialist struggle and the fight of the nationalist minority in the North of Ireland as more important than the sectarian interests of the IS leadership. After the branch had twice hesitated to do the deed, Roger Rosewall – IS’s Industrial Organiser at the time – was brought up to Liverpool to effect my expulsion, which he did. Amongst those abstaining was John Bloxham, pillar of Socialist Organiser/Alliance for Workers Liberty. Rosewell himself later became Shirley Porter’s bag carrier, an employee of Aims of Industry, leader writer for the Daily Mail and a member of the Industrial Committee of the Social Democratic Party! Clearly he had been a state asset but to this day I never received an apology from the SWP for the role that Rosewell played and the membership received no explanation either. After all he too has long disappeared down an Orwelllian memory hole.
Although he later recanted and changed his views in Days of the Locust, at the time it was National Secretary Jim Higgins who effected my expulsion. I mention this not because my case was in any way exceptional but because it is precisely such behaviour that has alienated thousands of potential revolutionaries over the years. Although IS(SWP) has a formal system of appeal against expulsions, I doubt if any of the hundreds of expelled SWP members has ever successfully appealed. By way of comparison, the bourgeois courts are a model of democracy! Indeed most employers have disciplinary appeal structures in which people are successful. Yet socialist, Marxist even, groups treat democratic rights and debate as a luxury .
That there are objective reasons for the weakness of the socialist left cannot be doubted. Prime amongst them is the restructuring of the working class itself as symbolised in the defeat of the Miners’ strike in 1984-5. Long gone are the big trade union battalions – the miners, dockers, shipyard workers and car workers, to name but a few. Of course the working class hasn’t disappeared as such, people still need to sell their labour, but it has been fragmented, atomised and depoliticised. There has been a catastrophic decline in union membership, the abolition of the closed shop and a massive decrease in union militancy. One of the few blue-collar unions remaining, the RMT, despite moving to the left, is weak and fragmented as a result of rail privatisation.
What is the point of an organised Left that goes through the motions whilst accepting defeat? If we are really the creatures of forces beyond our control then the only conclusion is that we may as well go home or confine ourselves to the letters page of the Guardian or academic discussion groups.
Internationally capitalism is not only undergoing a massive economic crisis, the worst of which is probably to come, but it has also become more savage and war-like. Where once the US only tiptoed around the Middle East, preferring to rely on its surrogates, today the region bristles with warships, drones, missiles and marines. We are in a state of permanent war yet the Left, apart from the million + march in 2003, has had virtually no impact. Whereas the international left played a major part in the withdrawal from Vietnam, it has had little impact on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. That has been the prerogative of the armed resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One question that left groups have never faced up to is whether it is indeed possible to replace capitalism given the weakness of our own side. The emphasis by Marx and socialist theoreticians on the organised working class as an agent for change in society was predicated upon the fact that industrial capitalism had thrown together, in factories, large numbers of workers, whose consciousness would, as a result of the battles they were forced to undergo, generalise from the economic to political. It wasn’t that the working class was any more oppressed or exploited, in the commonly understood sense of the word, than the peasantry and villeins of the feudal era, but that unlike their predecessors they had the possibility and ability to do something about it and further, that capitalism laid the basis for a society where humanity was free of want.
In Britain, as Lenin recognised, the working class’s conservatism was a direct product of the fact that it dined off the crumbs of British imperialism. In fact they did better than that. The Attlee government in 1945 came into office with a crisis whose dimensions were not dissimilar to those of today, although the nature of the crisis was very different, since although Europe had virtually been bankrupted by war, the USA was barely affected economically and further had surplus capital aplenty. The UK was bankrupt and only a £3 billion loan from the United States kept it afloat. Yet the Labour government not only nationalised the mines and rail and utilities but it created the NHS and introduced a National Assistance Act that guaranteed everyone a minimum standard of living. How was it able to do so? Because the Labour government super-exploited its African and Asian colonies (whilst being forced to concede independence to India, Sri Lanka and Burma). The rubber plantations of Malaya and the cocoa crops of Ghana, in addition to the forced loans that constituted the sterling area, financed Labour’s reforms. Today the City of London continues that tradition in a different guise.
The Queen is alleged to have asked a group of economists why they didn’t predict the economic crisis. Perhaps the same question should be asked of the socialist gurus who preside over the different groups and their pet economists? Marxism is supposed to be scientific socialism, yet it operates in code with an understanding of dialectics being reserved for the high priests of the order. The fact is that socialist groups have no greater understanding of the crisis of world capitalism than any bourgeois economist. I make no claims to an understanding of the dismal science that is economics but it seems to me that we have witnessed the transferrance of production to the third world and Asia whilst Western societies have lived off credit as consumers, having defined the rules of the game via the Dollar and Euro. If this is true then it raises questions about whether revolutionary change is even possible in the West any longer, even as a theoretical possibility.
The Left Groups
I stood at the last local elections in Brighton for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition alongside a supporters of the Socialist Party and Socialist Resistance. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, mid-campaign, that the SP had produced an extra leaflet, which I had been unaware of, naming only their candidate. In essence two campaigns were being fought – the electoral campaign and a recruitment campaign for the SP. As long as TUSC continues as a Heath-Robinson contraption, a coalition of convenience between sections of the RMT bureaucracy and Bob Crowe and the SP, with the SWP, although formally a part, in practice having little to do with it except as a flag of convenience, it has no future. How can you have a credible electoral group unless it is a party with individual membership?
The argument that the SP puts forward is that one person one vote was responsible for the Labour Party moving to the right. In fact it was a symptom of the Left’s lack of a base, even at the height of the Benn campaign for Deputy Leadership. But to imagine you can create a viable group which refuses to have members, which won’t allow a vote at its national conference in order not to offend trade union leaders who wish to exercise control whilst their own membership remains uninvolved, is an absurdity.
It is of course welcome that the RMT is involved in supporting TUSC. However to try and exercise control, not via a block vote even but through a complete absence of democracy, where all decisions are taken by a small handpicked group, is self-defeating. Political currents will of course exist within such a party but loyalty has to be to the party not the current. Why? Because the priority is building for socialism and no political sect or current is capable of doing this.
We have the situation whereby the different sects believe that the only route to socialism lies in their retaining control of what are effectively front groups. The SP believes a party can only be created by the trade unions, i.e. by the left trade union bureaucracies. Since that is not going to happen without extreme pressure to break from the Labour Party from below, it effectively means that there will be no other party other than themselves. A mass party based primarily on individual membership would of course exert its own attractions on the membership of trade unions, but that isn’t a road that even the furthest left of union executives is prepared to contemplate. The SP’s position is a reflection of their own economism, which is based on an adaptation to the existing economic and trade union consciousness. For example one of the unions that they put forward as an example to follow is the Prison Officers Association – barely a trade union and one whose membership has never shown the slightest degree of sympathy or support for political prisoners. The SP’s economism helps explain why it is not involved in international solidarity work or indeed virtually any other campaign outside those with direct economic demands.
I must confess that the SWP’s trajectory is even more difficult to fathom. It is a long time since they had a ‘turn to industry’ and their politics are eclectic. Although they are more likely to be involved in international, environmental and anti-war campaigns, at the end of the day they are in complete agreement with the SP that the main purpose of political activity is to recruit to their own sect.
It never ceases to amaze me that groups led, as in the SWP’s case, by distinguished professors aren’t able to see that building one’s own group at the expense of the class is a recipe for never achieving socialism. Is it any wonder that the British left is by far and away the weakest in western Europe?
Long gone are the days when IS organised a 6 week strike in a Manchester engineering company because of the victimisation of a shop steward (John Deason). The decline of engineering has seen to that. But the lack of any base in the working class (the SWP in particular) has meant that their politics have lacked any firm grounding or principle. The anti-war struggle developed into a love-in with Islamic mullahs and small businessmen. Respect was founded, not on any class basis, but out of the most opportunistic electoralist reasons. And likewise, when they woke up to the fact that SWP members were unlikely to benefit from an Islamic vote (unless they were Muslims) they broke for the most opportunistic reasons from Respect.
The Socialist Party has been more immune to this and it does have a base within some unions, in particular PCS. However it is noticeable that this is at the expense of raising any political demands. The savage attacks on DWP members are a direct consequence of New Labour’s abolition of the divide between the Employment and Benefits service. Yet the two are quite different and many people receive benefits whilst at work (less common now that universal benefits are being scrapped) and many looking for work won’t receive income-based benefits at all. This was symbolised by the creation of Job Centre Plus offices yet PCS failed to oppose what was a naked ideological attack by New Labour on the very concept of benefits (which is why the successor to Family Credit was termed a Tax Credit – literally the same people swapped department from the DWP to HMRC).
The failure of the SP to even raise political demands to do with the structure of employment which affected their own members reflected a wider problem. They didn’t question the political right of management to manage and the government to dictate how the department was organised. And if they failed to oppose Job Centre Plus they also failed to oppose the use of sanctions against benefit claimants or the use of privatised companies to provide ‘training’ and now the Work Programme. Yet the logical culmination of the use of Atos, Maximus, A4E and all the other crooked companies that the Tories and New Labour have employed, has been savage cuts to jobs with the prospect that the entire DWP labour force will be contracted out.
In short a failure of politics has led to a failure in the economic battle too. Yet the major political groups on the Left have their own peculiar definition of sectarianism which goes something like: ‘if you criticise us then you are being sectarian’. In other words people are expected to work alongside them, put up with party building at the expense of joint work but if you raise your doubts as to what they are doing then you are the sectarian!
The strength of the Communist Party of Britain lies in its control of the Morning Star, despite its failure to learn any lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I understand they sent a delegation to ‘socialist’ China recently. I can only assume they weren’t put up in the same hotel as the IMF! The CPB operates at the fringes of the TUC and trade union bureaucracy and because it is vastly weakened compared with the halycon days of Harry Pollitt, it or some of its members have been forced into co-operation with their hated rivals in the ‘Trotskyist’ groups. I refer to Andrew Murray in particular, but also Robert Griffiths.
The Alliance for Workers Liberty is barely worth mentioning. Led by its own guru, Sean Matgamna, it distinguished itself during the Iraq War by refusing to oppose the occupation and it has adopted much the same attitude to Afghanistan. Only US troops can guarantee the ability to organise of the Iraqi working class! What began as support for federalism in Ireland and then support for Zionism in the guise of 2 States for 2 Peoples has become naked support for US imperialism.
What is left of the old International Marxist Group are two groups and a couple of splinters. Socialist Action operates in a semi-submerged state, its politics combining neo-stalinism and a third worldist approach to national liberation movements. Alone among the groups it has no paper, albeit issuing a political bulletin fairly regularly by e-mail. It is active in various solidarity groups, notably Palestine and Venezuela Solidarity Campaigns. Having tied its fortunes to Ken Livingstone via his Chief of Staff, the late Redmond O’Neill, it has seen its fortunes decline alongside him.
The other group is Socialist Resistance. On an individual basis I have a high regard for many of its members but as a group it leaves a lot to be desired. Marginalised in TUSC it is led by Alan Thornett, who first earned his spurs in the WRP. Although more principled than most groups it has barely a hundred members.
The reality of the far left today is that the various groups and sects are little more than propaganda groups. Their intervention in either class or related social struggles is next to zero. One of the more remarkable features today is that it is the anarchists and direct action activists and groups who are more vibrant. UK Uncut, Occupy – these are the targets of police repression. In Brighton we have a vibrant anarchist social centre, the Cowley Club. When the EDL came to town it wasn’t the SP or the SWP (UAF) who took the lead but the anarchists together with old unattached far-left socialists. The result was a mass campaign which led to Sussex Police being unable to force a path through Brighton for the fascists. After just 1/3 of the way along their route they were diverted down the backstreets. It was as magnificent a victory as anything we saw in the 1970s and 1980’s when the SWP was committed to direct action against the fascists and physical opposition to their marches and activities. The anarchists had learnt the lessons of the Trotskyists and Red Action of 30 years ago. In the lead up to the march I was one of those who spoke to a packed meeting of students at Sussex University. During the demonstration against the EDL one young woman at the meeting came up to me and asked pointedly whether their achievements matched those I had talked about a few days previously. These are young people for whom the current grouplets of the far left hold no attraction
One group I haven’t mentioned is the Communist Party of Great Britain! The CPGB is committed to building a Marxist Party. However this is a purely theoretical position since it abandoned pretty quickly the Campaign for a Marxist Party! It was part of the Socialist Alliance and even joined, half-heartedly, Respect. Despite this it proudly proclaims that there are no half-way houses. Either a Marxist Party nor nothing at all. The problem is that a Marxist party consisting of all the sects would resemble nothing so much as rats in a bag. It wouldn’t be the capitalists I had to fear but my own comrades! The one thing the CPGB has going for it is the most open paper on the Left. The SP’s ‘The Socialist’ is as dull as ditchwater. Socialist Worker has never recovered since Paul Foot and is as predictable as ever. Neither publication boasts an open letters page because debate is frowned upon. It is ironic that one of the smallest groups on the left boasts a paper with perhaps the largest readership. It is an asset that they would be foolish to dispense with.
The one silver cloud in an otherwise bleak sky was the Scottish Socialist Party. Of course circumstances were more favourable, with PR elections to the Assembly and the recent experience of a successful fight against the Poll Tax. But nonetheless it pointed the way and that was why the RMT, which was expelled by Labour for supporting it has ended up supporting TUSC ironically. The SP which opposed the direction that Scottish Militant Labour took was nonetheless forced to follow in their footsteps.
That the SSP ultimately collapsed in the wake of Tommy Sheridan’s disastrous libel and perjury trials should not blind us to its successes. Whether you call it a Labour Party Mark 2 or a half-way house, the fact is that half way is better than not even setting out on the journey. To broaden the base of socialist ideas and support can never be a bad idea.
What of the Labour Party to which the CPGB is increasingly drawn? Having been active at the time of the Benn deputy leadership campaign I have no doubt whatever that the position of the SP is essentially correct. Whether you call it a bourgeois workers party or an openly pro-capitalist party along the lines of the Democrats, the fact is that socialists no longer have any purchase on it.
There was a time when the Labour Party proclaimed its belief in the reform of capitalism. As Alan Bullock wrote in his biography of Labour’s post-war Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the ghost of the 1930’s stalked the Labour cabinet. And by that he meant mass unemployment. Does anyone seriously believe that of today’s party? When Aneurin Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned from the Labour Cabinet in 1951, over the introduction of prescription charges, to form the Keep Left (later Tribune) group, their support lay in the constituencies. Their opponents were in the trade unions – people like Arthur Deakin of the TGWU and Lord Carron of the AUEW. When New Labour gained office and Gordon Brown refused to reestablish the link between pensions and earnings, it was the union block vote that passed the successful motion. The CLPs voted by nearly 2-1 against. When the individual membership of a party swings in such a dramatic fashion from left to right – a swing that is as much in evidence today as it was 15 years ago – then it is time to draw conclusions, one of which is that the Labour Party can only be the graveyard of socialism.