One very minor up-side to the election of Trump, which I will post on as soon as I get the time, is that it should be easier for those left supporters of a progressive exit – ‘Lexit’ – to see their errors, although to be honest I’m not going to hold my breath.
With every development of Brexit it becomes clearer and clearer that this is a reactionary project that fully lives up to those who predicted this prior to the vote. The vicious diatribes from the Tory press have been ratcheted up by Nigel Farage complaining about Brexit being betrayed by judges, predicting that “we will see political anger, the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed.” When asked if there was a danger of disturbances in the street, he said “Yes, I think that’s right. . . the temperature of this is very, very high. I’m going to say to everyone who was on the Brexit side, ‘Let’s try and get even.”
This is the authentic voice of Brexit. No wondering, as we are with Trump, whether the reactionary zealots who led Brexit really mean what they said before the vote. It is reactionaries such as Farage and the Tory right who are leading the process. It is clear it could not happen without them although it may still not happen with them. The idea of a left-led progressive exit is even more fanciful now than when ‘Lexit’ was proposed during the referendum.
There is no competition to turn Brexit into anything progressive and the idea that the small left forces who supported Brexit can either present what is happening as a step forward or that they should still continue to support Brexit (under the banner of ‘Lexit’!) is at first laughable and then atrocious. Any attempt to make gains for workers out of the Brexit negotiations could only come through agreement from the rest of the EU, which the left supporters of Brexit see as the primary enemy that must be escaped from – so how do they think this can come about?
In the most recent International Socialism Journal the SWP are now scrambling to be relevant; so while they continue to support Brexit they also cling to the Labour Party as the other major factor defining British politics today. But their arguments around this are not much better.
They characterise the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn as “diffuse and atomised” and state that real organisation has to be built on struggle. They then outline two possible ways forward for these supporters.
The first is “to pursue the weary, highly bureaucratic struggle against the right in constituency and branch meetings.”
The “alternative is a more outward looking orientation towards resistance to austerity, racism and war . . . this approach is far more likely to transform Corbynism into a real mass movement.” The SWP author argues that having to face down Labour councils and their implementing cuts requires Corbynism to have a “more defined ideological profile.”
The article then goes on to speculate what Corbyn’s Labour would do if it got into office; criticising its “timid programme” and preoccupation with “credibility” and “electability”; condemning it for being “an electoral party” and therefore one that “will be judged, like any other, by its success in winning votes.”
It then raises the spectre of a betrayal, like Syriza in Greece, and the need to avoid the same fate in Britain by developing a mass movement behind Corbyn and “defiance of the rules of the parliamentary game.” It claims that “the Corbyn phenomenon – like Syriza before it – has not suspended the classic dilemmas of reform and revolution” and that this “truth” “underlines the need to maintain an independent revolutionary organisation that is free from the compromises imposed by constitutional convention and intra-party manoeuvring.” However, it says “the real test for revolutionary socialists will lie in the degree to which they are able to unite with all those who’ve rallied to Labour under Corbyn”.
One can therefore say with some confidence that this is a test that the SWP has and will fail, if only because they will not join the Labour party and “unite with all those who’ve rallied to Labour.” Instead it will emphasise the importance of its “ideological profile” by maintaining “an independent revolutionary organisation” that will be “free from the compromises imposed by constitutional convention and intra-party manoeuvring.” In other words it will refuse to get its hand dirty and will refuse to join a struggle in which compromises are “imposed” on it, most likely because it would fail itself to maintain its revolutionary purity in such a situation, much like the Militant Tendency did during its long existence in the Labour Party.
Its counter-position of revolutionary politics to reformism is therefore indeed purely ideological with little material basis, not even a revolutionary programme by which it could ground its practice and gauge its fidelity to a revolutionary perspective and policy. This counter-position is therefore useless for it cannot be a real guide to action. In the case of the SWP worse than useless since it leads to supporting Brexit even while acknowledging at the end of its article that the referendum result has “given racists more confidence” in a period of a “rising tide of racism”! While it presents the struggle against racism as the most important struggle there is no hesitation to ponder its own contribution to the referendum result that predictably set the scene and encouraged this “rising tide.”
This absence of the SWP from the struggle inside the Labour Party is to be welcomed, since it belittles the struggle to win votes; its own alternative to Labour’s economic programme is simply greater ‘public ownership’ that is not significantly different in nature from the Left of the Labour Party, and it utterly fails to appreciate the importance of the fight to democratise the party, which it characterises purely as a “weary, highly bureaucratic struggle.” It utterly fails to understand the importance of creating a democratic mass party of the working class that can be both a site for democratic debate and a forum to determine the politics and struggles of the working class. This failure is no doubt due to the notorious absence of democracy in its own ranks. In this respect, as in so many, it is no example to anyone, least of all the mass membership of the Labour Party.
This party doesn’t need another cohort of recruits, however small, who believe that, because they have the predetermined answers, all that is need is more activity without a democratic machinery to decide policy and priorities for activity.
Coverage in the left press in Britain reports disagreements not only about the lack of democratic functioning inside the Party but within the Momentum group that is supposed to be fighting for this democracy.
The radical journalist Paul Mason has announced that he has joined Momentum and given some arguments why he has done so and some ideas on how it should be organised. Whether he is right to do so is not for me to say – I am not involved in this struggle and am too far away from it to make any half-definitive judgements. He seems correct to say that Momentum should affiliate to the Labour party and work in activity within the party and also on its own account.
However, he has a rather too sweeping dismissal of the experience of the 20th century left that appears to recognise no lessons except negative ones. This goes with an uncritical acceptance of what he sees as 21st century means of organisation. He may be referring to particular features or experiences of bureaucratic organisation but he should make this clear and also reference the long struggles against bureaucracy in the workers’ movement, both practical and theoretical.
He dismisses hierarchies in favour of networks without recognising that hierarchy is just one example of a network; the lesson being that you have to be a lot more specific about what you mean by networked organisations.
Likewise he is of course correct when he says that we want to “empower masses of people to take their own decisions through direct democracy” but he says this involves “respecting diversity, proportionality, restraint and the democratic institutions of the UK.” Having lived through the miners’ strike he should know just how limited the democracy of the institutions of the UK are and needs again to explain what he means by this phrase, as also what he means by “restraint” and “proportionality”, which are relative and contextual and not much use baldly stated outside of this. Respect for diversity also has its limits – where I live respecting diversity means respecting bigotry, on account of their being so many bigots. In the context of Brexit this is not a distant analogy to the current situation in Britain.
He says that “today I think the most revolutionary thing we can achieve is to put a left labour government in power: to switch off the neoliberal privatisation machine, to end expeditionary warfare and the arming of dictators, to redistribute both wealth and power to the people.” This seems to me to have some truth, except that we need to rely on a mass active movement to bring this about and to develop beyond its limitations, including that power is, in the end, taken by the people themselves and not handed down from above.
He recommends “decision making in Momentum should be taken by consensus, using electronic democracy to engage every dues-paying member. Local branches of Momentum should be free to act as they wish – to focus on caucusing before Labour branches and CLPs, or to do activism under their own banner that the Labour bureaucracy refuses to do – for example defending libraries being closed down by Labour-run councils.”
The use of electronic means to involve members voting is a good one in certain circumstances, but not all, although the current Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows that everyone’s ability to do so can’t be taken for granted. But voting means majorities and minorities so it’s not clear to me what limits are imposed by a requirement for consensus. Local Momentum groups should have wide autonomy to determine priorities for activity but once again there will be national priorities, such as selection of MPs, conference motions etc that require some coordination and guidance on overall direction.
Mason argues that the basic political programme should be the 10 pledges outlined by Jeremey Corbyn and notes that nuclear disarmament is not one of them. So as a start it may be more or less fine but there should be nothing sacrosanct about it and if the movement develops the political foundations for it will as well. In fact it is already inadequate – it does not mention Brexit. Campaigning against Brexit should be a priority for Momentum and it should not be afraid to take the lead.
Back to part 5