Saturday 20 June saw up to 250,000 people march in London under the banner ‘End Austerity Now.’ But four years on from the first ‘March for the Alternative’ back in 2011, how far have we actually travelled?
Having brought up to 250,000 people to the streets of London on Saturday, the People’s Assembly officially confirmed itself as a mass movement. Or so said Lindsey German of Counterfire, in her capacity of one of a number of interchangeable Grand Old Dukes of York of the left.
In reality, her article confirms that the PA is actually just the latest banner for the annual round of big fixture protests. Next on the agenda, we’re told, are budget day protests and a Conservative Party Conference demo; more Big Days Out for everybody to wave their banners and let off a little steam. Although obviously using phrases like “lay siege” and “make a splash” makes it all sound like so much more.
Reports of the march from a variety of sources are also talking about ‘the start of the fight back.’ It sounds good: one protest isn’t enough – this is the start of the fight, not a one off but a springboard to further action and resistance. There’s only one problem: this start isn’t the first start and it won’t be the last.
Every single massive demo is couched in exactly the same terms, as a beginning, with so much more to come. But, like a terrible Hollywood movie franchise, they never quite get it right and so we get endless reboots. We see the same story over and over and are continually told that it’s something new.
The reason for this is straightforward enough.
The trade union bureaucracy’s position and privilege is built upon its role mediating between the workers and the bosses. This mediation means presenting workers’ demands to the boss class, of course, but it also means being able to compromise on their behalf, and to keep the workers in line when the deal is done. If they can’t do this, as ‘responsible’ negotiating partners, then why should the bosses listen to them?
German and others who sit at the top of the various left sects seek a similar role in the political arena. The People’s Assembly is just the latest version of any number of fronts set up to allow them to position themselves as ‘movement leaders,’ even if on the surface it’s more successful than other endeavours at not looking like a front for a tiny Trotskyist group. It’s how they recruit, sell newspapers, and maintain their own positions of relative privilege on the coat tails of the unions.
The various celebrity leftists attached to these events have a career to build on the back of speaking at such events. It builds a fan base, keeps their newspaper columns in demand, sells their books, and generally provides more of the only sustenance that matters to a celebrity: attention.
None of these people have a material interest in breaking the formula. Not the Len McCluskeys, not the Lindsey Germans, and not Owen Joneses. So we stay trapped in the endless cycle of reboots – one beginning after another, on launch pads with no springs.
Hell, even the cynical denunciation of this cycle is part of the cycle. But it remains necessary until we break that cycle.
Demonstrations aren't in themselves a good or a bad thing. In the context of a movement led from the top down by bureaucrats concerned to maintain their own positions, they're a pressure release valve for rank-and-file workers. But it doesn't have to be that way.
A march and rally can be what it says on the tin – a way to rally people together and give them confidence. Not confidence that the people talking at them have their best interests at heart, because that kind of confidence is demobilising. But confidence that they are part of something much larger and do not stand alone.
That only works if they are genuinely built from the ground up. A bunch of leftist talking heads in London organising a demonstration and then inducing the masses to attend can use the word 'grassroots' all they like – it doesn't make it true. When there's no pre-ordained platform, but rather anyone is allowed to speak, making the demonstration a way for people to connect with one another rather than be addressed by grandees, then we can believe them. This was the case with demos organised by the community Bedroom Tax campaign Stand Up In Bootle, to give one example, but it's not something you'll ever get from those behind the People's Assembly.
Likewise, when the demonstration has real links with the community and workplace organisation on the ground, you can truly talk about a movement. But the People's Assembly only cares for class struggle when it's managed and sanitised by the bureaucrats of the TUC unions.
Organising isn't an academic speciality that only an elite few can grasp. It begins with people who share a grievance discussing it, agreeing what to do about it, and taking action. By doing this in the community and in the workplace, and by linking these struggles up, we can build a movement worthy of the name.
On the other hand, if we surrender control of our struggles to those whose goal is to maintain themselves as our leaders and representatives, we'll constantly hear talk about the grassroots and a movement that's fighting back. But it'll just be talk, and we'll be trapped in that cycle of unlimited beginnings, never taking a single step forward.