The Party's Over: The State of the Left in the 1990s

Article from Class War issue 73 surveying the remains of the left

The Left in Britain is at its feeblest for decades, probably since the mid-1960s and maybe even since WWI. And yet this is at a time of lowering living standards and worsening working conditions, and when the institutions of social, economic and political control - the government, police and monarchy - command the least respect since the Victorian era. Both Stalinism and social democracy have virtually disappeared in Europe in the last decade, and where once the labour movement stood to defend workers there is now a massive political vacuum. The concepts of nations and states are in turmoil with moves both for a federal Euro-superstate on one hand, and the devolvement of power on the other. While on the fringes of Europe a 19th century battle for nationhood is being fought, in the heartlands of England and Germany national sovereignty is fading as global capitalism, and its institutions, consolidate.

All this should provide a fertile breeding ground for the Left, yet they have been haemorrhaging members and whole organisations over the past decade. It is the firm belief of groups like Class War that much of the Left's irrelevance in this country is down to their sterile and conservative dogmatism and resulting political organisation. Clearly though, there are massive economic, political and social changes going on locally and globally that have had far-reaching effects on the political culture of this country. The Left have been totally incapable of developing new politics and new methods of working or making propaganda. They have no response to the changes in society, let alone the growing ecological world crisis. They ignore changes in the workplace and changes in the way young people think and behave; with their myopic vision of the industrial worker they fail to see the strengths and possibilities in today's fragmented society.

The labour movement has been devastated and this has had massive consequences for the Left. They have almost entirely lost their factory base, and the more general social changes and the change in political climate have increased their isolation. Of all the main left or anarcho groups only Class War has tried to adopt new types of 'propaganda', at least since Rock Against Racism influenced 'punk' Socialist Workers. In fact Class War's 'new' style is itself now dated, to the 1980s miners' strike/inner city riot/anti-yuppie era. Just as capitalism never stops moving, so we must never stop refining, updating and inventing. We won't get there by standing still.

Before we take a look at various left and anarcho groups, there are some general points that need to be made. Most importantly is that the majority of people who join these groups genuinely want to do something to change the world, whether they be middle class students or more importantly working class people. For this they are to be respected. Our criticisms of the Left are not directed at these people, the rank and file, but against the sterile politics and ossified leaderships that define these sects.

However, nothing is ever that simple and sadly, apart from the vast majority of recruits who eventually leave, many revolutionaries get caught up in a 'siege mentality' and generally lose touch with the very ideas which attracted them to revolutionary politics in the first place. This 'mentality' can affect all of us, but in left groups it is actively encouraged. With a siege mentality developed, the members are more likely to do what they are told and accept an absence of debate and democracy. Along with this comes the obsessive need to defend the 'organisation' above all else.

It may seem clichéd to talk about 'the means justifying the ends', but talk to any hack in any far left group and they will waste hours of your time talking black into white and that the mass slaughter of whatever (including most other left groups) is justified, as it will lead to their group gaining power and bringing on the new dawn of happy smiling faces etc. Of course, this sort of alienation can be found everywhere in the modern world, but leftist politics itself is a large part of the problem. Ironically, it's not just the left groups who are at fault with their belief that they are 'the vanguard' - the siege mentality and 'the-organisation-above-all-else' attitude has infected anarchist groups as well.

The Socialist Party (ex-Militant)

Militant were the most significant left group of the 1980s. They had over 100 councillors, several MPs, and influence and control over several councils. Today they have little or no influence in either local authorities, the Labour Party or their beloved labour movement. The history of Militant is a history of ideological schizophrenia. In the 1950s the group was a straightforward Trotskyist outfit. They entered within the 'parties of the working class', educating and creating the nucleus that, when the conditions were correct, would emerge as Britain's revolutionary party. They would use 'transitional demands' as a way of politicising and developing revolutionary consciousness. These demands were ones that they knew capital could not agree to and therefore they hoped to show that only workers' control would bring 'socialism'. However, over the years tactics and theory got very confused and the majority of Militant supporters saw nationalisation under workers' control as a thing in itself and thought those who argued for real revolution were fools.

It was this contradiction that brought about Militant's defining moment and illustrated its failure as a left reformist party. This moment was the rate capping dispute in Liverpool in 1984-85 which ended in embarrassing defeat for them. Militant was also significantly involved in the campaign against the poll tax, and just as they learned lessons from the Liverpool fiasco, that bureaucratic and dishonest politics cannot succeed, this campaign showed the importance of open and honest politics based in the community. After Liverpool Militant were witch-hunted from the Labour Party - their true base. Their recruiting machine, the youth section of the Labour Party, was taken from them and what support they had in the union movement ebbed away as they became impotent. They had no option but to move toward organising in communities when Thatcher launched her attack upon local authorities and communities with the poll tax. Although Militant took credit for starting many anti-poll tax groups the campaign showed up the worst side of Militant - the bureaucratic and undemocratic practice learned and institutionalised during years of intrigue in Labour party politics. If Liverpool had lost Militant many supporters, then the poll tax campaign split them right open. Here, two very clear and different ways of organising were shown; and indeed during the early 1990s Militant split. The old leadership were routed, while hacks in the new Militant claim that they haven't changed their fundamental politics, only material circumstances. In fact it appears that through changes in circumstances Militant themselves have changed.

For the better? Well they are more open and are more likely to work with other groups. However, they still retain some of the old Militant attitudes as well as most of their old political dogma. As the new Socialist Party they appear to be recreating some sort of Bennite left-Labour old school set-up. They are possibly the group 'most likely to do well' over the next few years, as they intend to become more community-based, but as ever, another dose of bureaucratic 'socialist' bollocks is the last thing people need.

CPGB

The Communist Party of Great Britain is finally dead and buried. By their continual defence of the indefensible they have been a disaster for the revolutionary movement for many years. Like other so-called 'communist' parties, their politics - like much of the Trot dogma - is not in any sense of the word communist, but some hybrid of state capitalist economics and totalitarianism. As the Eastern European regimes collapsed, the CPGB also collapsed, after first attempting to become a new champagne socialist party. Good riddance.

SLP

The Socialist Labour Party was set up in 1996 by a group of Labour Party old-timers. Militant tried to join but weren't allowed! Led by state socialists and ex-Stalinists like Arthur Scargill, it's heavily trade union biased and calls for the rebuilding of the welfare state and renationalisation of everything. Its strategy appears to be almost entirely electoral. In our post-Thatcher society, appeals to traditional labourism and a tired old leadership will fall on deaf ears. We believe that with neither an attractive ideology nor the people to create a vibrant movement the SLP is at best a sentimental reaction to New Labour.

SWP

The Socialist Workers Party is the biggest left group in Britain today with the same membership numbers (4-6,000) as they have had for the last 25 years, but the leadership remains the same!

The SWP is renowned for two things. Firstly, calling for strikes, whatever the situation. This policy has led to demoralisation and a loss of respect for not only themselves, but also for the very idea of fighting and winning. Secondly, opportunism. Essentially this means they chop and change policies from week to week on a vampire-like basis that whatever brings in new blood is good. The SWP is today the only noticeable group to use the word 'revolution' in their propaganda; not only this, they accept that a revolution will probably require the use of force and violence. However, they suffer from a number of fundamental flaws in their concept of revolution.

They believe in a sort of hotch-potch of Leninist and Trotskyist dogmas and critically in the concept that a revolution will only succeed if it's led before, during and after by one all-encompassing party (guess who!). They argue this from a position that a highly organised enemy (the capitalist state) can only be defeated by a highly organised single opposition led by a single vanguard party. We believe this is fundamentally wrong. It is more likely that a highly centralised state will be defeated not by a pale imitation of itself but by a decentralised, diverse and multi-headed opposition. The SWP has created an organisation with little internal debate or democracy, and worse, lacking any culture of critical debate. For a group that pays lip service to the idea of revolution it is ironic that they are totally lacking in imagination, freedom of expression and open discussion. The SWP is essentially a middle class party, representing those on the left of the middle class who believe capitalism is disorganised and 'unfair'.

Ultra Left

The ultra left is unknown to most people in this country. They have important critiques of the Leninist-Trotskyist left but like those they criticise they seem unable to progress beyond some bygone age. Their language, style, dogmatism and sectarianism offer nothing towards the creation of a new revolutionary movement, however important a large majority of their politics remain. These include keeping alive the fact that non-Leninist revolutionaries were vital to the revolutions of the post-WWI era; that workers historically have supported non-Leninist revolutionary communism; in their opposition to nationalism in all its forms; and in their constant emphasis on the total destruction of capitalism.

RCP

We almost forgot to review the Revolutionary Communist Party, the most ambitious and arrogant group in the 1980s, because they have all but disappeared from sight. Internally they had a strong 'cultish' behaviour, and they became increasingly obsessed with developing their theory over political practice. They shut down their newspaper a few years ago to concentrate on recruiting ex-students through their magazine Living Marxism (now called LM). As any fool knows, if you lose the relationship between theory and practice you soon end up with your head up your arse. This appears to have been the fate of the RCP.

Red Action

In 1981-82 a number of working class members of the SWP left, or were expelled, to set up a new group, Red Action. The pamphlet they produced explaining why they left and what the new group would be is an important one in the relationship of the Left to the working class. It documents clearly the failings of the SWP, especially how it alienates the majority of working class people who come into its orbit. Red Action portrays itself (very convincingly) as being a non-sectarian, non-dogmatic organisation well aware of the failings of the authoritarian left.

However, Red Action has also proved itself to be very much a bastard child of the SWP when it comes to how it relates to other left groups. It is also an excellent example of the double standards that much of the Left have. When it comes to this group the advice should be ignore what they say, and look very closely at what they do.

We have already mentioned the idea of the 'siege mentality'. With Red Action the siege mentality reaches a new height which they articulate with headlines like 'No-one likes us, we don't care'. This may very well be true, but since every edition of Red Action is obsessed with slagging off the Left and anarchists it can hardly be surprising. This siege mentality is not confined to its paper: years of 'squaddist' organising (they have spent the last 15 years in a never-ending battle with the far-right) have not made for an open and democratic structure. This is fine if you're a 'crew' fighting fascists, but different rules apply when it comes to organising openly and working with other groups.

Violence is a strong part of their culture, both internally and externally. A typical example of this is their Glasgow organiser who threatened a Class War Celtic supporter with a knife for the heinous crime of selling a Celtic fanzine on what he considered his turf. It is very difficult to reconcile this type of behaviour with their more recent attempts to 'celebrate the political independence of the working class'. Their organiser's violent sectarian behaviour has been the subject of at least one document circulating around the Left, and he has recently tried to explain this by referring to a dispute within anti-fascist groups, but his sectarian behaviour goes back years before this and remains a problem.

This example is far from unique within Red Action, which is logical when you consider the content of their paper - when it comes to anarchists in particular, it has taken sectarianism to absurd and obsessive levels. To be fair to Red Action members some have been embarrassed by their paper's attitude, but the best they can come up with is to explain that 'London' produce the paper and it's not their views. But what sort of organisation has a membership so witlessly unable to influence what its own paper says? One that is still much closer to the SWP in organisation and practice than they like to think, particularly when it comes to the matter of leaders and followers. Perhaps when Counter-Information described them as 'Leninist bootboys', they weren't a million miles from the truth.

Another feature of Red Action is that they are unable to accept, in any circumstances, that they may be wrong. They will argue they are right, and everyone else isn't, till the cows come home. Their favourite quote is how the Left is about as dangerous as a pond full of ducks. True, but for 'the Left' read 'everyone but Red Action' - their breathtakingly arrogant attitude is 'if only everyone else were like us ' Red Action also do a nice turn in hypocrisy. They've been slinging lies, smears and disinformation towards everyone else for many years, but they get very self-righteous and hot under the collar when the finger's pointed at them (see the editorial in RA#73 for details).

We could go on and on here, but there's little point: most people who've come into contact with this group know what they're like. Red Action, no doubt, will do their usual hatchet job in reply. Red Action have made their bed, now they must lie in it almost certainly alone.

IWCA

As the rest of the Left prove that change for them means no change at all, we should at least consider those who are presenting something a little different. One organisation worthy of note is the recently formed Independent Working Class Association, which came into existence in October 1995, with invites going out to all left groups to attend initial meetings. The IWCA's Declaration of Independence espouses sound, down-to-earth ideas on political organisation, it emphasises community and working class involvement and stresses the need for a radical alternative to Labour. The basic principle behind the IWCA was not what the working class can do for the IWCA, but what the working class can do for itself: this notion that ideas do not have to be given to people ready-packed in an ideology is itself a refreshing and positive step.

With its aim of working class power in working class areas, the IWCA's politics on the surface seem to fit in well with Class War's, and appear to have been taken in part from our own 1993 political statement Childhood's End. But Class War's response has been mixed - some groups and individuals did attend the initial meetings, while others didn't. Over the years we'd seen several unlikely alliances come and go on the left, and there seemed no guarantee that this one would be any different - especially since its main sponsor was Red Action.

Our attitude to Red Action has been made clear above, so we won't repeat ourselves here. Red Action had treated the anarchist movement with contempt for many years, so it seemed at best ironic (and at worst cynical and manipulative) that they seemed to be 'targeting' anarchist groups for involvement in the IWCA.

There has also been unease over Red Action using their dominant position within Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) to push the IWCA strongly upon AFA - particularly after years of Red Action opposing any broadening of AFA's limited brief. The danger is that if the IWCA splinters, then AFA's effectiveness could be compromised. In fact suspicions about the IWCA's independence and Red Action's agenda have already meant that some left and anarchist groups have withdrawn.

Were the cynics right? Well, not exactly. Various IWCA projects are up and running: in Newtown in Birmingham, for example, the anti-mugging initiative set up by the IWCA has formed the basis for a residents' association which is anti-police and anti-council, and is led by neither Red Action nor the IWCA. This is exactly the push for working class power that local Class War groups have been promoting for years. Perhaps the IWCA can evolve into a truly independent group that will enable working class militants to work together. Only time will tell.

Anarchy

The 'official' anarchist movement is pretty well unknown to most people in this country. In fact the organised anarchist groups are probably at their weakest since the mid-60s. The 'unofficial' anarchist movement appears to remain the same as ever with good publications out periodically (like Schnews), and outbreaks of headline direct action, e.g. Claremont, M41, Newbury etc.

It's hard to say anything good about the official anarcho groups. Dogmatism, egos, small-mindedness, sectarianism, feuding and a lack of ambition you name it, they've got it! Every group in Britain suffers from the above as well, so maybe we shouldn't be too hard. But hang on - these groups (including Class War) are part of a great historical tradition and part of a set of politics that can finally sort things out for the better. We hold the memory of past revolutions in Russia, Germany and Spain, of strikes, sit-ins, walk-outs and take-overs, of thousands who fought and gave their lives for their futures and all of ours. If we believe that we are the basis for a future revolutionary movement, and if we believe that the working class will make a revolution and that it can only do so with the knowledge of past struggles and with international connections, then we must do better.

We must accept that it is no good just holding a flame for past glories nor being self-satisfied in the knowledge that the SWP is led by a bunch of Trot wasters. If we are revolutionaries, it is our job to make revolution. And yes, there are going to be disagreements on how, but isn't that partly what makes us revolutionaries in the first place - a belief in the necessity in a society of diversity and debate as opposed to the neo-totalitarianism of all of the Left?

We could list every individual anarcho group, mention how small they are, and wonder why they can't see where they are going and why they think they're growing when they clearly are not. But this would mean falling into the same trap of snide sectarianism - that way lies perpetual irrelevance and continual defeat.

The 'unorganised' (but usually very organised) anarcho movement has enjoyed a relative resurgence over the last few years (although we hardly need to point out that they remain marginal). This movement can be divided into three areas: firstly, the notable anarcho presence in many local support and solidarity groups; secondly, the information groups like Schnews and Counter-Information; thirdly 'direct action' (DA) which has seen a major revival, essentially in support of environmental campaigns. All credit to this new wave of DA but few of the campaigns appeared to have a generalised political or theoretical basis. They appeared to be emotive reactions to single issues, however highly motivated and well-organised reactions. Those campaigns that did develop some sort of theory tended towards deep ecology. This lack of a political understanding of what they were fighting (and worse a collection of 'fluffy' anarcho-hippy ideas) led to isolation, in most cases, from those around them. Many protesters never linked what they were doing with the community but saw their struggle in terms of 'the earth'. However, others who did see the connections felt they could not run both a DA campaign and campaign locally, which is a fair point. Many DA groups also suffer both from the 'tyranny of structurelessness' (they are often as dominated by individuals and clichés as any Leninist party) and also from militarism - an obsession with secrecy, actions, the 'pigs' and the belief that commitment conquers all.