From issue 17 of Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine (1997)
Left Luggage: AFA on the conservative left
In Fighting Talk we often refer to the "conservative Left" as an obstacle to both militant anti-fascism and filling the political vacuum in working class areas. Here we look at the failure of the Left and the reasons why they are a "conservative" force....
THE SAME YESTERDAY, TODAY AND FOREVER...
New Labour, New Britain. After eighteen years of Tory rule, during which the prospect of a Labour government was held out as our best hope, the election result should have had us all singing in the streets...
Never mind the fact that Labour did absolutely nothing to defend us during those years. Look at the Poll Tax. During the biggest movement of resistance against government the mainland has seen for years, where was Labour? With support in opinion polls at an all-time high did they have the courage or the will to openly support non-payment, to bring the country to a standstill and the government to its knees?
No, what we were told till we were sick of hearing it was "Vote Labour" in the 1992 election. Meanwhile, Labour councils dragged thousands of people through the courts and sent in the bailiffs. At a moment of intense class struggle, Labour showed clearly which side they were on. And for those who actually believed the cavalry would ride over the hill on polling day - it just didn't happen. In fact, throughout this period, most people's experience of the so-called "opposition" was simple: they only ever appeared at election time, leaving us afterwards to fend for ourselves or get shafted by Labour councils over housing, education and facilities. And continually telling people that it was all the fault of the wicked Tories just made the point sharper - what use were Labour?
Now Labour has won power by becoming even more acceptable to business and the middle class. Notice how their new MPs mostly come from a common background in local government, as councillors or council employees. It is the triumph of the professional managers, the bureaucrats and the spineless - the same people who just did what they were told under the Tories. To expect any real change from this lot is like pissing in the wind.
NEVER FEAR, THE VANGUARD'S HERE...
So if Labour is basically an anti-working class organisation - what about the rest of the Left, particularly the Leninists and Trotskyists? They harp on about class and, in their own minds, represent the cutting edge of class struggle. The trouble is - they just can't deliver. Which wouldn't matter if they weren't seen as the public face of "revolutionary" socialism etc. So, far from being an irrelevance which we can ignore, they are a stumbling block to advancing the struggle in this country. They alienate working class support; burn out or disillusion useful militants and are the best advert for revolution the ruling class could ever hope for. And as a result any radical "Left" politics gets tarred with the same brush.
If we look at the two largest groups on the Leninist Left, the Socialist Workers Party and Militant Labour / the Socialist Party we can see why they are both a failure and a threat.
The Socialist Workers Party remain one of the most visible groups on the Left. During the recent election their posters proclaimed 'VOTE LABOUR WITHOUT ILLUSIONS" or 'VOTE LABOUR BUT DON'T TRUST BLAIR". Whilst many people did just that, for the "vanguard" of the class to advocate giving a mandate to an anti-working class government (just because it’s going to be less brutal than the previous lot) is laughable - except it isn't funny because it won't be the S.W.P. that pays the price, it'll be all of us.
Now the election is over a new set of posters have appeared to deface our communities, proclaiming "WE DIDN'T VOTE FOR THIS". Sorry, but you did vote for it and encouraged others to do the same. If the SWP. are trying to say this is all some horrible mistake, it won't wash because New Labour are doing exactly what they said they would do.
Look at the SWP's strategy for change. Calling on the government, the police and the TUC to support the struggle is a complete dead end because none of those organisations have any interest at all in advancing that struggle. Their agenda is to subjugate or divert into harmless channels the pent-up anger of the people at the bottom of the heap. Asking them for anything can only mean one thing - that their right to govern and control us has been accepted. This is bollocks and the fact that so-called "revolutionaries" come out with it is the most damning indictment of their political programme.
To be fair the SWP have no choice. Their politics point in no other direction and their membership is almost entirely middle class, drawn from students and white-collar workers (often in local government). This raises a huge credibility gap which, alongside the hopeless drivel they continue to spout, has only one effect - it alienates working class people. This creates a vicious circle - the SWP have to keep banging on about making Labour or the TUC do this or that because they haven't got the support to do it themselves.
Tactics depend on strategy. If you haven't got a credible strategy you can't have any worthwhile tactics. So the SWP excel in making the biggest noise and achieving nothing. Anti-fascists will be only too aware of the antics of the SWP's Anti Nazi League in this department. The ANL has now closed its London office, but no doubt we'll see an even more hysterical relaunch if the Far Right makes another breakthrough in local elections.
The same pattern has been repeated in all campaigns the SWP have been involved in, parachuting in as the "vanguard" and bailing out just as fast when no quick opportunity to recruit members presents itself. But then they identify the Party with the class struggle (as its natural leadership), with names on recruiting lists (disguised as petitions) and newspaper sales more important than the objective advancement of class interests. This also means that they can't conceive of the struggle happening without them or happening in ways that don't fit the rigid mould of their politics.
Again, none of this would matter except that, as a well organised and centralised machine that jumps on every issue going, the SWP get in the way. As such they are part of the problem and not part of the solution. We have to expose them, strip away their bogus credentials and get rid of them If we don't, they will continue to wreck any chance we have of moving on.
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM, JOIN THEM...
The other main outfit of the Leninist Left, Militant Tendency, Militant Labour or the Socialist Party - has more credibility than the SWP in terms of its membership (and, at least in Scotland, decent work against bailiffs during the Poll Tax). But they are saddled with much of the same political baggage as the SWP In this case they were actually part of the Labour Party, seeking to take over the political machine. But they got chewed up and spat out. Worse still, their involvement in local Labour councils, as in Liverpool, meant that when the crunch came they were the fall guys, dragging the reputation of the Left even further down.
Whilst they were prepared to resist national government, their strategy of controlling local government through the Labour Party was doomed from the start. All the Tories had to do was stop the money and Militant councillors ended up being held responsible for the collapse of local services and jobs. They had nothing to offer as an alternative because taking over the bureaucracy had taken the place of any real strategy for working class resistance and self-defence. Some revolution comrades!
The first lesson for local government bureaucrats (of whatever persuasion) is that their power base comes from the money they control. That's why they wouldn't support non-payment of Poll Tax and why right now they will accept cuts on local authority spending imposed by their own party in national government. Militant thought they could change the rules of the game. All they managed to do was saw off the branch on which they were sitting. Sad, but then they shouldn't have been sitting on it in the first place.
Militant haves yet to learn the lesson. Whilst they have popular support in a couple of local areas and have broken with Labour to the extent of standing against them in elections the problem remains - are they aiming for control via the existing structure of government or, alternatively, to advance a revolution. They still think the two aims are the same and so have nothing to offer.
And whilst there are decent rank and file elements within the organisation, their energies are frittered away and many end up frustrated and disillusioned. In this sense, Militant (and the SWP) are like generals in the First World War dispatching the best of a generation to oblivion. You don't win by fighting on ground that your enemy has chosen and, unless you are a traitor or completely stupid, you don't keep on calling for one last push to "glorious" but completely predictable defeat.
The observations apply equally to all the other smaller outfits that comprise the Leninist / Trotskyist Left, most of whom have zero credibility with working class people. They have failed to convince and, by their antics, have generated lithe but suspicion and resentment from the people they have the nerve to claim to represent. If we want to see working class control in working class areas we won't get there by following in the footsteps of these losers or by being in any way identified with them. We have to take a different path, preferably one they are incapable of following or which they can be prevented from obstructing.
OUT GUNNED AND OUT NUMBERED? CHAAARGE!
What about the revolutionary Left beyond the absurdities of Lenin and Trotsky? It’s a broad field ranging from Marxists to class struggle Anarchists. They won't like being all lumped together but, to be honest, in recent years the only really well known group would be Class War. So we'll just look at them. Unlike the SWP etc., Class War never asked the state for anything and, during the Miners’ Strike and the Poll Tax, the Class War paper reflected the anger and hatred felt by many, making a refreshing break from the usual Lefty bleating.
But the problem was that the strategy of breaking with the Left and returning to independent and authentic class struggle fell down on a tactical level. While this was less evident during the Poll Tax, because of the widespread local resistance, it was clear by the time of the "Communities of Resistance" initiative. This was a good idea but it showed the gap between the propaganda and the reality, between sporadic resistance and sustained resistance in working class communities. Bridging that gap was where the work needed to be done and still needs to be done.
Basically Class War just ended up shouting for maximum resistance, with minimal ability to deliver. Reading the paper you'd think all that was needed was confrontation, hospitalised coppers, riots, riots and more riots. The trouble is, whilst people will fight (and don't need politicos to tell them to) it’s not necessarily their first choice. More like the last option, especially since the State is impressively tooled up and riots often leave the community weakened and divided. People know the score, they want to know if they can win and if there's a good chance of something better coming out of it. Which is why many of the "ordinary" people reading the CW paper saw it all as a bit of a laugh. Sympathetic yes, prepared to go out and do it - not necessarily. In the absence of any real prospect for successful collective resistance, people will just get on with their lives and resist in their own small way. You can't blame them for that.
So the demand for all out class war on the streets became just as hollow as the SWP calling for a General Strike. Playing to the media, stunts, provocations and ritualised street battles against the old bill became a substitute for effective resistance. And in that context CW and the rest often ended up tagging along with the conservative Left on their pointless demos. Like Welling, for example - what was the point? An anti-fascist mobilisation? It inflicted no damage on fascists, despite the fact there were plenty about for those who were prepared to hunt them down, as AFA did. A set piece bathe with the police - the police won (in any sense that matters) on ground they had chosen. And at times it all just descended into parody - like "Class War Hooliganz" during Euro'96. Ridiculous - issuing the challenge when you can't back it up earns nothing but contempt.
Class War drew in or influenced many decent militants, many of whom left because they could see that the gap between propaganda and reality was getting no smaller. Even the ones who stayed have finally come to the conclusion that it’s a dead end and have said so publicly in the last issue of the paper. That's a rare thing on the Left - credit where's its due.
If the SWP and Militant show us complete dead ends, then the lesson to be drawn from CW etc. is that you can't build the roof without the foundations. Idle threats scare no one, they have to be backed up. It’s time people woke up and took stock of the situation. All the useless baggage should be consigned once and for all to the left luggage locker. Then perhaps we can move on. After all what've we got to lose?