Swamp things get together
Daniel Harvey examines the politics underlying recent regroupment efforts
The International Socialist Network’s October 26-27 ‘politics conference’ saw a left ‘grouping’ (actually too disorganised to be a faction in the proper sense) around Tim Nelson and Paris Thomson narrowly winning votes against the right (led loosely by Richard Seymour) on rank-and-file strategy and on any immediate regroupment with Socialist Resistance.
While a merger with SR was rejected, a wider, broader regroupment project was agreed. This will include not only SR and the likes of Workers Power, but the anti-cuts campaign, Plan C, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Anarchist Federation – which seems speculative, to say the least. The result is not exactly dazzling for people with a principled Marxist outlook then, but it does mean the comrades in and around the ISN and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, which were scheduled for an imminent merger, will have a breathing space until later next year. Hopefully this is going to give comrades in both groups some time for real thought, debate and critical reflection, which is obviously desperately needed.
At the moment it appears that the Anti-Capitalist Initiative is shedding members – the prospect of a merger with the ISN, and more importantly with Socialist Resistance, has caused many autonomist-leaning activists to bolt. The ACI’s nominal leadership, as well as members of the ISN, are heavily integrated with Socialist Resistance now and, from what I have seen, it looks impossible to separate the groups politically. So a refusal on the part of the wider membership of the ISN to merge with them in the long term would likely mean some kind of split, unless perspectives change.
That means that there is a window of opportunity for debate before a premature and unstable regroupment process is sealed. Others from outside need to engage too – we have, after all, every reason for wanting to unite the left on a principled basis.
In that spirit, I went to the November 2 joint ISN-ACI-SR meeting in London’s Kings Cross, expecting to hear the best case possible being argued from the rightwing side of the debate in the different groups involved. The line-up included Ed Rooksby, who recently had an article published in the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialism about the need for a “transitional” reformism (October); John Riddell, a prominent centrist-Trotskyist theoretician from Canada; and Kate Hudson, familiar to many as a former Communist Party of Britain and then Respect member, and who today figures large on the steering group of Left Unity.
There were about 30 people attending, but Socialist Resistance seemed to make up the bulk of the meeting. In contrast there were just three people from the ACI – Simon Hardy, Luke Cooper and Joana Ramiro – along with two from the ISN: Kieran Crowe and Tom Walker. It seemed obvious from the start that the right wing of the ISN and ACI do not have anywhere near the same organisational level or ability to draw in their comrades as does SR, and as a result the latter is really dominating the discussion on this side of the debate.
It is worth outlining the arguments. Both Rooksby and Riddell take historical inspiration from the early Comintern’s turn away from the Leninist ‘dual power’ model, based on workers’ councils, after the failure of the German revolution. This rests on the assumption that advanced capitalist countries, with their stable states, are immune to a workers’ revolution, but are vulnerable to reformist movements that act within the state.
The one example talked about the most was, of course, Syriza. It nearly won the 2012 election in Greece on the basis of rejecting the troika’s proposed bailout and austerity package. At Syriza’s last congress, however, the leadership pushed to dissolve internal groupings. Furthermore it has been canvassing a coalition deal with the totally discredited Pasok social democrats. On this score, Ed Rooksby was willing to concede in response to contributions from the floor that Syriza would almost certainly fold under external pressure from the European Union, rather than accede to demands coming from the Greek working class.
John Riddell, however, still held out the belief that Syriza would be driven to break with the EU and into initiating an extended period of reformist national government. He based this belief on the experience of Latin America, where reformist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela have been able to survive despite pressure from the United States. These governments he saw as transitional, suspended semi-permanently between reform and revolution, and as constituting a growing anti-imperialist alliance that would reinforce a radical upturn throughout the continent.
Riddell unfortunately brushed over some very problematic dynamics in Latin America, which contradict his main argument that reformist governments create a transitional kind of Zeitgeist in favour of more radical demands. Outside observers who look at what is taking place on the ground in these countries can see that in each of them there have been some significant crackdowns on the very workers’ movement which brought these reformists to power in the first place. On top of this, there have been slow-motion capitulations to neoliberal economics in important respects, as corrupt layers carve out empires for themselves in state enterprises and the grossly enlarged bureaucracies. State programmes have replaced initiative by workers and the poor, and that in turn has led to atomisation.
Evo Morales, for instance, rode into power as president of Bolivia on the back of the radical movements in 2005, with the miners at their centre. Yet he deployed the police to suppress the miners’ unions when they resisted raising the retirement age to 65 – which was particularly galling, seeing as many die long before this. At the same time he has made concessions to the fascist gangs running amok in the richer south of the country, watering down his own, quite limited, reform programme in the process.
In Venezuela striking workers are routinely denounced as guarimberos, or clandestine enemies of the revolution working for the opposition, and there are hundreds of outstanding disputes with state employees whose attempts at collective bargaining are rejected out of hand. The 2004 petition against Hugo Chávez’s leadership, supported by a substantial section of the population, led to signatories being purged from the state apparatus. At the same time the military is maintained enlarged and on higher pay, and separated from the rest of the population.
But the response from those who hold onto Rooksby and Riddell’s centrist Trotskyism is that a special kind of dialectical relationship between the workers’ movement and the reformist government exists. This has to be carefully calibrated by revolutionaries operating in the broad party. Which does not really seem to accord with real-world experience. In Brazil, for instance, the Mandelites in the Workers Party resigned from the Fourth International in order to fully support Lula as president. He ran as a safe pair of hands for capitalism – and Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries on earth. As do Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. But like them Brazil is now characterised by a demoralised and far less active revolutionary movement.
For her part, Kate Hudson came out with a potted apology for the long line of failures in Europe. For example, Rifondazione Comunista had featured in the discussion – particularly its voting for Italian participation in the Nato occupation of Afghanistan. But she explained that left parties are hampered by the existence of larger, more traditional parties. She is not wrong here. In France the ‘official communist’ Parti Communiste Français, with its support for Mélenchon and the Front de Gauche, prevented the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste from making any progress. In this country, the existence of the Labour Party and the ‘first past the post’ electoral system have effectively blocked all attempts at a left alternative party. This line, of course, closely follows the analysis of SR’s Alan Thornett.
There is a bizarre dichotomy between, on the one hand, wanting to be a revolutionary minority giving full support to a reformist political party over which we will have no control, and, on the other hand, the absolute rejection of any engagement with existing social democratic parties on the basis that they are corrupt and neoliberal. This contradictory position is what the CPGB’s Mike Macnair has called “third-period Bernsteinism”.
Despite numerous glaring failures, this is now common sense for a lot of the left. It is difficult to tell whether or not it is inevitable that the ISN and ACI will go down this route. But on the evidence most prominent members have been won over to that perspective.
Admittedly they are aware of the problems. So Kate Hudson intimated that there needed to be very careful planning on the part of a left leadership in making agreements with coalition partners. She cited the example of the detailed contracts drawn up between coalition partners in Germany. Simon Hardy in his intervention from the floor proposed devising rudimentary programmatic safeguards, as he is advocating for the Left Party Platform in Left Unity.
What this means in practice is difficult to tell – rejecting all coalitions with capitalist parties, not supporting any kind of foreign interventions, not supporting austerity and cuts? All well and good, but what about our vision of an alternative society? Ed Rooksby talked about a specifically revolutionary kind of reforms: ie, ‘structural’ reforms which have revolutionary ramifications.
If he is talking about workers’ control in the workplace, or the dissolution of the armed forces and the police, the reformist party does not sound very reformist any more – which rather contradicts the schema of hiding its true character in the first place. The only way this ‘transitional bridge’ between reform and revolution can be affirmed is by holding onto this quasi-mystical belief, particularly of Alan Thornett and John Riddell, that a reformist government can overcome the basic hostility of the state apparatus, and that the armed bodies that defend it will happily allow themselves to be dissolved.
Socialist Resistance has historically held the idea that reformist parties of any kind lead to some kind of radicalising spiral. That long periods of reformist government are necessary before arriving at a possibility of socialism. This despite all the facts showing no such thing. But if the left in the ISN and ACI can develop some kind of minimum-maximum programme, then that would represent a huge leap forward. We could then begin having a serious discussion on regroupment on a Marxist basis.
They also need to reject the method of groups like Workers Power, which demands public support from its members for every dot and comma of its programme. This inevitably causes splits, and the disintegration of the left into hundreds of tiny fragments. The alternative is acceptance of (as opposed to total agreement with) a programme which lays out a long-term, strategic approach, incorporating both immediate demands and the long-term vision for a future communist society. Such a programme would leave space for debate, for the refinement of ideas and for tactical adjustment according to circumstances.
In any case, there needs to be some serious discussion, including in the joint ISN-ACI-SR magazine, The Exchange, which I gather is going to feature an actual debate in its next issue, unlike the previous two boring editions. But there is a major obstacle to be overcome in the prevailing Cliffite programmophobia still lurking in ISN circles. However, for revolutionaries to unite on a politically sound basis a programme is an absolute necessity. Our unity should be predicated on our ultimate goal, which keeps us working together.
Our desire for another, radically different kind of society has got to be the glue holding it all in place, and should be the starting point for any serious Marxist regroupment.