Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Being Left of Labour is Easier than Ever… so what’s the problem? by NY Brit Expat
“Our starting point for 2015/16 will be that we cannot reverse any cut in day to day, current spending unless it is fully funded from cuts elsewhere or extra revenue – not from more borrowing.
So when George Osborne stands up next week and announces his cuts in day to day spending, we won’t be able to promise now to reverse them because we can only do so when we can be absolutely crystal clear about where the money is coming from (Ed Miliband, June 22, 2013 (http://www.channel4.com/news/miliband-labour-will-not-borrow-more-to-reverse-cuts).”
It has become rather obvious that the tactic of shifting the Labour party to the left is futile, even in situations where government cuts are unpopular and they can pick up votes they refuse to reverse direction (e.g., bedroom tax and changes to child care benefit). Instead of saying we won’t be borrowing to reverse changes, the idea of taxes on wealth, the introduction of a general financial transactions tax, or introducing more bands on income tax to make it more progressive or closing tax loopholes to fund these changes is not discussed.
Adoption of neoliberalism as the basis for economic policy decisions is a political decision! It is not as though there is a dearth of other choices for economic policy that do not rely on lowering wages to maintain profitability and privatisation of public services. As such, choices in the electoral arena are essentially mainstream political parties upholding a neoliberal position. There is essentially no political party that represents the interests of the majority in the context of a grotesque attack on the social welfare state, divide and rule ideology, and privatisation of what remains of the state sector including parts of the NHS.
Filling the political space to the left of Labour
An important issue question that revolutionary Marxists need to address relates to participation in the bourgeois democratic election process. Lenin in “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” clearly supports running in elections and participating in bourgeois parliaments; whether Lenin was correct historically at the time in relation to Germany is not necessarily relevant.
He got the Bolsheviks to participate in the Duma and to run for elections precisely due to his belief that whether we view elections as irrelevant or not, the working class still believes that they are not obsolete:
“How can one say that “parliamentarianism is politically obsolete”, when “millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not only still in favour of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright “counter-revolutionary”!? It is obvious that parliamentarianism in Germany is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the “Lefts” in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make. […] Parliamentarianism is of course “politically obsolete” to the Communists in Germany; but—and that is the whole point—we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses. Here again we find that the “Lefts” do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of a class, as the party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are in duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are—prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements) (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch07.htm).”
Written in 1920, unfortunately, many of the discussions in this text are still relevant today in a period of consolidation of a neoliberal programme offered by all mainstream parties and a broad attack on the working class (whether employed or unemployed). The need for a party articulating an alternative to neoliberalism (the pretence that there is no alternative to austerity is a main point of unity of all 3 mainstream parties in Britain) and fighting for the interests and needs of the majority is essential. Given that the vast majority of people still believe in parliamentary democracy means that it is essential that we participate in the electoral process. We should not surrender the electoral field to the class enemy. What is essential is that we must defeat the divide and rule ideology propagated by the ruling classes placing employed against unemployed workers, men against women, whites against people of colour, abled versus disabled, and British born against immigrants.
In 1938, in “The Transitional Programme”, Trotsky addresses the types of programmes moving the discussion beyond minimum programme (minimum acceptable reforms) and maximum programme (socialist revolution) that were advanced by social democrats and communists of the 3rd international and articulates a new type of programme: the transitional programme.
“The strategic task of the next period – prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization – consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation. It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state (http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#mhttp://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#mtt).”
What are examples of transitional demands? In the context of 1938, Trotsky raises the following demands; unfortunately, they are still appropriate today which will tell you how far the victories of working people have been eroded: the demand for full employment, shorter working hours at the same income.
“Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step. Against unemployment, “structural” as well as “conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.”
“[…] The question is not one of a “normal” collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. “Realizability” or “unrealizability” is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery (http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#mhttp://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#mtt).”
More Recent and Current Discussions
While these discussions are of historical importance; the current situation has its own peculiarities and specificities. To quote a comrade, “we are as far away from the Bolsheviks of 1917 as the Bolsheviks were from the Jacobins of the French Revolution.” Moreover, I am not someone that demands adherence to so-called sacred texts. The current situation in the advanced capitalist world is vastly different from that of the 1920s, 1930s and the post-war period in which there were strong movements of the left and the trade unions that could threaten the interests of capital and force the ruling class into reforms and transformational changes in the system.
Following the degeneration of the Soviet Union into either an extremely distorted workers state (or if you believe that it fell into state capitalism that is fine, the argument still holds), the victory of capitalism over these forms led to a discrediting of socialism itself. China’s shift towards capitalism has completed the internationalisation of capitalism. Irrespective of the rejection of Stalinism and the demand for democratic socialism becoming a rallying cry of the new left, socialism is a word which simply does not resonate with large sectors of the working class even as the victories that working people fought for are being destroyed along with the destruction of the union movement and the social welfare state.
This does not mean that we should abandon socialism, what we need to do is to explain what we mean by socialism. It means that rather than assuming that working people understand nationalisation of means of production, we put forward demands for nationalisation based upon the fact that privatisation has meant increasing costs and decreasing services in a period when income is being deliberately eroded. People know that rising prices of energy, heating, water and transport are impacting upon their existence. We need to offer an alternative besides long-term changes in an economic system that may never be realised.
Mainstream political parties have, for the most part, accepted the arguments of neoliberalism. Former socialist parties first jumped to liberalism and then rightwards to neoliberalism; we can see their acceptance of the destruction of the universality of the social welfare state (e.g., Ed Balls — shadow chancellor of the Exchequer — has said that the winter fuel allowance for the elderly will no longer be granted to those over a certain level of savings), the rights of labour (in terms of conditions of work and wages) and the rejection of socialist notions of equality for liberal’s equality of opportunity.
Many organised Marxist groups and independent Marxists participate in elections, the issue is what are they trying to achieve? The question that also arises is how does this discussion relate to the modern day and present day conditions in capitalism? A corollary that is extremely relevant relates to the types of policies we should be advocating in the hope of moving the debate and discussion leftwards to advance the interests of the majority in the face of the rightward shift of bourgeois political parties moving to protect the interests of the capitalist economic system?
This is especially relevant as it addresses the issue of whether it is the role of the revolutionary left to “manage capitalism” or is it to create the conditions whereby we actually put forward demands of the working class and work to protect their interests.
Trotsky’s example of a transitional demand is extremely useful in many ways and clearly still relevant. Given the nature of the capitalist mode of production whereby the creation of a reserve army of labour (reserve army of unemployed) is a by-product of the needs of the system itself for continued profitability, the demand for full employment and the right to work is inconsistent with the capitalist system itself. In a situation of stagnation where in order to keep profits up, workers’ income is being squeezed downwards; the advocacy of higher incomes and job protections advances the interests of the working class.
We need to differentiate the Keynesian idea of “managing capitalism” to ameliorate the impact of booms and busts (including short-term direct and indirect government job creation and high incomes to increase effective demand in the context of a downturn) from the advocacy of a programme protecting the interests of the majority in the system but which falls short of socialism (like a full-employment economic policy and nationalisation of essential services). What differentiates these things is the class basis upon which the reforms are based and whose interests are being served. Keynesianism has always served the interests of the system to provide stabilisation mechanisms; that is not the class basis of policies advocating the right to employment and a decent income.
An additional consideration relates to the question of building a broad left fight-back against neoliberalism and articulation of policies protecting the majority as opposed to a party that is an explicitly socialist party. There are issues that are relevant such as can we build socialism through the electoral process and what are the limits that we can do in this context?
If we are social democrats, then we explicitly believe that socialism can be done in the context of reform; however, if we are revolutionary socialists, most do not believe that we can do so except as part of a revolutionary process. So, this leads us back to our programme and what kind of party we think we need to build that we actually believe can articulate the interests of the working class and to create the basis for the overthrow of capitalism itself? An additional point that the hard left strongly does accept (even across political lines) is the importance of building the struggle and movements (both cross-class as well as specifically working class based). The relationship between the revolutionary organisation, an electoral party and the movement, and this echoes Lenin’s point above, is something that is essential to demarcate or we wind up with substitutionalism of the party for a movement. So, addressing the relationship of the movement of the oppressed fighting for social, economic and political justice to either organisational form is something that must be addressed clearly.
European broad left parties and Left Unity
It is incredibly important to look at the various successes and failures of hard-left parties founded in Europe (e.g., Bloco, Die Linke, Red-Green Alliance, SYRIZA, Rifondazione) to articulate a left-perspective and/or to fight against the imposition of austerity by neoliberalism. England is clearly different from many of these countries. The hard-left is divided (splintered), there is no dominant party to organise around (like Synaspismos in Greece) and following the failures of the Socialist Alliance and Respect, and questions over the usefulness of an alliance/federation like TUSC that does not operate outside of the election period and whose results have been dismal, people have agreed upon a one-member, one vote organisation.
In the context of this discussion, we have to address where the party will organise. I have used England as there are serious issues on whether Left Unity should be British, that is, whether they should be organising in Scotland and Wales as British Left Unity or whether these countries should have their own version, that is Left Unity Scotland or to stay out of Scotland altogether. I think there is agreement that they should not be organising in Northern Ireland at all.
There is currently a debate upon the platform of this new party prior to its founding conference in November 2013. The conference will be a member conference and those who have joined as founding members can be present; unlike earlier discussions, it will not be a delegate conference (where delegates are appointed or voted upon by the local branches to represent them). Three platforms have been put forward which have gained the necessary 10 signatures to be debated by the various local groups as potential platforms for the new party.
I must say that I am not an uninterested observer. I have signed the Left Party platform statement. This is because I strongly believe that we need to build a broad left party to take the space vacated by Labour and to put forward not only an anti-austerity programme, but to offer positive solutions to people suffering during this crisis of the capitalist economic system.
I am posting the platforms in the order in which they were put up on the Left Unity site. I will also extracting central arguments to save space; you can view the whole platforms on the links if you want to read further arguments of each of these platforms:
“As yet we have no viable political alternative to the left of Labour, yet we urgently need a new political party which rejects austerity and war, which will defend and restore the gains of the past, fighting to take back into public ownership those industries and utilities privatised over the last three decades, but will also move forward with a vision of a transformed society: a party which advocates and fights for the democratisation of our society, economy, state and political institutions, transforming these arenas in the interests of the majority.
Many agree that we need a new left party which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies will stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its immediate tasks will be to oppose austerity and the scapegoating which accompanies it, defend the welfare state and those worst affected by the onslaught, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.
Its political practice will be democratic, diverse and inclusive, organising amongst working class communities with no interests apart from theirs, committed to open dialogue and new ways of working; to the mutual respect and tolerance of differences of analysis; to the rejection of the corruption of conventional political structures and their reproduction of the gender domination of capitalist society. It will recognise that economic transformation does not automatically bring an end to discrimination and injustice and that these sites of struggle must be developed and won, openly and together.
It will recognise that international solidarity is fundamental to the success of any resistance and the achievement of any political progress; that the problems we face in Britain are systemic problems that cannot be resolved in Britain alone and which require an international response and an international alternative. A new left party will work with other left organisations and movements in Europe and internationally such as Syriza and Front de Gauche, to build coordination, strategic links and common actions to advance that struggle. The rise of the far right across Europe is a stark warning of what may come to pass if the left in Europe fails to be effective and combat the barbarism of capitalism and fascism.” (see also: http://leftunity.org/which-way-for-left-unity-the-case-for-the-left-party-platform/ )
“The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.
Under capitalism, production is carried out solely to make a profit for the few, regardless of the needs of society or damage to the environment. Capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority. Its state and institutions will have to be replaced by ones that act in the interests of the majority.
Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. It means a society in which the wealth and the means of production are no longer in private hands but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world on which we depend. We reject the idea that the undemocratic regimes that existed in the former Soviet Union and other countries were socialist.
The [Left Unity] Party opposes all oppression and discrimination, whether on the basis of gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexual orientation and aims to create a society in which such oppression and discrimination no longer exist.
Socialism has to be international. The interests of the working class are the same everywhere. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions. It rejects the idea that there is a national solution to the problems of capitalism. It stands for the maximum solidarity and cooperation between the working class in Britain and elsewhere. It will work with others across Europe to replace the European Union with a voluntary European federation of socialist societies.
The [Left Unity] Party aims to win support from the working class and all those who want to bring about the socialist transformation of society, which can only be accomplished by the working class itself acting democratically as the majority in society.” (see also: http://leftunity.org/resistance-and-socialist-change-an-article-in-support-of-the-socialist-platform/)
“We need an anti-capitalist, socialist party. We need a party that says the working class and the oppressed must not pay for the long economic crisis of the banks and corporations. It is the rich financiers and capitalists who must be forced to pay. We need a party that puts an end to austerity and brings about a massive transfer of wealth from the rich to ordinary people. We want a party that champions and strengthens the unions and every organisation of working class and oppressed people, freeing them from the shackles of the anti-union laws. We want a party whose members are active on every front of the struggle.
We want a party that fights for socialism, for a world free of racism and war, for women’s liberation, for an end to environmental devastation, for a sustainable future, for internationalism, and for a publicly-owned economy, democratically managed and planned by those who work and those who use its goods and services.
We need a democratic, anti-bureaucratic party. We need a party radically different from the undemocratic establishment parties funded by the rich and controlled by an unaccountable elite of MPs and bureaucrats.
We will build our party build from the bottom up, from the workplaces and communities, from the midst of our struggles. We want it to draw in tens of thousands of ordinary people in every town and city across Britain.
Our members must to have the fullest rights to propose ideas, to challenge and change policy, to organise within the party to influence its direction, and to have the right to disagree and to debate in a spirit of mutual confidence, respect and solidarity.
We want all our representatives on councils or in parliament to be accountable to and recallable by those who voted for them, and to take only the average wage of the working class when in public office. On all our party bodies, we want to ensure equal representation of women, the fullest possible representation of black and Asian people, of the disabled, of LGBT people, of workers and youth. We guarantee the right of all oppressed groups to caucus within the party and challenge all examples of discrimination and oppression.”
We can see clear differences both in terms of what the role of the party is, who should be the targets of the party in terms of building it, and what programme the party should adopt. All three programmes endorse socialism built from below, a democratic and transparent party, and call for a defence of the social welfare state and the hard-won gains that are under attack in the current climate in the UK. They also call for support of and participation in the various movements to oppose this attack and all stress the importance of internationalism in the struggle.
Let’s begin with the first point. Is the party simply an electoral party (like TUSC), is it a campaigning party (that is, does participate in elections to get a socialist perspective introduced into debate while also seeking victories in an election), or is it simply the start of the formation of a revolutionary socialist party across lines? I strongly believe that it must be a campaigning party that exists between elections that supports the movement, but does not substitute for the movement.
On the second point, there are clear differences on which forces the party is meant to attract. The first proposed platform calls for a broad left party from left-wing social democrats leftwards to build a broad alliance against neoliberalism. The second and third proposed platforms specifically address the call to the working class and to revolutionary Marxists. It is unclear to me whether the socialist platform actually believes that socialism can be achieved through the electoral process or whether they are advocating the formation of a revolutionary socialist party as Left Unity. The call is for a far narrower party essentially, not only due to the fact that the vast majority of the working class does not define itself as socialists, forget revolutionary Marxists. Obviously, only those that identify as socialists already would sign on. The third platform is essentially addressed to revolutionary socialists proposing what can only be interpreted as a Revolutionary Regroupment of the hard left.
The proposed platforms obviously differ due to the fact that they have different targets and aims and these are reflected in the statements. If you are advocating for socialism, articulating reforms is a non sequitur. You are arguing for socialism and that is it. If you are arguing for ending austerity and offering alternatives, then economic and political policies must be articulated showing what you are offering instead.
The class basis behind these reforms and their purpose of ameliorating the situation for the majority distinguishes this from Keynesian or strict reformist arguments; these reforms are merely a step in the direction of something, not the end game itself. That is how these differ from a social democratic or liberal perspective. We are not managing the system in order that it works better in terms of ensuring continual profitability and economic growth; we are fighting for the interests of the majority many of whom are now facing destitution due to the introduction of neoliberal economic policy. If we call for socialisation of care or call for government creation of green jobs, we are not trying to manage the system, instead we are offering an action programme to meet the crisis and help organise the fight-back.
So where does that leave us? Adoption of the different platforms will lead to different tactics, goals, and implied economic and political positions. The question that needs to be asked is what can we offer to people, what do we have that can provide different answers for the majority of people beyond the vicious promises of neoliberalism? If we cannot offer anything besides “wait for the revolution” instead of support to those who are losing the roofs over their heads, why should they join us and why should they vote for it?
I believe that it is essential to put forward reforms to protect and support the majority. This is especially the case where mainstream political parties are essentially saying that there is no other choice except to further impoverish the unemployed and to undercut the social subsistence level of income of the majority of people in the country in order to maintain profitability and ensure economic growth. Given the weakness of trade unions (the public sector is the last bastion of unionisation) and the weakness of the left overall, saying that socialism is the only thing that we can offer is literally almost like preachers saying “you will have pie in the sky when you die.” That’s nice, but it doesn’t do a damn thing for the vast majority. Reforms are not our end-game, but they can step-by-step shift people over towards the left as we offer something to help them have a decent life.
That is not the end for us, but shame on us if we have nothing to offer but what are essentially empty words and promises.
h/t to Elise Hendricks for the title of this piece!