By Martin Thomas at the Workers Liberty website:
On 8 June the International Socialist Network – the group formed by some of the 200 to 400 people who quit the SWP after the SWP’s special conference in March – held its public launch meeting in London.
About 50 people, maybe 70 at the peak, were at the meeting: ISNers; people from the two groups with whom it is discussing unity, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (a group mainly of ex Workers’ Power people) and Socialist Resistance (remnants of the old “Mandelite” group); and leftists who came from curiosity.
The meeting was organised in three sessions, one after the other – fighting oppression; anti-cuts; and where next for the left?
The speaker panels were:
First: Toni Mayo (ISN), Laurie Penny (Independent and New Statesman journalist), and Brenna Bhandar (a law lecturer at QMUL).
Second: Ian Llewellyn (ISN) and Sarah Murdock (a former SWP full-timer who quit recently, but introduced as representing PCS).
Toni Mayo described the ISN’s stance as: “We’ll set up a network and work out what we are about after that”. Laurie Penny lauded “network politics”, by which she meant chatting with like-minded people on blogs and other web forums as distinct from activity in workplaces, door-to-door, etc. The internet, she announced, makes all “party lines” impossible, and newspapers “defunct”.
Toni Mayo also placed great stress on opposing sexism, homophobia, prejudice against disabled people, etc., though it was not clear what this opposition would involve other than people telling each other over the web how pro-liberation they were.
Other speakers questioned some of these themes. But they set the tone for the meeting, together with China Miéville’s introduction in which he located the failing of the “traditional left” as not being sufficiently keyed in to “angry young bloggers”, “Laurie Penny’s constituency”.
Another tone-setting contribution was the first from the floor, a “Generation Y” type speech in which an ISNer said how glad she was to be free of the SWP and declared that for her, “politics has always been about what my needs are”.
I thought the most substantial contribution was Richard Seymour’s. He argued against facile optimism.
Neo-liberalism, he said, is now stronger than we think – woven into the fabric of everyday experience. To understand that, we should read Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall. (Hall was the first editor of New Left Review in 1960, and then a staple of the Eurocommunist Marxism Today in the 1980s).
The left has had much of its infrastructure cut away by the “increasing privatisation of life”. “Network politics” is not an answer: it provides only a “short-term buzz”. Nor is the invocation of “new social movements”. Unlike other ISN speakers, he saw “serious difficulties” in the People’s Assembly approach of rally after rally, “top-down”.
A couple of speakers from the floor questioned Seymour’s praise for Hall, and instinctively I sympathised with them. Maybe I am “sectarian” from memory of the polemics of the 1980s, and looking back at them I would find valuable ideas in Hall’s writings under the rightward-moving Eurocommunist politics. I don’t know.
To my mind, Seymour’s contribution pointed to the need for systematic, consistent socialist propagandist activity in workplaces and working-class communities. I don’t know whether any such conclusion is in his mind. He said only that we need a “convivial democratic organisation or system of organisations with a mass base“.
That would be nice. What a small band of socialists can achieve now he didn’t say. Whether he is privately drifting to the conclusion that it can do nothing I don’t know.
Brenna Bhandar’s speech also had substance, though from a political stance distant from AWL’s. As a model of where the left has done well, she cited India, on the grounds that the Communist Parties there have been in government.
She explained, however, why Laurie Penny’s “network politics” are inadequate. Social media circulate information fast. But real change comes from consistent organising, which requires “thicker and deeper” connections.
Bhandar centred much of her speech around a denunciation of a seminar she had attended on 6 June at Birkbeck College, addressed by socialist-feminist academics Nancy Fraser, Lynne Segal and Nina Power. All of them are white, she said. That shows that socialist feminists are way behind non-socialist feminists on addressing issues of racism.
Speakers from the floor took up the theme. No doubt, they indignantly declared, the panel had also failed to include disabled women, lesbians, etc… I don’t know what Fraser, Segal, and Power said, but I think they were entitled to discuss without including representatives of all oppressed groups in their panel, and I don’t think it possible for an individual to “represent” all the world’s billions of non-white women in a theoretical discussion.
Somewhat on the same wavelength, one ACI speaker said that “lots of people” (including himself, he suggested) saw the Woolwich murder as a reasonable “act of war”, and young people smashing up their neighbours’ houses or nearby corner shops in the 2011 riots as the sort of political action that “the left has to engage with”.
After the meeting, a socialist who is friendly with ISN members said to me: “It was more like a therapy session than a political meeting”.
Cruel, but true. In many hours of talk, no-one spoke about plans for active interventions by the ISN in workplaces or in campaigns.
Apart from Sarah Murdock and Ian Llewellyn (from Sussex University), almost no-one spoke of recent struggles in which they’d been active or of events in their workplace.
No-one spoke of the political basis for ISN-ACI-SR unity. Simon Hardy of the ACI said: “We [ACI, SR, ISN] haven’t really talked about politics yet, and we have to do that”. He said he was confident that there was much agreement, but cited as agreed only the idea that they all want a democratic left that doesn’t burn people out.
Within Left Unity, ACI people back Nick Wrack’s push for an explicitly socialist and working-class platform, and SR backs the plan of Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson for a “softer” political programme akin to Die Linke in Germany. There were echoes from that dispute in the 8 June meeting, but there was no arguing-out.
No-one proposed specific ISN policies (many seemed to think that anything like that would be the dreaded “party line”).
The activists quitting the SWP recently were mostly young, but few people in the meeting looked under 30. The ISN has picked up a few older people who left the SWP long ago, or were never in the SWP. Despite much proclamation of feminist virtue, the meeting was no less male-dominated than other left meetings.
Though you would expect ACI and SR to be excited about the prospects of merger with ISN, few of them turned up apart from their platform speakers. A scattering of other leftists (including at least a couple of SWPers) were there from curiosity, but no-one other from us AWLers sold literature. We sold only a little: refusals to buy our papers and pamphlets were often not the courteous “no, thanks” we get on the streets or door-to-door, but instead “no chance!”, “absolutely not!”, etc.
I spoke from the floor, near the end, about the ISN’s letter to the AWL refusing to discuss with us on the grounds that the differences are too big. If ISN doesn’t want to talk with AWL, I said, too bad. AWL has plenty else to do. But if ISN insists that “big differences” rule out discussion, then it has cut its own intellectual throat.
The person who refuses even to discuss ideas very different from her or his own, and remains content with general enthusiasm for “networking”, will never progress politically.