Matgamna: What is Trotskyism?

August 23, 2016 at 5:47 pm (AWL, class, history, labour party, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, socialism, trotskyism)

We publish the following piece by Sean Matgamna (of Workers Liberty) in the light of recent scare stories about alleged ‘Trotskyist’ infiltration of/influence over, the Labour Party:

Shachtman (rt) with Trotsky & Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1937

What is Trotskyism? (written 2007)

Click here for the debate around this contribution.

19th and 20th century socialism is a house of many rooms, cellars, attics, alcoves, and hidden chambers (not to speak of private chapels and “priest-holes”).

There are in it the utopian socialists of our pre-history reformists and revolutionists, parliamentarians and insurrectionists, “direct action” anarchists and union-building syndicalists, council communists and kibbutz-building utopian Zionists.

And then fascists sometimes proclaimed themselves socialists (national-socialists). So did many Third World political formations, often more fascist than socialist, such as the “Ba’th Arab Socialist Parties” of Iraq and Syria.

And Stalinism. The political reflections and tools in the labour movements of the Russian Stalinist ruling class proclaimed themselves “communists” and “socialists”, and for much of the 20th century were accepted as the main force of communism and socialism, in bourgeois propaganda as well as their own.

The great names of real socialism are numerous, and are far from being at one with each other: Gracchus Babeuf, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ferdinand Lassalle, Louis Michel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and his son Karl, August Bebel, George Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Jules Guesde, Jean Jaures, Victor Griffuelhes, Paul Lafargue, Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx, Pavel Axelrod, Peter Kropotkin, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Jim Larkin, Eugene Debs, Christian Rakovsky, Henry Hyndman, Ernest Belfort Bax, William Morris, Keir Hardie, Klara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Shliapnikov, Leon Trotsky, Chen Duxiu, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Sedov, James P Cannon, Leon Lesoil, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, Abram Leon, Ta Thu Thau, Henk Sneevliet, Max Shachtman…

The Communist International picked up and subsumed many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly, and all that was healthy in previous socialist activity and theorising.

They denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller democracy of workers’ councils — their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.

The Russian working class, in their unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers’ councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers.

What had all the different strands of socialism in common? What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, did they seek to achieve?

All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie, too — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.

Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance between anarchists and Marxists, but all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange with collective social ownership by the workers and working farmers.

All of them — in one way or another, with one qualification or another — looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Rhea Wolfson: “The left needs to recognise that the Jewish community does not feel welcome”

August 13, 2016 at 8:59 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, labour party, posted by JD, zionism)

Rhea Wolfson for Labour NEC

Newly-elected Labour NEC member Rhea Wolfson interviewed by the Alliance for Workers Liberty‘s paper Solidarity:

Congratulations on your election to Labour’s NEC. What do you see as your priorities now?

The first thing is to see that the recommendations from the Chakrabarti Report are implemented. The Labour Party needs clear and transparent procedures for individuals and organisations accused of misconduct. I am particularly concerned about the suspensions of Wallasey Labour Party and Brighton, Hove and District Party. Those Labour Party organisations need to be reassured that any accusations made against them are investigated promptly and properly.

A number of Labour Party members have been expelled for being associated with Workers’ Liberty. Is this reasonable?

I oppose political expulsions. We should recognise that there are many strands of socialist opinion and Labour will be stronger if we accept that. Minimally we should expect that the Labour Party abides by the principles of natural justice in disciplinary matters, that those accused are listened to, that processes are clear and transparent, that there is an appeals procedure.

Some of the problems come from the Compliance Unit. Is there any role for this organisation?

Perhaps – if it operates using clear rules and regulations. No part of the Party should work on the basis that it can operate outside of a clear set of rules. In particular, those accused of misconduct should be able to see evidence which is said to exist against them.

Personally I have another problem because I am getting a lot of abuse through Twitter. I have had received a lot of unpleasant comment since the NEC election results were announced. There are no clear guidelines or mechanisms for me to try to stop this sort of abuse which may come from other Party members.

One of the live issues for the Labour left is what we should do about the anti-Corbyn right-wing MPs. Do you think we should deselect them?

Jeremy Corbyn is building a vibrant movement of half a million Labour Party members. Corbyn is uniting the membership. The onus is on others to show they are not harming or splitting the Party.

The relationship between the PLP and the membership has clearly been damaged. I hope it can be repaired and for that we need open political discussion and debate.

Reselection is a powerful tool. It should be used with respect and care, and not with abuse. It is not a threat. It is a democratic process.

What should the priorities of a future Labour government be?

We should pursue an anti-austerity programme. We must invest in public services to promote growth. We should borrow in order to invest. And we should increase taxation on the wealthy.

You made a strong speech at a recent Lewisham Momentum meeting set up to discuss the problem of ‘left’ anti-Semitism. What should be done about this very real problem?

We need open debate on the issue. The Lewisham Momentum meeting was a start. Although some of the contributions were shocking, I think they were not made from hate – and poor comments were challenged in the meeting.

The left needs to recognise that the Jewish Community does not feel welcome. The rhetoric of anti-Zionism is off-putting. There are progressive Zionist organisations we can and should work with.

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AWL statement: Oppose Watson’s witch-hunt!

August 11, 2016 at 12:50 pm (AWL, conspiracy theories, labour party, posted by JD, Socialist Party, trotskyism)

10/08/2016

The anti-Corbyn majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party is losing the battle for the Labour leadership.

The membership – seemingly, in its big majority – wants a Labour Party which will tax the rich, rebuild the NHS, introduce free education and abolish the anti-union laws. The members want to remake Labour as a party that fights for the interests of workers.

The Labour right finds the movement behind Corbyn threatening and they are becoming increasingly desperate. The Labour machine has attempted to rule out thousands of members from voting in the leadership election. Wallasey Constituency and Brighton, Hove and District Labour Parties have been suspended.

Now Tom Watson is attempting a “Trotsky” scare. Watson accuses “the Trotskyists” of “caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can,” and “arm twisting.” In fact, this is a description of Watson’s own, normal, natural behaviour. (As we have documented elsewhere, Watson was a “fixer” for Gordon Brown during the early New Labour years: see here.)

In contrast Workers’ Liberty’s influence has been won through open debate, and by acting as honest activists inside the movement.

The Guardian (10 August) reports Watson demanding Corbyn supports bans on the Socialist Party and on us, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). Watson attempts to adopt a reasonable, matey tone – but he’s not very good at it. He is a hack, someone who wanders around in the background, causing trouble.

Corbyn and the left should certainly defend the right of all socialists to be Party members. The Party should only require that socialists back Labour candidates in elections. The AWL backs Labour in elections.

As Watson knows very well the Socialist Party and the AWL are very different types of organisation. The Socialist Party has spent over two decades denouncing the Labour Party as irredeemably bourgeois. And as Watson also knows the Socialist Party boss, Peter Taaffe, has spent a considerable amount of energy attempting to stop his members joining the Labour Party.

Taaffe’s position is idiotic, as usual. Nevertheless – with the exception of, perhaps, a handful of strays – no Socialist Party member currently has a Labour Party card.

So why all the fuss about the SP? Watson’s target is really Corbyn, but he can’t directly denounce Corbyn. So he picks on the Socialist Party because of its Militant past. Then he pretends the Socialist Party are a threat to the Labour Party. He links the Socialist Party with the AWL because he wants to spread around as much muck as possible. Nothing about this narrative makes sense. But that doesn’t matter given the press and the media are on Watson’s side and don’t care if he makes sense, or not.

The AWL is nothing like the SP, or its forerunner, the Militant. We are not a closed, secretive sect.

The AWL openly debates differences in our paper, Solidarity. Our events are open. Our conference documents, constitution and positions can be found in plain view on our web site. Read them and find out what we do.

And we are consistent advocates of class-struggle socialism. You would not find a clown like Derek Hatton, for example, acting as our spokesperson.

The Socialist Party’s main concern in the Corbyn surge is to recruit a few members, encourage a scandal, and get some headlines. Our main concern is to defeat the Labour right wing and transform the labour movement. By acting as honest militants within the movement – people who are concerned for the movement’s strength and political health – we think we will grow in influence and also membership.

And do you know how big we are? We have 120 full AWL members. Tom Watson knows very well that we are a small group among half a million Labour members. This is the extent of the Trotskyist threat.

And yet, in the end, Tom Watson – despite his intention – has half a point. We are a potential problem for people like Tom Watson. Not because we manipulate behind the scenes – but because our message is becoming increasingly popular in the Party. We are serious Marxists, serious about ideas and consistent about their application.

Watch out, Tom Watson.

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Corbynomics – a friendly critique

July 27, 2016 at 7:37 pm (AWL, banks, capitalism, economics, labour party, left, posted by JD)

Based on a pamphlet from the Alliance for Workers Liberty:

There is a buzz about “Corbynomics”. That’s positive. For the first time in ages the neo-liberal economic orthodoxies insisted on by the Blairite Labour Party are up for debate and discussion.

What Corbynomics means, though, isn’t clear yet. It remains to be defined, not just in detail but even in broad outline. The left should plunge into the debate – and be bold.

There is a problem about the lack of left-wing Labour economic policy for Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to draw on. On ssues like the NHS, say, or renationalising the railways and Royal Mail, there is policy and they should do more to promote it – a lot more. On wider economic policy,there is more of a vacuum on the left, and a need for socialist ideas to fill it. But some of what Corbyn has said points in the wrong direction.

So, for instance, in the steel crisis, Corbyn and McDonnell said that if no capitalist buyer for Tata’s plants was found, they would support nationalising them – but only in order to find a buyer, and then sell them off again! Why didn’t they take the opportunity to argue to nationalise steel permanently, safeguard jobs, workers’ terms and conditions and communities, and run things differently to produce what we need for social purposes, like building housing, public service and public transport infrastructure?

Fiscal responsibility?

In his speech on 11 March, John McDonnell talked about “fiscal responsibility” – presumably in order to buy space to attack George Osborne’s 16 March Budget cuts. But anxious promises that a future Labour government will balance current spending with current revenues – which Osborne had not done after six years as chancellor! – only feed the superstition that the economic problems since 2008 are due to the Blair and Brown governments overspending” on public services. They aren’t. The reason for the crash and the slump was giddy profiteering and speculating by the banks, not public spending.

Now, there is no special merit in a government increasing its debt burden. However, a rigid rule of balancing current spending with current revenues is foolish. As Simon Wren-Lewis, professor of economics at Oxford University and an adviser to McDonnell, has pointed out, “the rule is likely to make the deficit much less of a shock absorber, and so lead to unnecessary volatility in taxes or spending”. Also, since raising taxes is politically difficult, often slower in effect, and involves running uphill in times of economic crises which reduce the tax base, the rule has a built-in bias towards panic “volatility” (cuts) in spending. McDonnell has long campaigned against cuts. It looks as if he was pushed into these statements by the conservative elements in the Labour leadership office – part of a more general problem.

Who are the “wealth creators”?

Probably also a reflection of that section of the Labour leadership office were McDonnell’s off-key statements about “the wealth creators”.

“The Labour party are the representatives of the wealth creators — the designers, the producers, the entrepreneurs, the workers on the shop floor.” He claimed that his policy “has been welcomed this morning by [people] right across the business sector, business leaders, entrepreneurs as well as trade unions. The wealth creators have welcomed it”.

According to Mike Savage, a researcher at the LSE, inherited loot is 70% of all household wealth in Britain today, and is rising towards 80% by 2050. One of the most booming industries in slump-ridden Britain is the rise of “family offices”, where financiers work fulltime on managing and conserving the wealth of rich families. “Wealth creator” is conservatives’ pet term for capitalists. In fact capitalists’ riches come from the exploitation of the real wealth creators, the wage working class – or from active exploitation done not by the capitalists, but by their parents and grandparents.

McDonnell added “the workers on the shop floor” atthe end of his list of “wealth creators”, and put“designers” (i.e. some particularly skilled workers) at the start of the list. But the idea that a good economic policy can be pursued in alliance with the whole “business sector” is false. It can only prepare the way for a collapse when the CBI and other bosses’ groups denounce left-wing policies from Corbyn and McDonnell, which they will.

Is a National Investment Bank a left-wing policy?

Similarly, the leadership has focused on the call for a “National Investment Bank”, a publicly-owned bank able to borrow more cheaply than commercial banks because of its government backing, and lending for infrastructure and industrial projects.

The model must be the KfW, the German state’s federal investment bank, set up under the Marshall Plan in the 1940s and still going strong. It’s a safe, conservative model, maybe useful as a capitalist technique, but in no way anti-capitalist or socialist. The current chair of the KFW Supervisory Board is German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Europe’s sternest austerity-hawk and central to the crushing of the anti-austerity rebellion in Greece.

There is nothing really socialist or even left-wing about the proposals for a Schäuble-bank in Britain. In fact it seems more like a way of avoiding a clear left policy about what to do about the banks.

Expropriate the banks!

Replacing capitalism with socialism requires public ownership, democratic and workers’ control and planning of the giant corporations and enterprises central to the economy. That is hardly even conceivable without an insurgent workers’ movement challenging the capitalist class on every level – which is what we must work for, rather than damping it down with appeals to “wealth creators”.

To even move in this direction requires transitional demands to campaign for. An obvious one to make central is public ownership and democratic control of the banks and high finance – a sector central to the economy’s functioning and to the economic chaos which has engulfed us over the last decade.

Banking should become a unified, democratically run public service providing banking, pensions and mortgages for everyone who needs them, and funds and resources for investment in public services and all areas of social need – instead of acting as an engine for devastating them while promoting inequality.

Public ownership of the banks has been official TUC policy since it was proposed by the Fire Brigades Union in 2012, but left dormant. We should fight to activate it, and make it active Labour policy too.

All this poses the question of what kind of Labour government we want. In place of an alternative capitalist administration, the left should set ourselves and shape our campaigning around the goal of a workers’ government, accountable to and drawing strength from the mass organisations of the labour movement, and willing and able to force through measures like expropriating the steel industry and the banks – and much more.

More
Motion for expropriation of the banks and a workers’ government, passed at Labour Representation Committee conference, 20 February 2016, here

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AWL statement: Stop the anti-Corbyn coup!

June 28, 2016 at 2:36 pm (AWL, labour party, MPs, posted by JD)

Daily Mirror front page calling on Jeremy Corbyn to quit
Above: The Mirror joins in

By Martin Thomas

Labour’s right is trying to stage a coup. If the Corbyn leadership and the unions stand firm, and force the right wing to put up a candidate against Corbyn in a new leadership contest which Corbyn wins, this attempted coup could turn into a rout.

The way will be open for the unions to get through Labour Party conference democratic reforms which they have already put in draft form, and for the Labour Party really to be revived as a living movement, close to the unions, and with the right wing discredited.

But if it goes the other way – if the unions swing over to back a rotten “compromise”, or if Corbyn buckles – then the right wing be in pole position to shut down all the channels reopened in the last year. They won’t be able to do it all at once, but they will be well-placed to destroy today’s possibilities of creating a real working class alternative in British politics.

With their staged series of shadow cabinet resignations, Labour’s right have seized the chance of the dismay and disarray caused by the Brexit vote to try to reverse the Labour revival generated by the 2015 leadership contest and Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory.

As we go to press, they are staging a stand-off, an open split in the Labour Party, and using it to press Jeremy Corbyn to resign.

They could force a leadership contest by getting 50 MPs to nominate a rival candidate. For now at least they are not doing that, because if they do that then Jeremy Corbyn has to be on the ballot paper in the leadership election, and will probably win.

They want to force Corbyn to resign, confident that if he does then they can deny any left-wing candidate the MP nominations necessary to get on the ballot paper, and so deny the members a choice.

There is talk of setting up a rival Parliamentary Labour Party in opposition to the one led by Corbyn, or even splitting the Party outright. Probably this talk is designed to panic and pressure the Corbyn camp.

Some of the coup-plotters talk about the desirability of Labour wining the next General Election. But that is clearly low in their priorities. Otherwise they wouldn’t be splitting the party now. Otherwise they would shelve for now their criticisms of Corbyn and focus on unity against the shocked, dislocated, and divided Tories.

Some of them talk about unity. Some of them claim they have no difference with Corbyn’s politics, and praise his kind and friendly manner. They so value unity… that they make a split! When they claim to have no serious political grounds!

Some of them say Corbyn has been weak. Sometimes he has: often because he has constrained by them, or allowed anxiety to conciliate them to mute his message against the Tories.

The role in the script for those soft-soap types is to serve as cover for someone with a vaguely soft-left profile to emerge as front-person (while the hard right-wingers pull the levers in the background), and to try to persuade the members and the unions to support them as promising both unity and not-too-wrenching a reversal of Labour’s course. To be for 2016 what Neil Kinnock was for 1983.

Some of them talk about Jeremy Corbyn being poor in the Remain campaign. But what about them? What about the Labour figures who joined platforms with the Tories, copying Labour’s wretched policy in the Scottish separation referendum? What about Tom Watson and Ed Balls, who gave Leave a last-minute boost by saying that Labour should limit EU migration?

What about the Labour right-wingers from whom we heard nothing at all? What about Corbyn-baiter Gloria de Piero, whose safe-Labour constituency returned a 70% Leave vote? Or Stephen Kinnock, another Corbyn-baiter, who got a 57% Leave vote in his ultra-safe Labour area? Or Labour right-winger Alan Johnson, appointed to lead the Labour Remain campaign. Did you ever hear from him? His Hull area voted 68% Leave.

They wail and scream about one-third of Labour voters backing Leave. That is bad, but not surprising: one-third of Lib Dem voters, and one-third of SNP voters, also went for Leave. Especially not surprising when for many older Labour voters, anti-EUism has been a major and sometimes dominant thread in Labour politics for the last half-century; when the 2015 Labour election campaign organisers, backed by most of the anti-Corbyn plotters but not by Corbyn, produced a “campaign mug” inscribed “Control Immigration”; when most pro-EU Labour politics has had, for 20 years, the neoliberal face of Blair and Brown, blandly praising “modernisation” and ignoring the havoc caused by free-ranging global capital in many working-class communities.

The coup-plotters want to return to the same soft-Tory politics and undemocratic organisation which have gutted and enfeebled Labour’s base for decades now, and block the possibilities of a renewal.

Anti-Corbyn Labour MP Yvette Cooper talks about “broader arrangements to build a wider consensus” with the Tories in the management of Brexit. Corbyn’s own response to the 23 June decision has been weak – he should be more vigorous, from our angle, in defending freedom of movement and European ties, than the Tories now pressing the “Norway option” are from theirs – but these people want to be even weaker.

Stay strong! Stand firm! Labour members and trade unionists must rally in defence of our movement’s democracy.

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Holding the pro-Brexit idiot-left to account

June 26, 2016 at 4:20 pm (AWL, class, Europe, ex-SWP, John Rees, populism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Socialist Party, SWP)

Image result for picture John Rees
Above: Rees: fucking idiot

By Martin Thomas

On 24 June, as the Brexit referendum result hit the school where I work, both students and teachers were aghast. The idea that this was a “working-class revolt” inflicting “a massive reverse” on the rich and powerful had no takers in a school whose catchment area is among the 5% poorest in the country.

Some students told me “I have dual nationality, Slovak and British [or whatever it might be], so I’ll be all right. But…” And they’d sigh. Yet some on the left are jubilant.

The Socialist Party claims “the fundamental character of the exit vote… was a working class revolt” causing “the anger and despair of Britain’s elite” and probably “the collapse of the Tory party”.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is less fantastical, acknowledging that “the Left Leave campaign we were part of had only a marginal effect”. But somehow, it claimed, “the rich and the powerful… have suffered a massive reverse” – through the bit of the “Leave” campaign which had a not-at-all-marginal effect, the right-wing bit. (One survey before the referendum found that active “Leave” campaigners were broadly 60% Tory, 40% Ukip. Odd leaders for a “working-class revolt” against the “rich and powerful”).

The SP, the SWP, and the anaemic Lexit/ Left Leave campaign have all responded by demanding an immediate general election and predicting a left Labour Corbyn victory in that election.

In fact, this moment of high dismay for the left has quickly been seized on by the Labour right to launch the motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn they hadn’t dared to push until now. They could see things moving their way when, even before referendum day, left-wingers like Paul Mason, cowed by the Brexit surge, had started arguing for Labour to propose blocks on immigration from Europe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s statements since the result have been sadly weak, and most of the left has been pushed back into a defensive stance against the attempted Labour-right coup.

The very rapid online support for Corbyn suggests we can beat the coup. But the direction of movement, for now, is not from Corbyn surge to a super-surge pushing the Tories out, but in the other direction.

“Cameron out” is no left-wing slogan when it is actually happening, and he is due to be replaced by a more right-wing Tory! The Tories will now proceed with more right-wing business. Possibly some pro-EU Tories will choose to fade out of politics, but they won’t launch a party split now, which would be on a hiding to nothing.

There will be Tory tensions over the terms of Brexit, but those are for the years to come, not the next few weeks. And they will be over adjustments and calibrations, easier to manage than the sharp in/out conflict over the EU which has divided the Tory party for 20 years.

There is little prospect of a general election. Why ever would the new right-wing Tory leadership respond to the democratic mandate they now claim, not by pressing ahead, but by nervously provoking a vote of no confidence?

Maybe Gove and Johnson will overreach themselves, and the left can rally and quickly turn things round. But not if the left tells itself that things are already going the right way!

The core argument of the Brexit left is that any disruption that causes dismay among the majority of the ruling class must automatically be good for the working class.

It was most exuberantly expressed in an article by former SWP leader John Rees on his Counterfire website on 15 June. The SWP, Lexit, and SP commentaries are only toned-down versions of Rees’s argument.

The tactical rule, so Rees argued, must be: “if we want to start dismantling the actually existing centres of power and so weaken the real and currently operative engines of exploitation and oppression that means opposing the main enemy: the ruling class currently embedded in the EU”.

Gove, Johnson, and Farage are ugly? “Sometimes your ugliest enemy isn’t your most powerful enemy”. The rule must be to set ourselves against the “most powerful enemy”. “Only someone entirely wedded to the linear school of historical analysis could fail to see an opportunity for the left in this situation. Minds uncomfortable with contradiction always have difficulty with social crises, of course”.

But if a more-reactionary minority of the ruling class can construct populist support to prevail over the majority, it does not thereby cease to be more reactionary. Revolutionary political crises inevitably come with some chaos and disorder, but the converse does not follow: that chaos and disorder bring revolution. Read Naomi Klein’s book on The Shock Doctrine, which chronicles many cases in recent decades where episodes of social chaos have been used by the right to push through devastating policies which they could not have implemented in calmer times. Rees’s argument, and the SWP’s and the SP’s, that “crisis” of any sort must be good, reflects their demoralisation. Having lost, or half-lost, their belief in the possibility of a real social-revolutionary crisis, they cast around for “crises” of any sort as substitutes.

The referendum result has brought disarray in the ruling class, but, as Bank of England governor Mark Carney says, they “are well prepared for this”. The 1992 Swiss referendum vote not to join the European Economic Area, the 1994 Norwegian referendum vote not to join the EU, and the 2005 French vote to reject the draft EU constitution (by a bigger majority than the narrow Swiss and Norwegian votes) all caused disarray: but no ruling-class collapse, no left-wing surge. The disarray in the working class caused by a political event in which Gove, Johnson, and Farage have managed to draw a sizeable chunk of the class behind them is not so easily managed.

Donald Trump has drawn in plebeian support to beat the Republican establishment. He might even win the presidential election. That will be a setback, not a great opportunity, for the working class and the left.

The clerical hierarchy in Iran channelled mass plebeian support in 1979 to defeat the pro-US majority of the Iranian ruling class. The result was terror against the working class, not socialist advance. There are dozens of other examples in history of the folly of Rees’s scheme.

Even the examples he himself cites about advances for the right being opportunities to “to start dismantling the actually existing centres of power” show nothing of the sort.

“No-one assumes that the English Defence League is as powerful an enemy as the Tory government, though both must be opposed. The same applies here: the mainstream ruling class block is the main enemy”. But no-one on the left argues that we should ally with the EDL to cause chaos for the Tories, or that, if only we could think as non-linearly as John Rees, an EDL triumph would really be a working-class victory!

“We need to seize the opportunity a crisis gives us (as we did when we formed the Stop the War Coalition the week after 9/11, when it would have been so easy to just say ‘the right will benefit’)”. But the right did benefit! The Islamist right gained prestige by showing its power, and the US right gained by getting its mandate to make war in Afghanistan and Iraq. That the left was able to organise some big (though unsuccessful) demonstrations against that right-wing surge doesn’t change the overall picture.

And the analogue to forming the Stop the War Coalition then – leaving aside the considerable arguments about how that campaign was run – would be to form a “Stop the Anti-Migrant-Drive Coalition” now, not to celebrate Brexit.

The Socialist Party and SWP statements discuss a matter which does not bother Rees in his dialectical constructions: the character of the working-class element in the vote for Brexit.

They insist at length that it was not all racist, and not all pro-Ukip. That is surely true. Little of the feeling against East European migrant workers is based on racial stereotypes. Many people of relatively recent immigrant background have been persuaded that the gates should be closed against new migrants: they are often very aware of the awkwardness of the argument, but have been convinced that migration is now just “too much”. To think of the numbers of jobs, or houses, or hospital beds, as fixed quantities, and respond by saying that the limited numbers must be kept for those already in Britain, is narrow-minded and false, but not racist.

Some people with no hostility to migrants were drawn in by the demagogic argument that Brexit would allow “us” to make “our own laws” or to “take control”. (The Brexiters were tactfully silent about which laws originating from the EU they objected to. In fact they are such laws as those implementing EU protections on working hours and agency workers, and even those were not “imposed”, but voted through by the Blair-Brown Labour government – rather reluctantly, but voted through – after Tory obstruction).

And some people were swayed by the same sort of argument as the left Brexiters: that, whatever about migrants, whatever about laws, any protest against the status quo, the “elite”, must be good. Very few of those will have been swayed by the left; but in any case, this argument, the most “left-wing” of the Brexit arguments, not really left-wing at all. Going for an incoherent kick against “the elite” is a substitute for and a diversion from real class-struggle mobilisation, not an example of it. The feeling may not be racist or pro-Ukip, but it is such that can be, and has been, channelled by racist, by Ukip, and by Tories.

(Rees claims that Ukip support fell during the referendum campaign. The poll figures bounced up and down a lot, but Ukip’s percentage rose from an average of 14% in polls between mid-March and mid-April to an average of 16% between late April and early June. The Tories’ lead over Labour rose from tiny between mid-March and late April – an average of 1.7% – to an average of 4% between late April and early June. No “collapse of the Conservative Party” there!)

The whole train of thought here, despite or maybe because of the manifest anxious desire of the SP and SWP to show themselves in tune with what they reckon to be working-class feeling, is patronising and manipulative, an example of what Marxists call “middle-class workerism”.

That many older workers in depressed areas of low migration voted “Leave” does not mean that the whole working class, or even a majority, voted “Leave”. That many people in the worst-off sections of the working class voted “Leave” does not make “Leave” a more authentically working-class response than the “Remain” stance of younger, more educated (and often more educated precisely because younger), big-city, working-class people.

Socialists will best serve our class brothers and sisters who voted “Leave” by arguing with them – not caricaturing them, not dismissing them, but treating them as intelligent women and men who have gone off course, as people do, but can and should be convinced by reason. When they are convinced, class-conscious and socialistic elements in their thinking, now suppressed and overwhelmed by the Brexit demagogy, will come to the fore.

The SP and the SWP, by contrast, seem to have given up on convincing workers. They look, awe-struck, at the Brexit surge with its “anti-elite” overtones, and scrabble to suggest ways in which that surge, as it is, can be managed, manipulated, redirected, so as to channel into their desired outcome of a general election and a Corbyn victory. Their approach is similar to a common caricature of the Trotskyist transitional-demands approach (one promoted both by opponents of the approach and some who consider themselves supporters of it): that transitional demands are those which appear “realistic”, not-specially-socialist, not-specially-radical, but lend themselves to mobilisations which can, in a way unknown to the workers involved, slide into socialist revolution. In the SP’s and the SWP’s constructions, Brexit has become a sort of fake “transitional demand” by which the dialectically-attuned can manoeuvre the working class into desired channels.

As Frederick Engels explained: “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. [And] in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required…”

What is to be done now is to conserve and extend workers’ unity, between workers in Britain of all origins and between British and European workers; to defend migrant rights and the worker rights which have entered British law under pressure from the EU; to fight to redirect the social anger expressed in Brexit votes towards social solidarity, taxing the rich, and social ownership of the banks and industry; and to stand up for socialism. None of that can be done if the left falls for the fantasy that the Brexit vote is already taking things our way.

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AWL initial statement on the Leave vote

June 26, 2016 at 9:07 am (AWL, class, Europe, immigration, posted by JD)

Logo of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty

After the Leave vote: stand up for migrants, defend Corbyn, fight for unity and solidarity
By Cathy Nugent

The vote to leave the EU reflects deep and growing social distress caused by years of vicious capitalist attacks against living standards, public services and democratic rights. But the vote was also a defeat for labour movements in Europe, for internationalism and for the left. The three million Europeans living, working and studying in the UK will now be fearful about their future. The response of socialists and the labour movement can only be to redouble our fight against austerity, defending migrants and for the socialist vision of a better world.

Any concessions by the left to the mood of national isolationism — such as justifying the strengthening of immigration controls — will be disastrous mistakes. Such policies would lead to more despair and a further shift away from the class politics we want the labour movement to champion and build support for in the working class — the politics of unity and social solidarity.

The referendum result has illuminated and deepened existing dangerous political fault lines and it has created new ones.

Cameron’s resignation will push the “star” demagogues of the Tory Leave campaign — Michael Gove and Boris Johnson — into government. This is a quasi-political-coup. The Brexit camp used the referendum, a vote on a limited issue, to lever themselves into governmental power. By bringing this referendum about Cameron is wholly to blame for his own fate. But getting rid of Cameron is not, as some on the left will argue, a victory for democracy! If a general election were soon held, as some on the left advocate, it would be fought under conditions of chaos, confusion, dismay and reaction. It would not be likely to result in a victory for the left.

The referendum result has already been used by the right-wing in the Labour Party as an opportunity to challenge the Corbyn leadership. We defend Corbyn! The huge democratic mandate on which he stood for and won the leadership of the Labour Party stands. Whatever the shortcomings of Labour’s campaign on the referendum, Corbyn was right not to tail-end the Tory’s big business message on Europe, was right not to appeal to traditional Labour voters on the basis of prejudice against migrants.

On 23 June, majorities in England and Wales, and not Scotland and Northern Ireland, ensured an exit from the EU. That in itself opened up more division in the working class of the “United Kingdom”. It has already given the green light to the SNP to push for a further referendum on independence for Scotland. While a move towards independence may be seen as making connections with Europe, it will also separate Scottish workers from others on this island.

Some of the vote for Leave was based on conservative nostalgia for a UK, or an England, that has never existed. Some of it was expression of outrage by working-class people against long-term insecurity and deprivation. But there was a broader social spectrum than this which saw the vote as a referendum on the general state of society. Not just the older, white working class, but also the younger under- and precariously-employed working class. And, anecdotally it seems, to a limited extent, people from more established migrant backgrounds also saw voting Leave as a way to express feelings of insecurity. And we have to face the uncomfortable truth that many who voted Leave were convinced by dominant racist themes of that campaign — that the way to resolve any and all of these social problems is by stopping or slashing inward migration.

The socialist message, that poverty and injustice can be overcome by working-class solidarity, has for many workers been eclipsed by another, meaner, much less ambitious and utterly false vision, which says that only the most limited improvements can be achieved, and then only by cutting out “foreigners”.

But none of the perceived social problems — crumbling public services, declining standards of living, worsening urban infrastructure, growing inequality — has anything to do with the EU, or the numbers of recent migrants. It was everything to do with capitalism — homegrown, UK capitalism.

Those of us who argued for a Remain vote on the basis of fighting for the working class — in all its diversity — across Europe, did not convince people of our argument. Our alternative — social solidarity and uniting workers across Europe — was not a strong enough message to win the day.

That is why the left that said “remain” must urgently come together in the weeks ahead to plan our response to these difficult times. We will oppose the right-wing attack on the leadership of the Labour Party. We will oppose accommodation to all forms of nationalism. We will defend migrants. We will fight for clear socialist solutions on the real issues facing the working class, whether they voted for Remain or Leave. It is especially important to take that message into the working-class communities which did vote for Remain. We will fight for unity across the working class – for jobs and housing, against privatisation and to rebuild the NHS.

If you want to join this urgent campaign, please get in touch. Or come to our Ideas for Freedom event on 7-10 July to discuss further with us.

Further responses to the referendum result will be posted soon.

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Anti-Semitism and reactionary anti-capitalism

June 7, 2016 at 12:41 am (anti-semitism, AWL, israel, Marxism, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, trotskyism)

Moishe Postone

Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about anti-semitism on the left and reactionary anti-capitalism.


I don’t feel as if I know the ins and outs of the situation in the Labour Party, so part of what I say may not be completely accurate. First of all, there is an extremely unfortunate polarisation with regard to the relationship of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. It is a polarisation which makes political discourse very difficult. On the one hand, you have the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely illegitimate.

Not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic. There are too many people on the left, and I think it’s increasing, who argue that no form of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic: that anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism is something else. In the world of the metropolitan left, it is really quite remarkable that the left has almost nothing to say about Syria, had nothing to say about Saddam, has nothing to say about the fact that we are witnessing a complete crisis of the Arabic-speaking world. That crisis cannot simply be blamed on imperialism. There needs to be at least an attempt at serious analysis of why every single post-colonial Arab country is characterised by the secret police, and a secret police that would do the Stasi proud. Some of them were trained by the Stasi and the KGB, in fact.

The left seems to be unable to say anything about these issues. In a sense, and this is extremely hypothetical on my part, I think the more helpless the left feels conceptually on dealing with the world, the more it zeroes in on Israel-Palestine, because that seems to be clear: the last anti-colonial struggle.

There are some leftists who will not be happy for me to say this, but retrospectively one could say that the rise of the New Left globally implied a tacit recognition that the proletariat was not the revolutionary subject. I think that there was a move away from working-class politics. The new leftists had not only separated themselves from Communist Parties and social-democratic parties; even though they sympathised with the plight of workers, I think they were tacitly casting about for a new revolutionary subject. The colonised peoples fighting for freedom became the new revolutionary subject. I think that along with that there was a curious fusion, in part because of Vietnam, of the anti-colonial struggle and anti-Americanism.

One of the differences between the massive demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, is that for many — not all, but many — of those who fought against the Americans, in the 1960s, there was the idea of supporting a progressive revolution. The Americans, as the world’s imperial, but also conservative force, were hindering a positive historical development. So the demonstrations weren’t only against the Americans. They were also for the Vietnamese revolution — however one retrospectively evaluates that thinking as justified or not, and whether or not one thinks there should have been further criticism of the Vietnamese Communist Party. None of that existed in the massive demonstrations against the American invasion in Iraq. There were very few people who could on any level have regarded the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein as representing anything progressive, and nobody talked that way. Anti-Americanism became coded as progressive. In a funny way, it is a remnant of the Cold War, spread among people who were actually not Cold Warriors.

Israel has become fused with America in the minds of many of these anti-imperialist leftists. An enormous amount of power is attributed to Israel which it actually doesn’t have. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago, claim that the American invasion of Iraq was against American interests, but pushed by the Israelis. Of course, they never state what Israeli interests were. Really, as both those writers had connections to Washington, their book was a brief that the State Department should listen to them more than to the neo-cons that they did listen to. Israel is, in a sense, the manipulator, and Washington is sometimes just a stupid dolt which is manipulated by these incredibly clever Jews. And at that point the picture of Zionism is anti-semitic. Zionism There were leftwing critiques of Zionism from the very beginning, frequently by communist Jews. Zionism was criticised by the communists as a form of bourgeois nationalism.

That’s something completely different from the criticisms today. Trotsky, early in his life — I think he changed his views later on — referred to the Bundists as “sea-sick Zionists”. That critique had nothing to do with Palestine or the Palestinian people. It simply has to do with nationalism. The change may have happened in the 1930s, but one marker of it was the trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the Stalinists tried the entire Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. It was 14 people. Eleven were Jewish. These were old Communists. Many had fought in Spain. They were accused of being Zionists. If you read what “Zionists” meant, it was exactly what the fascists called “Jews” — a shadowy conspiracy, inimical to the health of the Volk, and working to undermine the government which was for the people. The Stalinists couldn’t use the word “Jewish” — this was only seven years after the war — so they used the word “Zionist”. That was one of the origins of a deeply anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It exploded after 1967. The USSR was furious that Israel had defeated its two major client states, and it began to suport the Palestinian movement. The anti-Semitic cartoons and statements coming out of the Soviet Union were pretty appalling. That’s where you got the idea that Zionism is Nazism — generated by the Soviet Union. And unfortunately, that Arab nationalists picked up on it is not surprising.

 Carlos Latuff’s cartoon “Holocaust Remembrance Day”

The Western left started to pick up on that too. I think that was deeply unfortunate. I think anti-semitism is almost a litmus test for whether a movement is progressive or not. There are a lot of anti-capitalist movements that are not progressive. And I think that anti-Semitism is a marker. I think there is a great deal to criticise in Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation, certainly the present Israeli government. But political discussion cannot take place if the choice is between Netanyahu on the one hand, and a certain kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism on the other. Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is a world view. It is not prejudice against individual Jews. It can go with being perfectly civil, although I’ve been reading about the way some Jewish students are pilloried in terms of “you look Zionist”. Who could “look Zionist”? It means, “you look Jewish”.

I was struck by the UN Arab Human Development report of 2002, which was written by Arab scholars. It talked about the misère of the Arab-speaking world and its massive decline since the late 1970s. The decline was nearly as precipitous as that of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time other areas of what used to be called “the Third World”, have risen. It seems to me that it is not only the decline of the Arab-speaking world, but the rise of other parts, which makes an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism more plausible. The power of the Jews! It is the Jews who are pulling everything down. This is only a little variant on the idea that the problem is all imperialism. Well, imperialism is very important, was important, was distorting. But after all the British were in India much longer than anyone was in Syria. Or in Iraq. But I know more serious analyses of India from the left than I do of the Ba’ath. I find that politically unfortunate, and when it becomes anti-Semitic, I find it a marker of a move towards a reactionary populism. Campuses On many campuses, the hostility has spread to all Jews. It has made many young Jews very confused and they identify more with Israel than they did.

It is creating a reaction. Many of them are naïve politically, and because Israel’s very existence is being called into question, they also frequently are uncritical in terms of what is going on in Israel-Palestine. When Israel under comes such attack – because it doesn’t feel like a political attack but an existential attack – there is very little discussion. There are campaigns such as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel], which is basically dishonest. [Norman] Finkelstein picked up on this quite a while ago. Some people are confused, and BDS tries to promote the confusion. People think it is against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza period, but it is not. Because if it were, then it would not be a boycott of all Israeli academics, most of whom are very opposed to the settlements and Netanyahu. It is significant I think, that at the height of the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion, or other American adventures, there never was a call for a boycott of all American academics, ever.

The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.

For me, the signal event was when [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an Israeli right-winger]. The right-wing campaign against Rabin was appalling and vicious, and Netanyahu was at the head of that. After Rabin was assassinated, it was assumed that Labour would be swept into power on a sympathy vote. Instead a Palestinian group began a campaign of suicide bombs. That elected the first Netanyahu government [in 1996]. The two work hand in glove. Each side thinks that ultimately, in the long run, it is going to prevail. But in the meantime, politically, they are united. It is a united rightwing front.

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The benighted pseudo-socialism of ‘out of Europe’

June 2, 2016 at 1:47 pm (AWL, class, Europe, Human rights, immigration, internationalism, Marxism, posted by JD, Racism, SWP)

By Camilla Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)

I. Introduction

On Saturday 14th May 2016 I attended the Sheffield TUC’s “Europe IN or OUT? The Big Debate”. Maxine Bowler of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was the main speaker on the top table for the ‘out’ position. In my contribution from the floor I began by stating my critique of the European Union as a neoliberal capitalist club, which is hostile to migrants and refugees. I reasoned that one can be a fierce critic of the status quo and bureaucracy of the European Union whilst recognising that the alternative actuality of ‘Britain out’, in the face of a deeply chauvinistic wave coalescing through the Brexit campaign, would be a reactionary throwback which will impede the struggle for working class liberation. I then referenced the Marxist tradition (by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and others) for a socialist “United States of Europe” – a tradition which has been problematically displaced by Stalinism. Maxine replied: “I am angry that someone has used Marx and Engels to defend the European Union!” So she missed my point. But much worse still, she woefully neglected an important history and compass for the present from supposedly her own tradition. As the debate proceeded, a member of the audience tentatively made a case for ‘Britain out’ on the basis of a need to curb immigration. Maxine responded by making a case for open borders. And herein lies the political incongruity of the Lexit campaign: arguing against a Fortress Europe and for an open Europe, while effectively retreating to (a left-wing) nationalism; arguing against the European Union and for an internationalism, while ineffectively challenging the forces and conditions of existence that are fuelling xenophobia, racism, parochialism, and nationalism. In the fantasy politics minds of its campaigners, Lexit is the subversion of Brexit, yet in reality it is merely an inversion. Moreover, given the tsunami of Brexit, Lexit’s attempt to capsize Brexit continuously fails as wave after wave capsize Lexit.

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 17.02.27In the Social Worker article “Say no to Fortress Europe – vote leave on 23 June”, the organisation argues:

“the EU isn’t about bringing people together across borders. It’s about bringing together the ruling classes of some countries to compete against the ruling classes of other countries – partly by putting up borders. The EU makes it harder to travel into Europe from Africa, Asia and South America. To do so it promotes scapegoating myths that can then be turned against European migrants. So can its machinery of border control and repression. Building a racist Fortress Europe is central to the EU project. Bringing down that fortress is essential for any real internationalism or anti-racism. Some activists argue that the bigger enemy is “Fortress Britain”. But the two aren’t in competition. Britain’s rulers use the EU to police their own borders.”

If we leave the European Union, further still, if it disintegrates under a tsunami of chauvinistic nationalisms, then what are the conditions of existence to then fight for an open Europe? If we succumb to a form of left-wing nationalism amidst waves of racist, xenophobic English and British nationalism, then what are the conditions of existence for a future of workers’ solidarity across borders? Maxine and other SWP members at the Sheffield debate defined those who spelt out the highly probable consequences of ‘Britain out’ as promoting a “politics of despair”. Instead, they speculated, Boris would oust Cameron, the Tories would look like a joke, the masses would then take to the streets, and socialism would be victorious.

II. The Marxist tradition for a “United States of Europe”

Let’s start with the following historical context, as summated by Cathy Nugent in her article “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”: Read the rest of this entry »

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Loach honoured at Cannes: a critical appreciation

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm (Andrew Coates, AWL, cinema, Clive Bradley, culture, film, From the archives, posted by JD, socialism, television)


Comrade Coatesy celebrates Ken Loach’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, but is not uncritical of Loach’s politics:

Ken Loach has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.

“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”

France 24 reports,

The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”

And, he continued, “Necessary”.

Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.

Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.

I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated  as it is impotent.

This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left.  But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS,  are not always the same as ours.

Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.
(Read Coatesy’s full article here).

In the light of this well-deserved award to an avowedly Marxist film-maker, now seems a good moment to republish Clive Bradley’s insightful article. As the piece was written in 1997, it doesn’t deal with Loach’s more recent work, but nevertheless raises important issues about the difficulties of reconciling ‘art’ and ‘propaganda’, and the extent to which Loach succeeds (and fails) in doing this, by examining three of his films. The author stated at the outset: “throughout this article, I am using the word “propaganda” in its neutral  sense, to mean politically educative material”.

_________________________________________________________________________

Art versus Propaganda: the films of Ken Loach

By Clive Bradley (Workers Liberty 39, April 1997)

What does it mean to make socialist films in contemporary Britain? What is the relationship between art and propaganda in modern cinema?

The work of Ken Loach, one of  Britain’s leading film-makers, hinges around these questions. The  tension between art and propaganda, drama and politics, runs  through his films.

Loach is unusual not so much in that he is a socialist — indeed a Marxist, indeed some kind of Trotskyist — who makes films; there have been a fair number of film-makers who are or were Marxists of some description. He is unusual because he frequently attempts, to make films about politics with a capital ‘P’, to put the class struggle on the screen. His politics inform his choice of subject matter  to a degree which is. as far as 1 am aware, unique in contemporary film.

Loach made Iris name in the 1960s with a seminal TV drama, Cathy Come Home, about homelessness. Days of Hope, a TV series written by Jim Allen, traced the British class struggle from the First World War to the General Strike. Fatherland is about an East German who moves to the West and discovers capitalism is as bad as Stalinism, Hidden Agenda about the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland, Land and Freedom the Spanish Civil War, and the recently-released Carla’s Song is about Nicaragua.

Even his films which deal with less ‘big’ political issues have political themes. Riff Raff is about a group of building workers. Raining Stones about two unemployed men in the north of England struggling to survive; one of them needs the money to buy his daughter a communion dress, and gets into trouble with a loan shark. Ladybird, Ladybird is about a woman’s fight against social services to keep custody of her children.

Added to this are a number of documentaries, for example on the often treacherous role of the trade union leadership, and the current Liverpool dockers’ strike.

There have been very few films in recent years which deal with such issues, and no film-makers who try to do so with such consistency. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Loach is a vitally important director for socialists. We should be glad someone is making such films: the world would be a poorer place without them.

The question remains whether Loach has successfully resolved the tension between art and propaganda, and what his work might tell us more generally about it. I want to argue that he has not, and that this raises an interesting question for any project of socialist film-making. Put bluntly: is such a thing possible?

This article looks at the question by focusing on just three of Loach’s films — Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song, his two most recent, which are among his most strongly political, and Kes — an early film which is probably the least political in his career. Read the rest of this entry »

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