AWL statement: Against the terrorists, fight to rebuild hope

May 24, 2017 at 7:55 am (AWL, fascism, islamism, Middle East, murder, posted by JD, religion, socialism, solidarity, terror)

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Only a rebirth of social hope can cut the roots of the vindictiveness-obsessed, death-obsessed political-Islamist movements.

The bombing at the Manchester Arena, which as we go to press has killed 22 and injured 59, has been claimed by Daesh as its own. Experts say that may be inaccurate and macabre boasting; but almost certainly the killer was an Islamist clerical-fascist of some sort.

We join many others in extending our solidarity to the families and friends of those killed and injured.

It will be good if the police can arrest any who collaborated with the attacker, and good if the Iraqi army (with US backing) can complete their battle to push Daesh out of Mosul, where it has ruled since June 2014. But recent decades show that no-one can have confidence in the cops or big-power armies to quell this clerical-fascist terrorism; that in fact their actions, like the clumsy “Prevent” programme​, like successive curbs on civil liberties, like the USA’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (launched under cover of the “war on terror” declared by US president George W Bush in 2001), like the USA’s record in Afghanistan since it came in to push out the Taliban in 2001, will feed the despair underpinning the terrorists rather than mend it.

Daesh extols the attack as killing “crusaders”, extracting “revenge”, and terrorising the “mushrikin” (polytheists or atheists). The attack has to be put into some historical context.

Cults of death run through the history of fascism. The Spanish Falangists (part of Franco’s forces) had the slogan Viva la Muerte, Long Live Death.

For the death cult to reach the pitch of suicide attacks on randomly chosen civilians, often young people or children (and, world-wide, more often what the Islamists see as the wrong sort of Muslims than non-Muslims), requires a particular mix.

Religion: cults of martyrdom, beliefs in afterlife rewards. Despair: an across-the-board rage at the modern world. Logistics: the idea that these attacks on “soft” targets bypass overwhelming military might.

Systematic suicide bombing starts, in the modern world, with the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers movement in 1987. They borrowed it from the Islamist movement Hezbollah, in Lebanon, which in 1983 had done a truck bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut and forced the US to withdraw.

With the Tamil Tigers — who eventually made hundreds of suicide attacks — and Hezbollah, there was some connection to determinable political aims (force the US out of Lebanon, force the Sri Lankan government to cede Tamil independence), though the tactics meshed with politics which made the Tigers and Hezbollah menaces to “their own” people too.

From the 1980s, and even more from the early 1990s, Islamic clerical-fascists took the lead in this tactic, and shifted it increasingly to attacks, like the Manchester one, which fail even to claim a determinable political goal. They had been boosted by Khomeiny’s seizure of power in Iran in 1979, the near-victory of Islamists in Algeria in the early 90s, and the Taliban’s gaining power in Kabul in 1996.

The balance of their attacks has shifted away from targets which could be held, however tenuously, to symbolise oppressive power, towards “soft” civilian targets.

The UK’s top “anti-terrorist” cop said in March this year that his forces had forestalled 13 terrorist attacks since June 2013. We have no way of checking his figures. He may be right. The facts show that the established powers and measures have no success at draining the swamps of hatred which lead to more and more attacks and attempts. Only a renewed socialist labour movement can do that.

After the 7 July 2005 Tube bombings the British police reported 269 religious hate crimes against Muslims and mosques in the next three weeks, six or seven times the level of the previous year. Such responses increase the suffering, rather than decreasing it.

Britain could scarcely have a meaner-spirited, more closed-door, attitude to refugees from Syria than it already has. Any further worsening there should be opposed. Many of those refugees are fleeing the clerical-fascist terror of Daesh and similar movements in Syria. The fight against that terrorism calls for welcoming them.

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Support for Labour in Scotland can be built only by winning back Labour voters who switched to the SNP

May 2, 2017 at 4:54 pm (campaigning, elections, labour party, nationalism, reformism, scotland, socialism)

Image result for picture Blair McDougall campaign leaflet East Renfrewshire

Alternatively, he could campaign to win back ex-Labour voters from the SNP …

By Dale Street

Scottish Labour candidates need to fight the forthcoming general election on the basis of policies which challenge the inequalities of wealth and power inherent in capitalism, and which will mobilise the labour movement not just to vote Labour but to fight for those policies whatever the outcome of the election.

All Labour candidates throughout the UK should be campaigning on that basis. But the importance of such an election campaign is all the greater where specifically labour-movement and class-based politics have been squeezed out by competing nationalisms.

And that is the case in Scotland, where opinion polls currently show the SNP on 41% (50% in 2015), the Tories on 28% (13% in 2015), and Labour on 18% (24% in 2015 – and 42% in 2010).

Based on a now largely discredited and disowned White Paper, the SNP’s pro-independence campaign in 2014 polarised the Scottish electorate around national identities and attitudes to independence.

The momentum from that initial polarisation carried over into the 2015 general election. The SNP ran a straightforward nationalist campaign, promising to “stand up for Scotland”, give Scotland “a stronger voice” and “make Scotland stronger” in Westminster.

Despite having lost the 2014 referendum, the SNP consolidated the bulk of “Yes” voters into its electoral base. Aided by the first-past-the-post system, it won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies.

The same momentum and the same polarisation also helped the SNP win the Holyrood elections of 2016, even if it lost its previous absolute majority at Holyrood.

At the same time, British nationalism began to consolidate its own political base, in the form of a boost in electoral support for the Tories. Pitching themselves as the foremost champions of the Union, the Tories increased their representation at Holyrood in 2016 from 15 to 31.

As the nationalist polarisation of politics in Scotland intensified and day-to-day politics increasingly degenerated into a permanent referendum campaign, Labour was squeezed remorselessly between the two competing nationalisms.

Despite standing on an election manifesto with a clear focus on social and economic issues, and one which advocated policies well to the left of the SNP, the 2016 Holyrood election saw the number of Labour MSPs collapse 37 to 24, leaving the Tories as the official opposition.

Sturgeon’s announcement in March that she wanted to secure a Westminster section 30 Order, to allow a second referendum to be held on Scottish independence, added a further boost to what was already a solidly entrenched political polarisation around national identities.

Scottish nationalists, whose sole political purpose in life is to secure Scottish independence, were given a fresh lease of life. Only too happy to ignore the SNP’s actual record during its ten years of power at Holyrood, they were able to wrap themselves in a Saltire again.

Inevitably, the SNP’s demand for another referendum, backed in breach of their manifesto commitments by Green MSPs, triggered a fresh surge of support for the Tories. Winning between eight and ten seats in the forthcoming general election is now a real possibility for the Tories.

It suits both the SNP and the Tories to transform the general election in Scotland into a referendum on a second referendum.

Whereas Scottish Labour backs federalism and Corbyn would not oppose a second referendum, the Tories are standing as the most reliable opponents of independence and another referendum: “We Said NO in 2014. We Meant It.”

This conveniently diverts attention away from the Tories’ actual record in power in Westminster since 2010, and also away from the policies which the Tories are fighting this general election on at a national level.

The SNP initially wobbled on how to present the general election, adopting three different positions between 18th April and 27th April, before falling in line behind Alex Salmond and treating the election as a referendum on a second referendum.

This likewise conveniently diverts attention away from the SNP’s record as a party of government in Holyrood over the past ten years:

Literacy and numeracy standards have declined, child poverty has increased, FE teacher and student places have been decimated, relative poverty has increased, inequalities in access to HE have increased, the NHS has suffered from shortages of doctors, nurses and GPs, the gap between rich and poor has increased, and Scotland’s economy now teeters on the brink of recession.

Insofar as the general election in Scotland remains a clash between two flags, two national identities and two nationalist ideologies, the chances for the Labour Party to win support for a specific labour movement response to the failures of ten years of SNP rule and seven years of Tory rule are correspondingly reduced.

Scottish Labour candidates need to transform the terrain on which the general election is fought. But some candidates – all of whom were selected by a sub-committee of the Scottish Labour Executive Committee – seem to want to out-Tory the Tories.

According to the first election campaign leaflet from Blair McDougall, former Director of “Better Together” and now Labour candidate for East Renfrewshire, for example: “I ran the winning campaign against independence. Now I want your vote to say No to a second referendum. On 8th June Vote Labour and Say No to the SNP.”

This epitomises just about everything wrong with the approach to the election adopted by the right wing of Scottish Labour.

McDougall’s electoral strategy is to win over Tory voters to voting Labour. But if they were unwilling to switch to voting Labour under Blair, they are even less likely to switch to voting Labour under Corbyn.

Support for Labour in Scotland can be built only by winning back Labour voters who switched to the SNP. But the focus of what McDougall proposes in his leaflet is tactical voting by the Tories to defeat – as opposed to win over – SNP voters.

To win back ex-Labour voters who switched to the SNP, Scottish Labour needs to tear off the “Red Tories” label which the SNP stuck on it after the “Better Together” campaign. McDougall, on the other hand, boasts of his role as “Better Together” Director.

(Not that there is actually anything to boast about. At the start of the referendum campaign support for independence stood at around 20%. By the end of the campaign it had more than doubled to 45%.)

Above all, McDougall’s campaign focuses on the possibility, or likelihood, of another referendum. But defining another referendum as the key issue in the election can only push ex-Labour voters further into the arms of the SNP, and also help boost support for Tory Unionists.

Scottish Labour candidates contesting seats in the general election includes members of the Campaign for Socialism/Momentum Scotland.

They have the opportunity to campaign, and to seek to influence the election campaign at a Scottish level, in a way which places basic class issues and labour movement politics to the fore.

The ability of the labour movement in Scotland to continue to represent a political pole of attraction and an electoral force depends on how successful they will be in the coming weeks in advocating class politics as an alternative to SNP and Tory nationalisms.

The pro-independence left, on the other hand, could do far worse than spend the election campaign working out how they could have got things so wrong.

They campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014, pretending that they were putting forward a socialist case for independence as opposed to functioning as no more than an echo chamber for the SNP.

They welcomed the defeat of labour movement politics by nationalism in 2015, deluding themselves into believing that it created a mass opening for socialist politics, only to be brutally disabused of such illusions when they stood candidates in 2016.

And now, because one nationalism begets another, they would find that the space for advocating socialist politics has narrowed even further – if it were not for the fact that they have now adopted support for a second referendum as a surrogate for fighting for socialist politics.

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Art: Russian avant-gardists against capitalism and Stalinism

March 31, 2017 at 9:35 pm (Art and design, culture, history, modernism, revolution, socialism, stalinism, USSR)

Liubov Popova Space Force Construction 1920–1
Above: Spatial Force Construction, by Liubov Popova, 1920-21

Hugh Daniels reviews Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, at the Royal Academy until 17 April.


The first room in this exhibition is dedicated to images of leaders. While one side is dominated by pictures of Lenin, the other largely has images of Stalin. This opening seems designed to confirm a pre-assumption which many visitors are likely to hold ― that the art of the Soviet Union was designed to glorify its leaders and normalise their rule. Yet, in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924, there was actually considerable debate among artists over how he should be commemorated and how his image should be used.

In 1928, the avant-garde, “left” artist Aleksandr Rodchenko vociferously argued that Lenin ought not to be deified or fetishised and that images should not be used to secure state-authorised truths, but to encourage new forms of critical vision. Rodchenko’s own memorial to Lenin, exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, was a design for a workers’ club, largely centred on spaces and resources for collective self-education. Rather than securing an icon of state power, Rodchenko remembered Lenin by giving workers tools with which they could ask questions and formulate their own ideas.

This curatorial “oversight” exemplifies an exhibition which continually glosses over the complexity of the artistic debates which raged after the revolution. In a later room dedicated to modernism, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky is placed near another by Liubov Popova. Both are abstract and viewers are led to assume that these artists were working along similar lines.

However, Popova was vehemently opposed to Kandinsky and the principles of his practice. Like most of her constructivist peers, Popova conceived of her paintings not as autonomous art objects, but effectively as props to help both her and her audience to think through design principles. She believed that, by encouraging reflection on the formal and material qualities of different compositional methods, artists could contribute towards a renewal of engineering, architecture and design in the fledgling socialist nation. Like other constructivists, she saw this as a challenge to the power of bourgeois specialism. Popova thought Kandinsky was a bourgeois artist, producing rarefied commodity objects and thus failing to acknowledge the questions posed to art by the revolution.

What form should art practice take in a socialist society? How would it contribute towards the construction of a new world? However we feel about the different approaches taken by these artists, it is vital to see that their work represents not a shared commitment to modernism, but a debate over the meaning and the fate of the revolution at a time when these questions had no definitive answer.

The RA exhibition makes the relatively unusual decision to combine modernism and socialist realism in one exhibition and to dedicate more space to the latter, whereas western art history has traditionally viewed the former as far more valuable. It is certainly worth studying the cultural products of Stalinism, just as we study other aspects of its history. Here, however, it feels as if the originality of this gesture is taken as its own justification, especially since the exhibition ultimately does little to challenge received understandings of its content beyond implying that socialist realist paintings are worth viewing. The exhibition reproduces a thoroughly standard account of Russian art after 1917.

This narrative is extremely convenient for western institutions, because it presents post-revolutionary Russian modernism as a continuation of liberal, bourgeois, post-enlightenment culture, which was snuffed out in the dark days of barbarous state communism. Exponents of this perspective commonly suggest that the avant-garde was purged because its complex abstract designs could not easily be used for propaganda purposes. Communism is thus presented as a thoroughly instrumental worldview, which sees no value in culture except as a political tool. It is no coincidence that this story was largely fashioned in the USA at a time when American institutions were presenting themselves as both inheritors and saviours of all that was good in European culture.

All this exhibition really adds to the standard account is an acknowledgment that Stalinist artists could be skilled in their manipulations, producing a cult of the healthy proletarian body, which has a clear sensual and ideological appeal, rather than being an utterly transparent sham. This view fails to acknowledge that the most radical avant-gardists made work in ways that were absolutely inimical not only to authoritarianism, but also to capitalism.

The Russian avant-garde established artistic and political principles which presented a significant challenge to all forms of hierarchical rule. In inviting both her fellow artists and her audience to critically examine the formal principles of design, Popova was not just offering new kinds of imagery, but radically questioning what Marx called the “relations of production”, challenging the control that technocrats and specialists held over the production of social wealth.

A good art historian should aim to place us back in the moment of an artwork’s construction, when the possibilities it conjured were still open. By closing down the debates of this period and failing to properly acknowledge those strands of Russian art which ran against the grain of both the bourgeois tradition and Stalinist oppression, this show instead presents us with a totally binary situation in which the only options are bourgeoisification or barbarism.

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Corbyn’s Brexit capitulation – and the curse of consumer-politics

January 29, 2017 at 2:02 pm (campaigning, capitulation, Champagne Charlie, Europe, immigration, internationalism, labour party, reformism, socialism, stalinism, workers)

Image result for picture Labour Party logo

Corbyn’s decision to support May’s plans for triggering article 50 is a craven capitulation to nationalism. It also won’t work: hard-line Brexiteers and racists will remain unconvinced, while to the rest of Joe and Joanne public it just looks like a combination of panic and opportunism – which it is. Even in Stoke Central, the so-called “Brexit capital of the UK”, my local contacts tell me that Brexit isn’t the key issue: the overall state of the party and the credibility of its local campaign, is.

This shambles also calls into question the kind of advice that Corbyn is receiving from the cabal of politically illiterate Stalinists in his inner circle.

It needs to be stated loud and clear that the referendum result represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning the EU and freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices weak and unconvincing (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson and Labour’s official Remain campaign).

That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.

All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.

Labour should oppose Article 50 and demand a second referendum, at which we advocate remaining in the EU.

Whether Labour activists should ally themselves with the newly-formed Labour Against Brexit remains to be seen, and largely depends upon whether it turns out to be a right wing campaign to simply get rid of Corbyn: something that isn’t as yet clear.

Finally, a frank word to those good comrades who are talking about resigning from the party over this: we are not in politics as consumers who simply buy into a political party when we like the look/sound of what’s on offer. The uncritical adulation of Corbyn in the early days of his campaign and leadership was as silly as the claims now of being let down and the suggestion in some quarters of dropping out of the Labour Party.

Labour under Corbyn was always going to have crap politics, because Corbyn himself has always had crap politics – as demonstrated by his half-hearted stance on the EU and willingness to endorse the Morning Star. Most of the PLP have crappier politics still. We are arguing and mobilising for socialism in a world where politics is shifting to the right and British politics is dominated by questions of Brexit and national identity, which is simply not the terrain on which to build class politics, in the way that the NHS, workers’ rights and inequality is.

Our job is to rebuild Labour as a working class party. That process is only just beginning and will take years. People need to get stuck into their branches, CLPs and Momentum (whatever its faults). Serious comrades need to get their hands dirty delivering leaflets and travelling to Stoke and Copeland.

On article 50 Corbyn is clearly wrong, and we should say so. But instead of getting bogged down on the minutiae of the Brexit process, we need a laser-like focus on the NHS, housing and workers’ rights. Workers need inspiration and hope: maybe Corbyn can’t give it but a mighty battle against tory destruction of the NHS can in a way that article 50 never will.

Finally, socialists should be in the Labour Party now and for the foreseeable future, just as we should have been (and some of us were) under Miliband. What’s crucial is the party’s class nature, not its leadership at any given time. If there was a better Labour leader with better politics we could elect tomorrow I’d be in favour of doing so. But there isn’t and we can’t. We must not follow the example set the right wing Labour MPs who are resigning their seats to cause by elections as a strategy to get Corbyn out. If socialists throw up their hands in despair  because things are not coming up roses just at the moment, how the hell do you think we’ll ever overthrow capitalism?

(NB: thanks to comrade Dave for the closing rant).

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George Michael and the subjectivity of conservative socialism

December 30, 2016 at 9:10 am (celebrity, culture, Human rights, LGBT, music, Robin Carmody, socialism)


Above: George Michael comes out on CNN, 1997

By Robin Carmody

What we have found out about George Michael since his death – which, out of sheer modesty and desire to avoid publicity as much as he could, he largely kept quiet when alive – confirms that, certainly by comparison to everyone else who achieved exceptional wealth by those means at that time, he lived his life by redistributive socialist principles. It confirms his essential decency and separation from the world in which he found himself, hailed by some for the wrong reasons, dismissed by others (his most natural allies) for the same, equally wrong reasons.

And this is part of the reason why he seemed such a tragic figure, caught and trapped between two worlds, the world he might theoretically have wanted to live in (but which he knew would never have accepted him, not least because – Roy Jenkins and Leo Abse’s great work notwithstanding – of his sexuality which had to remain hidden for so long) and the world in which he made his fortune but which he knew instinctively to be empty, hollow, lacking in unifying soul. But he also knew – as I do – that he was an inherent outsider who could find no place within any notional unifying soul. So he had no option but to take himself out of things, out of the world entirely; he spoke of, and for, a moment at which and a people for whom neither the past nor the future seemed particularly promising or enticing. How could a gay man, successful in global pop in the age of AIDS and the simultaneous waves of deregulated capitalism and reignited fear and puritanism, with an atavistic feeling for socialist community have felt otherwise?

(It would be interesting, by the way, to find any latterday quotes from him about the effect of pop on non-Western cultures and societies, considering his central role just as it was beginning when Wham! broke new ground by performing in China in 1985; it would seem likely that his view would have been similar to his view of his own country, doubtful and unsure of the full implications of that uncontrollable wave but simultaneously aware that there had been a lot of narrowness and insularity before that deserved to be swept away; very similar, in fact, to the view the 1986 NME – to which he spoke, sensitively and thoughtfully, on related matters, in an interview available on Rock’s Backpages – largely took of nascent deregulated broadcasting, namely a plague on both Reithian and Murdochian houses.)

By the time of his initial success, those who would not accept him as a socialist had embraced the Beatles as heroes and icons of a socialist idyll and golden age. They did not know, yet, that the later revisiting of that era during the Blair ascendancy (during which George Michael actually reached his commercial pinnacle in his home country, which many had seen as impossible for him, again no doubt because his image had blinded them to his true politics, as if the Gallagher brothers – and yes, I know and understand and respect what Alex Niven thinks they could have been – ever really gave back) would be a smokescreen for the institutionalisation, without any real public call for it in the immediately preceding period, of Thatcherism. But even before that, they gave the public impression that they had always been pro-Beatles, and that certain inconvenient truths – that the colonel who returned twelve medals in protest at their MBEs in 1965 supported Labour, for a start, and let’s not even mention the Marine Offences Act – had never applied.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who disputed George Michael’s socialism in his heyday, as they dispute the even putative or potential socialism of even some of the music generally associated with the BBC’s 1Xtra station today, had been equally dismissive of the Beatles’ claim to represent any kind of socialism, saw them simply as capitalist useful idiots, false consciousness, a betrayal of the noble struggle to inauthentic candyfloss culture. I do, in fact, think that those people were right to dismiss the Rolling Stones. But pop has never begun and ended at Home Counties grammar schools and the LSE. And if you put Flambards and Upstairs, Downstairs – which were seen as on the right of British TV drama at the time of their production – next to their notional equivalents today, they seem like a Trevor Griffiths Play for Today. The same applies to Follyfoot and to the historical adventure series that Richard Carpenter, Paul Knight & Sidney Cole made. And it applies even more so to George Michael when set alongside, say, the Middle England credentials of Clean Bandit, the umpteenth-week chart-toppers at the moment his heart gave out (this does not, of course, mean that the working class are always right or always trustworthy – if High Wycombe & Guildford were more progressive, even if by mistake and by default, than Sheffield & Bradford over the EU so it must be, and it certainly doesn’t make Brexit progressive or the EU “a capitalist club” – but through his long slow fade and internal exile, George Michael’s position certainly came to seem more progressive when the openly and actively Cameronite likes of Keane & James Blunt appeared).

If they could get two generations of pop, and much else, so wrong, how can or should we trust anything these people – still lingering on, indeed enjoying something of a (chiefly Scottish-inspired; it is true that the Scottish equivalents of Paul Johnson & Keith Waterhouse did stay on the Left, but in a country many times the size and with far more diversity that would always have been harder) revival – say, any judgements or assumptions they make?

Or did it in fact come from something much deeper and more fearful? Was it, in George Michael’s case, an expression of plain racism – in the sense that anti-black racism is also directed at white people, often the very same ones attacked by black cultural purists – and homophobia? They have shown themselves guilty on those fronts on many other occasions, after all.

At any rate, we have lost someone whose personal tragedy and eclipse very well represents what has tended to happen to socialism when it has played the pop game, as it did in his case every bit as much as it did with any “approved” NME crossover acts, and certainly far more so than it did with any of those around 2006, the last time there were a lot of them. The question is: does it have to be that way?

I hope not. But to invoke 1996 again, who will be next to spin that wheel for us?

After all, to take us back to 1983, nothing looks the same in the light.

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Momentum: policy and purpose missing from OMOV debate

December 23, 2016 at 1:23 pm (democracy, labour party, left, posted by JD, socialism)

Funk Dooby/Flickr

By Edd Mustil at The Clarion blog

James McAsh has written a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate within Momentum for Novara, to which this article is a reply.

I agree that the current debate is happening back-to-front. We are discussing Momentum’s structures without having openly discussed and decided upon the purpose of the organisation. When Momentum was founded in late 2015, it should either have been launched with a specific, well-defined purpose in mind, or come to an agreement on its purpose very quickly, but neither of these things happened. Meanwhile, the large numbers of people who were drawn into Labour politics by the Corbyn campaign’s victory started doing what came naturally: they turned up to their local Labour meetings, and they started meeting together as like-minded activists.

This quickly led to a situation where people developed a very strong affinity with Momentum as a name, an organisation, or (*shudder*) a “brand,” without having necessarily reached any agreement about what it was all for. Being a “Momentum person” could mean all sorts of things, politically, to different people. Ironically, this is similar to the situation in the Labour Party, where everyone professes to holding “Labour values” despite this being an ill-defined phrase which can mean twenty different things to ten different people.

It is this strong sense of ownership over the organisation on the part of its rank-and-file supporters, coupled with a lack of a clear definition of the organisation’s purpose, which has made a seemingly arcane debate about committees so bitter and fractious at times. The structures debate is a cipher for all sorts of other political disagreements. We should have first established our purpose and adopted a structure best suited to that purpose.

James ascribes two purposes to Momentum, both of which are reasonable, and both of which I agree with: firstly, strengthening the Labour left by training and mobilising support for left activists in the Labour Party, and secondly helping to win an electoral majority for the Labour Party. He argues that Momentum needs neither to discuss policy nor support strong local groups, and that delegate structures are therefore superfluous.

I have some sympathy with this argument. I know from first-hand experience locally that there is a real danger of the organisation becoming overburdened with committees, of people being turned off by too many long and sometimes frustrating meetings, when their political energies could be better spent elsewhere.

However, I disagree with James on both the question of policy, and local groups.

Firstly, on policy. Momentum of course exists to support the policy programme of the leadership, which has faced indifference or outright hostility from some sections of the party. But I do think we have a responsibility to further develop policy and take the discussions into the Party. We talk about being a grassroots movement. If the programme of the next Labour government is really going to come from the grassroots of the labour movement rather than a team of advisors (or – why not? – from both), then Momentum is perhaps uniquely placed to popularise the concept that the rank-and-file should be discussing and developing ideas and policies of our own to contribute to this programme.

The other reason I think we need to develop policy is simply the history of the Labour Party. I don’t doubt that Corbyn and McDonnell are genuinely committed to a radical social democratic programme, something not seen at the top of the Party for a long, long time, if ever. But the last hundred years of social democracy has been the graveyard of good intentions. All sorts of pressures are brought to bear on the leadership of our movement by what people these days call the “establishment” – I prefer the term ruling class. Whether this comes in the form of the trappings of parliamentary procedure, the need to conform to mainstream political opinion as defined by the press, or the hard muscle of global capital, our leadership will face pressures and they will require a supportive rank-and-file possessing thought-out, radical ideas and the ability to act to counter these.

This is not to be too prescriptive about the sort of ideas Momentum should discuss or adopt – but I do think it would be an abrogation of responsibility to simply leave this to the leadership.

On the question of local groups, I again have some sympathy with James’s position. I know that comrades in some areas have decided against setting up local Momentum groups for perfectly valid reasons. The last thing I would want us to do is impose a superfluous structure where local comrades feel it would serve no purpose. We don’t necessarily need layer upon layer of formal structures, and I actually think we should elect our national leadership by an all-member vote. But I don’t think we should extend this to running conferences or deciding campaigning priorities. This is politics by referenda; something that, as we all know, doesn’t always end well. We could end up with all sorts of contradictory policies and strategies which have been passed by simple votes without much thought, a mish-mash of political positions rather than a coherent sense of purpose.

The reality is that local groups already exist, have a life of their own, and have done hard campaigning work on the ground. I agree that it is, as a rule, better to convince local Labour Party organisations to run campaigns and do things under the Labour banner. But, ironically, in some places this could involve much more energy spent sitting in more meetings trying to get ideas for campaigning activity through the local Party, when a Momentum group could just crack on with it. Many people, including in the leadership of Momentum, talk of the organisation becoming a “social movement” and, frankly, we kid ourselves if we think that we can transform the deeply, almost purely electoralist nature of the Labour Party into a “social movement party” simply by getting some comrades elected to the local CLP General Committee. We kid ourselves even more if we think a social movement will be built by firing off emails about disjointed days of action on various issues.

It remains to be seen whether the twin goals of cohering the Labour left and “building a social movement” can actually be realised by the same organisation. The attempt to do so is something more or less without precedent in the history of Labour politics in this country. But if it is to succeed at all, vibrant local groups are the means to do it. Simply put, people drift away from any organisation if they don’t feel a sense of ownership over it, discuss things, or have input into its political direction. Local meetings and locally-run campaigning activity are key to this.

See also: Comrade Coatesy

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Hear some sensible discussion on Labour’s problem with the majority of Jewish people

November 9, 2016 at 9:56 pm (anti-semitism, Human rights, labour party, left, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, rights, socialism, zionism)

From Sarah AB at That Place:

Jewish Labour Movement: Things can only get better?

Readers based in the North West might be interested in hearing Ruth Ellman, Naz Shah and Ruth Smeeth discuss Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community on 27 November.  Go here for more details and to register.

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To see the World Transformed, Momentum first needs to be able to transform Labour

October 4, 2016 at 8:43 am (campaigning, labour party, left, posted by JD, socialism)

By Rachael Ward at Novaramedia

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Last weekend saw Momentum’s celebrated The World Transformed (TWT) festival of politics, art and culture run alongside a Labour party conference where the left sustained one of its most catastrophic conference defeats for years.

Rule changes mean the left has now lost its majority on the national executive committee (NEC), which could well cost Jeremy Corbyn his leadership and will certainly be a block to many of the party reforms the left needs to make (say goodbye to a fair trigger balloting process or shadow cabinet elections). How did this happen? And what tensions does TWT expose in Momentum going forward?

TWT didn’t integrate with the Labour conference.

As with many things, location is everything. The way a space works makes a huge difference to the success of something like conference where you have thousands of fringe events. Liverpool’s conference centre was actually not ideal itself, with spaces that felt far too large and too far apart, and there was a shortage of communal spaces to mingle. Likewise, the extent to which TWT felt like a part of conference was always going to hinge on its physical proximity to the main complex. Unfortunately, with the venue over a mile from the conference centre, movement between the two was limited and impractical.

Even small tokens of integration – for example an advert in the conference fringe programme or leaflets for the festival – were completely absent from the main complex. At the conference centre the only sign that something new and exciting might be happening down the road were a handful of people like myself donning stickers on the back of their conference passes, wearing them like bizarre envoys between these two distinct worlds.

Why hold TWT during conference?

You could argue it doesn’t matter whether or not TWT integrated with conference. After all, TWT was hugely successful in bringing in new people who would usually find conference too expensive or ‘wonkish’ to contemplate going. However, if the primary function of TWT was just to engage the new membership then why hold the festival the same week as conference? Surely the purpose of TWT should have been to shape the narrative at conference, influence delegates and organise for votes?

TWT could have been an opportunity to lead the conversations which were rife at conference itself about how Labour can meaningfully engage a mass membership, and how Labour can update its party structures to suit this. Conference always has ‘themes’ of conversation; this year the theme was the rule changes (to gerrymander the left out of its majority on the NEC) and a growing sense from left and right that the party structures are ill-quipped to deal with the new membership surge (the left thinking the structures need updating, the right thinking the membership needs to stop surging).

Momentum, as the champion of the new members, should have been at the heart of these discussions – it was the question at conference. Instead TWT focused on big ideas about socialism and crafting a new vision for the world, whilst seemingly oblivious to the huge defeats the left was sustaining on conference floor.

It wasn’t Labour right-wingers who were annoyed by TWT.

Considering the uproar the right made about a ‘rival conference’ when TWT was first announced, you could be forgiven for thinking they complained about it non-stop at conference. But they didn’t – they didn’t care, it made zero difference to them. For the left, however, it was intensely irritating to be moving back and forth between two events a mile apart. Most people at conference have stuff to do – whether a delegate, a fringe organiser or just leafleting. Rule number one of being a faction: don’t make it harder for your own people to organise.

Conference is about winning votes – not art, workshops and fringes.

It’s not just that TWT’s separation was often a hindrance for the left organising at conference; its stated aims also mark a peculiar departure from the fights of the established Labour left. TWT’s programme tells participants they can expect to ‘participate in discussions, learn new skills and meet new people’. This all sounds fantastic, and is absolutely a part of what the left needs to do in general – but it actually has nothing to do with conference.

First and foremost, conference should be about winning votes. It is the highest decision-making body in the party. Tony Blair depoliticised it and turned it into the collection of boozy fringes we have today. For decades it has been the left who have been fighting for it to be the sovereign decision-making body again. Indeed, the first point in the mission statement of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (a left faction that predates Momentum but is politically close to it) is to fight for ‘a real policy-making annual conference’.

For Momentum to host a festival that barely acknowledges conference, does not discuss its votes, and takes people away from conference floor is a real divergence from old Labour left. It is a step backwards from conference as a place to make democratic decisions, and a move towards conference as a place to just hear from interesting speakers. Of course those of us on the left want both, but the emphasis should very much be on the former. Discussing socialist utopia is all well and good but it will not happen if the left loses votes in the very place Labour party policy is set.

Momentum must be the organised faction for left-wingers within Labour, not an alternative space for them.

The left’s defeats on the conference floor – sustained while Momentum held a packed festival a mile down the road – have opened up a tension which has been brewing for some time: the purpose of Momentum. Broadly speaking this is between those on the Labour left who have been party members for years and know how critical internal organising is, and those who came in during the Corbyn surge and see Momentum as a community organising tool.

People from the established Labour left grow exasperated as they ask themselves how can it be that an organisation which has the muscle to muster rallies of thousands at a moment’s notice cannot get a majority of conference delegates elected and can lose such critical votes, all whilst support for Corbyn amongst the membership has been growing all year.

There is a danger that spaces like TWT become safe havens for the new membership, particularly when so much of the party establishment has treated them with contempt. But Momentum must be the mechanism for the left to organise within Labour – not a parallel structure. Right now it sits dangerously close to the ‘party within a party’ criticism. The perception of so-called ‘entryism’ is not the main reason this is dangerous to the left. The main danger is that the left simply cannot win internal battles if large swathes of the new membership do not get involved in Labour party structures and feel a sense of affinity with Labour that can outlast a vulnerable left-wing leader.

Momentum must be the mechanism for this integration, not the alternative to it.

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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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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”.

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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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