Contemporary Left Antisemitism – David Hirsh’s Manchester book launch

September 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm (anti-semitism, left, publications, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", socialism)

By Richard Gold (Engage)

Hear David Hirsh talk about the book, ask questions, buy a signed copy

Sunday, September 24, 2017 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM

Follow this link for more details and to get your free ticket. (no admittance without a ticket).

Antisemitism on the left is difficult to recognize because it does not come dressed in a Nazi uniform and it does not openly proclaim its hatred or fear of Jews. This book looks at the kind of antisemitism which is tolerated in apparently democratic spaces.  It tells the story of the rise of the Jeremy Corbyn and his faction in the Labour Party; and it explains the controversy around Ken Livingstone. It analyses how criticism of Israel can mushroom into antisemitism and it looks at struggles over how antisemitism is defined. It focuses on ways in which those who raise the issue of antisemitism are often accused of doing so in bad faith in an attempt to silence or to smear. Hostility to Israel has become a signifier of identity, connected to opposition to imperialism, neo-liberalism and global capitalism; the ‘community of the good’ takes on toxic ways of imagining most living Jewish people.

The book combines narrative and case study with sociological analysis and theory to understand the controversial and contested phenomenon of antisemitism on the left.  It is not a critique of the left but a contemporary history of how things may go wrong.  It stands in the tradition of those on the left who have always understood and opposed the temptation to picture the evils of capitalism, modernity and imperialism as being intimately connected to the Jews and to their imputed behaviour.

Follow this link for some nice endorsements of the book

Follow this link to see details of other events David Hirsh is doing.  

Follow this link for Dale Street’s review of the book.

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Orwell, Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Left and … Skwawkbox

July 24, 2017 at 7:59 am (Andrew Coates, blogging, conspiracy theories, intellectuals, literature, media, men, Orwell, politics, populism, publications, socialism)

Comrade Coatesy has an important piece over at his blog (posted 22 July) and I know he doesn’t mind his stuff being republished here at Shiraz. We should also acknowledge the fact that we’ve used material from Skwawkbox in the past (having checked its accuracy), but like Coatesy and others, have become increasingly disturbed by its apparent preference for sensationalism over fact-checking.

Image result for Orwell essays everyman

Orwell and Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Right.

George Orwell never ceases being cited. These days he more often appears for good reasons than for bad ones.

Recently people have had recourse to Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes in Salvador Dali (1944) in order to defend his ability as a “ good draftsman” while being, “a disgusting human being”. That qualified support highlighted, few share the judgement that the Surrealist’s “Mannequin rooting in a taxicab’ as “diseased and disgusting”. The important idea, one, which Orwell repeats about Dickens as Bechhofer Roberts published an early version of what much later developed in the account of the Other Woman, Ellen Ternan, is the distinction between public work and “private life”. In this instance Dali’s alleged infidelity, and the search for his DNA to prove paternity, is irrelevant to the merits or otherwise of his products.

A more weighty issue is taken up in yesterday’s le Monde (Relire « 1984 » à l’ère de la post-vérité). Stéphane Foucart discusses Orwell as a reference in the era of “post-truth” (post-verité). He quotes Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942), “..for the first, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary life.” Life in Republican Spain was portrayed as “one long massacre” by the pro-Franco British press. Orwell went on to imagine a future in which “the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only he future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event “it never happened” – well it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.”

English speaking readers are more familiar with this passage, a premonition of the theme of 1984, than French, who, to Foucart, only began to register that dystopia in the 1980s, with intellectuals such as Michael Gauchet dismissing it. More recently there are those who have taken Orwell to their hearts, for his “common decency”. The idea that the over boiled cabbage and Thought Police of Ingsoc, and a planet divided into three rival Party-Oligarchies, has relevance today may seem to stretch a point.

That we know that the past is both so obviously not there, yet is worthy of objective inquiry in ways that other ‘not theres’ are not, is an old metaphysical difficulty. That the standard of objectivity was weakened by what used to be fashionable in the old days of ‘post-modernism’ is well known. But that there are different ‘truths’, a liberal, in the American sense, rather than a conservative principle has become less about controlling history than the present. Was the telly screen a rudimentary form of the Internet asks Foucart? Are Trump’s efforts to purge the Presidential archives of documents challenging his view on climate change? ‘Alternative facts’, reports that bear no relation to truth, have, with the sacking of the White House’s Sean Spicer is now a topic which has made the news.

The Media and State Power.

Orwell was concerned not just with Red Atrocity reports in the Daily Mail. He also wrote of the potential totalitarian effects of government control of the media, in his time the Radio. He defended freedom of expression against all forms of censorship, including the suppression of critical reports about the USSR which he believed was taking place post-war in favour of “uncritical admiration of the Soviet Union” (The freedom of the press – Animal Farm. 1945). As Orwell later wrote, “If you do not like the Communism you are a red-baiter, a believer in Bolshevik atrocities, the nationalism of women, Moscow Gold and so on.” (In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus. 1947. Intended for Tribune, not published…)

The Trump administration has power. But there is nothing resembling an effective state broadcasting monopoly outside of North Korea, despite accusations against the People’s Republic. Trump supporters have their networks, their web sites, the loud media outlets. The British right has the dailies, the internationally influential Mail, the declining Sun, the poor old Telegraph, the ageing Express and the Star, which few get beyond the front page to read. Its media imitations of the American alt-right, languish in obscurity. In Britain if these forces are capable of manufacturing truths, from the endless drip drip against migrant workers and Europe to scare-stories about left-wingers, and have an effect on opinion, they took a jolt at the last election. As the laughable Election Day front page of the Sun demonstrated so well.

The Alt-Left and Alternative Facts. 

Come the arrival of the ‘alt-left’. In Britain this means enthusiastic pro-Jeremy Corbyn people. Sites such as The Canary may not be to everyone’s taste but have a readership. But the debate over alternative facts has spread inside the left. Is it justified for Skwawkbox to engage in its own war of attrition with the arms of sensational, scaremongering, stories. The best known at the moment is their recent ‘scoop’ that claimed that everybody on disability benefit transferred to Universal Credit , who did not find a job in two years would be subject to sanctions? That is that they risk losing a large part (if not all) of their income?

This story has been demolished by Disabled People Against Cuts. (1)

Is their mealy-mouthed justification for running the tale acceptable?

They continue to publish wild stories.

That the Daily Mail has attacked the site with its own falsehoods does not give the author a free-pass when it comes to truth and accuracy. 

The writer of 1984 did not live in the age of click-bait. Nor of self-publishing on an industrial scale. But some things have not changed. It would not be to misuse Orwell to cite this, “the controversy over freedom of speech and of the Press is at bottom the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully. Or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.” (The Prevention of Literature. 1947)

***
(1) The 2 year job rule for disabled people on Universal Credit is not true!

Disabled People Against Cuts.

Thank you to Gail Ward who put this together.

In the last few days it has been widely reported by various bloggers that those disabled claimants claiming Universal Credit are subjected to finding a job within two years or face a 1 year sanction. This is utter fabrication and feeding many claimants fears which could potentially cause harm. So today I called Welfare Rights, who called DWP while I remained on the phone, they denied that this information was correct and was downright alarmist and dangerous. That doesn’t mean I trust DWP and have submitted a FOI too given 7 years of shenanigans. So you see folks, you can take the fear project and destroy it with Facts!

All Orwell references in Essays. George Orwell. Everyman’s Library. 2002.

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What we should talk about when we talk about socialism

July 23, 2017 at 8:49 am (campaigning, class, labour party, liberation, posted by JD, reformism, revolution, socialism, workers)

By Daniel Randall, railway worker and RMT rep (also published at The Clarion)

The Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto was its most radical for a generation. Its policies offered a real clawing back of wealth and power from the richest in society, and some of them pointed towards a far greater degree of social ownership, advocating the renationalisation of the railways, postal service, and some utilities, and pushing the market and private sector out of healthcare. These policies suggest a different type of society: Labour MPs frequently talked during the election of an “alternative to austerity”, or an “alternative to neoliberalism”. The manifesto did not, however, and nor did many Labour MPs, talk about that different type of society in explicit terms. Few would describe their aim as “socialism”, and even the main Labour left group Momentum does not refer to itself explicitly as “socialist”. John McDonnell is one of the few Labour MPs who does talk explicitly about socialism; this article is an attempt to draw out what it might mean to name the Labour Party’s aim in those terms, written before the election following a rally in Liverpool.

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While in Liverpool for a union conference, I was able to attend a Labour Party election rally, where the “star turn”, as compère Peter Dowd, the MP for Bootle, called him, was Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

The rally was packed with an enthusiastic and boisterous crowd, which gave McDonnell a standing ovation practically the minute he appeared. John’s speech was stirring, and consisted mainly in setting out Labour’s key policies – on health, on housing, on education, on wages, and workplace rights. Towards the end, he used a rhetorical flourish I’ve heard him deploy a few times before: “We want a society that’s radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic”, he says, then asks the crowd, “what do we call that society?” “That’s right,” John finishes, repeating the calls that have inevitably come from the audience, “we call it ‘socialism’”.

The little motif is powerful. It is a deliberate break with the Labour Party’s immediate past, where “socialism” was a dirty word, and a defiant statement from its new leadership that Labour is once again prepared to talk about social transformation. It drew warm applause from the crowd at St. George’s Hall.

And John is right, of course: socialism would certainly be “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than the society we have now. But plenty of societies could be “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than our current one, and still not be socialist. With a leadership at least ostensibly prepared to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion of socialism within the party, and faced with an election that acutely poses the question of what kind of society we want to live in, this is as good a moment as there’s been for generations for Labour Party members and activists, who call themselves “socialists” as a matter of political reflex, to discuss what “socialism” actually means.

Some caveats to what follows: this article is not intended as a pedantic quibble that what McDonnell is proposing isn’t “really” socialist. Nor is it intended to dismiss or trivialise the overwhelmingly positive impact that Labour’s current policy programme, if implemented, would have on the material conditions of life for millions of working-class people. A choice between socialism and capitalism is not, with the best will in the world, on the ballot papers on 8 June. A choice between a Tory party that will continue to govern unashamedly in the interests of the rich, and a Labour Party that will govern, at least to some extent, in the interests of working people, is.

This article presupposes that a Labour Party that calls itself “socialist”, and talks explicitly about building a socialist society, is a good thing. It is intended as a contribution to a discussion about what the content of that “socialism” should be.

John McDonnell is perhaps the most Marxisant Labour MP since Eric Heffer, prepared to acknowledge Marx, Lenin, Trotsky as political influences, much to the horror of the right-wing press. His long years of service to the labour movement make clear that he understands the centrality of workplace organisation and workers’ struggle. But his stated point-of-reference for the government he and Corbyn would lead is the Labour government of 1945: a great reforming government, without a doubt, but was Britain a socialist society between 1945 and 1951?

Any combative, socialist Labour Party should have a programme for radical reforms, but socialism must be more than an aggregation of reforms. Notwithstanding this, however, dogmatically recapitulating the “reform or revolution?” debate that has historically divided the socialist movement is not the best starting point for this discussion, and would miss the point, at least at this stage.

I am a revolutionary: I do think any attempt to build a new society will require a decisive confrontation with the capitalist state, which has strong self-defensive instincts that kick in whenever its power is meaningfully threatened. But it is not my immediate aim to advocate that Labour should include a commitment to forming workers’ militias its manifesto. What I want to convince fellow activists of in the immediate term is that socialism must be a genuinely different society, with the rule of capital decisively broken, not merely tempered or hemmed in by social-democratic policy reform, and that organised labour is the key agency for affecting that change.

Minimally, breaking the rule of capital must mean widespread social ownership of industry. The Corbyn-led Labour Party has, so far, shied away from advocating widespread nationalisations, perhaps in part out of a legitimate and laudable desire not to be seen as advocating an “Old Labour” state-capitalism often seen as lumbering and bureaucratic. But there is more than one model for how nationalisations might work, and for how nationalised industries might be organised.

Labour’s current policies for the energy sector, for example, talk of regulating prices and breaking up the dominance of the “Big Six” energy companies (which McDonnell referred to in his Liverpool speech as a “cartel”), and setting up publicly-owned regionally-based energy companies to compete with the private giants, but stop well short of advocating that energy provision, or even just the “Big Six”, be nationalised. Labour wants to set up a “National Investment Bank” to fund communities, but won’t advocate public ownership of the banking sector as a whole. For sure, nationalised industry does not in and of itself equal “socialism”, or even, necessarily, something inherently better than private industry. But genuine social ownership – collective, democratic ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth in society – must surely be a bedrock of any socialism worth the name. Can a policy platform that leaves, for example, the provision of utilities, and the vast amounts of wealth generated by the finance sector, in private hands meaningfully be called “socialist”?

McDonnell, rightly, says that socialism will be “radically more democratic” than the current system, and it remains to be seen what proposals for democratic reform will make it into Labour’s manifesto. Socialism must surely mean a radical deepening and extension of democracy, removing power from the unelected and unaccountable, and implementing rights of recall to transform the role of our political representatives from technocratic specialists administering an essentially plutocratic system into delegates who are genuinely accountable to those who elected them.

Underlying the whole issue is the question of agency: who is socialism to be made by? The implied perspective of the current Labour leadership is that “socialism” will be established almost by default when a Labour government is elected and implements its programme of radical reforms. This somewhat improbable scenario implicitly renders the likes of Chuka Umuna and Wes Streeting as part of the socialist vanguard; perhaps, then, we need to look elsewhere for our agents of socialist transformation.

If socialism means breaking the rule of capital, it must be broken at the point where it is most fundamentally exercised: the workplace. If socialism means genuinely democratic social ownership of the “means of production”, to use an old-fashioned phrase, that social ownership must be administered by those engaged in the process of production. The agency for socialist change, in other words, can only be the organised working class.

Labour’s commitment to repeal the Tory anti-union laws is welcome, and essential, but must go further. Rolling back the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act is a start, but it has long been McDonnell’s stated aim to scrap all anti-union legislation, not just the most recent. That must be pushed forward in government. Freeing workers to effectively organises against our bosses is, in a profound sense, a prerequisite for the rest of Labour’s policy platform. Even a moderate social-democratic reform programme is likely to require action from a militant and assertive labour movement to defend its implementation from employers eager to find ways to circumvent, undermine, and sabotage it. Labour needs to anchor workers’ struggle firmly at the heart of its political agenda if it is to meaningfully talk about socialist transformation.

At the Liverpool rally, Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotheram, Labour’s candidate for the newly-created Liverpool City Region mayoralty, began his speech by invoking the memory of the 1911 Liverpool transport strike, during which many demonstrations took place on St. George’s Plateau, next to St. George’s Hall.

What he did not mention, and what no-one on the platform at the rally mentioned, was that a group of local transport workers had in fact been on strike rather more recently than 1911 – that very day, in fact – and had been picketing across the road from St. George’s Hall at Lime Street station until a few hours before the rally began. Northern Rail workers had been striking against the imposition of “Driver Only Operation”; if Labour is serious about empowering workers to stand up for their rights, why not have one of them address the rally? Why not, at least, mention their strike? Labour is, after all, committed to renationalising the railways. It was a perfect opportunity to connect Labour’s policy to a live struggle.

The presence of striking Northern Rail workers would undoubtedly have embarrassed certain local Labour figures. Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, and Rotheram himself, have been at best lukewarm, and at worst outright hostile, to Northern Rail, MerseyRail, and other railworkers’ strikes. This is an irreconcilable tension; Labour cannot be both a party of socialism and a political home for people who are hostile to the self-assertion of the necessary agents of socialist change.

For the Labour Party to contribute to the socialist transformation of society, the Labour Party itself must be transformed. McDonnell and Corbyn could do worse than to increase their efforts to make the party “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than it is now.

A discussion within the party, and wider movement, about what we mean by “socialism” cannot be put off to some future point where we may have more “time”. The general election is being fought on unfavourable terrain, in circumstances not of our own choosing. But despite the unfavourable conditions, the election nonetheless represents an opportunity for the Labour Party, and wider labour movement, to assert an alternative political vision.

There will be some pressure within Labour’s campaign not to initiate wider discussions, but to focus on the hard graft of electioneering in the hope of defending seats and kicking out the Tories. But even in sheer electoral terms, winning a Labour government requires people to believe in, to be persuaded of, Labour’s political narrative, and to have at least some degree of conscious ownership over it, in the sense of understanding what it would mean in their own life. That requires, above all, political discussion and education.

Labour’s vision is one that, for the first time in a generation, the leadership of the party is not ashamed to call “socialist”. All of us who share that political aspiration have a responsibility to discuss what we mean by it. Only through that discussion can we hope to thrash out a political strategy that can make the vision a reality.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.

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Matgamna’s picture of the revolutionary left in disarray

July 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm (AWL, left, liberation, Marxism, political groups, posted by JD, publications, reactionay "anti-imperialism", revolution, Shachtman, socialism, stalinism, trotskyism)

Paul Hampton of the AWL reviews The Left in Disarray by Sean Matgamna

Why is the revolutionary left in such a mess today, despite the economic problems of the last decade, the crises of many neoliberal states, the enormous size of the global waged working class, the potential power of the trade union movement and the signs of revival in left politics? The answers to why the Marxist left is in such a state are comprehensively hammered home in this collection of essays. The book is a tour de force history of the revolutionary left over the past one hundred years. The short answer is: Stalinism.

But the syphilis of Stalinism is not only about the states that were or still are ruled by Stalinists. It is also about how the ideology of Stalinism has taken root even among the anti-Stalinist and social democratic left. Sloughing off this Stalinism is an essential prerequisite for reviving the authentic Marxist left.

Why disarray? Matgamna tells the story of the degeneration of the revolutionary left with great verve. The revolutionary left that emerged from the 1917 Russian revolution was essentially healthy. It had opposed the First World War and arose triumphant to lead the Russian workers to power. These revolutionaries formed the Communist International, a school of revolutionary strategy that by the early 1920s had built mass communist parties made up of the finest working class militants internationally.

The principal blow came with the isolation of the Russian workers’ state, already depleted by three years of bitter civil war and compounded by the backwardness of the inherited Russian social formation. Concomitantly, no communist party was able to lead the workers to power outside Russia.

The result was the bureaucratisation of the Russian workers’ state. The bureaucratic tentacles strangled the organs of soviet democracy, the trade unions and finally the Bolshevik party — the last living mechanism through which the Russian workers could exercise their rule. The Stalinists “revolution from above” defeated the Left Opposition, imposed forced industrialisation and collectivisation, and destroyed democratic, national and civil rights. After 1928 the new bureaucratic ruling class held the levers of control over the surplus product and inaugurated a totalitarian semi-slave state. After that, the Communist Parties acted as the overseas agents of Russian foreign policy, as well as incipient bureaucratic ruling classes in places where they got a foothold.

The monstrous form of the Stalinist counter-revolution threw most of the revolutionary left back to a state of reactionary anti-capitalism, shorn of working class agency and of the consistently democratic programme they had once espoused. The tiny forces that coalesced around Trotsky put up a spirited rearguard action, keeping alive the flame of authentic Marxism during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Trotskyist movement itself was wrecked on the cusp of the Second World War, its main forces unable to explain the expansion of Stalinism outside of the USSR and later to understand the revival of capitalism in the post-war epoch. Most of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists embraced the Stalinist advance into Eastern Europe, China and beyond as somehow creating “workers’ states” (without the active intervention of workers), or painted despotic post-colonial regimes as somehow the embodiment of permanent revolution.

Matgamna itemises the bitter array of failures in the years after the Second World War. Among the litany of terrible errors were: • Support for North Korea’s war in 1950 • Failure to support the East German workers uprising in 1953 • Uncritical support for the Vietnamese Stalinists • Uncritical support for the Castro Stalinists in Cuba after 1960 • Soft backing for Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution • Opposition to Israel’s right to exist after the 1967 war • Backing Catholic chauvinism in Northern Ireland • Opposition to the UK joining the European Union from 1971 • Fantasies about the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia • Support for clerical-fascist theocracy in Iran from 1979 • Support for Russia’s murderous war in Afghanistan in 1980 • Support for Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 • Backing Iran against Iraq in their sub-imperial conflict during the 1980s • Siding with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait 1990-91 • Support for Serbia’s assault on the Kosovars in 1999 • Softness and refusing to condemn Al Qaeda in 2001 • Support for Saddam in the 2003 war • Uncritical backing of Islamist Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, even as they slaughtered workers.

Matgamna eviscerates the justifications used by sections of the left for these stances. He is scathing about the “anti-imperialism of fools”, a species of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” that leads to support for despotism under the cover of anti-Americanism. He also denounces “left antisemitism”, defined as the exceptional denial of fundamental national rights to Jewish people (including the right to their own state) and demonisation of all Jewish people for the crimes of the Israeli state.

Sloughing off these rationalisations for reactionary politics is essential for renewing the revolutionary left. Matgamna’s descriptions of the practices and ideologies of the post-Stalinist left are often thought-provoking. The left Stalinist embalming of Lenin is described as the work of a “Leninolator” and of “Lenin-olatry”. The Stalinist picture of the world is “totalitarian utopianism” and the former Trotskyists who capitulated to Stalin “self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik social engineers”. Liberal interventionist are dubbed “mañana third campists”, their “socialism” always for the distant tomorrow.

The text also has engaging cultural references — tales of Prester John, Kim Philby, slaves crucified on the Appian Way, Marlon Brando and others. Avid followers of the left will enjoy Matgamna’s pen portraits of the principal leaders of the post-war Trotskyist groups in Britain.

Gerry Healy led the SLL and WRP until it exploded after his sexual abuse of members was made public in 1985. By then Healy had sold the organisation to the Libyan, Iraqi, and other Arab states, as an agency to spy on the left and refugees. The Healyites were characterised by their millenarian catastrophism, their frozen words of Trotsky used to justify political lurches, and by gangster politics.

Ernest Mandel was the principal theoretician of the post-Trotsky Fourth International, responsible for rationalising its adaptation to the Stalinist “workers’ states” in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Mandel died in 1995, a few years after the collapse of Stalinism had destroyed his theoretical edifice, leaving a movement clinging to a venerable name while desperately wondering where the “revolutionary process” had gone.

Ted Grant spawned the current Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. He redefined socialism as “nationalise the top 200 monopolies” and an enabling act. He peddled the fantasies of “proletarian Bonapartism”, the military substitutes for working-class agency under Stalinism, but also in Syria, Portugal and latterly Venezuela. Grant’s supporters eulogise the capitulation of Liverpool city council while evading concrete political questions with fantasy sloganeering. Grant did not teach his followers to think, but to do political parrot work.

Tony Cliff was a purveyor of toy-town Bolshevism, a man who bent the stick so far on the revolutionary party that the SWP came to represent a parody of third period Stalinist mono-factions. Cliff joked about trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Paris metro, but the legacy he left was more akin to a map of the Moscow sewers. For the SWP, nothing is forbidden in pursuit of organisational advantage. This makes for an increasingly incoherent group that is now a galaxy away from the Marxism of its origins.

If the history of the left is so miserable, what examples of hope are there? There is much to learn from the small third camp Trotskyist tradition around Max Shachtman and Hal Draper which survived during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the left have sobered up over Syria, where few socialists could support the Daesh terror even by implication, and where most recoiled from any support for the barbarous Assad regime. Similarly, the Brexit vote saw sections of the left abandon their previous nationalist positions. There is something of a revival in social democratic reformist projects.

The bigger picture includes some disarray among our main enemies, the ruling classes, as illustrated by Trump and May. Most of all, the politics of the AWL provides the most important embodiment of hope.

The AWL has forged a living tradition of rational Marxist politics, with realistic assessments of the great global events of the last half century and a series of interventionist political conclusions aimed at mobilising the working class and transforming the labour movement.

The AWL has renewed the great Marxist tradition from a century ago. We do not start from scratch. All is not lost. Much of the left may be in disarray, but the forces of independent, third camp Marxism are alive. With our help, the new generation of socialists will make this politics their watchword.

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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)

 .

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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