Fourth International World Congress 2018: Praxis

The Seventeenth World Congress of the Fourth International (FI) took place on the chilly Belgian coast from 25 February to 2 March 2018. This congress takes place eighty years after the FI was founded by revolutionary Marxists on the outskirts of Paris in the extremely difficult conditions of 1938 Nazi-occupied Europe. Leon Trotsky in exile wrote the founding document ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’, usually referred to as the ‘Transitional Programme’ after the demands it included; transitional demands such as to open the books of the large companies and implement a sliding scale of wages linked to inflation. Such demands are ‘transitional’ because, reasonable though they are, they cannot be met by a capitalist system which relies on trade and diplomatic secrecy and on shifting the burden of economic crises in times of austerity onto the working class. The transitional demands link theory and practice, link Marxist theory of how the capitalist economy works with political practice to overthrow this wretched economic system. The link between the two is sometimes named as ‘praxis’, and this praxis in one form or another runs as a red thread through the history of the FI up to the present day.

The Fourth International continues the Marxist tradition of the first four congresses of the ‘Third International’, congresses which were rooted in the revolutionary practice of the 1917 October Revolution. Those first four congresses, in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922, operated as a space of debate and sharing of experience from Russia, of course, and from communist parties that were being formed around the world to extend and protect the revolution. Each congress was a place for the theorisation of the quite unexpected leap from Tsarist feudalism to the construction of socialism, an experiment in freedom that was brutally crushed by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s. Trotsky’s call for a new international in the 1930s set itself against this bureaucratic counter-revolution headed by Stalin and the disastrous transformation of communist parties of the Third International, the ‘Comintern’, into diplomatic tools of Moscow. The criminal twists and turns of political line transmitted to the German Communist Party by this highly centralised bureaucratic apparatus – an apparatus that separated the ossified ‘theory’ which Stalin treated as a quasi-religious worldview from manipulative ‘practice’ – had left the working class defenceless in the face of fascism. We face such dangers again and new threats alongside an intensification of repression around the world to which sections of the FI and other revolutionary organisations are subjected.

The twists and turns of the bureaucracy are tragically mirrored in the various splits and purges of the myriad groups and ‘internationals’ that have spun out of the history of the Fourth International since 1938 and the murder of Trotsky by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico two years later. At every point in that history of the attempt to connect theory and practice we have been participating in a praxis which takes us forward in the struggle against capitalism, a praxis in which it is absolutely essential that we avoid two traps: we have to avoid academic-style theory which tells us how the world is or should be rather than learning from the experiences of revolutionaries around the world; and we have to avoid a simple direct jump into activity without the critical reflection that practical engagement with different contexts enables. Praxis was a signature concept in the work of Hungarian Hegelian Marxist Georg Lukács who, before he went on to head the Star Wars film franchise (not), developed an account of the collective self-conscious agency of the working class. The notion was taken up by anti-Stalinist dissident philosophers in Yugoslavia, the Praxis Group which the FI was in close contact with in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reflections and interventions on how to link theory and practice were the stakes of the debates from 1917 just over a century ago, and they were the stakes of the debate at the Seventeenth Congress in 2018 which brought together delegates from Sections of the FI as well as sympathising organisations and permanent observers and visitors. Nearly 200 revolutionaries were able to travel to the congress, a major accomplishment in the face of travel and visa restrictions for many comrades. Some sections were missing, a disappointment, but the Philippines section made it, as did delegates from other countries in Asia and across the Americas.

The three main documents worked up over the last few years by the elected leadership of the FI, the International Committee, separated out three main aspects of an orientation to contemporary struggle in different contexts around the world. This was a contentious choice itself, and one which the ‘opposition platform’ refused to go along with (and that platform stayed firm to its one document which was voted on at the end of the conference along with a second opposition text on the new era and tasks of revolutionaries that had been submitted by a minority of the FI leadership). It would be possible to argue that such a separation into a first text on capitalist globalisation and geopolitical chaos (what we are up against now), a second text on social upheavals and fightbacks (forms of resistance), and on role and tasks of the FI (what we must do in order to build that resistance and our own organisations) itself cut into praxis, that is, separated theory from practice. Did it? No.

A fourth main document, on the destruction of the environment and an ecosocialist alternative, could also be accused of separating out one aspect of the current global context of exploitation, resistance and revolutionary tasks. However, the key question was whether the contributions around these documents that took up the bulk of the time comrades were together would also weld these separate theoretical-practical issues together. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating (as Engels once remarked in an essay on utopian and scientific socialism), in this case, for the vegetarian minority, alongside the eating of too much cheese and quorn cutlets in a total institution with us packed into shared bedrooms at night and well sealed off from the freezing wind and sea outside.

The discussion and voting consolidated a profound shift that had taken place inside the FI in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of any pretence that socialism had existed in that part of the world and the first signs that China too was taking a path from bureaucratic repression to full-blown capitalism. The 2003 World Congress of the Fourth International rewrote its constitution to finally break from the impossible unwieldy task of maintaining itself as a ‘world party of socialist revolution’ (which had been proclaimed in Trotsky’s founding document) to be run on Leninist democratic centralist lines. This shift in perspective was also bitterly contested by the opposition platform who view it as a profound mistake, and they still also contest the parallel shift from building democratic centralist revolutionary groups around the full programme of the FI to an orientation to ‘broad parties’ of the left. These broad parties of the left provided the context for being able to argue for revolutionary ideas, a much more complicated and difficult task than simply unfolding the flag of the FI and waiting for the working class to rally to it. After all, with all the hundreds of orthodox Leninist-Trotskyist groups around the world that have emerged from the FI over the years, we have had many empirical tests of the thesis advanced by the opposition platform; not one of these theoretically-pure groups have struck lucky, and it is clear we need to tread a different path which actually connects with ongoing struggles.

A repetitive theme running through the World Congress, a theme which tangled itself around the red thread of praxis, was the idea advanced by the opposition platform – sometimes explicitly and many times implicitly – that if only they had the chance to present themselves openly as revolutionaries with the right programme, then there could have been breakthroughs, or at least we could avoided some of the demoralising failures we have experienced over the years. It is as if the working class is reaching out here or there with its hand ready to grasp the revolutionary flag, and the vanguard party in the right place at the right time with the right programme needs to put that flag into that eager hand.

The failure of the Workers Party in Brazil, of the regroupment process around elements of the communist party in Italy, and of the Syriza government in Greece are each, in one reading, evidence of the failure of broad parties, or, on another reading, of the force of circumstance, of the balance of forces that were against us in every case, and from which we must learn and rebuild ourselves. Each reading of these situations and of the way they can be linked together is grounded in a kind of practice, revolutionary praxis, and that is precisely what made the debates at this World Congress so sharp.

For many comrades of the Greek section of the FI who stand now with the opposition platform, for example, even the attempt to build Syriza was doomed to fail. For them, they repeated, Tsipras as leader of Syriza did not ‘betray’ when he caved in to the EU, he was always going to betray, and that betrayal needed to be mobilised against in alternative left coalitions like Antarsya. If so, shame on the FI leadership for sowing illusions in what Tsipras and Syriza could or would do. But then, does this mean that the four different parts of the FI who now work in Brazil in the new broad party PSOL are equally culpable, part of the same pattern of compromise and failure, as if the shift to the right of the Workers Party under Lula was inevitable and unavoidable? At what point should we shout ‘betrayal’ against those we are allied with us as we build a left alternative. It is gratifying to be able to say that you have been proved right, but every such prediction and complaint against the reformists is itself ‘performative’, it has effects, and usually those effects are to isolate yourself from any and every movement. This is what will be insisted on by those who are with the FI majority leadership, including comrades in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. If so, shame on the sectarians for sabotaging what is being created, the conditions in which we can learn and build from those we struggle alongside.

In some respects the opposition platform are right, the Greek section was effectively sidelined by the FI leadership which was intent on supporting Syriza and it ignored the warnings and crucial necessary independent activity on the left by our comrades. A critical honest balance sheet still needs to be made of these events. But the ‘pattern’ that the opposition platform claims to find in the broad party projects of the FI, a theoretical fiction which relies on an abstract return to the good old days before 2003 when we were a world party composed of Leninist democratic centralist sections, leads to gross accusations and misrepresentations; false accusations that the Danish comrades in the Red Green Alliance voted for war in Syria, for example, or that our comrades in the Spanish State are colluding with the leadership of Podemos. Obsession with this ‘pattern’ of betrayal would, among others things, lead comrades in Britain to begin denouncing Jeremy Corbyn now instead of building for Labour victory in the next election. Work in the Labour Party and for Corbyn creates the conditions for revolutionary debate, in line with a transitional method. We know this from our own praxis.

The shift in the 1990s, away from democratic centralist world party to broad parties and alliances in social movements, was in response to a dramatic transformation of the conditions for revolutionary work and enabled two things; it was to a new ‘praxis’ open to anti-imperialist struggle and to the diversity of forms of resistance to multitudinous forms of oppression. On the one hand, it enabled an opening of the FI to parts of the world that had until then either deliberately or unwittingly been treated as outposts in which the flag should be planted. On the other hand, at the same time, it enabled an opening to feminist and LGBTQI and anti-racist activity, and, of course, to ecology, to ecosocialism, to an eventual self-definition of the FI (at the last World Congress which took place in 2010) as a revolutionary ecosocialist international.

Practical experiences from around the world directly linked with theoretical questions in the congress. Around the question as to whether China should be characterised as imperialist, for example, comrades from the Antilles and Pakistan explained how Chinese strategic investment and control buttressed local regimes. This debate gave us a different vantage point on the vexed question of ‘campism’, that is the temptation to side with the enemy of your enemy; concretely the temptation of some US-American comrades of the FI to combine valiant defiance of their own government’s military adventures with implicit support for China and Russia and then, a slippery slope, to the Assad regime in Syria.

The closed section of the congress voted on amended documents, delegates heavily endorsing the main texts and then electing a new International Committee (IC). The IC met immediately after the congress to elect a Bureau charged with the day-to-day running of the FI between its annual meetings. Four new sections of the FI were recognised at this congress as well as new sympathising groups and permanent observer organisations. Organisations from over 40 countries now participate in IC meetings alongside existing FI sections voting at this world congress. In some countries there is more than one section which are in the process of merging (as has happened since the last world congress in the case of Germany) or which are operating together as publicly visible parts of a section of the FI (as is the case now in Brazil where the four groups which constitute the section today are all working together in PSOL).

On a world scale, these leadership bodies, the IC and Bureau, are almost the equivalent of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and then the Politbureau, but with a crucial difference; we speak openly about the differences in our organisation and are keen to learn from comrades and activists outside this ‘party’ that is no longer a world party at all. It is the tradition of the FI that voting is open on the floor of the congress, and that as well as votes for or against, abstentions and ‘no votes’ are recorded as well as indicative votes by the outgoing leadership, sympathising organisations and permanent observers. The amended ecosocialist document was overwhelmingly carried (apart from a couple of opposition platform delegate abstentions or votes against), as was a statement on the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh (for which some opposition platform delegates inexplicably submitted a ‘no vote’ – this in line with a distancing from the FI overall, a refusal to take any responsibility for decisions collectively made in the congress, something which augurs badly for the next years).

Among other things, not all positive to be honest (representation of women on the Bureau is now actually worse than before, and this will be addressed by the new 40%-women IC), this World Congress of the FI marked another significant shift in the centre of gravity of the international. We were originally rooted in Europe, the site of our first congress in 1938, and even when there were significant numbers of members in Latin America they were still often guided from Europe, and then from time to time rebelled against that. That problematic aspect of our history as a ‘world party’ was continued in even more extreme form in other rival internationals that split away and claimed to really be or to be reconstructing the FI (with some such international tendencies still directly ruled from London).

What we saw at the 2018 congress was a conceptual shift in terms of intersectional and postcolonial perspectives; which could be seen also as a deliberate engagement with some of the new ‘revolutionary keywords’ of the kind that FIIMG has been noting and exploring in the practice of the new social movements. The theory and practice of the first fifty years of our revolutionary century which was inaugurated with the October Revolution in 1917 was hobbled by the rise of the bureaucracy in the workers states, and it has been in the next fifty years, from the rebellions and new wave of struggles in the late 1960s that Trotskyists have learnt from different movements of the exploited and oppressed around the world. Now over 40% of members of the FI are in Asia, with new perspectives and histories to enrich the revolutionary tradition. Reports on the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, Islamabad and Manila made it clear that this ongoing development of revolutionary theory is being combined with practice. This was praxis, and the path ahead will be global debate combined with action to end capitalism, not simply to interpret the world but to change it.

JT

 

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Extractivism: GB84

We learn from analyses of ‘extractivism’ that the plundering of the earth will not only deplete the natural resources we need to live, will turn us against our relationship with nature as natural beings born from the same stuff that we are incited to exploit and destroy, but will also end up driving us all into ruin.

It is difficult to know what to make of a tangle of narratives about the end of coal-mining in Britain that pulls us into a pit of demoralisation and despair; whether this could energise us to renew our struggle for dignity and labour or whether it effectively undermines that struggle, opening the way to something worse. Undecided, unlike the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, which settled a lot of things at the time, with consequences; triumph for Margaret Thatcher (and the unleashing of more sexist abuse against her in particular, and against many other women politicians of the right and even of the left since, from the slogan taken up by one far-left group ‘ditch the bitch’ to the efforts to get the song ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ to the top of the charts on her death two decades later); defeat for the National Union of Miners (NUM) under the leadership of Arthur Scargill (and suspicion of the kind of Stalinist command politics that was necessary to hold the strike together but which continued in Scargill’s bizarre entry into revolutionary sect-politics in the ‘Socialist Labour Party’ and the disintegration of most British trade union left power-bases).

The book GB84 by David Peace, published in 2004, after the defeat was definitely sealed and hopelessness was being drummed in by the right set on privatisation, is certainly a grim read. It is a book that not only raises questions about the performative qualities of a style of writing that defuses hope instead of inspiring resistance – it is a book that extracts the worst most miserable elements of a struggle we now know to have ended in abject failure, brings them to the surface and rubs them in our face until we are exhausted – but also raises questions about the nature of ‘extractivism’ as such, extractivism that was the life-source for the miners even as it blighted their lives.

The drive to extract what we can now, short-term gains with poisonous consequences for our environment and for ourselves, is organised by an extractivist logic of capitalist accumulation; it is not only human labour that is corrupted and drained, lives broken and bodies thrown onto the scrap-heap for an early death, but the interior of the earth which bears us and sustains us destroyed in a broader logic. This is sometimes conceptualised as ‘neoextractivism’ on the part of regimes desperate to protect themselves and the limited gains they have made in encroaching on dominant profit-led economies only to find themselves dependent on deeper processes of global ecological destruction. This is what intertwines the reactionary logic of GB84 with the reactionary logic of extractivism; the danger of political paralysis in the face of the question that returns to haunt us when we reflect on the energy we poured into the NUM solidarity campaigns; what are we to do about extractivism as an integral part of capitalism? Was support for British coal-mining, for the extraction of fossil-fuel and for an industry that led to early death of those sent down into the ground and the rest of us coughing up our guts when the stuff is burnt, tactical, or what?

This is one question among the many that divides the left in Latin America torn between defence of the ‘pink-tide’ governments attempting to draw on the strength of their land to keep their economies afloat when under attack from imperialist encirclement, and celebration of Pachamama, ecosocialist defence of mother earth and indigenous peoples against the quasi-Stalinist fake-socialist governments who are willing to sacrifice ecology on the altar of realpolitik. This is why ‘extractivism’ is such a big deal in Latin America among revolutionary socialists, and why the stakes are so high as the Latin American left agonises about a choice between finishing off capitalism or finishing off the world. The debate forces a more complex historical-materialist system-oriented reflection on the broader deeper conditions of possibility for capitalism to have developed in Latin America and the reliance of the West on the material necessary for communication technologies, for the development and survival of high-tech service sector late capitalism, neoextractivism. The debate has consequences for some of Marx’s extractivist assumptions, and for the intersection between working-class and anti-extractivist feminist struggle in Latin America.

GB84 plunges the depths of misery and conflict in a cut-up genre of writing that was defended by some reviewers as being ‘political gothic’ and by others as compatible with a leftist post-punk radical re-working of fake-objective journalistic style. Some of the right-wing press complained that it was ‘obscene’, noting that the year of the start of the strike, 1984, was indicative of the paranoid elements of the book. And this paranoia is actually at the heart of the book, revolving around two characters ripe for conspiratorial framing. One is ‘Terry Winters’ (loosely based on NUM chief executive Roger Windsor) who goes to Libya to get money from the regime for the strike, embarrasses Scargill after embracing Gaddafi on TV, and then takes a cut from the takings. The other is ‘Stephen Sweet’ (loosely based on Working Miners’ Committee impresario and Thatcher-stalwart David Hart) who is constantly manoeuvring to crush the strike and who is linked, through his driver ‘Neil Fontaine’ to a series of paramilitary interventions against the pickets and crackpot military coup scenarios.

Sweet/Hart is referred to throughout, through the voice of Fontaine, as ‘The Jew’, which gives an even nastier edge to the book, a repetitive insidious narrative device which gives a name to the class enemy behind the scenes, or, perhaps, in a generous reading, an enemy who merely thinks he is behind the scenes. The book paves the way for an image of the end of mining in Britain in which foreign forces will benefit and it implies that hidden enemies within were always pulling the strings.

The question ‘who are the extractivists?’ is the wrong question, one which launches us into a paranoid search for the enemy. The question is ‘What is extractivism?’ How does it function as part of capitalism, and what is the alternative?

Most left politics in the 1980s was organised around assumptions that growth would be the motor for us to release ourselves from capitalism, either through the canny policies of a social-democratic Labour government which would harness the accelerationist logic of capitalism – faster and more efficient production and consumption – or through a more radical break, acceleration of growth after a revolutionary transformation that would take us beyond the limits to growth that capitalism imposes on us. Green politics too often seemed to come at these issues from the right, and ecosocialist politics was hardly on the agenda then; and so the argument that the coal should be left in the ground and growth as such be put into question would then be seen as laying the ground for betrayal of the miners. That was betrayal which, paradoxically, some of the groups on the left most gung-ho for development were actually complicit in when they tried to spike the strike; so being bewitched by growth was clearly no guarantee of a progressive political position at the time. Instead, now we need to learn from the way one of the new keywords of the revolutionary left in Latin America, extractivism, is being put to work, and what the wider-ranging consequences are for ‘post-growth’ and ‘post-extractivist’ politics.

GB84 never asks what led to the miners’ strike or what happened after it, never contextualises the development of mining in the context of capitalism. Many things happened in the strike, and there was actually a different kind of growth, of human relationships and solidarity that continue to resonate today. There is little mention in the book of women organised against the pit closures, and then only to drive home the divisions between the impotent men and their angry wives, and there is no mention of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. There was historic defeat, true, but also some historic shifts, historic breaks. The book never asks whether one lesson of the strike is that we need to rethink whether we should simply push our foot harder on the acceleration pedal or whether we should look for the emergency brake.

 

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Identity again

The old left and libertarian ex-left are looking for scapegoats for the rise of the alt-right, but we need to reclaim ‘identity’ as a new revolutionary keyword for the left today.

There are signs of hope, of a revival of the left and of new links between the left and other social movements. These are new feminist and anti-racist social movements such as LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter which employ innovative vocabularies for describing exploitation and oppression, vocabularies which challenge the left. This is a new left with a new constellation of revolutionary keywords grounding its work. But this ‘strange rebirth’ of radical politics is taking place against the background of a shift to the right in mainstream politics. It is taking place as a new ‘alt-right’ linked to explicitly fascist groups has seized centre-stage in the US, and, to an extent, in Europe. And so the old left and those who were once part of the left look for someone or something to blame; among the contenders is ‘identity’. It is not a strong contender, but a weak one, which makes it easier to set up and attack. That attack on identity from within the old left then becomes one of the anchor-points of the latest language game of the libertarians, a tendentious analysis of the alt-right which pins the blame for its success on the left, the identitarian left and feminists and other assorted troublemakers. This attempt to pin blame on identity is a diversion from the real problems we face.

The alt-right is rooted in new social media. This is the phenomenon we should be exploring, not the right of people to declare their identity in politics but the framing of so much political debate in terms of identity in new social media. In that sense, yes there is a problem, but it flows from the message that is drummed home by the kind of media many of us use to engage in politics. Here, the medium is the message. Political interventions are tied to, and framed by, promotion of oneself and ones likes and dislikes, by often inadvertent and pernicious advertisement for the self and our connections with others who post and comment in the same kind of way. Then, indeed, it looks like radical politics boils down to an accumulation and sharing of identities. This intensive personalisation of debate is not the same as the ‘identity politics’ that is obsessively worried away at by those seeking reasons for the failure of the left.

Where is the rampant ‘identity politics’ that is accused of being one of the root causes of the rise of the alt-right? Perhaps one place we might expect to find it would be in therapy, therapeutic discourse inside and outside the clinic. After all, one of the bugbears of the old left and the disenchanted ex-left is that identity politics involves touchy-feely therapeutic appeal to ‘safe spaces’ and so the closing down of robust debate. There is some truth in the claim that the personalisation of media today feeds a psychologisation of politics, including radical politics. But actually there has been a profound shift in psychoanalysis, one of the core psychotherapeutic approaches, away from shoring up identity to questioning it. In some cases psychoanalysts still aim to support ‘ego’ identity, and some old-style psychoanalysis grounds that identity in a strong stable family and corresponding suspicion of non-normative gender and sexuality. However, much psychoanalysis today deconstructs identity, enables people to question how they have become who they think they are, trapped inside a certain kind of self housed by a certain kind of body. This deconstructive shift in psychoanalytic work is part of a broader cultural shift. While there is undoubtedly pressure on people to speak of their identity, we actually hear people in the clinic and in new social movements loosening their ties with fixed identities.

In the field of Marxist politics too, a field from which much of the current moral panic about identity has emerged, there is actually increasing fluidity of identity, in the new social movements that many Marxists now participate in and in new feminisms and mobilisation around sexual politics. If we look at the way Stalinism crystallised Marxism as if it were a science and how it became a worldview of the Soviet bureaucracy and its acolytes in the West, then we do see a strong concern with identity. Stalinism was one early identitarian twist to Marxist politics, a politics that in the early years of the 1917 Russian Revolution was much more open and experimental. The first wave of feminism in the first flourishing of the revolution was also a revolution and transformation of the family, personal life and identity. The socialist feminist movements fifty years later in the 1960s and 1970s were as much concerned with transforming identity as asserting it, and a more recent ‘third-wave’ feminism explicitly distanced itself from essentialist identities which tie women to their assigned gender and sexuality. Queer theory and politics, for example, emphasises the ‘performative’ basis of what is usually referred to as identity. It was Stalinist reaction, and now reaction against this questioning of identity that are the problems, not identity as such.

Questioning of identity and the temporary tactical claiming of identity in order to be heard in politics, and to be heard in the left, is a popular motif in many contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements. It is questioning that is underwritten by an approach that is sometimes described as ‘strategic essentialism’. Take, for example, recent protests against the 1917 Balfour Declaration which laid the basis for the construction of the Israeli State and the dispossession of the Palestinians from their land. That Declaration was actively supported a century back by antisemites in Britain who were very keen on identity, keen to identify Jews who would be refused admission to Britain and would be encouraged to settle in Palestine. Again, identity linked to politics is not a new phenomenon. We chanted in the demonstrations ‘In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians’. This chant, which gathered together protesters that included Jewish supporters of Palestinians, was, you could say, a statement of identity, but this was identity formed for that moment, ‘performative’ we would say, strategic. The fixed identity politics that is subject of so much bitter complaint is a mirage. What happens on the ground is very different.

What happens on the ground, in the everyday struggles against exploitation and oppression that bring people with many different kinds of identity together is still very different from the personalised identity-based communication that makes up new social media. The problem is not identity, which is one of the keywords of a new revolutionary left as part of intersectional politics, but the very attachment to identity by those who attack it, those who seem intent on turning it from being a mirage into a virulent threat. In some ways it is a threat to strands of the old left. The subversive tactical claiming of identity was a threat to Stalinism, and it is a threat now to those on the left who hark back to their nostalgic image of good old days where the working class was the only progressive identity in town. Those good old days never existed except in the imagination and dogmatic political programmes of those who wanted to channel all of the diverse struggles into a single unitary proletarian struggle. Those who look back, those who are enraged by the multiplicity of identities that comprise the new social movements, are transfixed by their own fantasy of identity that they repeat and disavow. No wonder they are powerless in the face of the alt-right and desperately search for something to blame.

There is no one cause for our problems, and identity is the least of it. Along with Stalinism and an old left, there are those who have left the left altogether. The libertarian ex-left that was once so canny with an endless series of front organisations, adept at formatting themselves into multiple identities, have then viciously attacked their erstwhile comrades, part and parcel of their journey to the right. They attract a new generation that takes on good coin the framing of political events in the mainstream and new social media. These libertarian ex-leftists systematically disparage the left and feminists and new social movements, sometimes fixating on ‘identity’. And here is the poisonous problem. The alt-right builds on the failure of the left, as fascist movements have always done in the past, and it also surfs to power on the back of libertarian ex-left discourse. It is time for these ex-left libertarians to take some responsibility for this state of affairs, stop harnessing critiques of the alt-right to their own agenda, and cease their campaign against the left cloaked by disingenuous warnings about the dangers of ‘identity politics’.

 

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Subaltern Labour

Many revolutionary socialists are joining the Labour Party in Britain to support and take forward what has been called the ‘Corbyn Revolution’, the upswing of activity and hope that has accompanied the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party and then his success in taking the party close to victory in the 2017 general election. This is not at all to say that there are many revolutionary socialists, just that members of many different tiny left groups that remained outside the Labour Party and quite a few ex-members of those groups have decided that now is the moment, that now something significant is happening to change the political coordinates of British politics. It took the massive influx of new members, and returning members, those who stayed away for so many years, those sickened by the betrayals of the Blair leadership – neoliberal privatisation and imperialist war – to change the minds of those on the left, of those left of Labour.

Many of the revolutionaries hesitated, and this is understandable, partly because the Labour Party did indeed seem to be a rotting corpse, a bureaucratic apparatus feeding the careers of the dwindling number in the Parliamentary Labour Party willing to risk staying in the game of political musical chairs, and partly because there were alternatives. There were serious attempts to build a ‘left of Labour’ force, not so much as an electoral force but as a campaigning pole of attraction which would link the revolutionaries with the rest of the left. The most significant of these forces in recent years was Left Unity, formed after a call by Ken Loach to defend the NHS, and for many of those involved it was worth staying the course even when Corbyn was elected leader the first time around. The argument was, and it is an argument that we should still respect, that there are many left activists who have a history inside the Labour Party who find the routine of ward and constituency party meetings simply intolerable, and there are new generations of activists who are suspicious of party politics as such, for very good reasons. There needs to be a broad struggle against austerity and in solidarity with the oppressed in Europe, and beyond, and this movement needs to include and mobilise with those who want to keep their distance from the Labour Party.

This time of hesitation was, for some involved in Left Unity also an agonising lingering death of their hope of constructing something that really did ‘do politics differently’, as the tagline of their new party promised, while precisely at that time something new was being born. It took a while to realise that the left of Labour party was being born not outside the party boundaries, but inside them. It was unavoidable, necessary, part of a process of clarification for individuals and small groups as they learnt to work with the new activists inside the Labour Party and, particularly during the 2017 general election, and realised that canvassing for a Jeremy Corbyn government could actually be part of revitalising the left. The task during that period was to argue for a ‘liminal’ approach, for working at the boundaries of the party, working with those who had chosen to join and those who, for various reasons, would not join or rejoin. That approach is still valid, though we now also need to work at the boundaries in a more consistent way that grapples with pressing tasks that relate to internal structures of the Labour Party. To be liminal now means, for most revolutionaries, to take seriously what is happening inside the Labour Party while still doing our level best to keep links with campaigns and individuals that remain outside.

Liminal work now means a political shift to what could be called ‘Subaltern Labour’. We take our cue here from the debates in postcolonial activism and theory. To be clear, the term ‘postcolonial’ does not mean that we are beyond colonialism, that we can forget it. Precisely the reverse, it means understanding and mobilising against the way that colonial logic not only structures the relationship between the British state and its old colonies but also structures the internal politics of Britain now. We see that postcolonial double-edged replication of ideology and oppression in, for example, the ‘confidence and supply agreement’ that the British Conservative and Unionist Party has made with the Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland. This is an agreement that is not merely a coalition with the political wing of the Old Testament, but an incorporation of what was shunned as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ in the old colonies into the metropolitan centre. We also see it in the Grenfell Tower fire, a fire made possible by the profit-driven and racist logic which placed migrant families in a housing block with fancy cladding that would look nicer to the wealthy residences around it. The prettification of poverty and its intersection with ‘race’ is exactly what postcolonial theory homes in on. Colonialism continues today in new forms, and it is necessary to speak about it.

It is necessary to keep speaking about the colonialism that is so central to the British state, but it is difficult to do so. It is difficult because the dominant political discourse – the mainstream way of describing what politics is about – buries the voices of those who protest, either by making them seem irrational or, in a new twist that elements of the libertarian right are keen on turning, making it seem as if being anti-racist is equivalent to being anti-white. It may even be, some postcolonial activists argue, that those subject to colonialism are silenced to such a point that they feel that every complaint, every description of their exploitation and oppression, is distorted and misheard. From this argument comes the question as to whether the postcolonial subject can speak at all, whether the subaltern can speak.

Why subaltern? Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial activist question ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ picks up from the prison writings of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci who was incarcerated by Mussolini. Those prison writings by Gramsci, intended for his comrades still working outside in the factories and in the countryside, Italian workers and peasants, had to be coded. One of the codes was to speak of ideological struggle against capitalism in terms of a ‘battle for hegemony’, and now it is code that is misread, read too literally by some of Gramsci’s present-day readers as if our main concern is simply to win a battle of ideas and as if that battle rages across society. For Gramsci, the battle for hegemony was a battle inside the workers movement, a necessary battle over the best way forward to overthrow the capitalist state. Gramsci was a revolutionary. Another of the code-words in Gramsci’s prison writings was to refer to ‘subalterns’ instead of peasants or the proletariat. Subalterns are the working class activists and those who are in solidarity with the working class, and a key part of revolutionary activity is to find ways of articulating what the real interests are of the working class, to enable it to ‘speak’.

For the subaltern to speak, then, is to voice the interests of the revolutionary working class. For postcolonial activists, and this is why they are so important to our struggle today; it is also to link working-class struggle with the struggle of the oppressed against racism, sexism and the manifold dimensions around which people are divided from each other in order that our rulers are able to continue ruling. To speak is to produce not just a better more accurate description of the world but to begin to produce a different world. Striking, occupying, overthrowing the state includes speaking, arguing, and so it is a form of labour, the assertion of what is most creative about human labour. When we find a voice for the oppressed, struggle to make it heard, struggle to make that mean something in terms of political action, we are engaged in ‘subaltern labour’.

But there is another aspect of this which is equally important, which is that we are all in some sense ‘subalterns’ on a political terrain that is hostile to us. That is the case for those who remain outside the Labour Party, in Left Unity, for example. There is a real danger that revolutionaries who remain outside the party will be cut off from those who have gone in to support Corbyn, and then the danger is that their isolation spirals into a series of sectarian complaints about what Corbyn and the Corbynistas are doing wrong, carping at every false step as they seek to differentiate themselves and justify their own separate existence. Their voices, their genuine critical analysis of the limitations of the Labour Party will then not be heard. We need to ensure, as part of our political activity inside the boundaries of the party, in the liminal space we defend as crucial to our revolutionary politics, that these voices from our comrades outside are heard. We should be arguing, for example, that Left Unity be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party, that it be welcomed as an ally of the left in the party. The point is not whether or not this will be accepted by the Labour Party; the point is to keep that existence of a left outside on the agenda. This is part of the struggle now inside Labour, to keep those voices as part of the radical Corbyn movement.

And the problem of operating on a hostile political terrain is also the case for those of us who join the Labour Party. The problem here is not only to do with the nature of machine-politics – a problem that is evident in the activities of Momentum and the way it replicates the very undemocratic practices it pretends to organise against – but also to do with how we speak. This aspect of the problem, how we speak inside the apparatus, is intensified by the existence of the ‘many revolutionaries’ who have now joined the party or, to be more specific, of the ‘many tiny groups’ who have joined. The task that confronts us is how to speak in such a way that enables us to continue functioning as revolutionaries – if we cannot do that, then it was never worth joining up – and that task itself has to deal with three audiences, three groupings inside the Labour Party that will be watching us. The first two groupings are two obstacles.

First, there is the party apparatus – Labour Party central office and the Parliamentary Labour Party and the right wing of the party which is not a negligible force – that will be keen to seize on us, make us illegitimate, silence us, treat as subalterns who should not speak, perhaps generously accept our help in canvassing on condition we remain silent, keep to our place as subaltern labour. Second, there are the entrist sects who have come into the Labour Party to recruit, to feed off the new Corbyn movement rather than build it, who even have the perspective of splitting away a part of the party into something they can remake in their own image. They will be willing, when it suits their interests, to finger us, and at the same time to accuse us of being reformist stooges. We need to clearly differentiate ourselves from the Labour Party apparatus and from the sectarians who will damage Corbyn and sabotage the growth of a left of Labour movement that might even take power in Britain.

The third audience, those who will be watching us, and they are those who, we must be honest about this, we want to watch us, to listen to us, are the Corbynistas. If we really want to locate ourselves in the Labour Party as mainstream pro-Corbyn people, and we should want to do that, then we need to be able to take the ethos of ‘doing politics differently’ that some of us have learnt from our time in Left Unity into this new context. Revolutionaries in Left Unity learnt that we could not build Left Unity by fixing a line that we wanted to be adopted in advance, caucusing to ensure that we were organised in meetings. We could not do that because we knew that those we were working with, a new generation of activists suspicious of party-organisational forms, would see this as dishonest. We needed to be open about what our allegiances were without imposing them.

Now inside the Labour Party we need to be able to work with a range of different left political viewpoints – the Corbynistas have various strategies, and some of them are committed to the long haul of parliamentary reform with or without Corbyn – in order to win even parts of the apparatus over to the left. There are, it is true, long-standing Labour Party members, even some councillors and, who knows, even some MPs, who are, with the success of Corbyn, remembering that they are social democrats, not merely opportunist or careerists. But there are many who are loyal to the apparatus, dangerous hardened reformists. So, when we work as revolutionaries with the Corbynistas we will need to, indeed, mobilize together in a process of subaltern labour with them in which we are covert at some points and know how to strike when the time is right. And at the same time, we need to be clear that we do have some disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn and particularly with some of the political forces that have surrounded and ‘advised’ him.

One of the fields of battle, our battle for hegemony, will be over delegates and election publicity, and the ongoing canvassing as Corbyn tries to keep the party on permanent campaign footing will be testing for us as we try also to mobilise for demonstrations. Connected with this, and even more important in the long term will be around political education. In some parts of the country the Corbynistas have made it clear that they are open to include in their political education discussions those who are still outside the party. Political education here must include the role of revolutionaries historically in the Labour Party, ranging from dual membership once permitted to the Communist Party to the affiliated Independent Labour Party. It will include critical discussion of ‘entrism’ and what the difference is between secretive sect politics and our role as mainstream pro-Corbyn activists.

In this, our own distinctive propaganda will be essential, and the profile of our revolutionary allegiance to international dimensions of political activity and identity should be a top priority. At every moment, then, we will be faced with the pressure to hide who we are, to be subalterns, or to speak only in the language that our enemies understand, but we need to engage in serious engagement with the Corbynistas, to build an explicitly revolutionary current inside the party that also draws energy from outside, subaltern labour.

 

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Liminal: Working at the boundaries of the Labour Party

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party was a significant event in Britain, changing the terrain of politics at a time when things were generally already shifting to the right. The Brexit result in the referendum and the election of Trump on the wider world stage were symptomatic of this rightward shift. The election presented, and perhaps it still does present, an opportunity, but not if we simply engage in wish-fulfilment about what we hoped it would be rather than look the facts in the face.

We need to know what the election of Corbyn was and what it was not. It was not a transformation of the Labour Party (LP), and phrases like ‘Corbyn revolution’ are inspiring but inaccurate representations of what happened when Corbyn was elected. Neither was it an organised rebellion against the LP apparatus with a broader movement able to build an alternative politics with Corbyn as the public face. Again, that characterisation of the ‘Corbyn movement’ is quite misleading, even though it is understandable that supporters of Corbyn use that phrase as short-hand to describe the process. Neither was it the election of a charismatic populist who was able to inspire people desperate for an alternative; there were aspects of that desperation, but Corbyn was a much more careful and humble figure than some of the talk of ‘Corbyn-mania’ made him out to be. No, it was the election of a decent hard-working left MP who was, first, well-known among the far left inside and outside the LP and, second, respected as an alternative to old crony left politics. The two aspects are interlinked, and they could be as much the undoing of Corbyn now as they were the making of him two years ago.

The first aspect is Corbyn’s record on the left, a supporter of different campaigns, a voice inside parliament and willing to use the resources he had there (physical and symbolic) to link not only with extra-parliamentary politics but also, importantly, to link across to the outside of the LP. This immediately made him a trustworthy figure for many on the left as well as those involved in different solidarity movements, and even connecting with feminist politics (in a more muted way, but even so significantly beyond the scope of usual left LP practice). Those in the left groups and, more importantly, those who had once been involved in left groups mobilised for him. Those were the closest to the organised ‘Corbynistas’ feared by the popular press, and they valued something in Corbyn’s approach after having been sickened by the sectarian and bureaucratic practices of their own past groups. These forces connected with a second aspect.

The second aspect brings in many of those new to politics, suspicious of the political elites, suspicious actually of party politics as such, and not only of the far-left. Their involvement came at a time when the sexual violence scandals in the SWP were still in the recent memory of those starting to be involved in anti-austerity campaigns; the far-left as an organised political alternative to the LP was pretty well dead, written off by many young activists (particularly those drawn into a kind of politics in which feminist and ecological and alternative-movement politics was important). What is crucial here was that Corbyn was not ‘charismatic’ in the old sense, not a ranting populist, not making empty promises; his new supporters are the people who streamed into the LP, but then, after joining, kept away from the branch meetings, leaving space for the ‘organised’ left to move in and, in most cases, mess things up again.

We should be clear about this, however much we admire Corbyn, and however much we hope that something can be built from his election victory; that the election was for Jeremy Corbyn as an individual, and that if and when he leaves the scene, for whatever reason, there is no other ‘Corbyn figure’ to replace him. When he goes, the LP as a left force is likely to wither with his departure. He is a strange ‘anti-charismatic’ figure whose very break from charismatic politics makes him function in an appealing, almost charismatic way. They voted for Jeremy, not for a fictitious ‘team Corbyn’, and as an individual, not part of a movement. He was never, as the chair of the north Manchester rally kept desperately repeating during the first election leadership campaign, to be ‘the man with the plan’. He didn’t have a plan.

The attempts to cobble together a ‘movement’ in the LP after his leadership election have been shambolic. And this is partly because the LP apparatchiks simply repeat the way they usually organise, and partly because they have been joined by left-sectarians, some of whom jumped ship from Left Unity soon as they saw a bigger recruiting ground. Momentum is one key example, but not the only site in which ‘Corbyn supporters’ try and build something after the event of the leadership election, and do actually reinstall exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn opened up an escape from, opened an alternative to. What these attempts to build something after the event around Corbyn have done is actually to fall into a trap, the trap of old-style left ‘party’ politics in its worst sense, of bureaucratic fronts and manoeuvres and stitch-ups.

It is sometimes said that Corbyn is ‘trapped’ by the apparatus. That is true, to an extent, but it is a trap he has willingly embraced. He, for all his strengths, is a Labourite, he sees change in society as being brought about through the LP, and he is surrounded by a coterie of advisors who are in tune with that project, a political project that means humouring the left Trades Union bureaucrats and holding the party together at all costs. This has played out in appalling ways, with John McDonnell and other Corbyn supporters calling on LP activists to respect local council budgets – to set ‘legal’ budgets which effectively administer the austerity and neoliberal cuts handed down from central government – and with Corbyn even at one point compromising on the ‘free movement’ question, even imposing a three-line whip to vote for triggering of Brexit (after not doing the same over the Trident vote). And it is evident in Corbyn’s attempt to win back seats for the LP in Scotland (where the LP is, in some parts of Scotland, so unionist it is willing to stand down candidates in order that the Conservatives will win against the SNP). The LP is a unionist party, and Corbyn does not challenge that (ironically, paradoxically, after his honourable record in support of Irish republicanism).

Space to the left

The effect of the return to the old party politics that Corbyn was elected by many precisely to combat is toxic on progressive politics and on the far left, which should have, which was starting to learn better. It is toxic on progressive politics in the sense that it takes us back to machine-party politics, exactly the politics that those who voted for Corbyn were repelled by. Now they are repelled again. Many of those who joined the LP don’t even need to actively decide to leave because they never really signed up to be part of branch squabbling, but they are drifting away, disappointed already. When they encounter what is going on in Momentum, or when they come into contact with ‘revolutionary party’ alternatives to the LP (like the SWP or its little brother Counterfire) they are then repelled by politics altogether. At best, they go on to join campaigns and anti-party network organising. Let’s hope they at least do that, and we can try to stay in contact with them when they do that.

And it is toxic on the far left. It leaves groups like the SWP crowing at Corbyn’s missteps on the side-lines, waving their papers and ready to try and mop up those who are disillusioned with the so-called ‘Corbyn revolution’. They can even, for a brief period of time, present themselves as a radical alternative to old-style LP politics that the new generation of activists are fleeing from when they flee the LP after their brief time inside it. And it leaves some groups who have gone into the LP with a context in which they are drawn back into their bad old ways, not least dishonest deceptive ‘entrist’ politics in which they rely on ‘front’ organisations and hide their real allegiance.

We had a space to learn how to do things differently, and to learn from those involved in different campaigns. That space was and is Left Unity. Some of the left groups went into LU as a feeding ground and they had a destructive effect there. Groups like Socialist Resistance (SR) did, at least, work in LU openly and in a comradely way, trying to engage with anti-bureaucratic forms of working. It was a context – not perfect, but a good context – in which to connect socialist with feminist politics, in an organised way.

For all the problems with LU, what SR was able to do there, for example, was to configure its public activities – work with others and work with other activists who might hope at some point to be in the same organisation as its own – in a way that was congruent with some of the changes that were happening inside its own organisation. These changes were evident in the embrace of feminism and ecosocialist politics, changes intimately linked to being part of the Fourth International, which gave to those new politics an internationalist anti-imperialist edge. And those changes were manifest in the shift from ‘democratic centralism’ understood in a closed bureaucratic way to what SR now prefers to refer to as ‘revolutionary democracy’. The discussions of ‘safe spaces’ in LU (discussions that were problematic in lots of ways, problematic in the way they were framed by those in favour of them as well as those hostile to them) also connected with those changes. SR learnt what it was like to be able discuss with comrades it didn’t completely agree with about how to build something, and to be open about the disagreements among ourselves. There wasn’t a ‘line’ to be unrolled, and I think SR was respected for that by its old comrades and its new friends in LU.

The real danger now is that revolutionaries are jumping into the LP because it is afraid of ‘missing the boat’, but are jumping into a sinking ship. There are better ways of orienting to the hopes that Corbyn inspired and still, to some extent, inspires, than becoming part of the very LP apparatus that his election put into question. Insofar as there was a Corbyn revolution it lay in opening up a different kind of space in two ways. First, there opened up a gulf between activists and the apparatus – the LP today is two parties and we need to be clearly identified with the activists for whom Corbyn spoke during his leadership election campaigns. Second, there opened a space for exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn was once part of, a ‘liminal’ space that is neither entirely inside or entirely outside the LP. To be ‘liminal’ is to be at a boundary or at both sides of a boundary or threshold at the same time. The boundary in this case is the sharp-drawn boundary between the inside and outside of the LP, and the boundary some of us have unfortunately drawn between the inside and outside of LU. Being liminal also means treating what is happening now under Corbyn as being at an early stage of a process, a transitional point, not treating it as something decided. We don’t know what will happen with Corbyn and the LP, or with LU for that matter, and we need to be open to different possibilities, not abandon our friends in LU, not to burn our boats.

No, we don’t have to be like the control freaks of the SWP shouting from the sidelines saying that we always knew when he would slip up and posing as the fully-fledged alternative to the LP, and, no, we don’t have to be like the Socialist Party, now left in complete control of TUSC after the SWP have abandoned them, rather ridiculously offering ‘advice’ to him as to how he could really make the LP radical. Our place should precisely be in the ‘liminal’ space at the edge of the LP, working with comrades and new activists who have gone into the LP but also linking with comrades and new activists who are still suspicious about the LP, including those who are still in LU.

 

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Trans: Bureaucratic versus Political

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.