Momentum

Antitrust from 2001 stars Tim Robbins as a seemingly good guy entrepreneur who turns out to be a control-freak corporate villain. Robbins plays Gary Winston, CEO of a software development corporation NURV (an acronym for ‘Never Underestimate Radical Vision’). He offers Milo Hoffman, played by Ryan Phillippe, a great position in NURV to develop a new programme called Synapse, a global media distribution network, with complete creative freedom. It is clear who Robbins is channelling for the part. There is a nice moment when Milo asks Gary about some neat bit of tech equipment and comments that Bill Gates must have one of those; ‘Bill who?’ says Gary. Milo moves with his girlfriend Alice to Portland to work on the project, but things quickly go sour after it turns out that the source code that Winston supplied Milo has been stolen from other indie programmers that NURV has then rubbed out.

The twists and turns in the thriller plot include revelations that Alice and another co-worker Lisa, who Milo allies with to figure out what is going on in the corporation, are in cahoots with NURV. Alice has been working with Gary Winston from the outset, and Lisa is also a double agent who turns Milo in to the corporation when he is getting close to the truth. The film, which carried the tag-line ‘Trust is not an option’ pits the idealistic high-tech every-youth Milo – ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world’ is his driver – against the Gary Bill Gates character who is a complex typical corporate mixture of bad faith altruism and instrumental power-hound; ‘Are we making chemical weapons, kiddie porn, are we strip-mining?, he complains at one point, ‘No! Why are they after me?’

This is a pro open-source film, with the real good guys – that’s what Milo stands for – drawn into a corporate world in which knowledge and organisational control go hand in hand. The film pitched itself as part an ethical collective alternative to instrumentalist politics and against the reduction of truth to pragmatics and competitive manoeuvres. In this sense the film is about the breaking of trust in new technological forms of networking and is ‘anti-trust’, against monopoly in the field of information and ‘radical vision’. There is even a culture-nature sub-text, in which Milo is almost killed off in a seduction scene by Alice with a secret stash of sesame seeds that Milo is allergic to.

Mobilisation for Jeremy Corbyn through technological networks quickly became one of the signature strategies of Momentum. Originally a network formed during the internal Labour Party campaign to get Jeremy elected leader in 2015, it then crystallised into an organisation under the control of Jon Lansman, a new bogyman for the right wing press. They should have admired him for his new tech corporate savvy manoeuvring. Lansman established Momentum as a private company. It flew, quickly drawing in thousands of members, and so Momentum expressed and channelled the hopes of a grassroots movement around Corbyn inside the Labour Party, and was even open in its early days to those outside the party too. Soon it began meeting and gathering together the range of activists who had been drawn in by what promised to be a new kind of politics, including many of those who had been involved in Left Unity outside the party. Meeting and gathering was good for Milo, but soon this would change.

It was not so much that we were all Corbyn – the bar for that kind of direct identification with Saint Jeremy was set much too high – but that we could all be Milo, and maybe Ryan Phillippe will stand in for us supporters in the future biopic of the Corbyn movement. Lansman will be played by Tim Robbins. The Alice and Lisa characters, unfortunately but tellingly in a left-landscape still populated by ambitious young men who reduce women activists to bit parts, will give a sexist aspect to the story of the rise and fall of Momentum, onlookers who are recruited and then ditched in the course of the interplay between different forms of power. Momentum was fantastically successful in the immediate aftermath of Corbyn’s victory inside the Labour Party, peaking at a membership of 24,000, and drawing in many of the new activists that had been enthused by a radical alternative, a membership that way out-numbered the profusion of little sects that hoped to feed on Left Unity and then swarm into Labour to recruit new members there. The problem Momentum had to confront was how to organise these new ‘Corbynistas’ without allowing them to be picked off and used by seasoned far-left organisers.

There were thus three forms of organisation at work in this process – big, middle-sized and little corporate entities, each with their own varieties of Bill Gates’ smiley but wily leadership – that is, first, the Labour Party as a massive bureaucratic apparatus and host organisation determined to strangle the Corbyn movement at birth, second, Momentum itself under the direct control of Lansman, and third, Momentum groups around the country who, in different measure depending on the location, attracted and then resisted the rise of little Bills.

Some of the local groups, the one in Manchester as a case in point, have been seized by little Bills who are loyal to London. Some intensive mobilising around the 2016 AGM which played to a new cohort of middle-class members who were suspicious of organised politics and what they claimed were ‘inward-looking’ old Labour and Trotskyist politics led to a shock victory for the right wing of Manchester Momentum. Dishonest attacks on activists from the Trades Council, those who had made a valiant effort to keep Momentum locally to the left and out of the grips of Lansman, and even channelling of claims of antisemitism when the left dared to support Jackie Walker at the AGM, were all put in the mix. As a result, most of the left have abandoned this group, left them to it, and some key figures in Manchester Momentum have pitched in with new left initiatives.

Meanwhile, high-tech Jon has battened down the hatches on the mother-ship by using ‘new technology’ and ‘new forms of organising’ to suspend all the structures of Momentum and turn decision-making into ‘consultation’ exercises, one of the favourite ruses of corporate management. This is politics reduced to business, and then the business ethos takes over. Meetings now come a poor second – window dressing – to media distribution.

What is the real momentum of this organisation now? In some places this Momentum is all there is of the Corbyn movement, and the left has to make the best of it, but they must beware; trust has given way to an atmosphere of antitrust. In some places now Momentum is still the name of the game for ‘Corbynism’, self-organised and independent of London (and Lansman), and effectively operating as local franchises that have spun out of control of the main organisation. In some places Momentum has been wracked by internal conflicts, and by the emergence of ‘Grassroots Momentum’ onto which some of the tinier groups like Labour Briefing have lashed themselves as it sinks into its own self-created sectarian swamp. This mini-momentum without a ruthless CEO – the only thing to recommend it over its parent company – is already a feeding ground for the myriad of tiny Leninist groups for whom ‘democratic centralism’ operates as name for robotic and dishonest manipulation of any other bigger network they can get their hands on.

In many other places, fortunately, and this is the case in Manchester, new networks of the left, including activists from the Trades Council, have completely bypassed Momentum. Some of those involved in ‘Withington for Corbyn’ and other parallel groups around Manchester still remember the founding meeting of Manchester Momentum where the chair referred to the group by mistake as ‘Monument’. They stuck with it for a while, tried to make it work, and then sought out better company.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

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The Family: Transitional Notes

These notes were prepared for a discussion about the family at Manchester Socialist Resistance.

Two historical strands of socialist praxis come together when we approach the question of the family. The first is from Marxism, and in particular the application of a historical materialist methodology in the work of Engels to understand how the family emerged. The second is from feminism, and interventions to tackle the oppression of women in class society and the role of the family when something different from capitalism is being built. Those two historical strands are interwoven in our movement, so we need to move backwards and forwards between the two in order to think about how the family has developed, what functions it serves now and what our stance on it should be.

One of the difficulties we confront is that we have all either been brought up in families of some kind (even if they might have been pathologised as ‘broken’ families, pathologised all the more efficiently to tell us what it is like to be ‘normal’, which makes some of us want up to the fantasy of what a real family might be), and another difficulty is that many of us and those we work with politically live in or want to live in families.

We aren’t into setting up communes now, so we face a big gap between where we are now and where we want to be. One way of dealing with that gap would be to formulate specific transitional demands and maybe we can think of some, but in the meantime it is socialist feminism that has tended to provide something closest to transitional demands that address this question of the family. These notes are a first step to thinking about that.

Engels

Engels gives us one way of understanding the history and function of the family in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and that title knots together the three key elements of his studies. He drew on the work of Lewis Morgan, a nineteenth-century anthropologist. The argument is that there were three main stages in human history.

First there is a state of savagery based on simple hunting and food-gathering, and this is cooperative tribal society with no private property and nothing like the family or patriarchal social relations. The Marxist-feminist anthropologist Evelyn Reed (who was actually a member of the FI) argues that this period makes up the most massive stretch of human history, or better to say pre-history. This time of savagery is what Engels refers to as ‘primitive communism’.

It is during the second stage of barbarism, about 8,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago, that the most dramatic transformations happen. There is first an agricultural period when images of women become most powerful, as Goddesses or Earth Mothers or suchlike, but this is the culmination of a time of tribal communes or even matriarchal communes when women had been valued, sometimes looked up to as key players.

But then there is an economic transformation that gives rise to class society. There appears a surplus product that the hunter-gatherers away from the home, that is the men, control, and it is this emerging private property that gives rise to two apparatuses. Or, we could say, two manifestations of an apparatus to protect the private property of men that then separates into two separate apparatuses, the family and the state. The family ensures that what is the man’s private property passes down to the sons and this entails that the women is herself turned into a form of property. The state as a body of armed men ensures that private property stays in the hands of certain families.

The third stage that Morgan and then Engels describe is that of civilisation, where you have these institutions of the family and the state mirroring each other so that this civilisation is also a patriarchy; patriarchy is defined by the feminist Kate Millett as the kind of society in which men dominate women and older men dominate younger men, so you can see the chains of private property transmission being maintained.

You can see in Engels’ account an explanation for the rise of the family which guarantees private property as underwritten by the state which also accounts for women’s oppression. That logically leads us to see socialism as involving the withering away of the family as we know it with the withering away of private property and the state. This returns us to ‘primitive communism’, but as a higher stage of, if you like, ‘civilised’ communism.

That loaded term ‘civilised’ raises two problems with Engels’ account. One problem is that it draws on a kind of nineteenth-century anthropology that is now discredited, despite Evelyn Reed’s attempts to defend it; the assumption that is difficult to buy into is that human pre-history and history as such all goes together through these three stages. The sequence of slavery, feudalism, capitalism as forms of class-society is difficult enough to hold onto, but going back further and deeper into barbarism and then back further and deeper into savagery as if it is the same kind of thing all over the world is really problematic. The other problem is that this dialectical historical-materialist return to ‘primitive communism’ at a higher level also tends to simultaneously demean and romanticise cultures that are supposed to have existed, or perhaps even to still exist, as earlier states of humankind.

Engels was caught and we risk being caught in a colonialist image of those who are less advanced than us and in a gaze on original simple life-styles that then become fetishised under capitalism. This can be seen in the ideological motif of rescuing women in backward societies and it can be seen in the idealising of family relations that seem not yet to have been corrupted by commodities. The worst combination is when the West aims to save these women and keep them exactly as they are in the ‘natural’ state.

First wave feminism

Some of these problems are already there in the socialist movement at the end the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and they are there in what we now see as ‘first wave feminism’. This first wave feminism ranges from the suffragettes, some of whom were into equal rights for women under capitalism and very much in favour of capitalism itself and colonialism for that matter, to the feminists like the anarchist Emma Goldman or the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai in the context of the Russian Revolution.

The Russian revolution actually sees massive involvement of this first wave feminism; the revolution began on International Women’s Day in 1917 when women textile workers went on strike in Petrograd to demand bread and an end to the war with Germany. It is there that we see put into practice the idea that there can be no socialist revolution without women’s liberation, no women’s liberation without socialist revolution.

The family in Russia before the revolution was a cornerstone of Tsarist rule, and the wife was required to show ‘unlimited obedience’ to her husband by law, in some parts of the empire not allowed to read and write, to be veiled. The revolution was also, then, a revolution in family life, with women given equality under the law but much more important than this, first steps were taken to enable the family as such as an institution to wither away.

Collective cooking, washing and childcare provision made it possible for women and men to escape the family as a little prison, and open political debate and cultural ferment made it unnecessary to have the family as the only point of refuge from the outside world. In the first ten years of the revolution marriage was merely registered and then even this requirement was dropped. Divorce could be obtained by either partner without the other’s permission, abortion was legalised and the concept of illegitimacy struck from the law books. Partners in marriage could keep their own names, or either could take the name of the other. Trotsky took the name of his wife when married to Natalia, for example and their children took her name.

The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy put paid to these reforms, closed down the context in which the most progressive aspects of first wave feminism could flourish. As Trotsky pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed, the family become a site of reaction, of a political counter-revolution. Abortion was made illegal, women were thrown back into the home to bear children, sometimes alongside demands to work, and increasing political repression made the family a private place where people retreated. Emma Goldman’s early suspicion of the Bolshevik regime seemed to have been right all along, and Alexandra Kollontai became part of the Stalinist apparatus, her feminism as well as her socialism silenced. Woman as mother became a symbol and mainstay of the nation and, as in Germany with the rise of fascism, a strong family mirrored a strong nation state.

Second wave feminism

It is against this background that we should understand the role of second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s that accompanied the revival of the revolutionary left. The family and patriarchy became key issues to be fought within the left, and feminism has something to say about two of the most popular options.

On the one hand, the first option was to oppose the family. There were attempts to immediately put into practice new forms of sexual relationship and childcare in communes of different types, a direct rejection of the bourgeois family. For revolutionary feminism this was an opportunity to organise completely independently of men, to find a different way of life that also effectively cut off from broader working-class struggle. For radical feminism this was an opportunity to make a tactical break from the world of men, and to organise separately in the hope that this would force a rearrangement of power relations, but again with little energy put into broader socialist activity.

For socialist feminism the communes were an opportunity to engage in consciousness-raising, but were a short-cut to wider transformation, and the problem was precisely that there was no transitional space in which consciousness of the limits of life under the family could be connected with another kind of life in struggle against capitalism and life beyond it.

It is here that socialist feminists noticed the critique by their anarchist sisters, of a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ that afflicted groups that pretended that there were no rules and then made it difficult to challenge the implicit rules that governed the group and privileged traditionally masculine ways of organising, ways of organising that covertly uncannily operated like a family.

On the other hand, the second option left the family intact. There was a replication in the left of patriarchal forms of power, a replication of exactly the kind of undemocratic practices that Stalinism made its hallmark, and the separation of the student left from the workers movement also led some activists to idealise working-class community, and family. The family as such was a blind-spot in much socialist practice.

There is also a question here about the way the state has incorporated the family into its own wider apparatus. The welfare state brings together the family and the state. The family not only functions as a privatised economic unit for the reproduction of the workforce but is also a site in which the state intervenes to prescribe how children should be reared and how men and women should behave toward each other. Sometimes that state intervention seems progressive, and there are ideological and economic effects by which families do become more dependent on the state and feel themselves to be part of it rather than pitted against it.

So, there has been endorsement of the family by some sections of the left, in different ways by social democrats who want to improve the state and family and by revolutionaries who replicated the worst of the family in their own organisational practices. This simply confirmed what revolutionary feminism always suspected, that men needed to be avoided, and it led to more caution among radical feminists about making political alliances with men. Both are understandable responses.

Socialist feminism, on the other hand, still operated as a necessary critique of the left, a reminder that the Russian revolution itself was ‘prefigurative’; that is, the forms of struggle anticipated what society was to be built after the revolution, and it showed that the personal sphere of the family was a political question.

The left now

The left now is faced with some new versions of old problems, and we can briefly note some of these. More than ever before with neoliberal globalisation, mass migration and the disintegration of any pretence that there is one homogeneous community that we mobilise in working-class struggle against the capitalist state, we are faced with a multiplicity of family forms and, by the same token, different forms of women’s oppression. Let us take two examples.

First, during the Russian revolution, for example, socialist agitation in the country-side would mean releasing women from their veils, but from the time of the Iranian revolution the left is faced with a complicated series of questions about forms of resistance. Just as the veil may be a form of resistance, so may the space of the family be for those subject to racism. And at the same time these other families we are queasy about criticising are still operating as little cells, not necessarily revolutionary cells but prison cells for those we want to respect and protect.

Second, during the Russian revolution, for example, there was a space opened up for experimentation with new forms of relationship outside the tight frame of compulsory heterosexuality that the family enforces. Lesbian and gay activity found a voice as a part of the socialist struggle, but now we are faced with demands for gay marriage and recognition by the state of civil ceremonies. These demands both reinforce the family as an isolated unit and they subvert the bourgeois family form.

There is a contradiction here, and it is too easy to sidestep this question as if it were just a diversion from the real struggle. And the left faces another mutation of feminism into a third wave feminism that is marked by contradictions that are both productive and regressive. On the negative side, there is a break with history, with the history of the left and of what is seen as old out-of-date socialist feminism. The idea that resistance is from those who have ‘precarious’ employment and life-style sometimes avoids socialist debate, is part of an illusion that capitalism as such will just be transformed by alternative life-styles.

On the positive side, there is energy in the queer aspect of these new social movements, energy that is there in the alternative life-styles that are actually already breaking from the grip of the family. There is refusal of identity of any kind, and so a prefiguring of a kind of society that works on the basis of collective ownership of the means of production.

But the question remains: what transitional demands might we make that link this movement with working-class struggle so that we reach over that gap that divides those without the family from those who are still stuck within it, that divides those who have already escaped the family from those who still cling to it as the only secure place in a world changing according to the imperative of capitalist production? How could feminism enable us to configure transitional demands around the question of the family?

The discussion raised the question of emotional bonds that we have for families and the ideological force of the family as well as ‘historical materialist’ or ‘patriarchal’ aspects, and it was noted that today, even while the family seems to be mutating it is not disappearing, it is become stronger, used as a point to mobilise people for reactionary causes. And it is difficult to question, even to the point that there is a kind of ‘family realism’ like ‘capitalist realism’ which limits the horizons of our critique. Well, as many contradictions emerged in the discussion as in the opening talk.

 

 

 

 

Fourth International: Marginalisation and its Discontents

The seventeenth congress of the Fourth International (FI) will be held in March 2018, and in preparation for this, the general line of three documents – on Capitalist Globalization, on Social Upheavals and a document toward a text on Role and Tasks – were approved by the International Committee in February 2017 to open the World Congress Discussion.

The sixteenth congress was held in 2010, with representatives from sections of the FI, sympathising organisations and visitors from over 40 countries. Some important organisational and political steps were taken. For example, a section of the FI was recognised in Russia, very significant for us, of course, and there was recognition of a shift of the centre of gravity of the FI to Asia. Politically, the trajectory of the FI toward an open inclusive revolutionary politics was continued; sustained discussion of anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, sexual politics and feminism begun at earlier congresses was taken forward, and extended to encompass a conscious turn to ‘ecosocialism’. A number of key documents from 2010 are publicly available, and there is a documentary film record of the congress, mainly in French but with interviews with participants in different languages.

It is very difficult to briefly summarise the political line agreed in the three documents opening discussion for the 2018 congress. It is a little easier, perhaps, to do this by attending to some of the key programmatic differences that have been emerging in the past years, differences that revolve around contrasting balance sheets of the FI project to build ‘broad parties’. A lot hangs on this phrase, and some of the debate is muddled by exactly what constitutes a ‘broad party’, and what examples of success and failure by ‘broad parties’ should be mobilised to argue for continuing and deepening this perspective or for abandoning it. One reason for focussing on this particular aspect of the wide-ranging documents is that a Fourth International Opposition Platform has been formed to contest the ‘broad party’ approach and to contrast it with, they say, ‘building an international for revolution and communism’. Here I point to some of the problems with Opposition Platform approach, argue that a real revolutionary alternative actually lies in an extension of the perspectives elaborated in the three agreed documents, documents that require some amendment and nuance.

Between the lines

What are the stakes of this complaint about the failure of the ‘broad party’ perspective, and how useful is it? It is but one way into the debate that has now opened up and that will be carried out in sections of the FI around the world up to and including the congress in March 2018. The danger is that focussing everything around a false opposition between ‘broad party’ and ‘revolutionary international’ could obscure the many different political lines of agreement between comrades in very different contexts and organisations around the world.

The FI is not run on a ‘democratic centralist’ basis, and the agreed line of march at the congress has to manage a delicate balance between grasping a shared international perspective on the mutations of capitalism and neoliberalism on the one hand, and enabling the specific problems faced by sections and sympathising organisations on the other. More than that, there is a danger that the crucial political gains that have already been made in terms of anti-racist, ecosocialist, feminist and sexual politics could be overshadowed by this forced polarisation between the current international leadership and the opposition. On both counts, we have enough cases of sects and even ‘internationals’ that parade a ‘correct line’, littering the world with rhetoric to which no-one listens and which even provokes feelings of repulsion among new generations of activists suspicious of left parties of any kind. That is why it is necessary to bear those broader organisational and political issues in mind as we approach the documents and try to make sense of them and where they lead us.

The first document presents an overview of the development of new forms of imperialism, authoritarian regime and far-right forces, the threat to women, LGBT+ people, human rights and the environment, pointing out along the way that the demand for democracy ‘acquires a more subversive dimension that is more immediate than was often the case in the past’. It opens onto the second and third documents concerned with ‘the dynamics of popular resistance’ and ‘the conditions of construction of militant parties’.

The second document notes the shift in political geography from what the FI once called ‘the three sectors of world revolution’, the rise of the service sector and precarious employment, population displacement, and the development of different forms of resistance (new forms of trades unionism, self-organisation in cooperatives, debt struggles, ‘transversal’ peasant struggles, democratic and social justice movements, youth struggles, women’s mobilisations against violence, rape and feminicide, LGBT+ struggles, migrant and anti-racist movements, and protests against global warming). It points to successful mobilisations against dictatorial regimes and to defensive struggles, including against betrayals by social movements.

The third document warns against generalising a model for what the FI has to do, but rehearses the shift of orientation in the mid 1990s – the decision that ‘the perspective of building small mass vanguard parties based on the full programme of the FI had met its limits’ – and the shift a few years later to ‘a pluralist functioning that goes beyond simple internal democracy in a way that fosters both convergence and discussion, allowing for the functioning of a revolutionary Marxist current as an accepted part of a broader whole.’ It warns against ‘the elitist and or sectarian behaviour of far left groups in the social movements’, and even countenances ‘the dissolution of existing organisations’ (as has already occurred in the case of some sections of the FI) while ‘maintaining a framework of the Fourth International’.

Viewed through the lens of the ‘opposition platform’, we have three documents that continue a general line that has failed, and the prospect of dissolving our organisations in some cases into broader social movements evidently fills them with horror. Viewed from the perspective of the current international leadership of the FI, we have an opposition that is disappointed and impatient at the progress toward world revolution and which appears to believe that returning to the FI as a ‘world party’ which marks itself out from all the others will immediately solve the problems we face and will win recruits with the correct line. This line must, they say, break from ‘political forces or governments acting in the framework of capitalist management’, and work with forces with a ‘communist programmatic basis’ based on the working class as playing ‘a central role’ as part of a battle for a ‘transitional programme’ (embodied, they say, in the demand ‘No layoffs, for workers’ control over hiring’). Sections of the FI must be built as ‘revolutionary vanguard parties’ which aim at regroupment of revolutionaries internationally in the FI as a ‘world party’. There are complaints that the kinds of alliance that the FI has made in different countries have fostered the illusion that Western states could and should arm the oppressed.

The problem is that the problems we face are quite a deal larger than us, and we actually face a choice between a consistent approach to existing social struggles through which we gather around us activists who respect our engagement with different forms of politics, respect us enough to join us, and an opportunist tactical party-building operation which actually ends up making more enemies than friends among those who are actually doing more to bring about social change than we have been able to.

It is true that the ‘broad party’ approach could be seen as, and could actually be implemented in an inconsistent opportunist way, and that is the aspect of it that is homed in on by the Opposition Platform. Yes, the shift of allegiance from one contender for the status of ‘broad party’ could easily be read as some kind of way of merely going with the flow, abandoning our revolutionary compass points. That shift into the flow of most popular radical politics is what was once referred to in Trotskyist sect-jargon as ‘tailism’, tailing behind events, social movements or even leftist bourgeois parties.

However, the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ approach which confuses the vanguard with the party, and which leads to the party imagining that it is itself the vanguard, is actually the one most prone to inconsistent opportunism. That is the lesson we learn from comrades in struggle in the new social movements when they point to the way so many of the ‘left parties’ manoeuvre themselves in a way that is instrumentalist and dishonest when they aim to recruit what they view as the most ‘advanced’ sections of the movement and then use those new recruits as mouthpieces for their own revolutionary line.

Actually, ‘tailing’ behind is not at all what is meant by building a broad party (even if there have been occasional lapses in practice into the kinds of things the Opposition Platform fears). It is important, then, to clarify what it means and what it should mean in such a way that connects directly with the broader political and organisational steps forward the FI has made. This term ‘broad party’ covers a range of different social forms that include: anti-capitalist initiatives that problematise the concept of party as such; anti-racist and feminist mobilisations that involve the building of horizontal networks; intersectional initiatives that rework divisions based on sex and gender; and eruptions of democratic alternatives from within the heart of social democratic parties that connect with social movements. This surely is what the claim that democracy now ‘acquires a more subversive dimension’ means; these new social movements draw attention to the radical role of the demand for democracy, not merely as an expansion of bourgeois democracy but as something that challenges the undemocratic practice of ‘vanguard parties’. That demand is ‘transitional’, and then turns the demand for ‘workers’ control’ into something that is genuinely transitional.

One task in the discussions will be to acknowledge some of the missteps made by the FI – taking seriously some of the complaints of the Opposition Platform – while avoiding a retreat into the kind of ‘vanguard’ politics that has been discredited in new social movements and most working class organisations. The task here is to retain independence of movement in and alongside the movements we build, retaining our independence through participation in the FI. We will need to extract ourselves from the binary between ‘broad’ and ‘revolutionary’ which makes it seem as if ‘broad’ means political compromise and as if ‘revolutionary’ is a guarantee of the correct line, and orient ourselves within the new forms of struggle in such a way as to cut across the ‘broad party’ versus ‘vanguard party’ opposition. What capitalism is as such has mutated, and what it is to be anti-capitalist has also changed, and so it is from within a different map of global exploitation and oppression and with different compass points that we have to act. That much is clear in the FI documents, but another step needs to be taken within the framework they have laid out; in place of the Opposition Platform step back, another step that really is a step forward.

We need a more revolutionary approach to the question of ‘broad parties’ and to the building of social movements, movements that represent a qualitative shift from sectional protest to internationalist anti-capitalism. This approach needs to be based on an analysis of the wider effects of neoliberalism, of the return with a twist to the classical free-market liberal economics that existed at the birth of capitalism and on analyses of segregation of communities and political resistance.

The nature of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism needs to be grasped as comprising three elements, three key ideological and material mutations in global capitalism. The first, which is often fore-grounded in left analysis, is the stripping away of public welfare, something that is a traumatic shock to those used to state provision in some parts of the world, but not so strange to many parts of the world which have never had this public welfare. For most parts of the world, this aspect of neoliberalism is business as usual for capitalism, perpetual social insecurity and precarious economic existence in which women are expected to supply the care on an individual or familial basis that is not collectively provided. The second and third aspects are intertwined.

The second aspect is that the state, far from rolling back, actually rolls forward, intensifies in force. While any welfare provision is withdrawn, punitive sanctions are applied to those who fail to take responsibility for their own lives, and the securitisation of everyday life goes hand in hand with the transfer of powers to private security agencies. The second aspect of neoliberalism, then, is the intensification and distribution of police powers of the strong state, both through the concentration of powers in the nation state apparatus and through the delegation of authority to private companies or, in many parts of the world, private militias (including of narcotics and trafficking gangs). This second aspect is intimately bound up with misogyny, male violence, with the reinforcement of patriarchal authority structures.

The third aspect is the individualisation of everyday life, but far from heralding a simple return to classical liberal contract economics in which the worker is supposed to freely sell their labour power to an employer, this neoliberal version of individual responsibility carries with it a deep appeal to feelings of personal responsibility, so that women are not only made responsible for the care of families but made to feel guilty if they refuse that responsibility. We are all made anxious, made to feel anxiety as if it were only something internal to us.

This peculiar combination of welfare-stripping, intensification of state power and individualisation under neoliberalism has immense consequences for the capacity of the working class to resist austerity and violence, to build an alternative to capitalism. It puts misery onto the agenda of capitalist ideology and demands a response by the left to the misery experienced by those who live under capitalism today, misery which isolates and paralyses those who already suffer materially, misery which works its way in to the lives of those who try to resist what is being done to them.

Capitalism has always brought about the immiseration of communities and individuals, true. But what is being wrought now on a global scale is an ideological assault integral to neoliberalism which has material roots and material consequences. This is apparent, on the one hand, in the hypocritical appeals to ‘well-being’ and programmes of ‘mental health’ which include distribution of free pharmaceutical remedies for ‘mental illness’ in the developing world to hook populations onto medication which numbs their experience of oppression, and therapeutic self-help advice on television and in popular magazines which encourage each individual to ‘take responsibility’ for their distress and find personal solutions to what are actually political problems. It is also apparent, on the other hand, in the concern with personal solutions that are increasingly replacing collective action, in the ‘flight into therapy’ of some on the left (and in the feminist movement) who, disappointed with the prospects of political change, look to their own self-care and one-to-one care of others as the priority to enable them to survive. We should not underestimate either the way this impacts on left practice or the way some left groups react against it, closing themselves up and becoming more authoritarian.

One way of conceptualising this two-fold shift into the realm of the personal is to see it as a ‘feminisation’ of relationships (a very different and regressive stereotypical feminisation to the ‘feminisation of struggle and organisation’ that revolutionaries in the FI have been arguing for); feminisation because it is the taken-as-given commonsensical ideological qualities of women that are appealed to and harnessed in various governmental and NGO projects for ‘well-being’ and therapeutic change. There is, in sum, a widespread globalising ‘psychologisation’ of politics and of the experience and response to misery that we need to address. We need to put this on the agenda, alongside and interconnected with the other forms of social struggles, as revolutionary mental health politics (a politics that encompasses mobilisation of the millions in, or treated under the auspices of public or private mental health services). This question needs more work.

This neoliberal ‘psychologisation’ of individuals, communities and populations needs to be tackled in the context of three other related mutations of life under global capitalism which we can group all-too briefly under the heading ‘segregation’.

Forms of segregation

There are three aspects of this segregation, segregation that neoliberalism feeds and conditions, that each have consequences for the way we organise ourselves as revolutionaries. They are consequences that, on the one hand, make it all the more impossible for classic Leninist vanguard parties to operate and, on the other hand, make a distinctive revolutionary orientation by us to broad social movements even more crucial.

The first, which should be painfully obvious to all Trotskyists, is the fragmentation of the left. It is something we see all around us in the left as Stalinist politics goes into crisis after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and of our own framework that conceptualised our work in ‘three sectors of world revolution’. The Stalinist parties, already in disarray as a result of the centrifugal effects of ‘socialism in one country’ and their adaptation to their own bourgeoisie under ‘Eurocommunism’, have lost their compass points. Some of the residues of those parties try to retain those compass points with ridiculous and dangerous support for Putin, for example, or campist allegiance to other pretend-left authoritarian regimes or movements (Assad, for example). This fragmentation is something we also see closer to home in the sectarian conflicts between different interpreters of Trotsky or Luxemburg, and in the proliferation of different national groups and ‘internationals’. This rivalry affects every activist who comes into contact with us, provoking questions about what we are really and what we stand for and how we are to be distinguished from all of the others who say almost the same thing. It is rivalrous fragmentation that is evidently not going to be solved by ‘regroupment’ initiatives to bring all the Leninist vanguard groups together.

The second aspect of segregation is to be found in the political diversification of what it is to be ‘revolutionary’. It is clear that the conditions for political resistance are giving rise to a multitude of formulations which differentiate the people from the ‘caste’ or the ninety-nine percent from the one percent. This proliferation of terms to describe exploitation and oppression should not be treated merely as ideological mystification, or as a misunderstanding of the underlying conditions that can be clarified with a healthy dose of correct Marxist analysis. The diversification of struggles reflects the diversification of different dimensions of power, around dimensions of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or disability as well as around different experiences of class organisation.

The third aspect of segregation is the radical separation of different life-worlds, so that the revolutionaries in each group actually seem to inhabit a different mental universe from their rivals, and, worse perhaps, the revolutionaries live in a bubble and comfort themselves by finding reflections of the truth of their own particular analysis in the echo chambers of social media. This particular kind of segregation is one that also reinforces the sectarian hope that one correct revolutionary vanguard line will solve the problem, and the vanguard group that imagines that it has the solution itself cuts itself off all the more surely from the diverse contradictory social struggles that are happening around it. This is why participation in the broad social movements, and even, in some contexts, participation in the double reality of a broad party alongside revolutionary discussion in our own organisation as part of the FI is so vital. It is only this participation that will enable us to navigate and move across some of the boundaries that divide radically different radical life-worlds from each other.

We all now increasingly live in a world that has already for centuries of capitalism’s existence been grim reality for much of the population at the margins of the ‘developed’ capitalist world, a world of perpetual crisis, insecurity and precarious employment. Mass migration across national borders, internal dislocation as a result of various different strategies employed by neoliberal shock capitalism also means that the segregation that organises the experience of the oppressed and of the revolutionary left now occurs inside every major city rather than in ‘other’ exotic locations. That much is evident if we ask ourselves now, with the end of the ‘three sectors of world revolution’ framework that once guided our work, how many sectors of world revolution there are today. The answer is many, many and segregated, segregated in such a way that demands solidarity but which solidarity as such cannot repair, cannot put an end to.

With and in the margins

Instead of imagining that we can completely comprehend, control and predict the contradictory intersection of social struggles that will at some point give rise to challenges to the state and make visible the different forms of social organisation that already go beyond the limits of capital, we need to be open to the unexpected. That means working flexibly in diverse social movements, working in a world that is not organised as yet around any ‘core’ but which, in practically every version of resistance today, operates at the margins.

Here there is a further connection between the neoliberal psychologisation of misery under contemporary capitalism and the necessity for revolutionary activity in the broad social movements, and even in the building of broad parties. The Leninist vanguard approach which pretends to be revolutionary is actually not only a return to the past, but a return to a particular version of old left politics that is saturated in patriarchal vertically-organised disciplinary conceptions of organisation. It is the broad open inclusive approach of building horizontal alliances across the party and organisational borders that turns out to be the more ‘revolutionary’ option. It is revolutionary because it keys into the personal experiential misery of those subject to different intersecting forms of exploitation and oppression, and it addresses that misery instead of simply trying to patch it over with an appeal to macho instrumental control politics. It learns from different forms of anti-racist struggle, and particularly feminist struggles attuned to various strands of sexual politics, learns that with fragmentation, diversification and radical separation of life-worlds come isolation and hopelessness. Working with and collectivising those experiences is then ‘therapeutic’, not bourgeois individualising therapy but revolutionary social activity that empowers us in the very process of doing politics. We thereby turn our very marginalisation into a weapon.

We already know this, some of us, from the negative example of vanguard organisations that employ violence against their rivals or have been called out by women activists at the sexual violence that operates inside the party apparatus. That is why we take seriously the argument that the oppressed see power ‘from below’, and that autonomous self-organisation of the oppressed is crucial to the internal functioning of a revolutionary Marxist party worth the name. How we organise our own political debates, how we structure our own groups, has to be ‘prefigurative’, anticipating the forms of life beyond capitalism and patriarchy that we aim for in our broader political interventions. We must be of the margins and reflect that marginal diverse nature of the experience of oppression inside our organisations, not only in terms of the theoretical language we use to describe reality but also in terms of our practice, our relationships with each other as comrades.

Neoliberalism and segregation demand a political strategy that deliberately works at the margins. It may be, for example, that in some specific situations a group or, why not, section of the FI, could operate as a vanguard party of the old type, and succeed in quickly gathering together a cadre which has the confidence of significant sections of the working class. That should not be ruled out as impossible, but our overall strategy has to be open and flexible enough to include that as a possibility rather than impose it as a model. Inclusive open revolutionary politics is one that also enables us to approach the task of building broad parties of the left, parties and movements that bring together revolutionary Marxists with feminists and LGBT+ groups and anti-racist and migrant activists and, why not, those who still think of themselves as reformists or social democrats or autonomists.

In other words, we need to cut across ‘revolutionary’ and ‘broad’ party political divisions to intervene as real revolutionaries in such a way as to make what is broad into something transitional. That won’t be brought about by forcing formally correct transitional slogans on the movements we work with. That understanding of ‘transitional demands’ also needs to be worked through in practice in a quite different way in this new context of neoliberalism and segregation. It will be through our revolutionary practical engagement with those we do not fully agree with that we will learn from the margins and make the margins into a transitional force, a force that will build an alternative to capitalism from within its heart, anticipating the form of society we want to live in.

 

Socialist Equality Party

La La Land released in 2016 was a musical comedy romance filmed against a backdrop of violence that was both implicit in the film itself and in the directorial history that preceded it. The film shot into the headlines, first in the flash of hype which successfully publicised its launch, and made out that it was a more substantial reflection of Hollywood life than the light froth it turned out to be, and then in the embarrassed mistaken announcement of best picture award at the Oscars through which it almost eclipsed the success of the black and queer film Moonlight. Just as much as Moonlight was about the weight of history, about the multiple forms of oppression that condition contemporary politics, so La La Land was about the erasure of history and its replacement with a glossy surface and the pretence that an image of success should be enough to win out in the end, even if that was a bitter-sweet image of success haunted by the regret of its two main characters at their actual failure to make it into the big time.

The film traces the interwoven wannabe-celebrity life trajectories of Emma Stone as ‘Mia Dolan’, and Ryan Gosling as ‘Sebastian Wilder’. They meet and fight and part and meet again in a sequence of elaborate dance numbers which conjure up the heyday of the entertainment industry they themselves want to break into, and there are a number of faux-reflexive reminders that they really are actors, including their own film date when they see Rebel Without a Cause before going to the planetarium which also features in that classic film. Emma wants to be an actress, which entails a running pretend in-joke for the audience as she struggles at auditions and then fails with her own one-woman show. Ryan, meanwhile, wants to perform at his own jazz club, for which he is eventually rewarded with a cringe-making final scene in which he hosts and stars at the piano as a nice white guy surrounded by black musicians as his employees, and that involves a darker joke in which Ryan replicates the recuperation of jazz by white mass culture and sidelining of its history.

The opening scene has Mia and Sebastian enacting a first missed encounter during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles highway, during which the first big stage number ‘Another Day of Sun’ sees drivers leaping from their cars and dancing across the bonnets and roofs as they sing of their aspiration to make it in Hollywood and of unfulfilled dreams. One cannot watch this six-minute single take – fake, it turns out, for it was stitched together from three separate shots with some clever cuts – without thinking that these poor saps pouring their hearts into the opening number are the self-same characters they are performing, a very postmodern replication of what is represented that most Marxists hate. Class is pretty much missing from the film, replaced with aspiration, a self-admiring film about two narcissists who we are supposed to sob over when they are unable to get it together. As well as this implicit symbolic violence in the texture of the film, there is the violent quasi-prequel in the director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash two years earlier which stages sadistic coaching of a jazz student in which the message is no pain no gain, lots of pain and humiliation.

The big oft-repeated accusation in the mainstream media against revolutionary Marxists is that they live in some kind of La La Land, doomed to hope for somewhere over the rainbow where their dream of another world beyond capitalism might come about, and it is unfortunately true that some left groups do actually already live there. Some groups really do fit the bill, hallucinating into existence a version of the world as they would like it to be so their own version of Marxism can be made to appear foolproof. Meet the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), formed out of the ruins of what was once one of the largest Trotskyist groups in Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) led by Gerry Healy – a plum part for Ryan Gosling coming up – who danced on the international stage of far-left politics until the mid-1980s with his best friend Vanessa Redgrave, who will one day perhaps be played by Emma Stone. They have gone their different ways now – Gerry to the great Fourth International in the sky, and Vanessa in other political and artistic directions (with fanfare launches of the now defunct ‘Marxist Party’ and then the ‘Peace and Progress Party’).

Those were the days. Those old WRP years were years of steady industrial implantation from its formation as ‘The Club’ in 1947 which was encouraged by the Fourth International (FI) to split from the Revolutionary Communist Party (then the British section of the FI) and work inside the Labour Party. The Club recruited leading Communist Party activists after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then announced a jazzier new name, the ‘Socialist Labour League’ in 1959 before its final incarnation as the WRP in 1973. By that time the WRP had broken from the Fourth International to become a key player in its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ (ICFI) in 1953, and it then refused to take part in the reunification of the FI in 1963. It was from that experience that it hallucinated into existence its favourite bugbear ‘Pabloism’ (the argument named after Michel Pablo that the FI should participate in larger organisations in order to win activists to a revolutionary programme).

That old WRP is not to be confused, SEP and WSWS supporters will remind you, with the treacherous splitters of the present-day so-called fake rival WRP which still publishes the old WRP newspaper ‘Newsline’ (founded in 1976 as successor to ‘Workers Press’). The SEP insists that it and it alone is the ICFI, as do the current WRP. The disintegration of the WRP was a tragic, slow-burning spectacle staged for the rest of the left through the 1970s and then dramatically fast in 1985. Fantasy displaced reality as the WRP turned into a kind of cult, and Gerry Healy began to give lectures on ‘dialectics’ during which a correct Marxist account of the world was advanced to explain, for example, that there could not possibly have been a revolution in Cuba because there was no revolutionary party.

The rest of the British far left knew there were serious problems, that the glittery promises of the WRP to its actor members that they would have their own clubs were empty. Corin Redgrave had bought them White Meadows Villa in Derbyshire in 1975 for ‘training’, but finance also came from the brutal regimes in Iraq and Libya in return for favourable coverage in its press. 1976 saw the launch of the WRP ‘Security and the Fourth International’ investigation and a campaign which saw a stepping up of violence against other groups that were viewed as complicit in the death of Trotsky. This crazy conspiracy theory carries on today in the fevered imagination of the Socialist Equality Party and in  WSWS accusations against rival groups.

The WRP industrial base was bit by bit eclipsed by the influx of revolutionary luvvies attracted by the passion for Gerry by Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin who at one point made serious inroads into the actors union ‘Equity’. Equity members who joined the WRP would then get a taste of the humiliation that had been metered out to other petty bourgeois types, well, actually to anyone who disagreed with Gerry, and some of them seemed to enjoy it. It might be a public tongue-lashing or, if you were lucky, you might even be slapped by the great man. The all-singing all-dancing dream crashed as the violence came to a head in revelations that Gerry Healy had sexually abused young women in the organisation during what the British tabloid press called the ‘Red in the Bed’ events.

They were all already heading for La La Land, whether that included buying Trotsky’s death-mask and displaying it at rallies, or using Richard Burton’s photo as Trotsky in public literature in place of a picture of the real thing. Today the SEP and WSWS lurches from fantasy to fantasy, including bizarre reflexively ironic attacks on postmodernism, which they now seem to hate almost as much as Pabloism. They were once a serious industrial force and did good anti-racist work which won black youth to their party, but now all the SEP and WSWS really seems to rebel against is the rest of the left, and reality has been left far behind.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

 

After May, Labour and Left Unity

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in breaking the hold of the Conservatives on British politics. It is Corbyn who has brought the Labour vote up to the highest level – in percentage and total vote – for twenty years, and the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. The question now is not if May will go, but when. The result also puts obstacles in the way of a ‘hard Brexit’. This victory for Corbyn, to be clear, is still within the limits of an electoral system geared toward the right, and internal Labour bureaucratic procedures geared to protecting sitting MPs who are rewarded by various competing reactionary lobby groups. This success is also within the limits set by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the weird alliances and manoeuvres of the unionist parties in Scotland – Scottish Labour and the Conservatives – which meant that Corbyn would always have been deprived of a working parliamentary majority at Westminster.

The election campaign has put the political project of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and the majority of tory-lite MPs into question, legitimating radical policies and energising a new generation of activists. Corbyn was hobbled by the restrictions placed on the content of the Labour manifesto and by the stubborn refusal of many MPs to include elements of the manifesto they disagreed with in their own local publicity, by exclusion of Corbyn’s image from many local Labour campaign leaflets, and even, in some cases, outright sabotage of the national Labour Party campaign. The manifesto could not include, for example, the decommissioning of Trident nuclear missiles and the conversion of nuclear-military jobs into socially-useful production, and this fault-line in the LP was seized on by the media and exploited by some anti-Corbyn MPs.

Corbyn was still, against all these odds, able to lead a radical campaign and, more important, to energise a new generation of voters, some of whom will continue the campaign for jobs, for the NHS and for human rights beyond 8 June. A majority of voters under 50 supported Corbyn, and a sizeable proportion of the over 50s voters were also won to his politics, or won back to LP politics after their defection during the treacherous Blair years. Many of those who joined Labour to back Corbyn during the two internal party elections for leader came out during the campaign not only to vote but also to leaflet and canvas, and for many of those who did get involved it was their first involvement in party politics.

However, most of the foot-soldiers in the Labour campaign were long-standing members of the party, doggedly carrying on in the face of the media-barrage against Corbyn, and pitching in behind their local MP. This hard work by the local Labour campaign teams and the flying visits to marginal constituencies understandably led to more recrimination against the ‘Corbynistas’ during the election. The absence of the new members was noted, and the price will be paid for this in the months after the election as the right-wing Labour MPs regroup and local activists suspicious of Corbyn will regroup behind them. This sizeable vote was for Corbyn but we should take care not to exaggerate what it means for the composition and politics of the Labour Party. It has not changed the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and we have seen an influx of some unpleasant new right-wing Labour MPs who pose a serious danger to the so-called Corbyn revolution. Every vote we gathered for the left during the campaign will also strengthen the party apparatus and its reduction of politics to an electoral machinery, and this success will be used, as always, against the left.

The ‘new’ members and other supporters of Corbyn working with Labour on the doorstep were mainly existing activists from Left Unity or from other left groups who had thrown themselves into the campaign knowing full well that this election was a make and break moment, that it could be the making of a new left and it could break the Conservatives. There are consequences of the way this campaign was conducted on the ground now, both for the way that Labour activists in local wards and constituency parties will relate to the new left, and the way that Left Unity can relate to the mass movement for Corbyn.

From inside Labour we can reasonably expect that, given the political composition of most of the local party wards, there will not be the warm gratitude coming our way that we might wish for. We can, instead, expect a degree of caution towards us and even measured hostility; we will still be perceived as those who are rocking the boat. Corbyn’s victory – a massive increase in the vote and number of Labour MPs – will not lead to eager acceptance of Corbyn’s politics, rather a closing of ranks around the apparatus on the rationale that now is the time to consolidate Labour’s gains and heal the wounds of the splits that began to open up in the party. We saw grudging acceptance of Corbyn’s contribution during the campaign, and the Labour Party apparatus knows that it will need to bide its time before attempting to remove him. Their thanks for his help will turn into a complaint that the result could have been better, and the loyalty of new members will be impugned, systematically side-lined. The attempt by different left groups to join Labour and intervene in the internal debates will, in most cases, be viewed as ‘entrist’ dishonest interference – in the case of some groups, let’s face it, it will be entrist and dishonest – and that will intensify the problem. Corbyn supporters will balance political challenge with pragmatic expressions of loyalty to the party. Electoral success will not, for sure, lead to a questioning of electoral politics. Instead, the ‘long hard journey’ narrative will, for many long-standing Labour members, be reinforced by this success.

Just as participation by ‘outsiders’ was only tolerated on the basis that we gave out Labour’s own leaflets and nothing more, said nothing different, so Labour party meetings will, in most parts of the country, continue to be deadening to radical politics after the election. Seasoned activists in Left Unity or other left groups might be able to tolerate this and sustain themselves under this pressure, but it would be disastrous to encourage activists in the new Corbyn movement to actually join the party and suffocate inside it. We will not win people to our politics by encouraging them sign up to Labour, but will lead them instead into the labyrinthine machinery of the party, if they are not repelled altogether from politics by the experience.

Left Unity members need to be clear with the Labour activists they worked with during the campaign that they have no intention of colluding in this internal party apparatus politics, and that we actively participated in the election campaign alongside them, not so we could all carry on with business as usual, but precisely because we wanted to create the conditions for something different. We stayed outside the Labour Party because that meant that we had more room for manoeuvre, and that, more than ever, we must have that room for manoeuvre to be a critical friend of the few left Labour MPs, to campaign against cuts carried out by Labour councils and to build a real mass movement for Corbyn that works across the limits that are imposed by Labour membership and restrictive ‘loyalty’ to the party as such.

Any continued success for Corbyn and the new revived Labour movement that he has made possible will depend on a radical break with some of the old assumptions about British politics made by the party. We need to say to our new Labour Party friends that we need freedom of movement to be able to really build something out of this electoral success, and that means that we, and they with us, must begin to reshape the political terrain.

A crucial part of this reshaping of the terrain that the Corbyn movement must engage with, with serious implications for mainstream Labour politics, is what we do with Scottish Labour. The success of Corbyn south of the border is intimately connected with the success of the independence movement north of the border, a movement that must break with the Scottish National Party which it is too-closely associated with. Scottish Labour ran a brave campaign, and, as was the case for many old Labour MPs across Britain who knew they had to pull together to save their jobs, they were, during the campaign period, relatively loyal to the Corbyn leadership. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour worked with the other unionist party in Scotland, the Conservatives, to try and block the SNP. They, the unionists, also succeeded, reducing the SNP vote by 13%, and taking 21 seats from them (12 to the Tories, 6 to Labour and 3 to the Lib Dems). This unionist success takes the edge off Corbyn’s victory, making a tactical alliance with the SNP to form an anti-austerity government impossible. This, along with the increase of seats by the appalling reactionary Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland (from 8 to 10 seats), and the refusal of Sinn Fein to take up the 7 seats it won, will make ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government, in the short term at least, possible. Left Unity must now speak out for Scottish independence – this is one of the breaking points that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for its members to join the Labour Party – and argue for Corbyn to build tactical alliances against the Conservatives.

Left Unity should also, as part of this sustained pressure on the Labour Party from the outside, explicitly argue for the right to affiliate to Labour. This declared open policy of Left Unity – that we see ourselves as part of the Corbyn mass movement – should be the basis for any possible meetings and campaigns with allies inside the party. We worked together across the party boundaries during the election campaign, and we must work together across those boundaries now. The Greens too maintained themselves as a credible force, not only by retaining the one seat in parliament but also by standing aside in some constituencies and campaigning for Labour, functioning as one of the models of independent left politics in the Corbyn movement. Left greens are our comrades in this struggle, in this new phase of struggle opened up by Corbyn.

A strong left presence inside the Labour Party is in our interests if it is to be open to action for change beyond election time, and we believe that this left presence will be better able to connect with the mass movement by explicitly connecting with us. Some of our comrades in different left organisations, including comrades who were once active in Left Unity, will be working inside Labour on this basis. Perhaps it is possible to turn some local Labour Party wards outwards, to make them bases of the movement that Corbyn inspired. Good luck to those working inside the Labour Party to do that, and we must do all we can to support them. But, we will only have the strength to maintain and build this independent left political profile if we organise outside Labour and win as many as possible of the new activists to Left Unity now, to build that independent left political profile with us.

 

You can read and comment on this article on the Left Unity site here

 

 

 

Left Unity

Looking for Eric, a Ken Loach film from 2009, sees Manchester postal worker Eric Bishop (played by ex-Fall bass guitar player and palindrome Steve Evets) at the end of his tether. He is messing up his job and his life, and it will be the collective mobilisation of his fellow postal workers that finally brings him back to reality. There are two kinds of reality in this film. The first is a fuzzy cannabis-induced dream state, false solutions to his problems in which his work comrades mix some stupid therapeutic self-help encouragement for Eric with time chilling out on pot. It is then, from this safe space, that Eric first encounters his hero, one-time Manchester United philosophical poetic footballer Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona becomes a kind of super-charged ideal of Eric Bishop, his spirit-guide mentor, and big footballer Eric gives little postal-worker Eric the advice and strength to trust himself and his mates. Ken Loach uses a cinematic directorial device in the film that has marked a number of his films, one in which he springs a surprise on the actor to get a more authentic reaction, in this case on Steve Evets who never imagined that he would actually meet big Eric. The turning point is in little Eric’s bedroom when he appeals to a life-size poster asking big Eric for advice, turns around, and finds your man standing there in the room. Loach aims to dissolve boundaries between cinema and reality, for the actors and for viewers who he clearly hopes will also become actors on the stage of life.

The second reality is one that little real-world Eric is now ready to confront, the grim reality of harder drug-gangs, gun-violence and YouTube blackmail. Now he is ready, with the big hallucinatory Eric’s advice, to take on the gang leader, and does this by mobilising his worker-comrades and other Manchester United supporters in ‘Operation Cantona’; in a glorious collective rebellion, they all descend on the house of the gang leader wearing Eric Cantona face-masks, trash the place and make it clear that they won’t take any more shit, forcing the baddies to pull the incriminating clips from social media. Solidarity is the watchword of this film, and Eric Cantona, who approached Loach and part-funded the film, is but a mediating fiction, something that will galvanise our Eric into action, to take control of his life again. It’s a great political comedy through which Ken Loach makes use of the big screen to re-energise non-celebrities, making use of figures like Cantona to build something different from the base up. But the rebellion is still cinematic rather than realistic; staged and feel-good, it is unclear how this dream-mobilisation will play out after the fun is over, giving us an inspiring moral tale in which we don’t know what will happen when big Eric leaves the field, no pointers to what to do next. Could the next step be to form a political party?

We had to wait for Loach’s 2013 The Spirit of ’45 about the formation and erosion of the National Health Service to spark an alliance of left groups and individuals pissed off with mainstream politics to try to build something different. Loach’s call for a new party to the left of the Labour Party led to the founding of Left Unity (LU) later that year after his call was signed by over 10,000 people. The Eric Cantona figure in the history of LU, and Cantona should be first-choice to play our hero in any future bio-pic, our hero who is, of course, Ken Loach. Ken was the inspiration and guide of LU, attending the founding conference and other key events, until, that is, the nucleus of a new party to the left of Labour started to appear in a most unexpected place, inside the Labour Party itself with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Then Ken had done his work for all the little Erics in LU, marched them up the hill and down again to leave them to it, up the creek without a paddle, without a strategy, the fun and the party all but over.

As a result, LU is now suspended somewhere between two dream-worlds, between the optimistic heights of its influence with over 2000 members in the two years between 2013 and 2015 and a harsher more disappointing time of plummeting membership as people have drifted, along with Ken Loach himself, into the new Jeremy fan-club and old-style party-political bureaucratic hell. The first dream-world was bad enough, and in some LU branch meetings a good deal worse than staggering through a smoky weed-garden. Would-be ‘policy-makers’ seized control of different commissions in the new party, spending months hammering out pie-in-the-sky proposals which would, everyone involved knew, never be put into practice. These folks jostled alongside individuals who had either been burnt once by the far-left and who, understandably, never really wanted to be in a left party ever again and hardened apparatchiks of some of the worst of the existing revolutionary organisations who piled in, either to raid LU for new members or to steer it to a full revolutionary programme (that is, theirs).

In the middle of all this for these two years, the hey-day of LU, were individuals who really did, in the words of the tag-line of the party, want to ‘do politics differently’, and that included feminist and anti-racist activists who also wanted this to be a different kind of space, safe to talk, to share ideas and organise without being shouted down. This argument for much-parodied therapeutic ‘safe spaces’ in LU became one of the bug-bears of the hard-faced old left, particularly the little robotic battalions of the sects who used their paper to name and shame anyone they disagreed with. LU as a consequence became very unsafe for a lot of people, a bit like coming down after a bad trip. Social media spaces for LU rapidly degenerated from being opportunities for debate into arenas for recrimination and threat, lurching from one ridiculous topic to the next (with one notorious Facebook discussion thread devoted to whether we should have the right to masturbate at work). It looked like we would be dragged back into the first fuzzy reality when nothing really happened, waiting hopelessly for the call to action, for the breakthrough into the second reality of collective resistance.

Presiding uneasily over these different kinds of politico-head very keen to give stupid and misleading advice about the way forward were Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson; now the captains of the ship trying to keep it afloat. Helping them in the first two years was Socialist Resistance (SR), a group reluctant to lead and spending most of its energies trying to stop LU going too far to the left, to keep it functioning as a broad left alternative to Labour. This was a group that eventually jumped ship and many of its members found what they thought would be a safer home in the Labour Party, along with mentor spirit-guide Ken. So loyal were SR to Ken that members of rival groups accused him of being a member of SR. He was not, and, if anything, was viewed by many in SR as being ‘ultra-left’.

LU was waiting for ‘Operation Ken’, but Corbyn’s election did for that hope, and now the dwindling party is left on the rocks, still ‘Looking for Ken’. Perhaps he was no more than a dream, evoking no more than the ‘spirit’ of free health care and a welfare state, welfare that is efficiently being demolished. The brute reality is that the Labour Party apparatus seems unable or unwilling to build a campaign against austerity, hobbled by its loyalty to local Labour-led councils that are implementing the cuts, even when Corbyn himself built up the Labour vote on a radical vote during the election campaign. LU is still an alternative, the best alternative in complex times, but now struggling to find the plot, and will have to do it on its own, a diminished but necessary force outside the Labour Party. The nasty surprise now is that, when members of Left Unity appeal to their posters of Ken Loach for advice on their bedroom walls today they then turn around and, they find that he is not there.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

 

Asylum Action and Reaction and Action

Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry has been going for over thirty years. It has had special issues on anti-capitalism, on disability, on queer and feminist and Black politics. It is an essential resource for linking different kinds of social movement. It celebrates its years of activity bringing together mental health system survivors, professionals willing to practice in a different way and academics who teach and carry out critical research. We celebrate and discuss on Wednesday 28 June 2017 in an International Conference that will bring together well over 100 activists from around the world.

The conference is in the Roscoe Building at the University of Manchester, with registration beginning at 9.30. We will gather together to hear about radical alternatives to medical psychiatry, and we will take stock of some of the debates that have been aired in the pages of our magazine over the last three decades. We have a big party on the evening of the 28 June, which we are inviting all those attending during the day to stay over for, along with activists from Manchester who will have chance to eat and drink and discuss and take forward the different initiatives that the magazine supports.

The theme of this special anniversary conference is ‘Action and Reaction’, and around that theme we will be bringing together debates over the different ways in which Asylum and its supporters and its friends in other radical mental health movements have been involved in action and what the consequences of some of the reactions to these initiatives have been.

The programme for the day is packed. The morning chaired by Helen Spandler and China Mills is organised around contributions on the questions of ‘Survivor-led Research’ (with Diana Rose), ‘Creative Responses (with Rufus May), ‘Therapeutic Support’ (with Yasmin Dewan), ‘Critical Psychiatry’ (with Joanna Moncrieff), ‘Anti-Psychiatry’ (with Roy Bard) and ‘Neoliberalism’ (with Mick McKeown).

We follow up these interventions with afternoon break-out sessions facilitated by special guests, and including contributions from Anne Plumb, Lili Fullerton, Jen Kilyon, ActivaMent, David Morgan, Nancy Leaver, Suman Fernando, Alex Dunedin, Phil Thomas, Rich Moth, Conor McCormack and David Branson. These contributions include discussion on the Soteria House movement, support for Whistleblowers and the Heidelberg Socialist Patients Collective. Alongside these afternoon break-out sessions we have workshops on ‘Psychosis and Trauma’ (with John Read and Bob Johson), ‘Can Clinical Psychology be Radical?’ (with Craig Newnes) and ‘Mad Love: Redesigning the Asylum’ (with Hannah Hull).

We have fantastic papers in the afternoon with Sam Warner and Clare Shaw, Chris Wood, Rowland Urey, Karlijn Roex, Wilson Franco and Paulo Beer and Dolly Sen. Our contributors come from across the UK, and we also have visitors from Brazil, Catalunya and Germany.

We round off the day with a plenary session with the editor and managing editor of Asylum Magazine (Phil Virden and Helen Spandler) to discuss future special issues and other possible events around the country that Alex Dunedin is already beginning to coordinate. Alex, of the Ragged University, will be collecting together digital versions of the posters and hosting them on the Ragged University Mad World Archive. We welcome more posters and stalls from different groups, please contact us about this on asylumconference2017@gmail.com

That is just the daytime! We finish the day event at 5pm, and then Alex has organised an evening event which will begin at 6pm and go on until late at Gullivers in Manchester City Centre. It is a large venue and there will be free food and drink and music and lots of chance to talk. Join us on the day, and the evening, and support us through crowd-funding for the event. If you are looking for accommodation, your best bet is to use www.booking.com, looking for somewhere near the Manchester University campus, for which the postcode is M13 9PL.

Links for 28 June Asylum Action and Reaction event:

Registration is still open at this link.

The programme for the day is here at this link

The crowd-funding link is here

The Asylum Magazine website is here

https://www.facebook.com/events/117183712033425/

You can contact us about the day at asylumconference2017@gmail.com