This piece was published in issue 1 of The Exchange magazine.
The left in Britain exists in a bubble – one of its own making. The vast majority of people have never heard of most left groups and pay no attention when they pass them, standing around, trying to sell their newspapers. Much of the left looks anachronistic, in language and in form. It spends its time lecturing people about what they should think and proselytising for them to join – so much so that it has forgotten how to have a real discussion in terms that make sense to people. Most of all, it has forgotten how to listen.
The dominant model of organising on the left today, it’s sad to say, is the ‘sect’ – small groups with a heavy focus on recruitment to their own organisation. This model consumes vast amounts of time, money and activist energy, yet achieves little more than self-perpetuation: the slight growth of whichever group it is, in its never- ending quest to out-compete all the others. Groups construct what Karl Marx called “sectarian principles of their own” in order to differentiate themselves in this ideological ‘market’.
It is insular. It can – as we have seen recently in the Socialist Workers Party – become outright abusive. And it is massively out of date.
Despite years of capitalist crisis, the left has failed to rise to the challenge, failed to grow and failed to have an impact. In what should have been our moment we have been confined to the sidelines. We need to think again – we need to do things differently. Our first port of call should be to gain a much-lacking sense of humility.
We need a left that is open to debate, to forge a new way forwards. On this left there must be no ‘party line’ or suppression of differences. We need unity, but not false, oppressive unity. Ideas should come democratically from the bottom up, not the top down. No deference to ‘leaders’ who tell us what to do – and what to think.
In this debate there is much we will need to discuss. It is now indefensible, for example, not to embrace online organising. Print still has its place – as demonstrated here – but the internet is a better ‘organiser’ today than any newspaper.
The left can learn from the new movements that have swept Britain and the world over the last few years. Occupy – the latest wave of the anticapitalist movement. Feminism – an important and popular resurgence with all sorts of new ideas. The new environmental activism – saying that the situation on the climate is now too serious for the same old, same old.
It’s no use wielding some dusty old tome of Lenin or Trotsky in the general direction of these movements and saying that history has proved that they – and we – have all the answers. If we’re so damn right about everything, shouldn’t we be getting somewhere by now?
Another problem is the current left’s exclusive focus on well-organised (and usually older) public sector workers as the people who are going to lead the fightback. We need to admit what our generation, the generation that grew up under neoliberalism, already knows in its heart: that the neoliberal offensive transformed work permanently, and the 1970s rhythms of the left aren’t good enough any more. We need to organise the unorganised.
If we are to beat back the threat of the racist English Defence League, we need counter-mobilisations – but we are only ‘firefighting’ unless we tackle racism at its roots.
These are just a few of the issues we face. There is much rethinking to be done.
In the International Socialist Network – the group that recently left the Socialist Workers Party – we are involved in two initiatives that we believe share our ideas about how the left can become relevant again. We are pursuing revolutionary regroupment with the Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance, two groups that are also interested in building a multi-tendency, plural left that has these kinds of open debates.
On a broader level, we are part of the Left Unity initiative, to create a new party of the left and provide an alternative to the austerity being pushed by all the mainstream parties, including Labour. Left Unity is a project that can reach out to people who consider themselves ‘leftie’ and radical but not (yet) revolutionary, and give the kind of high profile to left arguments that the rise of UKIP has given to the hard right.
We don’t just want this party to stand in elections – we also want it to be an organising centre for the struggles ahead, of genuine use to the movements and with a fluid relationship with them. Already 8,000 people are signed up and a founding conference is planned for this November.
The left can be better. We’re sure of it.