Left Unity and crisis

As Labour is in decline there is a chance for a new socialist party to establish itself, but can it avoid the same mistakes that compromised their predecessors?

Will Skyrme
5 September 2013

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In November a new political party called Left Unity will be born. This project has sprung from two principal sources in the landscape of British politics:

1) The callousness of the austerity programme and the misery, indignity and instability that have been its offspring (the bedroom tax and tuition fees to the myriad local services and provisions that have been reduced, reorganised or have quite simply disappeared).

2) The inability of the Labour leadership to offer a credible left alternative to austerity and their seeming incapacity to oppose a sweeping attack on the living standards of those who, once upon a time, would perhaps have looked to them for support. 

You, dear reader, are not in need of another anti-coalition tirade. The facts and figures, along with the emotional indignation, have been provided plentifully by others over the last few years. In any case, it’s been a long time since I’ve encountered anyone offering an enthusiastic defense of the political status quo, or anything but a begrudging concession to its leading lights. That is not to say that many, perhaps a majority, don’t see some kind of austerity as necessary and unavoidable, only that our political crisis seems less one of ideological mystification and false consciousness than a crisis of imagination – one of reluctant resignation to the present, not eager commitment.

Left Unity, however, is an organic reaction to the stifling of political energies which has turned people toward skepticism and apathy and turned democratic institutions into appendages of blinkered business interests. To see a symptom of this it is necessary only to point to the social composition of Labour MPs, a mere 9% of whom today come from manual working class backgrounds. Left Unity should therefore be seen as a creative unblocking of space and discourse as a necessary defense of the beleaguered welfare state and its ideals – as much a potential opening up of the new, as a safeguarding of the old.     

The unions, over 100 years ago, resolved to bring into being a new party, a party of labour. What they did was universalise a working class subjectivity, consolidate the various struggles and grievances of working men (yes, we are really talking about men here) into something that could be represented, into an interest.

But the strings were being pulled by the trade union bureaucracy – a layer of wealthy officials that were just as often policed the working class resistance as led it. Their dominance within the party ensured that what was at stake was only ever a renegotiation of the power between capital and labour aimed at some kind of compromise, never a radical incursion of the latter into the former’s hallowed ground. From this perspective, even the marginalisation of the union bureaucracy under New Labour represents not so much the party’s transformation, but its logical conclusion.

I believe we find ourselves in a position not dissimilar to that which gave birth to the Labour party all those years ago. Parliament is a wasteland. The left struggles to properly enter the political discourse. Misery, frustration and instability increase and the parties of the right are the only ones to benefit. We need a sense of subjectivity and representation; we need to be able to articulate our interests. We need to muster collective strength in an era of individualised powerlessness. As the majority of trade union officialdom still clings to the coattails of Labour (even as it more forcefully shrugs them off), we are free to avoid the same mistake. This time we must posit conflict, not collaboration, as our founding principal, such as the conflict between workers and capitalists squeezing wages and conditions. But also more than this, between patients, service users, citizens, the transformation of public good and social wealth into private profit and between rational, sentient human beings and the wasteful, abstract monstrosity of finance.

All these (and many more besides) are subject positions, identities and potential interests. A new process of consolidation and representation is urgently required. Jodie Dean recounts French philosopher Alain Badiou describing – in relation to the Paris Commune – how those who were inexistent were “brought into a politically maximal existence”. This is the project upon which we are embarking. The invisible victims of the violence of finance and the hand-wringing indifference of the political system must be brought into light.

There are plenty, however, who want to write the concept of the party form off completely, seeing it as an archaic throwback of no relevance to the struggle to change the world in the contemporary era. Networks, social media, localised occupations, small groups of consensus decision-makers and horizontal power structures – all these have been thrust forward as alternatives to the party, which has fast become a picture of the embarrassing older relative who just can’t let go those outdated traditions. From the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the early anti-capitalist movement to the Occupy movement and student protests of 2011 the anti-party wing of the left has provided the dominant consciousness and strategic orientation. These movements have been hugely significant and I have stood shoulder to shoulder with all of them, wishing them to succeed.

But it is time now to face up to the fact that our resistance, however well intentioned, has been tokenistic and our rebellion, however militant our words, has been mere symbolism. Nothing of substance remains from the various new waves of left politics over the last two decades or so. We need an organisation that can last even after the energy of a big demonstration has fizzled out and even after the police have cleared away the camp. For too long we have abandoned the messy and laborious field of politics (unsurprising, of course, given the mendacity that resides there) and sought refuge on the fringes, our purity intact. We have failed. We have potential allies but they do not know who we are. Indeed, we have denied ourselves the kind of deliberation through which we could come to know who we are and what we want, through which we could actually say “we” and mean it. 

But this is not a defense of the party as such. We cannot return to the revolutionary sect (the dozens of tiny grouplets who claim to have the answers). The greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s has done nothing to boost their numbers and there is no reason at all to believe that these organisations will attract anywhere like the support that could enable them to have any more than a meagre influence on events. The question is obvious but begs repetition: if they have the answers why does nobody take them seriously? The correct theory means nothing spoken in whispers from a wilderness.

We are at a conjuncture where the decisive choice is between reform of the system or its revolutionary overthrow. Our choice now is between putting up a fight, or suffering a catastrophic defeat that will hamper the left for decades to come. The old certainties of a left based on trade union membership, geographical connectedness and workplace solidarity are declining. The working class is undergoing a process of re-composition evident since the 1970s. The left is also in a state of flux. Social Democracy is bankrupt and impervious to radical energies stirring in the cracks of capitalism. The old revolutionary left can no longer rely on a convincing intervention in the class struggle because that struggle barely exists (as shown by the low rate of industrial action in 2012).

We desperately require regroupment based on plurality and humility. We need a mass organisation with vigourous internal debate that houses different perspectives and experiences; somewhere open as much for by-the-book Trotskyists as for people completely new to political activity but who can’t bear the smirk on Osborne’s face; somewhere for feminists and ecologists to connect their ideas with a broader politics of revolt.     

Left Unity must not only be an organised force capable of intervening in and transforming politics, a counterweight to the shift toward clown-like demagoguery and racist one-upmanship that has been the trajectory of mainstream politics and its supplementary institutions like the mass media. It must be a force that can represent a left subjectivity in parliament and local government as well as in workplaces, universities and housing estates. It must also be a democratic space in which all participants are free to discuss and shape what it means to represent left and working class interests in the 21st century.


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