The ‘old and nasty’ left is not going away – and a British Syriza will need it

In the wake of Syriza’s victory, hopes for a ‘new left’ must rest on a serious renewal of ideas, not a rhetorical battle against “old” socialism.

Luther Blisset
30 January 2015


Since the emergence of the financial crisis in 2008, the British left has been in a period of turmoil and flux. The failure of the Labour mainstream still living in shadow of the Blairism has been obvious, but on the far-left, too, the established methods and forces have been perceived to be incapable of capitalising on the present crisis of capitalism is their present form.

In reaction to this failure, and in the context of numerous emerging social movements and riots, the idea of an emerging ‘new left’ has achieved a kind of passive consensus among a new generation of activists coming out of the student movements of 2010 and after. This is a vision of a left which broke from the tightly-organised party form; detatched itself from relying on lumbering and co-opted union leaderships; eschewed passive demonstrations for direct action; celebrated feminism and liberation politics; and in places adopted decentralised or horizontalist models of organising.

Across Europe, new mass leftwing organisations have taken shape – Podemos, Syriza, Front de Gauche – and they have all come out of Marxist, communist or socialist traditions. In the UK, however, after years of strikes and protests, the organisation that is making the running as the face of opposition to austerity – and expanding rapidly – are the Greens. We must ask why that is.

Many of the hopes for a new left are now at the fore in the wake of Syriza’s electoral success. In practice the lines between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ left in Britain are blurring and disintegrating, and the organisations and practices which were supposed to be disappearing are in fact recovering and reintegrating. Meanwhile, much of what sustained Syriza’s rise in Greece – leftwing ideological traditions, organisational infrastructure, and a willingness to forego organisational purity – are here being smothered by a process which calls itself renewal.

The collapse of the SWP in 2013 crystalised the situation in the minds of many young activists. After years of its gross sectarianism and growing irrelevance in broader movements, here was a symbol of all that was wrong with the ‘old’ left: with all its anti-feminism and authoritarian centralisation. This analysis played itself out in most cases as audible glee: the biggest, nastiest organisation of old left was gone forever, and this was supposedly a good thing.

These reactions are proving as inaccurate as they were distasteful. The SWP crisis did not take place because of the leadership’s cover-up of rape allegations against a senior member, because events like these are, disgracefully, not without precedent. It happened because a layer of brave and principled activists inside the SWP were willing to make a fuss about it, and ultimately to leave the party or be bullied and expelled.

The practical outcome of these events - necessary and important though they were - has been far from the dawning of a new left. Many activists formerly in the SWP have fallen out of activity entirely, and the organising capacity of many sections of the left has been hit hard. Even in the student movement, where the SWP had been relatively weak since the 2010 protests, there are campuses that have now gone to seed.

In the wake of the crisis, the excesses of the SWP were stretched and taken as representative of the ‘Leninist left’ in general. The orientation of many activist circles towards the SWP crisis was driven by a newly popular dogma that sought to attribute organisational rape apologism at its root to the SWP’s caricature of democratic centralism, and was at times aimed not at fighting sexism but at winning a war against the ‘old left’.

In other circles, the boycotting or no-platforming of the SWP, originally meant as a means of challenging the behaviour of its leadership and their apologists, became a principle which was extended to cover any member of the party regardless of their position, or even anyone whose theoretical position on perspectivism or liberation politics fell outside a supposed emerging consensus.

If any of these strategies were designed to consign the ‘old and nasty left’ to the history books, they have been unsuccessful. Although they will almost certainly never fully regrow, the SWP were never eradicated and are recovering to some extent as they always have done. In much of the labour and anti-imperialist movements, they have never been seriously challenged. In the many unions, the SWP remain the biggest left group, and go on any Palestine protest in central London and there is little doubt whose placards still dominate.

But more than merely failing to annihilate or replace the ‘bad’ or ‘old’ left organisationally, the rhetorical version of renewal that has characterised the past few years has become a mechanism by which the really damaging aspects of some of the organised far left’s mode of operation - the lack of democracy, of anti-oppression politics and of political imagination - can simply be replicated under a new set of names.

Very often, the most prominent examples of the “new” politics of the current age use the language of newness as a mask. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, while no doubt a useful initiative to bring together unions, individuals and political forces, is nothing like a horizontalist ‘assembly’ – it is a broad front organisation whose path is well-trodden. The Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work, Another World is Possible, even Stop the War: all were similar models, many of them lead by literally the same people – in this case Counterfire, who split from the SWP in 2010.

Still more notable from this perspective is the Student Assembly Against Austerity. It uses its name to imply that it is a broad, open gathering with no central hierarchy. In fact, it is much narrower than the People’s Assembly: it has no internal democracy in practical terms, and is effectively run by Student Broad Left, itself a front group for an even tinier group called Socialist Action. In terms of the commonly understood definitions, Socialist Action is perhaps the least “new” organisation it is possible to imagine: it is deeply embedded in the centre-left of the Labour party, it opposed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its members literally deny its own existence in public.

Even the original Occupy movement of 2011, which did exhibit a horizontalist organising model, contained some of the worst apologism for abuse; many of its leading lights were supporters of Assange, and invested much time and energy to defending him from rape allegations.

This moment is years old, but so much of the discourse of the radical left is still dominated by a declamatory sense of renewal. When applied to events and movements in the real world, the distinction between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ left is mostly rhetorical. Those who claim to hate the ‘old’ left often have little ideologically in common with one another, even in their critique of it. And the language of the ‘new’ can be used as a semantic appendage to almost any rehashed initiative.

What is missing, especially in the student movement and its graduates where this rhetoric is most ubiquitous, is a widespread examining of ideas and practices. The Green surge of recent months – and the willingness of a new generation to engage with a political organisation as opposed to merely tweeting – is a good thing; but it is a parallel process to the genuine renewal of the far-left, albeit one that may eventually fuse. There are emerging organisations taking this task seriously - RS21, the International Socialist Network and Plan C among them - and some left groups, like Workers Liberty and Socialist Resistance, have to some extent always dealt with these questions. The political forces that came together to form Syriza were exactly these kinds of organisations.

What is clear is that in the absence of any of these groups becoming a mass organisation, the destructive ‘common sense’ antipathy towards organisation and ideas is spreading much faster than it can be addressed. Genuine processes of renewal and improvement within the left have only ever found sustenance and clarity in the context of broader mass movements. Unless we develop a sustainable mass movement, or at least a culture in which ideas and organisation are allowed to provide the structure and content for the emerging left, a whole generation of left wingers will be lost - and any hope for a British Syriza will go with them.

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