A Future That Works

A Future That Works
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Friday, 2 August 2013

Left Unity

Should Left Unity call itself ‘Socialist’?

The debate over whether Left Unity should consider itself to be socialist, and name the new party accordingly, continues. Andy Smith  from Leeds Left Unity draws on Hannah Arendt to argue that socialism fails to address individual morality – the different ways in which individuals respond to situations – regardless of economic system. As such, defining ourselves as socialist could limit our potential for contributing to change.

Seen from a strictly moral viewpoint, Stalin’s crimes were, so to speak, old fashioned; like an ordinary criminal, he never admitted them but kept them surrounded in a cloud of hypocrisy and doubletalk while his followers justified them as temporary means in the pursuit of the “good” cause, or, if they happened to be a bit more sophisticated, by the laws of history to which the revolutionary has to submit and sacrifice himself if need be. Nothing in Marxism, moreover, despite all the talk about “bourgeois morality” announces a new set of moral values. If anything is characteristic of Lenin or Trotsky as the representatives of the professional revolutionary, it is the naïve belief that once the social circumstances are changed through revolution, mankind will follow automatically the few moral precepts that have been known and repeated since the dawn of history.’       P.53 Hannah Arendt – ‘Responsibility and Judgment’

As Left Unity seeks to define itself, the old argument as to whether or not Left Unity should call itself socialist arises often. I would argue that it is simply not enough to call Left Unity socialist without doing a great disservice to the potential Left Unity holds. What Hannah Arendt potentially highlights in this quote is the start of that potential being realised and the Left moving beyond historicism, sectarianism and a cold response to capitalism. Marxism, however powerful, is far from a complete response to capitalism and theorists such as Arendt have helped move the argument way beyond the remit of socialism. The beginning of this argument is that morality is not included.

Hannah Arendt is suggesting in the above quote that firstly, Marxism is an economic response to material conditions. It does not explain personal responsibility, individual philosophy or anything other than an alternative economic model to capitalism. If this were enough on its own, then it would probably have already happened. However, it is not. If you need an example of how this degenerates a movement, consider the total inability of the SWP to respond morally to the comrade Delta issue. There are some issues that require far beyond a democratic solution, especially where the participants in this democracy have not engaged with a philosophy that permits morality for so long, they have no concept of the human cost of their actions. This, among many other examples on the traditional organised left serve as examples of why it is simply not enough to arm ourselves with a copy of Das Kapital and overthrow capitalism. Apart from anything else, if we did that, the very people involved in covering up sexual abuse and I am NOT just talking about the SWP, would seek to take positions of leadership when they have shown so often their own inability to lead in a decent way.

Left Unity has the opportunity to develop something new that considers individual morality at the same time as fighting for material equality. Since the Second World War there has been a massive body of work created that seeks to discuss individual responsibility in war, whether that be class war, imperialist war or any other kind of conflict. Let us not forget that the professional revolutionaries that Arendt refers to, Trotsky and Lenin did most of their writing in a time of revolution, which asked things of its activists that are simply not acceptable to ask in this day and age. The reason for this is that there is a pervasive understanding of the harm done by ‘just following orders’ in the period following WWII. This is more worrying when you consider the fact that most socialist material has not been updated since prior to this time and has not evolved to involve a morality beyond Marxism certainly. If you want evidence for this, consider democratic centralism, a sticking point in the extreme left discourse. The basic premise being that until conference, where the democracy takes place, each person is expected to go along with a party line, in the name of the party or the revolution or the sect or whatever it is that has decided this decision. This fundamentally asks activists to forfeit their right to act in a way that they determine to be moral, right or just in any situation that might seek to contradict a party line. In the case of the comrade Delta issue, this has unfolded into an utterly farcical abuse of activists’ individual rights to criticise anything that the central ctte do and the total moral collapse of women’s rights activists in the SWP. Again, this is far from an isolated case and you can find examples of every left group that use democratic centralism as a principle, doing the same and demanding obedience to democracy that subverts the individual’s ability to determine their own actions or their own response to each situation.

Once this individual response to each situation has been removed, there is the other dangerous precedent to which Arendt alludes, which has already been mentioned, that of just following orders. Centralism of any kind in a movement only motivated to create equality in material terms underestimates the need for each individual to respond to situations in a moral and individualistic way. Not only that but if each person acts because ‘democracy’ has decided that they will behave in a certain way, they are alienated from their own decision, a decision which is often highly influenced by a central ctte interested in maintaining their own positions through ‘democratic’ policies that in reality have very little democracy involved in them. They then must continue to act in this way to stay part of the movement, without a true grasp of the reasons for doing so and only hearing justifications born of an understanding that material equality, will result in moral equality, which there is no reason to assume whatsoever. To explain this, consider that in poor areas in England, some people commit crime to survive, some people starve, some people strive and some people organise. Material equality cannot explain this. Firstly, it is assumed that give or take small anomalies, each person in this community has roughly the same access to resources and yet they choose to respond to their material conditions in very different ways. If material conditions could explain all of this, it would. The only thing that can explain this is a moralistic investigation of the reasons people respond to each situation in certain ways.

If we expand the previous example to trying to understand governments or corporations actions, the same problem arises. Capitalists, rather unsurprisingly serve capital. However, they have a cloak surrounding them, that of economic justification. They can behave in any way they choose, so long as it permits a profit to be made. It is then alright for them to force down working conditions, push up prices and privatise basic human needs, without even considering the moral cost of what they are doing but capitalist discourse is centred around material conditions and does not consider the human cost, the moral cost or the emotional costs involved in ‘just doing business’ or ‘just following orders’ of capitalist demand. Marx, in responding to this offered an alternative that still does not offer a new moral philosophy. So, instead of serving profits with no morality, people are asked to serve equality, without morals. The result of this, in the ‘professional revolutionary’, is a system of protocols that demand an unthinking subservience, without moral content or even the ability to consider the moral costs of behaviour. Che Guevara’s wife has recently written a book called ‘Remembering Che’ and in it she highlights Che’s distrust of party manuals that only seek to explain one perspective. She quotes Che in a letter to the Minster for Education in December 1965 saying

‘I want to propose a few small ideas about developing the culture of our vanguard and our people in general.

In this long vacation period I have had my nose buried in philosophy, something I have wanted to do for some time. I came across the first problem: nothing is published in Cuba, if we exclude the hefty Soviet manuals, which have the drawback of not allowing you to think for yourself, because the party has already done it for you, and you just have to digest it. In terms of methodology, it is as anti-Marxist as can be and, moreover, the books tend to be very bad.’ (p.140-141 Remembering Che)

I don’t think it is a surprise that Che said this as a reader of philosophy, ethics and as someone who was writing after WWII. Socialism has not moved on since before this time and is still justified in these amoral terms. So, when someone says that Left Unity should aspire to call itself Socialist, I would suggest that this is simply not enough. It should strive to be so much more.



  1. A New Party of the Left?

    Kate Hudson is the General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and one of the founding members of Left Unity - an initiative to create a new party of the British left. She spoke to Ed Lewis about what motivated the creation of Left Unity, how it is developing and if it can avoid the problems that have beset similar attempts in the past.

    Left Unity is a new party that appears to have grown quite quickly since Ken Loach's initial call in March. Over 8,000 people have signed this call and there are email addresses for around 80 local groups. So, to start with, can you briefly outline what Left Unity is what you think accounts for its relative popularity?

  2. Left Unity isn’t yet a party – it is more of an initiative, discussing whether we want a new party of the left and what that should look like. So far, the feedback from the local groups is very positive: there is a strong demand for a broad new party of the left to occupy the space vacated by Labour’s move to the right. Labour is widely seen as abandoning its historic credentials as the party of the people, founder of the welfare state etc and is now seen as attacking the gains that it helped advance after world war two. There is a feeling that we need to get organized to defend those gains and advance them rather than watch it all being destroyed while Labour advances austerity-lite and fails to pledge to reverse the bedroom tax etc. We are taking tentative steps in that direction following our first national meeting on 11th May. We agreed to prepare a timetable towards a founding conference in November 2013.

  3. People will want to know who is at the heart of Left Unity. Who is organising and administering the central infrastructure - such as the website and the Facebook group? And who wrote the 'about us' section on the website, which is the most developed political statement the party appears to have as yet?

  4. Our national meeting on May 11 agreed to elect a National Coordinating Group with a directly elected group of 10 (elected by the meeting) and group reps to be elected by the local groups. The report of this is on the website, with election results. One very positive outcome was the election of 60% women in this directly elected section. The website and Facebook group both have a number of participants/administrators. Many people put up materials on both. The originators of the initiative, prior to the big surge resulting from Ken Loach’s appeal, were Andrew Burgin and myself, who were inspired by the struggles against austerity in Europe and felt we need something like Syriza or Front de Gauche in Britain. Andrew and I wrote the ‘about us’ piece, following the 14th November general strike in Europe, when we started to develop the Left Unity website and try and get in touch with others who shared the same view. Obviously since then many people have come on board, so it is not a personal project in any sense.

  5. In ideological terms, LU seems to be quite open as yet - Ken Loach's initial call and the 'about us' statement really only signify an opposition to austerity and a commitment to a more egalitarian, cooperative and democratic society. Beyond this, how do the politics of Left Unity seem to be developing?

  6. A large part of what we will be doing over the next six months will be discussing what kind of policies and programme we want to adopt at a founding conference. Speaking only for myself, I would like a new party to share the approach of the left parties in Europe: socialist, feminist, environmentalist, against all forms of discrimination, anti-capitalist, anti-war, informed by Marxism but not defined by it, committed to new, participatory and open ways of working, developing the values and principles of the left in the context of the twenty-first century. It is very important for me that we break with the elements of traditional left structures that can allow a failure of democracy, or ossification or cultism to occur. It is also very important that we make a new party genuinely inclusive and break with the gender domination that prevails on the left – as throughout wider society obviously. It is a real happiness for me that our elected group is majority women without operating the ‘at least 50% women’ clause that we had overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It is also a big step forward that we have a leading disability activist on the group and that we have already circulated guidance on making meetings accessible to all the local groups. If we can’t do it differently it isn’t going to happen. There are other views too, that will be expressed in the course of discussion as we move forward. Some have what I would consider to be more traditional approaches – either that we need a socialist party based on the clause four type approach, or that we need a revolutionary programme like those of the smaller left groups. Obviously these are all up for discussion but I don’t think these latter two options will enable us to speak to/appeal to/meet the needs of people at this time of crisis when there is such an urgent need for a clear alternative to defend the gains that ordinary people have made.

  7. Clearly the radical left in the UK is going through a process of realignment, partly caused by the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party. Left Unity is an expression of these shifting contours. I'm interested in which groups are getting involved with LU and which are not. I’m aware of involvement of activists from many different groups and parties, particularly from the party-oriented section of the far left. How effectively do you think LU will be able to unify different elements of the British left?

  8. Our view is that we welcome individuals to get involved if they are genuinely interested in the project and do not have another agenda or are seeking to hijack the project for their own purposes. I am less interested in the existing groups than I am in reaching a wider engagement beyond people who have been involved in the ‘organised’ left. There is an extremely large section of the population who no longer vote because they do not feel that any party represents their interests. That is a key part of society I want us to engage with – and judging by most of the discussion I have heard in LU so far - that is what most people want. LU is not a ‘lash up’ of existing left groups, it is a project towards a new party of individual members who share the vision of an alternative that we are working towards.

  9. Obviously you won't want groups to hijack LU, but some will fear that the openness of LU could well lead to a power struggle between the more ideologically tight-knit groups that are involved, which seems undesirable in itself but could also pave the way for future splits. Do you think this is a reasonable concern?

  10. I would stress that Left Unity is about a dialogue and development towards a new party of the left, conceived of as a broad and inclusive party engaging many people who have never been involved in organised political activity before, as well as people who have. It is not about pulling together existing left groups that come with different ideological platforms. It is about working towards a new political party based on individual membership collectively deciding what policies and programme we will have. When/if the new party is founded, and establishes its policies/programme, then people can back that and get active, or go elsewhere to develop other political projects.

  11. What can you tell me about the demographics of the people that have been getting involved in LU in terms of class, race, gender, age, sexuality and ability? how might you ensure that the party is not dominated by people from privileged social groups?

  12. We do not have an audit of supporters but in my experience so far, I think the participants are very diverse. One small example of steps to ensure that is the case is the voting procedure that was agreed at our first national meeting. For ten directly-elected places we agreed after a short discussion that at least 50% should be women. A very small number of people voted against this. In the event six women and four men were elected without any adjustment to the outcomes. One of these is a leading disability activist, one describes himself as mixed race, a number are very active in trade unions and three are probably under 30 (or look like it!) A guide to making groups accessible has already been circulated to local groups and we are currently working on a Safe Space Policy which will apply to our online space as well as physical space. We will be engaging in a continual process to expand inclusivity and diversity. We know we have a long way to go yet, but are very committed to this.

  13. Some are concerned that LU will come to be a predominantly electoralist organisation, which raises fears that the party will seek an accommodation with the undemocratic structures of the state and with the tropes of mainstream political debate. What are your thoughts on this?

    Only my own opinion here, but I expect we will have an electoral strand to our work but it will be completely rooted in local campaigning activity. But the fact is that Left Unity results very much from the realisation that with the shift of Labour to the right the working class has no political representation in parliament and whatever the flaws of parliament - or of Town Halls for that matter - this has to be redressed. What made the founding of the Labour Party necessary now makes a new Left Party necessary. We cannot be without a political force of our own acting in our interests.

  14. How do you see LU relating to other parties, such as the Greens, TUSC and of course Labour?

    This is somewhere down the line and I wouldn’t feel it would be right to offer an individual opinion on this other than to say that duplication of efforts and dividing of support where people stand for the same thing does not seem sensible.

    In recent years we have seen two notable examples of parties that have attempted to unite individuals and groups to the left of Labour - Respect and the Socialist Alliance. Although both had some successes, they either collapsed or became seriously weakened within a few years. What do you think LU can learn from those experiences and what gives you hope that it may be possible for LU to avoid their fate and prove more successful?

  15. I say this without direct personal experience as I wasn't involved in the Socialist Alliance and I became a member of Respect when it became an individual membership party not a coalition. But it seems to me that coalitions of small groups where people are often completely blinkered about their own sense of what is right, and in the case of some individuals unduly concerned about their own standing, and many seem incapable of constructive cooperation, are just the kiss of death for taking anything new forward. We are in such a desperate situation, in an intensifying class war with the danger of going back to the 1930s yet some on the far left seem incapable of thinking beyond the interests of their tiny groups and obsessive criticising of others. It is tragic and irresponsible and has led to a very strong determination within Left Unity to organise on an individual membership basis.

  16. What are the immediate next steps for Left Unity?

    We had our first National Co-ordinating Group meeting on Saturday where we worked out our timetable towards a founding conference in November 2013, including the establishment of policy commissions to work on policy resolutions for the new Left Party. We will also continue to be active across the country on a local level where our supporters are very involved in local anti-cuts campaigns, in anti-fascist activity and in arguing for alternative economic policies in our trade unions and other arenas and campaigns.

    Ed Lewis is a co-editor of New Left Project


  17. The Socialist Platform

    1. The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

    2. Under capitalism, production is carried out solely to make a profit for the few, regardless of the needs of society or damage to the environment. Capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority. Its state and institutions will have to be replaced by ones that act in the interests of the majority.

    3. Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. It means a society in which the wealth and the means of production are no longer in private hands but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world on which we depend. We reject the idea that the undemocratic regimes that existed in the former Soviet Union and other countries were socialist.

    4. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all oppression and discrimination, whether on the basis of gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexual orientation and aims to create a society in which such oppression and discrimination no longer exist.

    5. Socialism has to be international. The interests of the working class are the same everywhere. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions. It rejects the idea that there is a national solution to the problems of capitalism. It stands for the maximum solidarity and cooperation between the working class in Britain and elsewhere. It will work with others across Europe to replace the European Union with a voluntary European federation of socialist societies.

    6. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win support from the working class and all those who want to bring about the socialist transformation of society, which can only be accomplished by the working class itself acting democratically as the majority in society.

    7. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win political power to end capitalism, not to manage it. It will not participate in governmental coalitions with capitalist parties at national or local level.

    8. So long as the working class is not able to win political power for itself the [Left Unity] Party will participate in working-class campaigns to defend all past gains and to improve living standards and democratic rights. But it recognises that any reforms will only be partial and temporary so long as capitalism continues.

    9. The [Left Unity] Party will use both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means to build support for its ultimate goal — the socialist transformation of society.

    10. All elected representatives will be accountable to the party membership and will receive no payment above the average wage of a skilled worker (the exact level to be determined by the party conference) plus legitimate expenses.


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