A Future That Works

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Friday, 2 August 2013

Which way for left unity? The case for the left party platform

A debate has begun inside Left Unity – the project to set up a new party of the left in Britain – about what kind of party it should become.

In only a few months, more than 9,000 people have signed up to an appeal by film director Ken Loach to set up a new party, and 90 local groups have been established in towns and cities across the country. But Loach – wanting, rightly, to be more a figurehead than a “leader” – did not put forward an elaborate political statement for people to sign up to, simply an appeal to discuss a new party and what it could look like. And that’s where we are today.

Left Unity, through its nascent democratic structures, has agreed to hold a founding conference of this new party in November. It will be open to all who sign up as founding members of the party. And it will vote on statements of the fundamental principles the party should stand for.

In the past weeks, two “platforms” – that is, cross-branch collectives of Left Unity members – have formed to put forward different founding statements: the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform. I have signed up to the Left Party Platform and the more elaborate background document that supports it. In this article I intend to explain why.

Two approaches to Left Unity

The debate between the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform is, for me, a welcome one. I understand there is some nervousness out there about the idea of having platforms at all, or that it will cause the debate to become “polarised”. But I believe there are two fundamentally different visions of a new party of the left in play, and it is better to pick one now than to fudge the issue.

The Left Party Platform stands, I believe, for the kind of project that thousands signed up to when they signed up to Left Unity: a party that can include everyone to the left of Labour. It is a clear left statement, but without being overly dogmatic or prescriptive.

I do not claim to agree with every dot and comma, but it is a platform that I am happy with as a basis. (There is still a chance to move minor amendments in November in any case.) I believe it would give Left Unity tremendous potential to grow and start to make inroads towards becoming a mass party. Already Left Unity’s meetings in many towns are bigger than any other left group’s, and it’s only just getting going. The space to the left of Labour is enormous – and as Labour moves further to the right, it gets bigger every day. In this moment of crisis and the rise of UKIP, even a moderately successful left party could pull the whole debate in society back towards the left, and win real defensive victories over the welfare state.

The Socialist Platform, by contrast, takes the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism as its starting point. It is a far narrower statement – just about acceptable to a few different kinds of socialist, but distinctly unappealing to most people on the wider left. It is a recipe, I think, for narrowing the party to those who are already convinced socialists, plus a few more who we might be able to persuade as we went along. Ultimately it would limit Left Unity’s horizons to uniting the existing organised left, becoming perhaps a slightly better version of TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).

Shouldn’t we argue for the “most radical” platform?

As a consequence of the way the argument has been set up, some people I wouldn’t have expected are signing up to the Socialist Platform, essentially on the basis of “we’re socialists, so we should sign up to the socialist one”. It sounds obvious – but I think it’s a fundamental mistake.

Remember, we’re not discussing platforms to organise within Left Unity in the longer term, to attempt to win people round to their way of thinking inside an established party. We’re not yet talking about cohering the revolutionary minority inside a broader organisation. The platforms are there to argue for different founding statements; that is, different kinds of party to begin with. The debate is about the fundamental principles and aims that the party should stand for – and, most significantly, about who should and shouldn’t be a member.

So the question to ask when reading different platforms isn’t “do I, personally, agree with this?” (If you’re reading this, you’re probably some kind of socialist, so of course you’re likely to have a higher level of agreement with a “more socialist” platform.) The question to ask yourself, instead, is “should agreement with this statement be a condition of membership of Left Unity?”

The the Left Party Platform tries to set out only the fundamentals – and this is part of the reason why it has been criticised in some quarters as “bland” or “anodyne”. We’re told that, horror of horrors, it doesn’t set out a clear roadmap for the transition from capitalism to socialism. We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes – exactly! That’s the point! It is explicitly inclusive of socialism and explicitly opposed to capitalism, but it is not a blunt instrument. It says:

“Many agree that we need a new left party which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies will stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its immediate tasks will be to oppose austerity and the scapegoating which accompanies it, defend the welfare state and those worst affected by the onslaught, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.”

(Note the helpful distinction there between ideology and the “immediate tasks” of defending the welfare state, which we’ll return to in a moment.)

If we want a “broad party” – that is, a party that be inclusive of people who hold the wide array of different ideologies and traditions that make up the left – we need a statement that doesn’t demand agreement with a long list of specifics, but sets out the basics of the political situation and a few fundamental political principles that we believe are essential. If it’s not essential, it doesn’t belong there. Otherwise we are simply excluding people from the party before we’ve even had the debate with them.

We aren’t going to win anyone to socialism by demanding they sign up to it as a condition of Left Unity membership. Better, surely, to pass a broad founding statement and then, after November, be a strong socialist current within a party much wider than ourselves.

Problems with the Socialist Platform

First and foremost, the problem with the Socialist Platform is that it reads like a “where we stand” statement for a revolutionary organisation. The formulations scream “Trotskyist” – yet at the same time, if we want to be purist about it, fall short of actually calling for revolution, leaving a collection of statements that we want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with socialism but ignoring the question of agency. Presumably socialism comes about when the party gets big enough? It’s the programme of a quite inadequate revolutionary socialist organisation, in the Socialist Party/Militant mould. (I don’t think Left Unity should aim to be the new revolutionary party – I’m just noting that if I were one of those who thought it should, the Socialist Platform doesn’t achieve that either.)

Let’s use the key test: should agreement with all these phrases be a condition of membership of Left Unity? Should you have to sign up not only to end capitalism but to replace it with this simultaneously overly specific (in ends) and very vague (in means) vision of “socialism”, just in order to be a member? Should you have to be absolutely sure that no socialist country has ever existed – you can’t even be a bit soft on Cuba or Venezuela – just to join? Should you have to sign up to replace the European Union with “a voluntary European federation of socialist societies”, which is anyway really just a get-out clause from an argument about our attitude to the EU?

Meanwhile more important issues are left unaddressed. Feminism goes unmentioned.

The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the “European Left Party” tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche. The Socialist Platform does not – and the accompanying document prefers to point to their problems (and of course they have problems) than to (critically) outline the inspiration they provide that successful parties to the left of traditional social democracy are possible.

At the time of writing, the supporting document for the Socialist Platform has been signed by seven of the people who have signed the statement itself, so it does not necessarily represent the views of all. However, I think it is worth engaging with briefly, as it makes more explicit the approach that lies behind the platform.

Firstly, loath as I am to use the term “ultra-left”, I think that is an accurate summation of this attitude to the welfare state: “No return to 1945… That alternative is not a return to the welfare state of the 1945 Labour government but an advance to a completely new form of society.” For a party in large part inspired by Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the construction of the welfare state and what it meant to ordinary people, these formulations would be odd to say the least. Forget the NHS, forget council housing, forget decent benefits, forget free education – that is, apparently, “managing capitalism, not getting rid of it”. Calling for renationalisations is slammed as a call for a “mixed economy”! After all, “[t]he profit system will remain, the nationalised industries will service big business” and it isn’t a call for “abolition of private ownership of the means of production more generally”. Don’t renationalise the railways comrades – abolish the private ownership of the means of production more generally!

There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.

But let’s leave that for now to look at the wider issues. This passage is intended to answer arguments such as mine when it comes to “socialism”:

“We do not believe that those who want to fight against austerity will be put off from joining a socialist party that openly and patiently argues its case. Who are the people who it is feared will walk away? Those who we campaign alongside in the anti-cuts campaigns, the anti-bedroom tax protests, opposition to imperialist wars and against racism are unlikely to be repelled by our arguments. We will say, ‘We want to fight here and now to [stop the privatisation of the NHS] [oppose the bedroom tax][oppose police brutality] but we also want to fight for a society in which we no longer have to get up each morning to fight these fights. We want a society in which hospitals don’t get closed and in which there is no police racism. It’s called socialism. But to get it we have to build a party that will campaign for it. You should join it.’ How will this put people off?”

I submit that this is exactly the kind of patronising of working class people that I have argued elsewhere the left needs to get away from. “It’s called socialism.” Oh, is it really? Tell me more, I’ve never heard of that. Perhaps you have a newspaper I could purchase?

The reality of the left – and the working class as a whole – is that it isn’t full of naïve activists just waiting to be brought the “good news” about socialism. People are not blank canvasses for our ideology. They have their own traditions and their own outlooks, arrived at through a lifetime of picking up a little here, a little there, and coming to a label they feel comfortable with (or, sometimes, rejecting labels altogether).

The whole spectrum of the left

A broad left party needs to encompass not only socialists, but feminists, greens/environmentalists, anarchists (and people who aren’t particularly anarchist in their practice but say they are anarchists), communists, syndicalists, autonomists, alongside people who might call themselves “mutualists”, or “co-operators”, or supporters of “parecon”, or just “radical”, or “libertarian left”, or any number of other more unusual self-descriptions – situationism, anyone? Not to mention combinations, like “eco-feminist” or “anarcho-communist”, and people who say things like “well, I don’t label myself” or “I just want to defend the welfare state”. And yes, the dreaded “left reformists” should also be included (though, of course, almost no one uses that term to refer to themselves). I’m sure I’ve missed plenty. These are the people who I “fear will walk away”. We need to try to weave together the many, many threads of left tradition into a common party.

The Socialist Platform supporting document answers this argument in this way:

“Another argument is that the supporters of this platform want a ‘narrow’ party, whereas they want a ‘broad’ party. We want a mass working-class party, which will include all who want to support the party’s aims. There is nothing to be gained from being in a narrow or small party. We set our sights on transforming society. We believe that can only be achieved by the majority of the working class acting in their own interests to get rid of capitalism and begin afresh. To reach that stage will require a mass party of millions of activist persuaders, millions of people who will argue for socialism.”

In other words they are for a “broad” party … of people who already agree with them. A “mass party” of millions who are going to appear from nowhere and embrace socialism, because socialism is just that great. The “activist persuaders” line is essentially a propagandist view, of the sort that has done the socialist left no favours for the last century or more.

My argument here annoys those who believe that parties are built through top-down “clarity” – first you come up with a clear programme (or set of politics), then you go out and build the party. But every attempt to build a mass party in this way has failed. Real parties are far messier creatures, containing a whole world of ideas that people bring with them into the party.

Of course plenty will arrive with no set ideology, or with ideas that are not very strongly held. A strong socialist presence will draw people closer to socialist ideas. Common struggle, open debate, genuine participation – all these things will draw people closer to us. But what will surely “put people off” is if we just insist from day one that socialism is the only “correct” left politics – it’s been proven by history, you know! – and insist that if they’re “put off” by it then they must be some kind of right winger.

One final point: Is this about “hiding” our socialism and voting for bad positions, in the style of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect? No – and I find this the most tedious accusation of all. The Left Party Platform is full of left principles, and certainly does not advocate the abandonment of any of them.

Supporting it is, simply, about being openly socialist, but not demanding that everyone else should be. It is about being the kind of socialist who can co-exist in a party with a wide spectrum of the left. If we’re going to demand that people agree with us before they can even join, then what is the point of having a new party at all? This is a crucial moment for Left Unity – and I believe the Left Party Platform offers the best way forward.



  1. ISN says no to No2EU

    There have been two meetings called by the RMT to discuss an electoral intervention at the next European elections in 2014. All members of the TUSC steering committee and representatives of the groups on it were invited to attend. Nick Wrack went to the first two meetings. There was a third meeting on Monday 5 August for all those who wanted to continue their involvement in this initiative. The Independent Socialist Network discussed the proposal at its last meeting. Below is a letter from Nick to the participants in No2EU following that discussion.


  2. Dear Comrades,

    Please accept my apologies for this evening’s meeting called by the RMT to discuss the next stage of contesting the Euro elections in 2014 under the name of No2EU.

    On behalf of the Independent Socialist Network I would like to thank the RMT for inviting us (as part of TUSC) to the previous two meetings.

    As you know, at those earlier meetings I expressed my opposition to resurrecting No2EU as an electoral banner. I argued that it would be far better to stand under the TUSC name and on a clear socialist platform.

    Since the last meeting we have had a national meeting of the ISN, which discussed No2EU.

    There was total opposition to the proposal to stand as No2EU. Whilst there were some differences of opinion on the question of whether things would be better or not by withdrawal from the EU, everyone opposed the name No2EU, regardless of any suffix added to it.

    The opposition was primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the opinion that the election will be marked by a horrible reactionary nationalism and anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric. It was felt that, rather than cutting across this from the left, the title No2EU will reinforce it.

    Secondly, it was agreed that we should oppose any name or slogan that suggests or implies that things would be better simply by withdrawal from the EU.

    We see austerity as being rooted in the capitalist system – specifically in the current crisis. It is not only an EU phenomenon. It will continue to be driven in the UK whether the UK remains a member of the EU or withdraws.

    We would have preferred a campaign under the slogan ‘No to austerity – Yes to a Socialist Europe’. This could have gone a long way to raising socialist ideas and promoting discussion on the alternatives to austerity. It would have fitted in to a more long-term, strategic approach to building a new working-class party in Britain.

    As it is, we felt that by standing under yet another name – and one that hasn’t seen the light of day since 2009 – and then putting it away again, we will only reinforce the idea that the socialist left is confused and split, with no single banner.

    Due to these reasons, the ISN feels that it cannot support the No2EU campaign and, in the circumstances, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to participate in this evening’s discussion.

    With best wishes,
    Nick Wrack

  3. Whilst I have no illusions about the EU any more than I’ve any about the UK as a capitalist state, and one could use this to argue the Welsh and Scottish left would or could form a Celtic bloc separate from the English where the left is much weaker. The European Left could easily think good riddance to Britain or England as one of the weakest links within Europe and Scandinavia. Consider Britain has been following neo-liberal economic policies enforced by a neo-conservative state since 1979, whereas the EU only adopted this model of post-Keynesian economics and abandoned post-war welfare-capitalism in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    I suggesting is that the UK is more likely to move further to the right and strengthen the class power of capital, weakening further the power of labour if we leave the EU. Just as if Scotland and Wales got independence from the UK, that would also weaken the working class and labour movement in England and Northern Ireland. Whilst the EU was created after the second world war as part of the cold-war strategy against the Soviet Union, it now serves or can serve to divide capital into two rival capitalist blocs within the developed world.

    This in itself doesn’t automatically equate to furthering the road to socialism just as maintaining the UK doesn’t automatically lead to a socialist Britain. Building class unity across the EU, just as building class unity across the UK is essential to furthering socialism. It’s in this light that I am arguing separation from the EU, like separating the nations of the UK weakens the working classes and plays into the class agenda of the capitalist classes, whether they be transnational’s, multinational’s, international finance capital or national and regional capital.

  4. Left Unity may go the way of previous attempts to build a united front in Britain. Maybe the left in Britain is so infected with what Lenin called an infantile disorder that the Marxist left in Britain will remain divided along sectarian lines, held back by dogma of the 20th century which failed to build a united front. What I am convinced of from a Marxist and Leninist theoretical position is that in the higher stage of capitalism, internationalism replaces nationalism in the developed nation states.

    Lenin argued nationalism is appropriate in the developing nation states in the fight against the exploitation of imperialist nation states of the developed capitalist world. Josip Tito, Hồ Chí Minh and Fidel Castro acted correctly according to Marxist and Leninist theory as nationalist, but they also understood the internationalist element of Marxism and Leninism. It’s my view that Pierre Laurent understands Marxist and Leninist theory and the need to develop an internationalist strategy for the developed nation states of Europe and Scandinavia against the globalized class power of finance capital, transnational and multinational corporations which dictate their capitalist agenda at the national, supra-national and global level.

    Kate Hudson and the Left Front have in my view made this dialectical connection between the historical and geographic material reality of the post-Keynesian and post-Soviet world. The CPB and SP sadly seam not to have grasped the material-dynamics of globalization and are stuck in the mind set of the cold-war. A world where revolutions in the developing world could look to the Soviet Union to give them a degree of support and protection from the USA and its allies. A world where the labour movement in the developed nation states was tolerated and welfare-capitalism was a concession made as a response to the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and models of socialism such as Yugoslavia , Vietnam and Cuba.

  5. We are no longer living in that world and individual nation states may survive for a short while in a social-democratic mode of capitalism or on a socialist road. But as Lenin argued the forces of international finance capital and individual capitalist states will form a bloc to break any such attempts. This he knew to be what would happen to Russia if the revolution didn’t spread to Germany and across Europe after the first world war. The Soviet Union survived for seventy four years surrounded by the hostile forces of the capitalist world.

    In a post-Soviet world with China following a capitalist model of development since the 1980′s (Keynesian demand management) all be it not a neo-liberal economic model, the likely hood that Britain outside the EU could or would follow a Keynesian model of welfare-capitalism or move towards a socialist state is in my view what Lenin called infantile and utopian socialism, whether it be Trotsky’s left-communism or Stalinist national-bolshevism that is the failed dogma behind it.

    This is why I would argue the CPB and SP should like Left Unity be looking towards the EL and GUE/NGL led by Pierre Laurent of the PCF and Gabi Zimmer of Die Linke. Otherwise they are acting un-dialectically and un-scientifically to the material-dialectics of capitalism in the higher stage of monopoly finance capital, which calls for an historic bloc as envisaged by Antonio Gramsci which is what Left Unity appear to be attempting to build.

  6. Left Unity: the tortoise and the hare

    The Left Unity group, launched in late 2012 by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson after they quit Respect, and given a boost in early 2013 by support from film-maker Ken Loach, plans a conference on 30 November to constitute itself as an organisation and adopt a political platform.

    Burgin and Hudson are promoting a draft called the Left Party Platform. Its supporters include the Socialist Resistance group. Tom Walker, a former Socialist Worker journalist who quit early in 2013 and is now prominent in the SWP-splinter International Socialist Network (ISNers), writes, in support: “The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the ‘European Left Party’ tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche...

    “We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes — exactly! That’s the point!” The draft is, as Walker puts it, “inclusive of socialism”, but not explicitly socialist.

    The main rival draft is the Socialist Platform, explained on this page by one of its authors, Nick Wrack.

    Wrack was editor of Militant (forerunner of the SP’s The Socialist) in the early 1990s and has since then been prominent sucessively in the Socialist Alliance, SWP, Respect and TUSC.


  7. Nick Wrack: We have 79 names now, so I can’t speak for the whole platform.

    From the beginning of LU, there have been different approaches to what sort of party we want to come out of the process. Most people signed up because Ken Loach issued an invitation for people to debate and discuss a new party. He didn’t set down any confines for that discussion.

    A lot of us have been through similar experiences — Respect, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, or the Socialist Labour Party — and want to make sure we don’t go down the same route again.

    One of the things that struck some of us from the beginning was that a lot of the material being produced was extremely vague and nebulous, and probably deliberately so, so it didn’t have to define exactly what the aims of the party would be.

    Solidarity: Many people make that vagueness a virtue. They argue that it will help to garner wide electoral support from everyone to the left of the Labour Party, and that the Socialist Platform would narrow it down.

    NW: Our aim should be to make socialist ideas popular, not to become popular by hiding them. The view that’s shared by the platform signatories is that popularity based on appearing as all things to all people is not worth having. You’re building on sand.

    I believe that socialist ideas, explained patiently, are inspirational, and the socialist left has forgotten how to inspire people. One of the consequences of socialist ideas being in retreat in society is that even a section of the socialists themselves have become reluctant to argue openly for socialist ideas and socialist change. They think that, if you water your ideas down, you might get electoral support.

    We’d prefer to play a longer game. This is not an overnight get-rich-quick exercise. We want to take socialist ideas into working-class communities and give them roots so they last. We don’t want an ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow success.

    One of the criticisms that’s been raised against the Platform is that it’s too abstract, and that somehow we’re not interested in day-to-day battles. But the statement itself is not a party programme, or a tactical recipe for the here and now, it’s a statement of aims and principles.

    Socialists obviously get involved in all working-class struggles, whether it’s strikes, struggles in communities, or on campuses, but link those to a battle to change society fundamentally.

    Solidarity: You mentioned some of the previous attempts to set up left electoral coalitions or parties. What lessons do you draw from those experiences?

  8. NW: There are two fundamental lessons — whatever project we set up has to be socialist, and it has to be democratic.

    There are also other factors behind the failure of those previous projects. You can’t analyse the failures outside the historical context we live in. The last few decades have been a period of defeat for the working-class in Britain and elsewhere. Those failed attempts have been against that background of defeat and retreat.

    The other thing we face in Britain, which doesn’t exist to the same degree elsewhere in Europe, is a monolithic labour movement party. The idea that the Labour Party can simply be supplanted overnight is a big mistake. It will take a long time to challenge Labour. That’s not to rule out smaller victories in isolated places to begin with. My position is that you work patiently over a period of time, and the electoral tactic is part of your work, not the be-all-and-end-all.

    Solidarity: There seems to be another discussion going on inside Left Unity. Is this mainly an electoral vehicle, which supports struggles, but doesn’t see itself as having a role in trying to initiate them, shape them, or propose policy for them? Or is LU trying to build something which is systematically active in everyday struggles?

    NW: Left Unity hasn’t actually been set up yet. It doesn’t exist except in an inchoate, putative manner. The national conference in November will set up the new party, and what kind of party it is will be partially decided by the debates we have now. I would imagine that everyone involved in LU would say they are in favour of participating in and helping to build working-class struggles in their areas. Of course, we need to turn that into deeds.

    In terms of elections, there is a danger in some of what’s being said about attracting everyone to the left of Labour. Does that mean winning their conscious support for a set of ideas, or just capturing their votes?

    What we’ve tried to do with the Platform is set out briefly and succinctly some basic socialist aims and principles. It’s a bit disturbing that people who actually agree with those aims are arguing that the platform shouldn’t be supported because it’s “tactically wrong”. If everyone who agreed with it supported it, there’d be no problem in getting it adopted in the conference.

    What’s your take on the debate?

    Solidarity: Basically, that you and the Platform are right. Some people in LU seem to want be an in-gathering of everyone under the sun — although sometimes excluding the existing left groups — that will somehow win wide electoral support, and that’s it.

    You’re right that everyone in LU would say they’re in favour of participating in and supporting struggles. But a socialist party or organisation doesn’t just support struggles. It tries to organise for them, develop policies and strategies, and organise out of them. That active attitude doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as widespread in LU.

    Another concern is whether LU has enough puff to make it viable. It’s not set up as the type of thing socialists can do at any scale, large or small, but as something that has to be fairly big or nothing. People talk of it as being as big as Syriza, which doesn’t seem likely to us.

    NW: Those are all concerns that people in the Socialist Platform would share. The people who have that view about LU becoming a force equivalent to Syriza over a very short period of time are going to be sorely disappointed.

    In a sense it’s the tortoise and the hare, and the Socialist Platform is the tortoise. Some of my comrades might not like that, but I think that’s a good analogy.


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