Formations for the Next Left
By Mike Marqusee
10th July 2003

Organisationally the left outside of Labour is dominated by the Leninist groups, particularly the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The political practice of these groups poses serious difficulties for the rest of the anti-Blair opposition.

But before dealing with these difficulties, a few caveats are needed. The SWP is the only organised force on the left that can mount a serious national initiative. Because of its internal discipline and access to resources, it was able to move quickly to establish the Stop the War Coalition and then to go on to build the big national demonstrations (though certainly not without the essential collaboration of much wider forces). The SWP should be given credit for its work in this regard: without a single, nation-wide organising centre, a clear public focus, the anti-war movement would not have been able to make the mark that it did - which is not to say that there aren't many serious criticisms of the SWP's handling of the Stop the War Coalition.

For the most part, independent leftists have failed to organise and failed to focus; in critical moments - like the run-up to war - we are unable to act collectively, to take and shape initiatives. So criticism of the SWP must be accompanied by self-criticism. This is partly a problem of our making, a reflection of our inadequacies over many years.

The answer to the frustrations many of us have felt with the SWP is not to demonise them. Many individual SWP members all over the country make real contributions to numerous struggles for social justice. We should beware of SWP-bashing and reverse sectarianism, and of any form of red-baiting - the organised far left has a right to contribute and take part; we should not dismiss initiatives simply because they come from the SWP - in fact, those who stayed away from the Stop the War Coalition in its early days because of the SWP's prominence within it merely helped ensure the SWP's ultimate domination of it.

Most importantly, we mustn't dismiss the classical Marxist tradition with which the far left groups are associated. In my view that tradition is incomplete, but we need to know about it and engage with it and respect its struggles. If we walk away from that heritage, there is a danger that too much time will be spent reinventing the wheel.

We should also remember that the foibles we associate with the SWP - the control freakery, the intellectual dishonesty, the casual attitude towards democracy - are not confined to that group - in various measures they are shared by other far left groups, and by much of the Labour and trade union left, and the independent and anarchist left is not untainted by them.

And we should also remember that the two political initiatives often cited as relative successes by critics of the SWP - the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy - both emerged out of groups spawned by the Leninist tradition.

Finally, the desire for unity in action is strong. Without that unity people can never fully realise their own potential power. That unity is a goal for which it's worth making sacrifices, gritting your teeth, working with people you distrust - though it must stop short at silence and complicity with what you believe to be wrong.

Having registered those caveats, I have to say, on the basis of my experience in the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition, that I believe the SWP is constitutionally incapable of working with others on an equal, honest and transparent basis. In the end, their aim is dominance, and anything that threatens or undermines that dominance will always, in their eyes, be suspect.

I've never agreed with the SWP's programme - or the programmes offered by any of the Leninist groups - but that's not the core of the problem. It's not about programme, it's about method.

Many will have had the experience of attending a meeting ostensibly to discuss or organise an initiative or campaign only to find themselves faced with a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities. The non-SWPers present may hold a variety of views or doubts, but these end up rotating around the axis established by the SWP. It's a lop-sided and ineffectual discussion because a key participant - the SWP - is playing by a different set of rules, and not engaging openly and fully with the debate as others see it.

More broadly it's my experience that the SWP leadership have an alarmingly contemptuous attitude towards democracy and a knee-jerk hostility to any challenge to their views or priorities. In particular, the concept of accountability seems virtually absent from the SWP's collective consciousness. SWP members who are officers of wider bodies tend to treat them like playthings, and rarely make an effort to account for their actions and decisions to the broader movement.

The SWP consider themselves THE vanguard and despite the lip-service to pluralism retain the conviction that they ALONE offer the movement proper leadership. They seem to be driven by a highly competitive dynamic: the group and its claims must be sustained at all costs. A premium is placed on having the answers and exercising leadership. Doubt or agnosticism have no place - indeed they are regarded as weaknesses. Truth is reified in the form of a jargon - and any nuance that cannot be expressed in that jargon is ruled out of consideration.

In the end, the SWP is imbued with an authoritarian ethic - most recently confirmed by their readiness to dub as 'divisive' or 'disruptive' anyone who voices political preferences contrary to theirs. We've seen this in the Socialist Alliance, where they have dumped dissenters from national officer positions and crudely packed a meeting in Birmingham in order to force out one of the few genuinely independent (and respected) trade union activists the SA could boast. We've also seen it in the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) where decisions are taken by the SWP leadership and foist on the STWC with barely a semblance of democratic consultation, where SWP members appear on platforms as 'STWC' spokespersons, though they have no links to any STWC structures, where the priorities of the SWP leadership (at the moment, campaigning for George Galloway), take precedence over the priorities of the wider movement (surely, at the moment, stepping up the pressure on Blair regarding the absent WMD and building a long-term campaign against the occupation of Iraq) - and where anyone who wanted a slightly greater emphasis on direct action, or a broader approach to the choice of speakers on the big demonstrations, or didn't totally buy into the crude construction of 'the Muslims' as a homogenous (manipulable) entity was effectively excluded. And in both the SA and the STWC, on the rare occasions when initiatives not under the direct control of the SWP emerged from democratic discussion, they were either ignored or undermined by the SWP.

It's hardly new to note that blind loyalty to an organisation is a dangerous state of mind, and it saddens me that despite all the evidence of the left's past errors, the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practise. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them. There seems to be an imperative to move on to the next campaign or issue or intervention without pausing to assess the success or otherwise of previous efforts. I suspect that some of the leaders fear that if the membership is not kept constantly distracted, they might begin to ask awkward questions.

The competitive dynamic that drives the SWP also leads to an air of unreality in its assessment of events and movements. Instead of sober assessment of our success and failures, strengths and weaknesses, we're offered empty boosterism - the numbers attending meetings or demos are routinely inflated, and the complexity of multi-faceted developments is unacknowledged. This habit was a problem for the SWP in the Socialist Alliance - where election results could not be inflated and the realities of public opinion could not be massaged away. And it is a problem in the STWC - where it is self-evident that, for all our achievements, we did not stop the war, and people are rightly asking now: how we can do better in the future? To which the SWP can answer only: let's do more of the same!

Large-scale demos and rallies top-heavy with speakers are the SWP's preferred type of activity because these activities lend themselves to top-down control and offer the best ponds in which to fish for new members.

Finally, what has disturbed me most in working with the SWP has been their flagrant ethical relativism. This is an ancient foible of the left - a conviction that the class struggle, or the building of the revolutionary party, or the sheer evil of the forces we find ourselves up against justifies any behaviour, no matter how dishonest, duplicitous, or destructive to others. In their competition with the rest of the left, in their drive to maintain control (including control of their own members), anything goes. Meetings can be packed, democratic decisions circumvented, dissenters smeared and threatened, cheques forged and money misappropriated.

Over many years on the left, it's my experience that mutual trust is far more important than detailed political agreement - and in my bitter and abundant experience, it is impossible to trust the SWP. They are too willing to sacrifice our common goals, values and principles for their own short-term advantage.

It's been obvious for years that this kind of practise on the left - from whatever source - puts people off in droves. It hampers honest discussion, distorts debate, obstructs participation, leads to tactical and strategic errors.

However, we should remember that all of this is a part of a much greater problem. We are all the products of the society we aim to challenge and overturn. In their hunger for status, their competitiveness, their reified perception of social realities, and their ethical relativism, the SWP mimic the dominant forces in the society they oppose.

So how can the deformed products of a deformed society overcome this dilemma? Part of the answer is democracy. We're all weak, were all fallible, and it is only when we work together within democratic, transparent, accountable, participatory structures that our weaknesses and fallibilities, our ego-driven errors and arrogant myopia, can be corrected and disciplined. It's argued that the Leninist party provides this correction and discipline but the evidence - quite overwhelming at this juncture in history - is that it actually institutionalises and reifies those weaknesses and fallibilities, cocoons them from the harsh winds of social reality, and insulates them from collective scrutiny.

What concretely are the options for a democratic opposition to Blairism? The anti-war movement was huge, and by and large broad too. Yet the electoral challenge to Blair in the shape of the Socialist Alliance remains narrow and ineffectual. After the huge demonstrations against the Iraq war, and Labour's support for the war, groups and individuals are searching for some kind of formation to act as a challenge, including in the electoral arena but remain dissatisfied with the SWP version being offered.

First, it should be noted that it is extremely difficult to turn a broad social movement into a political formation or organisation of any kind. The great upsurges of the 60s left hardly any institutional legacies.

Certainly, people want and need a sense that the movement they're working within belongs to them, is their property, and not the tool of an organisation or clique with an agenda they may not share.

Our movement and our institutions and any parties we form should define themselves against the managerialist social vision and political/economic practise of New Labour - and not only of New Labour, but of the governing assumptions and methods of this phase of capitalist development (of which New Labour is the parochial expression). The pressures exerted from above in contemporary Western society work to isolate and atomise the individual, to make her or him a passive consumer, to deny her or him access to collective mechanisms to address problems, to re-enforce cynicism and a sense of the inevitability of social outcomes.

Our politics should be the antithesis of all that. It must offer the only effective antidote to that social poison - the experience of participation, and especially of democratic participation. That's why the antiwar movement offers such hope - millions of people stopped seeing themselves as mere spectators to the history of their times and decided to participate in making that history. We need, above all, vehicles for participation, and that includes vehicles for electoral participation. Other countries in Europe have such vehicles; Scotland has one; we in England are drifting into the US model.

Speaking for myself, what I'm looking for is a political formation - a movement or a party or whatever - that acts as a vehicle for democratic participation on many levels; that is rigorous in its internal democracy and treats accountability as a non-negotiable principle, but is at the same time able to minimise bureaucratic quagmires and factional competition; that provides for different levels, degrees and rhythms of political activity; that offers room for doubt and agnosticism and revision; that provides an atmosphere in which votes and decisions are seen not as trials of strength for would-be leaders but as the final result of a deeper process of discussion and joint activity rooted in mutual respect.

I'm looking for a political formation that takes the franchise seriously while recognising its growing limitations; that combines electoral and extra-electoral activity; that is serious about the specifics of feasible reform (and the use of whatever powers can be wielded through the local or national state) but at the same times offers and insists on a vision of overall social transformation; that recognises that this vision in the end must transcend or overturn capitalism but also acknowledges that none of the socialist blueprints offered so far are adequate and that the new society must emerge through extended debate and experiment.

I'm looking for a political formation that premises its anti-imperialism on a humanist internationalism and eschews the old habit of putting a plus wherever the imperialists put a minus; that finally faces up to the enduring centrality of white supremacism in capitalist society and understands that challenging racism has to go way beyond confronting the fascists and calling for inter-racial unity.

I'm looking for a political formation that is populist but not opportunist; that is not satisfied with itself and its numbers but is serious about mass communication, eager and determined and inventive and alert in reaching out to the majority; that sinks roots in organised labour, draws from its strengths and respects its structures, while at the same time encouraging organised labour to reach out to wider communities and identify with their priorities; that looks on working class and dispossessed people of all kinds as a resource of ideas and activity, not merely as voting or demo fodder.

I'm looking for a political formation that is militant and uncompromising but also patient and realistic.

And I'm looking for even more than that. I'm looking for a vehicle that enables us to intervene sharply in the immediate scene but that is also built for the long haul, because there can be no doubt that our struggle against capitalist globalisation and imperialist warfare must be conducted over many, many years.

However, it's an imperfect world, and life is short, so I'll settle for anything that seems to be moving in the directions I've indicated.

Mike Marqusee is a former editor of Labour Left Briefing. He helped found the Socialist Alliance, and is a member of the Stop the War Coalition steering committee. His new book on the politics of Bob Dylan Chimes of Freedom is published by New Press in October 2003.