By Sean Matgamna
"Unite the left!" That cry is becoming increasingly popular now that circumstances call unmistakably for left unity. Circumstances? The Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party and the reverberations of the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91.
The political universe of the left has long been dominated by the fact of the Labour Party. All left politics was defined, negatively or positively, by this mass reformist party, based on and much intertwined with the trade unions, the basic organisations of the working class. Our tactical arguments focused on how to explode Labour's contradictions, the clash between its working-class base and its practice as a bourgeois party of government. Even the biggest revolutionary socialist group, the Socialist Workers Party, which to many of us seemed to be foolishly sectarian towards the Labour Party day-to-day, was content in election after election to shout "vote Labour". The SWP looked after the immediate strikes and demonstrations, and the long-term socialist future; for immediate politics it could see no alternative to Labour.
That entire framework is breaking down. Blair-Labour has moved so far to the right that a huge dislocation has been created between the whole of official politics and the ideas, aspirations and experience of working-class people. According to opinion polls, 76% of Britain's people think that there is a class struggle between labour and capital. It has not, they think, been growing less in recent years, but more intense and bitter. They feel the bitterness in their daily lives - in the power of the bosses on the job, in widespread threatening poverty and homelessness, in the decline of the Health Service, and in the contrasts between the conspicuous consumption of the well-off and the fact that one third of Britain's children now grow up below the official poverty line.
The more politically aware know that much of this situation can be traced to the legal shackles on the trade unions which ban action like solidarity strikes. They know that the Blairites are hard-faced Tories, determined to keep the Tory anti-union laws, which Blair admits are the least liberal labour legislation in Western Europe, on the statute book. They know that the trade unions have been massively downgraded within the Labour Party structures. They feel and increasingly know that Blair-Labour is organised to exclude workers and the labour movement from any role in politics other than as media-manipulated passive voters, and, the trade unions, as sources of money.
The sense underlying broad working-class allegiance to the Labour Party, that it was to one extent or another a party that would represent at least some of their interests, or look out for them against the Tories, is no longer part of current reality. Widespread awareness that this is how it is, is becoming an increasing part of our reality.
The Labour Party has always been a bourgeois workers' party; it remains that in the broadest sense, but the balance has shifted massively. The contradictions of the Labour Party are being resolved by the Blairites, not as revolutionary socialists for decades hoped they would be resolved, by the emergence of a better working-class political movement out of the Labour Party, but by the driving of workers and their trade unions out of any possibility of seriously influencing the Labour Party, or the Blair-Labour government.
The collapse of Stalinism has cleared the terrain for authentic working-class socialist ideas. But it has also discredited and gutted the traditional "mass" idioms of the "Old Labour" left. Much of the working-class resistance to Blairism remains inchoate, voiceless, lacking in any confidence that it can become a hegemonic mass force.
Either working-class socialists leave a monopoly of "working-class" politics in the hands of Blair-Labour - and that will soon mean no working-class politics at all, not even of the most muted sort - or we begin to reconstruct working-class politics on a new basis and to challenge that monopoly. One arena for challenging it is by standing against Blair-Labour in elections. That, of course, is not the only arena.
The Blairites do not yet have the labour movement entirely hog-tied. The key task in the trade unions, and - where there is life - in the Labour Party, is to raise as forcefully as possible the question of class. The whole point of the unions starting and sustaining the Labour Party was to secure working-class representation in politics. The proper goal of working-class representation is a workers' government, a government that serves the working class. Blair-Labour is not working-class representation; the Blair-Labour government is a Mark 2 Thatcherite Tory government. We need to get the unions to fight politically, - inside the New Labour structures too - for their demands on the welfare state, the minimum wage, and union rights; to fight for representatives of the workers to stand as Labour candidates; and to deselect Blairites.
And what where we succeed in a local Labour Party, and the Blairite centre bans the candidate? We either surrender or stand against Labour.
Where there is not, or not yet, enough working-class support in the official labour movement for that, socialists still have a duty to the many workers and youth keenly hostile to Blair-Labour but as yet unorganised or semi-organised. For the socialist groups to unite to run clearly working-class candidates can help rally and organise them. Minimally, it can avoid leaving the Blair-Labour party, which is both anti-socialist and anti-working-class, with a monopoly of the working-class vote for lack of an alternative.
That is the new situation. It has put the revolutionary left in Britain in a state of flux such as we have not seen in many decades. Left unity can make us immensely more effective in the work that needs to be done now. Thus the popularity of the cry, "Unite the left!"
Then comes the question, how? The 1999 conference of Workers' Liberty, which met in London on 20-21 February, offered an answer in its own way. Not a formula in words and phrases, but one in practice.
For the question of whether the left can unite, and how it might unite, translates into another question. Political divisions exist on the left and will continue to exist. Different individuals and groups, even where they start from the same basic principles and honestly pursue the same goals, must often arrive at different and even conflicting responses to living events. It is certain that new differences will emerge again and again in any left-wing movement not stifled by bureaucratic centralism.
Given that, it is inconceivable that the disparate groups of the revolutionary left can be magically united by way of the disappearance of all but one set of answers to the vexed questions. It is even undesirable that we should be united that way.
The only possible way the left can unite is to abandon the predominant form of revolutionary socialist organisation, which is a self-stifling bureaucratic centralism, adopted as part of the contamination, over decades, of the anti-Stalinist left by Stalinist example and Stalinist pressure. We must embrace instead the real democratic centralism of Lenin's Bolshevik party and of the Trotskyist movement in Trotsky's time. Lenin explained in 1907, for example: "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings" (Collected Works volume 10, p.442).
The prime relevance of the Workers' Liberty conference to the question of revolutionary left unity was that it offered a prefiguration of left-wing unity in action. Last May differences emerged in Workers' Liberty on the proper attitude of socialists to the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland. Both sides considered this question very important. Debate has been heated, vehement, and impassioned.
Differences also emerged in recent months about the Labour Party, both on analysis of the precise stage the Blairite project has reached, and on how to respond. That debate, too, has been sharp.
Both arguments have been thrashed out in the pages of Workers' Liberty. Neither has been resolved by the majority trying to stifle the other side. Under the constitution of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty that is not possible. The last-but-one Workers' Liberty conference adopted a new constitution that made it impossible. One provision wrote into the constitution what had been custom and practice for many years - the right of minorities to put their views in the public press. Another established the right of a Control Commission, elected by conference, to call an emergency conference even against the will of the National Committee. Such provisions also help to educate people in acceptance of democratic procedures as the norm.
Does such a way of dealing with differences give over too much time and energy to debate, and make us ineffective? In observable fact it does not. Even if it did, it would not follow that the organisation could dispense with political discussion. Either we pay the price of democracy, or we would have to have some individual or group act the role of Pope, dictator, or college of cardinals.
Such a system requires the submission of everyone else. That kills political life, stops those involved being educated to think for themselves, and often means the expulsion or departure of those not willing to be stifled. It means costly splits.
Moreover, an organisation which establishes its "line" internally by top-down command will inevitably tend to attempt to use the same methods of fiat and decree within the broader labour movement. If its activists are trained in the idea that debate within the organisation is an unaffordable luxury that would serve only dilettantes, then they will tend to lack the confidence, open-mindedness, and sensitivity necessary in order to operate well in, and learn from, the debates in the broader movement.
The notion that discussion is a waste of time, or something that should be reduced to the minimum, is in sharp contrast to the ideas that built the organisation that led the Russian October Revolution of 1917. Lenin once used a story which, he said, came from Leo Tolstoy, to explain this important part of what Marxist socialists do.
A man is walking along a road and sees another man in the distance. He is crouching, his body moving rhythmically. He seems to be gyrating senselessly.
Ah, the first man says, a poor lunatic. However, when he gets closer he sees that the second man is sharpening a knife on a stone.
Marxists too sharpen their political weapons, not by whetting steel on stone but by whetting minds and wits on fact, argument, debate, and polemic with their comrades and with other organisations. Only thus is political clarity achieved and sustained.
The working class is the majority in Britain and in many other countries. The day the big bulk of the working class understands its own condition as the exploited wage-slaves of capital - on that day, the bell begins to toll for capitalism. The battle of ideas is therefore a central part of our activity against the ruling class. It is a key front in the class struggle.
But the battle of ideas can not be confined only to the battle with open bourgeois ideas. Ideas are malleable things. Their real meaning and content changes according to circumstances. For example, the idea that "Labour is the workers' party" now serves Blair.
The seemingly-same socialist ideas can become imbued with other and alien content. What ideas are really revolutionary, really capable in the given circumstances of helping the working class achieve its emancipation - that is determined by experience and by debate and argument. Polemics with, for example, the SWP are necessary and unavoidable because we are engaged in building an organisation rooted in the working class and free from the defects which we see in the SWP. We appeal to the reason of honest SWPers against their SWP-incited prejudices and, where necessary, we appeal to the reason of the broader labour movement against them. As in our external affairs, so in our internal affairs, our weapon is reason.
Only by way of reason and debate can our weapons be sharpened, and revolutionaries be trained. What are revolutionaries? Revolutionaries are those who can keep in the forefront of their minds a picture as sharp as the first time they saw it of what capitalism is, alongside a will-sustaining socialist vision of the world that humanity will attain when, led by the working class, it emerges from class society. Serious revolutionaries are people who can remain revolutionary without losing touch with the realities of the world in which we live, the world we must grapple with and change if there is ever to be socialism.
Those who are distressed by polemic and debate between socialist organisations and within socialist organisations are like the man who mistook the sharpening of a knife for the senseless gyrations of a madman. But polemic and debate are a necessary part of the battle. They are anything but useless. They are a precondition of health and vitality, not a sign of political and organisational illness.
There is no other way to reach and sustain clarity. There is no other way to move other socialists. And without political clarity the chances of working-class setbacks and defeats are massively increased.
To go back to our starting point: only by organising so as to allow openness and debate, and by committing ourselves to consistent democracy, can we get the maximum unity of the different strands of revolutionary socialism.