The curious incident of the left that didn’t bark

Submitted by Matthew on 21 June, 2017 - 11:07 Author: Colin Foster

Instructing a stolid and unimaginative official detective, Sherlock Holmes drew his attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. His stooge, or feed, responded: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The curious incident of the left in the Corbyn time is something like that. Not that the left has done nothing. But so many groups on the left have failed to do so many things. Almost all have failed to get involved, or to try to get involved, in the reviving local Labour Parties, or in the efforts to build a live Young Labour movement from the huge support for Corbyn among young people shown on 8 June. At the same time they have largely failed to act as conduits to bring more radical ideas and criticisms into the still unformed and still, often, quite politically-timid Labour left.

Socialist Worker, in their comments on 8 June, went little further than presenting themselves as specialists in “protests and strikes”.

“Only a movement of protests and strikes can beat back the right and hold Labour to its pledges.

“That means building a movement independent of Labour, and a revolutionary socialist party focused on struggle outside parliament.”

How staying outside the Labour Party makes them better able to develop strikes — which, at a time when profits are high but real wages are falling again, are surely necessary — they do not explain. They criticise the Labour leadership for reneging on freedom of movement in Europe, but do not explain how they can square that good criticism with their own bad line of supporting Brexit. Socialist Worker does almost nothing to inject broader socialist aims into the movement. Socialist Worker seems to think that more protests and strikes are socialism, whatever their demands. Socialist Worker’s articles on 8 June were short, and maybe they will add more later. Maybe even an explanation of why, though gushing in their support for Labour in England and Wales, they backed the SNP in Scotland.

“In Scotland the picture is more complex... because of... the existence of the Scottish National Party... We urge a vote for the left candidate best able to advance the fight for change”. It’s hard to see what that meant other than mostly voting SNP. I know of no left-of-Labour candidates in Scotland, unless you count the (few) Greens.

The Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal cannot plead lack of space for political shortages in their editorial responses. The SP, with 2700 words, outdid Socialist Appeal (2300 words). Both long articles gave most of their space to banal comment about the Tories being in trouble, the election showing that people will vote left, capitalism being in turmoil, and so on.

The SP’s lack of criticism of Labour’s retreat on freedom of movement was certainly not down to lack of space, since the SP explicitly opposes freedom of movement, equating migration controls with trade-union deals making union membership compulsory in a workplace. It’s unclear, but the SP it seems to call for pressure on the Tories to make the Brexit talks a lever for further reactionary moves: to break up the EU and return Europe to a condition of high barriers and hostilities between nations. “a campaign with European socialists... to use the Brexit talks to tear up the EU bosses’ club rules”.

In a rather pale echo of its long-time routine agitation for a 24 hour general strike as a cure-all, the SP says: “the trade union movement should call an immediate national ‘Tories Out’ demonstration against austerity”.

Rightly, it calls for opposition to council cuts. It emphasises democratic reform of the Labour Party, and especially the right for local Labour Parties to select parliamentary candidates anew for each election. That’s not wrong, but it sits oddly with the SP making no serious effort to get into the Labour Party. The oddness is highlighted by the SP ignoring the now-more-urgent call for developing a live and democratic Young Labour movement, and instead calling a meeting on 15 June to amalgamate three of its own youth fronts into a new umbrella, “Young Socialists”. The SP has so far published no report of that 15 June meeting, suggesting it had limited success.

Finally, the SP advocates socialism, in a curiously roundabout and muted way. In line with the SP’s old tradition, when, as the Militant group inside the Labour Party, its staple was motions to meetings for lots of nationalisation, it defines socialism as “nationalising the 100 or so major corporations and banks”.

No mention of workers’ control, or of radical democracy to replace the bourgeois state structures. And they advocate this socialism-as-statism-in-one-country not so much as an aim in its own right, but as a measure to defeat (or, rather, they oddly write, “prevent”) bourgeois hostility to and sabotage of a Corbyn government. chile In 1970s discussions of the 1973 military coup in Chile, Militant used to say, with slim plausibility, that Allende could have prevented the coup by nationalising all the big enterprises. They rejected Marxist arguments that the Chilean left should have organised against the coup by organising fraternisation and rank-and-file soldiers’ committees to undermine the military hierarchies, and by arming workers’ organisations.

Socialist Appeal, also an offshoot of the old Militant group, in its long article, does not defend freedom of movement, but at least it doesn’t oppose it. (In the Brexit referendum Appeal favoured abstention, not like the SP a vote for Brexit). And Socialist Appeal is involved in the Labour Party. Sort of.

Most Appeal people are not regular activists in their local Labour Parties. Many Appeal people have been expelled in the last year, and, largely, Appeal has shrugged, rather than joining the campaign against the purge. Appeal’s “orientation” to the Labour Party is more about consoling predictions to its readers, in the year-in-year-out style of the old Militant, that “sooner or later” “the capitalist crisis” will swing Labour irresistibly to the left, than anything active. General advocacy of socialism and even of revolution is in some ways Appeal’s staple. It is vitiated by its citing of Cuba and Venezuela as (not-quite-perfect) models of socialism, and its delusory assurances that “the beginning of a political revolution” is already underway in British society.. In Appeal’s screeds, socialism is certainly advocated, but more as a welcome inevitable result of capitalist crisis than as something to be fought for and developed from today’s working-class struggles.

“Sooner rather than later new elections will be on the order of the day. The political crisis is a reflection of the capitalist crisis that began in 2008 and is still continuing. This will create sharp and sudden changes in the situation, which will open up new opportunities for Labour and the Left...

“Capitalism offers no solution to the problems of working people and will increasingly pose the urgent need to change society. In the coming period the support for the ideas of genuine socialism and Marxism will grow by leaps and bounds”.

The curious incident of the left groups which don’t get involved in the Labour Party, which fail to oppose or even positively support the re-raising of national frontiers in Europe, and which advocate socialism only in coded, diminished, and roundabout ways, places a greater responsibility on the rest of us to do what’s necessary.