The crises and splits in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Respect have spurred more talk about left unity. The left needs systematic unity in action where we agree, and honest dialogue where we differ, in order to reinstate socialist ideas as an option in the working class.
On 26 March the Coalition of Resistance (within which the key force is the SWP splinter Counterfire) held a press conference to promote a “People’s Assembly Against Austerity” for 22 June (previously announced in a letter to the Guardian on 5 February). Workers’ Liberty supports all such gatherings; but, worryingly, the press release described the event as a “rally” rather than a conference.
There is a back-story. In late 2010 and early 2011, as anti-cuts campaigns flourished in the first angry response to the Tory/ Lib-Dem government, a number of left groups called conferences to try to make themselves the hub of the anti-cuts movement. The SWP called one (Right to Work, since morphed into Unite the Resistance), and the SP called one (National Shop Stewards’ Network). Counterfire’s effort, the Coalition of Resistance, was the biggest.
More than 1,000 people attended the Coalition of Resistance conference on 27 November 2010. Listening to many platform speeches from celebrities calling for militancy against the cuts, including from Unite leader Len McCluskey (who also backs the June event), some of those thousand must have felt they were in on the start of a real new movement.
But not much came of it. CoR has run an informative website, and some useful stunts; but for local anti-cuts committees usually the best contribution that CoR has been able to make is to refrain from organising CoR local groups as rivals to the main committees (and CoR has not always refrained).
The CoR conference was dominated by top-table speakers, 20-odd of them in the opening and closing plenaries. Little came of most workshops. At the workshop billed as dealing with political representation, speakers were a Green Party councillor; Liz Davies, who declared herself a critical supporter of the Green Party; Billy Bragg, whose speech was a straight plea to vote yes in the May 2011 referendum on AV; and Guardian contributor Laurie Penny. It was chaired by a Green Party member and allowed little debate.
The conference applauded a call from the platform for a week of action from 14 February 2011, but there was little action that week. CoR faded.
There is also a back-story to the “People’s Assembly” trope with which Counterfire hopes to revive CoR. They did it first on 12 March 2007, as a People’s Assembly Against War, when the people who now run Counterfire were in the leadership of the SWP. That event drew a good crowd, too — 1,000 or more — but its contribution to unity in action or to serious dialogue on differences was smaller than the attendance. There were almost 40 celebrities speaking from the top table.
On 25 March, film-maker Ken Loach and writer Gilbert Achcar co-signed a letter to the Guardian promoting the “Left Unity” initiative started in December 2012 by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson after they had quit George Galloway’s Respect movement. The initiative’s website claims that 3000 people have signed up on the web to back Ken Loach on this. No conference has been announced, but the website reports on local groups.
If those local groups can act as left forums, bringing the left together in joint action where we agree and honest debate where we disagree, then they will make a contribution.
Again, there is a back-story. Burgin had previously been active in Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party as well as Respect; Hudson, in the Communist Party of Britain before she joined Respect. Loach was close to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, and then in Respect.
There have been quite a few other unity initiatives in recent years. A weary shrug (“not another one!”) would be wrong; but so would the idea that we need not think about and learn from why they didn’t work.
In 2009, both AWL and SWP made proposals for left unity (only, it turned out that the SWP’s idea of left unity didn’t include talking with AWL...) The Convention of the Left, launched in September 2008 by John Nicholson (previously Labour deputy leader of Manchester City Council, and then in the Socialist Alliance) won wider endorsement than any of the current efforts — Morning Star, Red Pepper, LRC, Respect, Labour Briefing and Socialist Worker, as well as Workers’ Liberty. It agreed to set up local left forums. Trouble is, the forums never really got going, and the “convention” turned into a series of conferences, of diminishing vitality.
The Left Unity Liaison Committee, set up by activists from the Socialist Alliance, brought together different groups to discuss, but also petered out (in the end, AWL was the only one of the activist groups attending regularly). According to the Socialist Party, their electoral vehicle, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, is the best hope for left unity. AWL was able to get a loose alliance with the SP and the Alliance for Green Socialism — the Socialist Green Unity Coalition —up to 2008-9, but the SP and AGS then pulled out in favour of No2EU and what became TUSC.
The Anti-Capitalist Initiative, in which the main force is splinters from the Workers’ Power group, also promotes itself as the way to left unity.
None of these, not even CoL which was perhaps the best effort, has had enough substance of agreed united action or of real open debate.
Paradoxically, it often happens that the smaller and more splintered the group which proposes itself as the hub for left unity, the better the initial response it gets. But it’s not necessarily easy sailing from there on!
If an activist group with a known record of political activity makes a call for unity, then people judge it partly according to their opinion of that record. If a splinter of a split of a splinter (just two people initially, as with Burgin and Hudson, or a few dozen, as with Counterfire) makes an appeal, and puts it in the vaguest terms — Burgin and Hudson suggest no more political definition than “rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions, and poses a new way of organising everyday life” — then everyone can read into it what they want.
Everyone who wants to build a socialist organisation, but is unsure about how to do it, and so holds back from joining any of the existing groups, can believe they have found a short cut. Just a click on a website, or a “like” on Facebook, and they’re already part of the big movement they want!
Burgin and Hudson cite Syriza in Greece and Die Linke in Germany as their models. But neither of those dropped from the sky in response to a few activists writing a letter to the Guardian, or doing a press conference. Syriza builds on a long political tradition — that of the Greek Communist Party, since the 1920s the main force in the Greek workers’ movement - and on sharp political battles which separated Syriza’s core both from the old Stalinists and from the soft reformists now in Greece’s Democratic Left. Die Linke rests on having been able to take over a chunk of what was the old ruling party in East Germany.
Also, neither of them is adequate. If Syriza did not have organised left groupings like DEA and Kokkino battling within it against its mainstream leadership, then there would be no hope for it doing anything other than collapsing into reformist adaptation. Die Linke is more Keynesian than socialist, and has supported cuts where it is in provincial coalition governments.
Unity is good. But talk about unity will be just a way of floating yet another left splinter unless it is translated into specific unity in action and specific dialogue about differences.
To the credit of Burgin and Hudson, they have posted on their website a thoughtful contribution from SWPer (or ex-SWPer?) Keith Flett. “However, and however frustrating some may find it, there is no way of by-passing the weight of Labour and perhaps in particular Labour activists in the unions and localities in all this.... The electoral support of Labour and its impact can’t be ignored.
It may be argued that membership is hardly what it was in the 1950s but that is true of all political parties. It may also be argued that the hold of Labour’s approach to political change is less, but it is an argument not an historical fact.
“Even if we accept time scales change with context, historically it has taken time to build left parties”. Not just time, but effort, argument, education. And politics! Talk of unity is good, but only if it leads to specific united action and specific dialogue. Not if it becomes only a way to float yet another left splinter making its claim as being the one which is really for unity...
AWL will work with the Left Unity forums, and the People’s Assembly, on that basis.