Quite a few left-wing student activists will have encountered 'Student Broad Left' (SBL) and been somewhat bewildered by both their political stances and the sectarian, cynical, bullying way they operate. On first sight, they are bewildering. This briefing is an attempt to outline the political ideas and background which explain their peculiarity.
I've written it because, although I am not a student activist any more, I was, and I have extensive experience of SBL and its parent organisation, the ex-Trotskyist group Socialist Action. Why bother? SBL and SA are very small, but they do play a certain - very negative - role on the left, particularly in the student movement; moreover their ideas are something like a distillation of everything which is wrong and reactionary on the far left. So it is important to understand and challenge them. In addition to practical relevance, understanding the issues involved also has educational value for activists.
As the name suggests, SBL presents itself as a broad left-wing organisation. In fact it is a very narrow front for Socialist Action (www.socialistaction.net). They founded it in 1997 as a split from the then very large Campaign for Free Education (a sort of ancestor of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts), because they were frustrated they could not control CFE.
It is hard to know which SBL members are in Socialist Action and which aren’t, because one of the group’s defining characteristics is secrecy; believe it or not, no one will admit that they are an SA member and many who almost certainly are deny any knowledge of the group. That secrecy is one of the reasons for writing this briefing, so that people know who they are dealing with - including the small number of independent people who may be around the edges of SBL, but don't have a clear idea of SA's politics.
Despite the link being hidden, what is not in doubt is that SBL's political positions closely follow those of Socialist Action.
Explaining Socialist Action
One thing which makes SA and SBL seem strange is that they combine a general political world view, particularly on international questions, which you would have to call Stalinist with a very 'moderate' take on domestic issues, ie the class struggle in Britain. In 2009, one of Socialist Action's leaders, Redmond O'Neill died. This is how our obituary summarised his and his organisation's legacy:
"It was not just their grim support for Stalinist and other ‘progressive’ authoritarian regimes and movements in the developing world... Such ideas are, unfortunately, fairly common on the left, though Socialist Action has taken them to an extreme. What was and, to the extent that the group still exists is, unique about Socialist Action is their crawling to the rich and powerful in Britain itself.
"Thus O’Neill was paid over £100,000 a year to work, alongside a number of his comrades, for a mayor [Ken Livingstone] who was quite openly a servant of the ruling class – breaking strikes, sucking up to bankers and property developers and lavishly praising the Blair and Brown governments. There is little evidence that Socialist Action had any interest whatsoever in workers’ struggles – except in so far as they came into conflict with their project for a “Progressive London”, in which case they had to be opposed ruthlessly (the Tube workers).
"The group's politics could be summarised as a kind of popular-front Stalinist Fabianism - seeing the 'class struggle' not in the living battles and movements of workers and the oppressed, but concealed in all kinds of 'progressive forces', from the Stalinist states to politicians like Livingstone. By working and gaining positions of 'influence' within these movements, they would, despite all appearances, remain revolutionaries. Any betrayals of what real socialists would understand as class struggle could be explained by this framework."
If you're thinking 'that's what the AWL would say', consider this comment on O'Neill's death by Tony Greenstein, a Palestine solidarity activist virulently in favour of boycotting Israel, who hates the AWL:
"In later years my encounters with SA, not least in Palestine Solidarity Campaign which they are busy trying to take over currently, were entirely negative. There is no socialism left in them, they put out no literature, they exist as political freemasons giving comrades and friends a helping hand upwards via good jobs etc. In other words it's a form of political corruption... The promises of the IMG [SA's predecessor] in those heady days [the 70s] has degenerated into political corruption and parasitism on existing campaigns... Today they are an utter disgrace to socialism and none more so than the 'left' exponents of corporate politics, which effectively Livingstone was."
Socialist Action's behaviour in the student movement, through SBL, is defined by these degenerate politics. (For those that are interested, the appendix to this article discusses SA's politics and background in more detail.)
What are SBL and SA’s key characteristics?
1. Abroad: crude Stalinism
Although they originally come from a Trotskyist tradition, Socialist Action have long been crude Stalinists. They described the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Eastern bloc as “the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since World War 2” (see here for a discussion of their politics on Stalinism, quoting extensively from their publications at the time). So the overthrow of these totalitarian dictatorships by mass movements of protest was not only bad, but worse than the imposition of apartheid in South Africa, the smashing of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring, the massacre of half a million suspected Communists in Indonesia, Pinochet’s coup in Chile, the crushing of Solidarnosc by the Polish military, blood-soaked US interventions throughout the Western hemisphere… !
SA are uncritical supporters of the dictatorship in Cuba, but that is not all: as a quick look at their website will confirm, they are also supporters of the Chinese regime, making defence of it one of their key political planks – see here. (On 31 August, SA published a bizarre article hailing Chinese-style, neo-liberal reforms in Cuba, reforms which are leading to hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers becoming unemployed - see here.)
However, SA’s Stalinism goes beyond support for “communist” regimes to backing pretty much any force which clashes with the US. This included not only various right-wing Islamists, including the Iranian regime (see here), but even Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and now the Syrian dictatorship! Don’t take our word for it: see this attack on Counterfire for SA's defence of the Syrian regime.
SA are also uncritical supporters of the ANC regime in South Africa, a regime which just murdered 34 striking miners and jailed hundreds more - not that you would know that from the SA website, which naturally has not commented. And it should almost go without saying that they are enthusiastic advocates of George Galloway.
2. At home: right-wing
Many student activists will have noticed that, in any left-wing student movement, SBL’s approach is always to try to pull it to the right, towards alliance with 'progressive' figures in the ruling class and 'progressive' bourgeois politics. Hence their case for free education is pitched in terms of “investment” and lavishly quotes former World Bank head Joseph Stiglitz and other ruling-class figures. For a detailed criticism of Socialist Action's politics on these questions see 'A united front with the Financial Times?'
This is the same reason that one of SBL’s leaders, new NUS Black Students’ Officer Aaron Kiely, was able to get away with praising the police over last summer’s riots and voting for cuts as councillor in Essex - see here and here - and remain an SBL leader. SBL members cheerfully admit Kiely voted for cuts, denouncing criticism as "ultra-left"; they refuse to engage with the fact that he put out a statement hailing the police, a statement he has never retracted. SBL and SA attract blatant careerists – and then, instead of disowning them or pulling them into line, go out of their way to defend, protect and cover up for them.
3. Bag carriers for the powerful
As mentioned above, another crucial factor of Socialist Action’s approach - closely linked to any careerism in their ranks - is to find some powerful figure to attach themselves to. SA members played a key role in the administration of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, with SA leader John Ross earning £100,000 a year as a transport commissioner, responsible for attacking the unions on the Tube, which SA also covered for. There is not much evidence that Livingstone has anything but contempt for SA’s politics, but he found them a useful set of bag carriers and political thugs. (In return SA are vigorously pro-Livingstone, despite his openly Blairite politics nowadays: anyone sitting in the balcony at the 2012 NUS conference will have seen SBL members going over-the-top wild when Livingstone’s name was mentioned.)
When Alliance for Workers' Liberty members leave university, we mostly get jobs where we can become rank-and-file trade union activists. SA members, by contrast, all get jobs in somebody’s office or some political front. As Tony Greenstein explains above, this has shaped their politics and even degenerated into a form of political corruption. When Mayor Livingstone called for Tube workers to cross picket lines, in 2004, AWL members were among the rank-and-file RMT activists organising the strike; SA members were among Livingstone's strike-breaking organisers and SA members in the student movement refused to comment! (See here.) That difference tells you a lot about the difference between the organisations, and why SA hates us so much.
SA/SBL like to present their opinions as representing the entire left, if not the entire student movement. In fact, in addition to being very small, they are extremely sectarian, regularly denouncing and even attempting to witch-hunt anyone who challenges and disagrees with them, while avoiding actual debates like the plague.
They are also highly sectarian in the sense of being willing to put their interests ahead those of the broad movement. In 1998, when the left (a united slate of the SWP and the Campaign for Free Education, headed by CFE and AWL member Kate Buckell) came within 15 votes of winning NUS president, SBL stood its own candidate, who got 80 votes out of about 1,600 cast. Of course they were perfectly within their rights to do that – but it is a history worth remembering next time they accuse someone else of being sectarian.
Hence also their repeated extremely disruptive behaviour at NCAFC events, shouting at people, bullying people, even driving people to tears. SA/SBL pretend to be interested in the NCAFC in order to disrupt it. They have absolutely no interest in building it: as this article on the left in the student movement from the SA website makes clear, not even mentioning NCAFC. Their agenda is simply to stifle NCAFC and prevent it from functioning.
On a connected note, for all they may demagogically complain about democracy whenever they are not allowed to do whatever they want, you will never find a shred of democracy – elections, motions, liberation caucuses, even serious discussion – at an SBL event. God knows how its structure work, how decisions are made, or how its leaders are chosen. It is perfectly plausible they are simply appointed by Socialist Action.
5. Misuse and abuse of identity politics
SA/SBL’s politics on oppression and liberation are a bizarre amalgam of different elements of identity politics. The key thing to understand here is not so much SA’s theory, as the way they use it – anyone who disagrees with them on issues connected to oppression/liberation is condemned as racist, sexist, homophobic etc. This is completely incoherent: for instance, SA will condemn left-wingers who criticise the homophobia and misogyny of right-wing Islamists as Islamophobic, while also trying to claim their left-wing opponents are homophobic, sexist etc.
Unfortunately, this Stalinist misuse and abuse of liberation politics as a way of trying to ideologically terrorise opponents is not limited to SA but has become reasonably common on the student left. But SA are, again, an extreme case.
NB Why does the SWP help keep Socialist Action going?
Even by the small standards of the left, SA and SBL are tiny groups. A big part of what keeps them going in the student movement is the support and cooperation of the Socialist Workers' Party, who find them a useful tool to attack opponents in alliance with. The SWP are not Stalinists, but - in addition to opportunistic considerations - their increasingly distorted brand of Trotskyism may mean some of them find it quite easy to overlook Socialist Action's record. Thus the SWP never criticises SA, even when what is involved is voting for cuts, supporting strike-breaking and so on (imagine what the SWP would say if a prominent AWL student had put out a statement about the riots praising the police!) Since the SWP are - despite our disagreements with them - socialists and anti-Stalinists, this is a scandal which SWP members should be deeply embarrassed, and seek to do something, about.
The thing to understand is that Student Broad Left is not in the main a group of unaffiliated activists, who happen to have a different view from you. It is a front for a tightly knit organisation of Stalinists with poisonous politics and a long history of disrupting and corrupting the student and wider left.