The idea of a vacuum or gap on the left, much mentioned in discussions about the “Left Unity” project recently launched by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson, has been current, on and off, since 1968.
Then, it was used by IS, forerunner of the SWP, as rationale for the unity appeal which IS made that year. “The old Left has been scattered, and a minority sucked up into the new corporate state. A new Left has to be created out of the existing fragmentary and divided opposition... If our differences inhibit what we can do, the Left is likely to be permanently condemned to irrelevance”.
IS proposed unity around four sketchy points (no positive reference to socialism other than implied in the two words “workers’ control”). It was a bit of demagogic political “marketing”. Only Workers’ Fight (forerunner of AWL) took up the unity appeal — we didn’t like the demagogic “marketing”, but we did want unity. The brief pretence at being undefined broad-leftists probably helped IS win some individual recruits.
The idea of identifying a “gap” in politics and constructing a political profile to fit it had been pushed earlier in the 1960s by the “Mandelite” group which would become known as the IMG (International Marxist Group).
The Mandelites ran a journal called The Week which was deliberately pitched to be less revolutionary, more broad-left-ish than the Mandelites themselves (“orthodox” Trotskyists) really were. Their phrase for it was “the replacement leadership”.
Its line was: the right-wing leadership of the Labour Party would discredit itself. The revolutionary left was too small to pose as a replacement for it. The revolutionaries should therefore fill the “gap” by building a left-reformist or ambiguous force which would be moderate enough to pose as a direct replacement, but left-wing and broad enough to give space to the revolutionaries.
The common idea was that the revolutionary socialists could not make headway by proposing their own politics. But maybe they could make up for the failure of the actual left reformists to build a sizeable movement, and themselves engineer some more-or-less left-reformist, or ambiguous, political operation within which to flourish.
It was as if cuckoos devised a scheme of pretending to be another species of bird, building nests for that other species, and then putting their eggs in those nests.
The idea was always manipulative, and produced no sure result other than a muffling of the voice of revolutionary socialism. But real facts underpinned the thought.
Before the late 1960s, and since 1945 at least, space on the political left was “full”. There was no vacuum. There was a Labour Left, “Bevanite” or “Tribunite”, very strong in the early 1950s but sizeable at other times too; and there was the Communist Party, 45,000 strong in 1945 and still about 30,000 in 1968.
The revolutionary socialists (Trotskyists) did not languish in the emptiness of a “vacuum” or “gap”.
On the contrary, they battled to find elbow-room and to convince young activists, almost all of whom would take their first political steps in the orbits of the Labour Left or the CP.
In the late 1960s the Labour Left, long in slow decline, slumped suddenly. Many of its activists quit the Labour Party in disgust at the Labour Government’s record. The CP continued but became more and more discredited. The revolutionary socialist left grew fast, but was still much smaller than the Labour Left and the CP had been.
There were lots of people generally left-wing and socialist in their political ideas, but now without a political “home”. There had always been many left-wingers who weren’t politically active, or were active only in occasional demonstrations or campaigns or trade union work; but the ratio of inactive to active had shifted.
The Labour Left had revivals in the 1970s and early 1980s, but on the whole the shift has endured. The broad left has not become a vacuum, “empty”. It has a bigger ratio of inactive to active.
In the nature of politics, the ratio of inactive to active in a political camp can vary widely. It is subject to “vicious” and “virtuous” circles. A decline in the zeal of the most active sets the slightly-less active drifting to semi-activity, the previously semi-active losing confidence and becoming inactive, and so on in a snowball; conversely, when some who have been just plodding along galvanise themselves into outgoing energy, they draw in new keen young activists, revive the semi-active, and so on upwards.
That fact is one of the basic reasons behind the Marxist theory of building a highly-educated, disciplined revolutionary party: activists who have gained a solid theoretical overview can survive disappointments better, stop the “vicious circles” spiralling down, and give continuity to the movement. As Antonio Gramsci put it: “The emancipation of the proletariat is not a labour of small account and of little people: only they who can keep their heart strong and their will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as fighters for the working class or called revolutionaries”.
Why left-reformist politics has suffered “vicious” circles in the last decades, why the best there seem to lack conviction and none are filled with passionate intensity, is a question too broad to cover here. But the fact is unmistakeable.
Should the revolutionary socialists compensate by substituting our own conviction and intensity for the reformists’ default, thus (so we would hope) building a “replacement” movement, or something that “fills the gap”? That “solution” is no better now than it was in the 1960s.
Revolutionary socialists should certainly build up trade union organisation on a broad basis, animate broad campaigns, develop rank-and-file caucuses in trade unions, and run ancillary groups and activities (film clubs, youth groups, reading circles...) which provide an easy way for young people to get into and “check out” politics without having to commit themselves all at once to full revolutionary socialist militancy.
None of that involves sidelining or cold-storing our own politics. Any tactic which does sideline or cold-store basic ideas worsens the “vicious circles” rather than replacing them by “virtuous circles”.
It slows down a driving-wheel of the whole mechanism — the ardour, energy, and outgoing spirit of people who have learned the truth about the inhumanities of capitalism, and want to spread the word.