Urte March, convenor of Labour for a Socialist Europe and a supporter of the Red Flag group, discussed next steps for the campaign with Martin Thomas.
What should Labour for a Socialist Europe do, now that Brexit is almost certain to go through?
For Red Flag, opposition to Brexit was never just about ensuring we stay in the EU. It was about using the fight against Brexit to explain how the rise of far-right nationalism is just one of a number of global problems which can never be solved by any one national policy, because they’re part of a deep crisis of the international capitalist system we live in. What follows from that is the need for an international socialist movement which can begin to tackle all of these global problems - the rise of the far right, climate change, xenophobia - through coordinated cross-border resistance.
Labour for a Socialist Europe (LFSE) was founded as a vehicle of struggle for anti-Brexit socialists committed to working within the labour movement. We participated in LFSE to put forward an internationalist, anti-capitalist response to Brexit, as distinct from both the pro-EU Labour right and the liberal alliance of Another Europe is Possible. Advocating for a struggle within the EU against neoliberalism and imperialism, which would also be a struggle against EU institutions, is a necessary part of this approach.
The triumph of Brexit is already further emboldening far-right ideas and anti-migrant sentiment, and will soon unleash a flood of deregulation and privatisation initiatives as Britain fights to stay competitive outside of the EU. At least some of this will be mirrored in other EU countries, as the EU’s political crisis deepens – eg in France. In this context of right-wing advance, the need for organisations which can fight back against any concessions to conservative nationalism and organise united action around internationalist ideas is even greater than it was before.
Labour for a Socialist Europe should lead efforts to orient the labour movement towards workers’ struggles across Europe, organising solidarity actions and spreading the word about how socialists in other countries are fighting back against neoliberalism and austerity, which can also inspire new struggles in Britain. We should also fight to bring socialists from across Europe together to debate and discuss common strategies, making the leap from expressions of solidarity with each other’s national struggles to structures for coordinating common action.
Sure, actions like our demonstration in solidarity with the strikes in France at the French Embassy on 8 January are good. But L4SE also has work to do step-by-step against the implementation of Johnson's Brexit - on immigration restrictions, migrant rights, regressive trade deals?
I don't disagree. Action on migrant rights and borders fits in with building an internationalist movement. The left and migrants in every country face attacks because of the rise of right-wing populism. Those attacks can only be defeated through consciously internationalist politics.
But lasting gains for the left in Britain will depend on the tempo of the class struggle across Britain and Europe, so we have to see the national and international organising as essential to each other. On all these issues - workers' struggles, migrant solidarity, climate-change action, and the women's movement - we should strive for a qualitative transformation of our work from isolated national interventions to an international strategy and resistance movement.
You mean activity like solidarity with the battle for abortion rights in Poland?
Yes, but the political content is not just solidarity, but agitation for movements to link up together to coordinate and make decisions internationally. There's an element of that in the climate strike movement, which is very positive. But it’s stagnating because it can’t agree on a political perspective or a strategy for linking up with other movements.
We'd like to see all the social movements across Europe come together to debate and agree on political perspectives and strategies.
In certain contexts, that idea could be a demand on the social democratic parties and on trade-union organisations. If Keir Starmer talks, as he has done, about convening a big gathering of social democratic parties from across Europe, we should push for him to do that.
You've pushed the idea of L4SE linking up with internationalist left groupings across Europe. I think that's a good idea. But isn't the task as much one of working out a political platform for an internationalist left and piecing together a network round that platform, as of linking up already-existing, already-established groups?
I think there are two different levels to this question. One is the strategic need to regroup and build the Left around a revolutionary socialist programme. Red Flag has a programme which we are always willing to discuss with other groups with a view to collaboration. But for the creation of a new revolutionary organisation you would need clear programmatic agreement and democratic centralism, not just a network.
Yet on another level there is the constant need to build effective struggles around concrete, essential tasks, where it is not necessary to have full programmatic agreement. What I’ve proposed for LFSE is taking the united front principle, the basis on which Labour for a Socialist Europe has organised in Britain with the participation of several pre-existing groups, and applying it to the European level.
We should invite other organisations to organise with us on issues like solidarity with workers’ struggles, defence of migrants and refugees, and fighting climate change. For this we don’t immediately need a new organisation, only agreement on key priorities and a willingness to work together.
You've given the name "European Social Forum" to that project. Most people won't remember the ESF from the years after 2002, so why?
Our proposal is for a mass international democratic assembly of labour and social movement groups which would discuss and organise around a common strategy. Just creating a forum for democratic debate isn’t in itself the solution, it’s an organising tactic which conveys the basic principle of internationalism - that the crucial issues we face in the world today require coordinated international action.
Links made with other organisations around particular struggles or campaign issues would be steps towards a bigger international assembly, and the forum itself would be a step towards developing a pan-European anti-capitalist movement. Such an assembly would pose questions about how to fight back against a global period of reaction and climate crisis, including the question of what strategy a new global anticapitalist movement should adopt.
The organisers of the social forums of the early 2000s banned the participation of political parties, and ensured the social forums weren’t allowed to make political decisions. This ultimately meant that the movement was incapable of developing a clear socialist programme to guide sustained, co-ordinated action against capitalism and imperialism.
What it did do was link up socialists, rank and file trade unionists, social movement groups, and progressive activists from across the world into a radical movement which was concerned with the fundamental question of who holds power in society.
We think such an international movement is an essential starting point. We would argue that to avoid the mistakes of the previous social forums, a new social forum must allow all political organisations to participate openly, and for it to develop a clear political programme to guide the actions of its constituent organisations.
By now few people remember those European Social Forums from 2002-2004, so probably the term "European Social Forum" is vague enough to do little harm. But the chief organisers of those ESFs, behind the scenes, were political parties or sections of parties, Rifondazione in Italy, the Parti Socialiste in France, Livingstone's London Mayor office. Sure, it was important to go to those forums and spread our ideas. They were bureaucratic talking-shops rather than any continuous movement, but big and relatively open talking-shops. To give the "ESF" label to the idea of a internationally-coordinated movement with a real and continuous democratic life risks suggesting to listeners either that really what we want is just more glossy show events, or that we think just some extra nudging could have turned those show events into something like the international movement we want. In the same way that the slogan "Labour to power with a socialist programme", though it seemed like a neat literary solution to the problem of both advocating full socialist politics and orienting to the actually-existing labour movement, could not but blur what a "socialist programme" meant and what needed to be done in the Labour Party. Sometimes it is best just to say directly what we want, rather than try to wrap it up in an apparently neat literary formula which reassures us that we've reconciled all the difficulties. In the early 2000s some talked about the social forums as if they were proto-soviets ("all power to the social forums"). But they weren't.
I wouldn't disagree on the limitations of the Social Forums as they were at that time. But anything that is cross-border organisation is already a big step ahead of the same thing existing only in one country.
Call it what you want - an international democratic assembly of social movements. The political content is what we have to give it. The fact that movements came together and decided to do something together is significant.
As for the historical position of Workers Power on the social forums: the summit sieges and the social forums of the early 2000s represented a historic interconnection of the movements against neoliberalism, capitalism, and war. At its high point, the movement brought twenty million people out onto the streets to protest the Iraq war.
Given that the social forums were bringing together tens of thousands of militant activists from around the world on a regular basis, they were an extremely important arena in which to argue for socialist programmatic goals.
Workers Power argued that to sustain itself, the movement would have to unite in a democratic structure and commit to a socialist programme - in short, we fought for the foundation of a new international. But it’s a matter of record that we were critical of many elements of the social forums as they were at the time.
You mean at the Assemblies of the Social Movements tacked on to the ESFs, like the 2002 one in Florence which voted for protests everywhere against the US invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003? It was good that the demonstrations were coordinated, but the Assembly was a bureaucratic affair, really ratifying decisions taken by various campaigns on the initiative of the SWP and Stop The War in Britain.
Naturally, proposals came from national groups. But the fact that there was a forum that existed which allowed activists from different national organisations to meet each other, work together in some capacity, and thus to agree to mobilise collectively on the same day, would not have been possible without an international assembly. I don’t see how that can be anything other than an enormous asset.
The mass character of the assemblies also provided possibilities for the rank-and-file of the movements to collectively place demands on their leadership and make links with each other to organise independently of ther bureacracies. Whether or not these possibilities are realised depends on the politics, strategy, and tactics of the various groups involved, but the potential itself should be recognised.
What do you think about the Labour leadership contest now brewing?
For socialists, the crucial task in the movement today is to correctly draw the lessons of Labour’s defeat, in order to prepare a future socialist victory. We should focus on that, especially while not all candidates have announced and the timings aren’t yet clear.
Though all of the most likely leadership contenders - Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry - have recognised the popularity of anti-austerity policies and are attempting to style themselves as continuity Corbynism, they are all preparing the road to compromise and retreat for socialist ideas.
Thornberry and Starmer emphasise “party unity”, which can only mean conciliation with the party’s right wing, meanwhile Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy’s flirtation with “progressive patriotism” is a concession to the rise of English nationalism which socialists should unequivocally reject.
Clive Lewis was the only candidate who has emphasised the need to democratise the party and mobilise the membership, which are essential points. Sadly, for Momentum’s leaders, debating circles on the sidelines of Labour Conference are ok, but allowing members to have a say over the personnel and strategy of the left is beyond the pale.
If Long-Bailey is elected, it will be as the continuation of the rightwards moving trajectory of compromise and conciliation, whereas Starmer represents the victory of the Thermidorean reaction. Therefore socialists are not indifferent to the question of who wins, but we must redouble our efforts to apply the lessons from the Corbyn era: only the grassroots members and trade unionists have the weight and power to fight for and defend policies which advance the interests of the international working class. That means fighting for a sovereign conference, mandatory selection for MPs, the restoration of local government committees, and a campaign to democratise the affiliated unions.
An analysis of Labour's 12 December defeat which you've recommended discusses the failure of the Corbynite leadership to make space so that the new members drawn into Labour after 2015 could turn it into a democratic, active movement geared to class struggles. That seems right to me. The analysis also blames it heavily on "appeasement" of the Lexiters. Isn't the problem more that the Labour leadership circle, the chief people in the Leader's Office for example, are Lexiters themselves?
Yes, it’s true that key advisers drove Labour’s Brexit policy from the top. But their approach is rooted in a more fundamental problem - Labour’s wholly electoralist approach to politics and its belief in the parliamentary road to socialism. Labour’s failed Brexit policy and its inability to effectively fight back against right-wing smears, on antisemitism among other issues, are two sides of the same coin. The party consistently refused to go on the offensive with a bold socialist response because it wasn’t prepared to force the right wing pro-capitalist elements out of the party, and clear the way for a real debate about what a socialist policy looks like.
It was too concerned with courting votes, too afraid of mobilising its activist base through a democratic movement that the party and trade union bureaucracy couldn’t control. For the same reason, Corbyn abandoned his commitments to open selection and conference sovereignty.
Corbynism has not achieved a lasting transformation of the Labour Party. The historical role of the party and trade union bureaucracy means it necessarily has a centralising tendency - it’s not possible to democratise a mass organisation from above.
It’s the members themselves who will have to draw the conclusions that Labour’s top-down electoral organisation is not fit for purpose when fighting for lasting social change, and rebuild a movement which is committed to democratic self-organisation and workers’ struggle, whether or not the leadership supports them.
Ultimately, we would argue that a genuinely democratic, fighting socialist organisation would have to force the pro-capitalist extremists out of the PLP, and wage a militant struggle to subject the trade union bureaucracy to control by its members, over Labour policy as well as industrial action.
But in some ways the Leader's Office "left" fought the right effectively. Only very bureaucratically. They gained control of the Party apparatus and of groups like Young Labour. The problem is not them wanting to win elections - we want to win elections, too - and not just them failing to the fight the right. It is the demoralised Stalinist politics and methods of that "left".
Of course we oppose the CPB’s British Road to Socialism, their accommodation to Russian and Chinese imperialism, support for counter-revolutionary dictatorships like Assad’s, and acknowledge their politics and method have influenced parts of the Labour left for decades.
However, the AWL mistakes the symptom for the cause. British Stalinism has adapted politically, if not organisationally, to British reformism; the political strategy of the trade union bureaucracy and their representatives in the Labour Party. Your question implies that if the Stalinists at the core of the Labour Party apparatus were replaced with run-of-the-mill left reformists, the path to socialism would be clearer, when in reality equally large obstacles would remain. Constantly obsessing over the threat of Stalinism is a poor substitute for the fight against the political and organisational hegemony of reformism within the British working class.
It’s politically illiterate to characterise ‘Stalinism’ as simply bureaucratic, unprincipled or even violent attitude towards political opponents. Such methods are a fact of political life from student unions to national parliaments. For Trotskyists, Stalinism represented the degeneration of Bolshevism through the adoption of the theory of socialism in one country. Internationally, this meant Stalinist parties adopting the Menshevik ‘stages’ programme instead of the theory of permanent revolution advocated by Trotsky and Lenin. Thus, although the Stalinists talk a lot more about ‘socialism’, in reality their programme, the British Road to Socialism, is a reformist programme of state capitalist development within the confines of the British imperialist state.
So, while it is a left variant of reformism, and some notable members of the CP were influential in Corbyn’s office, socialists should not lose sight of the fact that the main obstacle to socialist advance within the labour movement is the thoroughly non-Stalinist trade union and Labour party bureaucracy and the reformist ideology of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism.