After a number of years of gradual decline in the living and working conditions of the working and oppressed classes in the UK, the process was accelerated by the financial crisis erupting in 2008. This intensified crisis has finally energised some of the political forces of the UK left to do something different. The recent Left Unity initiative is an attempt to draw together all those seriously opposed to the current economic and social crisis into one large political party. The purpose is to gain access to parliament in order to defend workers (and others) welfare and work-place rights and challenge the current neo-liberal policy direction of all mainstream parties.
In one sense this is an attempt within a UK setting to plot a parallel and similarly transformative course to that already originated by the Syriza coalition in Greece. As such it has (at least by previous left standards) attracted considerable numbers of individuals and some groups – all to some degree radicalised or rejuvenated by the current austerity programme of mainstream political parties. A London conference has been arranged for 14 November 2013 in order to attempt to agree to a ‘platform’ (ie a set of ideas, principles and objectives) which will ‘unify’ those attending so they will become an active part of this new initiative. Talk of unity and the possibility of solidarity on the left is an important breakthrough, but do the proposals recently suggested represent a possible way forward?
So far (August 2013) three platforms have been proposed by various tendencies supporting and promoting this initiative. One is proposed in the form of a ‘Left Platform’ located at (http://leftunity.org/left-party-platform-statement/); a second in the form of a ‘Socialist Platform’ located at (http://leftunity.org/socialist-platform-statement-of-aims-and-principles/) and a third as ‘The Class Struggle Platform’ located at ( http://leftunity.org/the-class-struggle-platform/) These can be accessed by locating the appropriate http address. Since collectively they amount to a number of pages I will just give my general impressions after reading a summery by Felicity Dowling published in Links, (at http://links.org.au/node/3473) and then reading all three platforms individually.
Politics and Platforms.
The three platforms are by definition brief statements of political positions drawn up by three different groups. As such they can be defined by what they fail to mention as much as by what they do include and how it is included. Such platforms cannot afford to be overly lengthy and expect to be read by even moderate numbers of people. However, in drawing up ‘left’ platforms, the essential elements chosen for inclusion still require a sufficiently clear description so as to be unambiguous to those reading them. Otherwise the ‘left’ political communicators will be no different in form than the ‘liberal’ and the ‘right-wing’ political communicators. All of whom are deliberately and consistently ambiguous in order to attract the widest electoral support but leave them able to compromise their promises and free to pursue different, undisclosed agendas.
Unfortunately, in this case, all three of these Left Unity platforms are not sufficiently clear on a number of the points they do include. Concepts such as ‘socialism’, ‘public ownership’, ‘democratisation’, ‘social gains’, ‘replacement of state institutions’ ‘common ownership’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘the working class’, ‘the interests of the majority’, ‘win political power to end capitalism’ ‘defend all past gains’, ‘the organisation of a general strike’; are used repeatedly, but only as meaningless abstractions. This is a serious fault because all of these terms have been used in the past to describe practices that either catastrophically failed, were reversed later or have just remained meaningless clichés. If for reasons of brevity, these generalities could not be tackled sufficiently in these platforms, then at least that fact should have been mentioned. It could have been stated that – as they stand – these concepts are abstract, problematic and in need of much further qualification.
Some of these previously noted abstract generalisations invite a question as to what is also completely left out of these platforms. For example, left out of all these platforms is even brief indications of the episodic and structural nature of the present five-fold current crisis of the capitalist mode of production. Missing also is a recognition of the changes in the socio-economic structure of the working class which has matured in the 21st century. In particular no mention is made of the change in proportions under capitalism between the productive workers generating surplus-value and those not generating surplus-value. In other words, between those employed by capital and those employed by realised surplus-value transformed into revenue.
These latter transformations cannot be ignored for these proportions have a direct relevance and importance for the continuation of a welfare ‘state’ under the capitalist mode of production as well as for the suggested ‘states’ existence under any supposedly post-capitalist economic organisation. What is also left out of these platforms – where the question of women in society is mentioned – is a recognition of the firm hold of patriarchal economic, social and political forms within male dominated society as a whole – and the symptoms of this within the ‘left’ itself. What is also a further glaring omission is a recognition of the problem of politics and the politic problems attached to large-scale institutionalised organisations within modern, mass social communities. As Marx long ago noted;
“The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable is it of understanding social ills.” (Marx. Marx/Engels Collected Works. Volume 3 page 199. emphasis added. RR)
The political mind-set.
The shortcomings of these platforms arise primarily from the fact that they are written from positions firmly anchored in what Marx described as the ‘political mind set’. For every generic issue the three platforms mention, the solution is viewed as being the realm of politics and require political solutions – even though these ‘political solutions’ differ slightly in detail across all three ‘platforms’. For this reason, the contemporary economic situation, the social situation, environmental problems, patriarchy, racism and internationalism are all seen as being solvable by the application of appropriate political solutions. In this case, these solutions in turn needing to be implemented by the state under the control of a new group of politicians – who will remain faithful and reliable leaders guiding the masses!!! Masses who are required to energetically, consistently and tirelessly campaign on behalf of these new ‘Left Unity’ politicians and themselves – once called upon to do so by the new party!
Because it is the political mind-set which is informing each of the platforms, the platforms have much in common and, as noted above, comprise mainly of abstract ‘generalisations’. Some of them sweeping generalisations at that. There is no attempt to make clear what needs to be made absolutely clear if their proposals are to ever gain credibility and get beyond wishful thinking. ‘Socialism’ and ‘Public Ownership’, for example are prominently mentioned without any reference to the previous catalogue of failed examples of precisely these so-called ‘solutions’ to the problems posed by the capitalist mode of production. No recognition that the term ‘socialism’ for example has been used to describe the states governed by Mao, Stalin, Gaddafi, elsewhere and the post-war Labour Government in the UK. No mention of any difference or of past ‘left’ mistakes nor any indication of how to avoid a repetition of previous ‘left’ errors in attempting to overcoming capitalism.
The three platforms also appear to have been formulated as if the economic analysis of the capitalist mode of production by Marx has either had no existence or has no serious relevance to the present crisis of capitalism. The platforms authors have similarly disregarded even mentioning in passing, the following; the totalitarian development of Bolshevik anti-capitalism and its full crystallisation into the horrors of Stalinist socialism; the Maoist trajectory of socialism leading to a combination of morbid back-street capitalism and ruthless state industrialisation. In addition all the platforms seem to have been written with no real regard to the implications of structural changes the capitalist industrial, commercial and financial system has undergone during the 20th and 21st centuries. The self-destructive contradictions in the application of technology, automation and computerisation, to these spheres of the present economic system are not even flagged up as problems needing urgent solution.
A Parliamentary road to Socialism?
All three platforms make clear their wish to create a party which seeks election to Parliament with sufficient electoral support to block future implementations of austerity measures or to advance reforms beneficial to the working and oppressed sections of society. Yet a further failure of the platforms is to recognise and make clear to readers what exactly this will involve. Huge amounts of money will have to be obtained, for example, to run an electoral machine with any chance of returning sufficient numbers of voters to make any noticeable effect. Where is that money to come from? Dodgy sources, with the influence that will openly or covertly come with that – or membership subscriptions – or both? Also not only money but large numbers of leafleting activists and thousands of membership meetings will be required, where are these dedicated activists to come from?
And are the poor and oppressed to be eventually asked to curb their future militant actions and defensive struggles so as not to damage some future electoral potential? And just as importantly, are the masses going to allow themselves, to be directed by the pro-bourgeois and liberal ‘left’ into an impossible electoral project which only wants to restore a 1950’s version of capitalism by calling it 21st century ‘socialism’? And are we to imagine that the controllers of a powerful capitalist state such as Britain allow any reforms not in their own interests – if such Left Unity‘ electoral day dreams did come true?
Highly unlikely! The pro-capitalist Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and again in 1974 triggered elite talk of a secret military-state coup when he temporarily adopted a morsel of ‘left’ sounding rhetoric. Would things be any different today? In any part of the world? Is the example of anti-elite electoral success any different than in Egypt – where the military have decided to brutally overrule it? Or do the originators of the platforms know this project of a new party being swept into Parliament to achieve what they think is real ‘socialism’ is unrealisable – but don’t want to say so openly?
Is their main undisclosed object to just simply gather recruits for their own particular sectarian group project? Either way encouraging others to pursue such electoral based platforms will possibly only serve to confuse and dis-empower the masses self-activity, whilst claiming – as some of the platforms do – to be in favour of clarity and empowerment. And it must be said that the parliamentary roads to socialism in the past as well as the present, involve a large measure of political self-delusion for being active in politics presupposes an unfolding of its own internal logic.
“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of every evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of the evil not in the essential nature of the state, but in the definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form. (Marx. ibid page 197.)
The suggestion of a replacement of the existing state form by another state form administered by a different political party, is what is common to all three platforms.
Support struggles but oppose illusions.
It is perhaps inevitable that the UK political left would come up with a political programme seeking to solve the socio-economic and environmental crisis of the capitalist mode of production, by the creation of a vehicle (the party) for their own elevation to power. It is perhaps also inevitable that they will need to use the working class (and possibly their trade union funds) as their sources of gifts, cheap loans and cheap labour in order to attempt a restoration of that worn out corroded vehicle. Just as in fact the originators and activists of the Labour Party did before them. Many of whom only later became aware of the unintended or intended consequences of the parliamentary road to socialism – the inevitable creation of a party elite and its equally inevitable incorporation and corruption. To paraphrase an often used saying; to keep doing the same thing and expecting a completely different result is the stuff of religion and prayer, not rational modes of thought and action.
In my opinion, it is not possible for revolutionary-humanist anti-capitalists to subscribe to such reformist and illusory platforms or to stay mute in the face of such outmoded and self-defeating ideas and programmes. Nor is it sensible to turn a blind eye to serious omissions nor the studied programmatic avoidance of problematic issues. This does not mean, however, that we should stay aloof from the practical struggles against the state, the employers and the pro-capitalist political class, which supporters of these platforms will hopefully engage in. It is the same with regard to religious ideologies and the oppressed believers in them, Christians, Jews or Muslims etc. We struggle alongside them against their oppression and exploitation as human beings, but we do not collude or stay silent in relationship to the religious ideologies which also serve to enslave them – particularly in the case of women.
Adopting what I suggest is a revolutionary-humanist position means engaging in solidarity and support for all the practical struggles of the working and oppressed classes – providing they are not against or at the expense of another section of the oppressed and exploited classes. The latter being an important proviso. However, we should defend vigorously those intellectual and practical understandings – which have retained their validity – and expose and criticise ideas and practices which seek to undermine or counteract these gains. Bourgeois and liberal forms of ‘socialism‘, illusions in religion and parliamentary democracy being three of the latter.
For most people, if not all of us, it is experience which is the great teacher. Experience is also the corrector of invalid ideas and practices, providing of course we are open to be so corrected. In other words, providing our ideas are not fixed for eternity like those of religion. This will be the case for many of those now convinced of the need and practicality for creating a new party and currently attached to one or other of the three platforms. It cannot be ruled out that many activists hoping for electoral success over the next months and years will be able to critically evaluate the reality of this project as it unfolds – or fails to unfold.
One of many gains attained by Marx and which I suggest is still relevant and valid in 21st century social and scientific life is the following sentence from the 11 Theses on Feuerbach, which reads;
“All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”
Of course comprehension of our practice needs to be open, honest and thorough, something the entrenched political mind-set, with its eyes firmly fixed on parliamentary election and power, is more often than not extremely loath to do. Lets hope that the activists in and around the Left Unity initiative are willing to do this and share the experience with others.
Roy Ratcliffe. (August 2013.)