Ideas: Red Star: Another bloody party

Click page for next article...For first article in the first issue of the Red Star, I felt under pressure to write something which would not merely convey the politics, but the spirit of the new group. After the routine of cranking out weekly articles for the Worker, suddenly I felt extremely exposed, and this piece took much longer to write than any had previously. In the end, though, it was worth it, and of all my political stuff, this remains my favourite. Looking back, what is extraordinary is how closely it mirrors the content of my first ever letter to the Weekly Worker, on the subject of left unity.

Click here to download Red Star 1 in PDF format.

Red Star 1: July 2004

Have you ever done a psychometric test?

Psychometric tests are often used by employers. They involve asking people a series of questions such as "if you were a fruit, which fruit would you be?", ignoring the answers as transparently meaningless, and then hiring whoever they'd planned to hire anyway, safe in the knowledge that this mysterious process will have convinced rejected candidates that they cannot complain of discrimination given the highly scientific selection technique.

However, confidential sources have leaked to me a simple test used by MI5 for far more sinister purposes. It is thought to be 100% reliable, and you can try it for yourself.

Look at the following sequence:

sa sadp sp ssp spgb spgb cpgb cpb ncp swp wp wrp isg ibt icfi cwi awl

Did that mean anything to you?

If you saw (as any sane mind would) a meaningless jumble of letters, be glad. Turn your face towards the sun, feel the warmth on your skin, and be thankful to chance, fate, or the deity or secular hero of your choice that you are alive. You have a mind uncluttered by the preconceptions of the left groups.

You see, the merest flicker of recognition would have had the guardians of national security pulling your file before you could say "civil liberties". To those who play an active part in any revolutionary socialist organisation, this apparently meaningless string of letters would have instantly and involuntarily resolved themselves into the following:

Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform, Socialist Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of Britain, New Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power, Workers Revolutionary Party, International Socialist Group, International Bolshevik Tendency, International Committee for the Fourth International, Committee for a Workers International, and Alliance for Workers Liberty.

Note particularly that the inclusion of two SPGB's is no mistake - there are, in fact, two of them. Any movement which requires a collective term for SPGB's is clearly a movement in trouble.

The problem does not end there. Historically, socialist parties around the world have attempted to organise together, forming 'internationals'. Their history is fascinating, but for the moment all you need to know that Karl Marx established the first in 1864, and Leon Trotsky the fourth (opposed to the undemocratic dictatorship of Stalin in the USSR) in 1938.

Now, whatever problems the first three had, there was at least (blessedly)only one of each, which you might have thought sensible for any 'international' worthy of the name. However, the fourth international split and split again, until now a bewildering array of groups claim to be its true inheritors. Two of them were in the list above. Did you spot them? Give yourself one point each for the Committee for a Workers International and the International Committee for the Fourth International. Note also that this latter group has two 'internationals' even in its name, which suggests a commitment to spanning national borders verging on the interplanetary.

Anyway, having lots of fourth internationals is plainly silly. One group has decided to get round this by starting the fifth international: and so far it has worked for them. There is, to date, only one fifth international. However, as most other people are in one or other of the fourth internationals, the fifth international is rather small. Further, there is the problem that, at any time, any group jealous of the fifth international's advanced status might choose to start a sixth international. There is a clear danger of socialist international inflation, which, should it rage unchecked, could cripple the left in reprinted stationary costs alone.

Of course, even without this, the number of internationals causes certain problems. There are, in fact, only so many socialists to go round: so how do all the internationals find members?

However, a solution to this problem has been found. Last year, an enterprising group of Ukranian socialists... look, at this point this relatively straightforward account of the left may start to sound a little odd. I can only promise you that Iam not making this up.

This group of Ukranian socialists decided to join lots of internationals, thereby effectively recycling their membership to best support a thriving community of socialist internationals. However, they omitted to tell the various internationals that they'd joined more than one. An unfortunate scene therefore ensued when one unsuspecting British socialist was proudly showing another a photograph of some of the Ukranian comrades in his international. The other immediately claimed they were in his international.

As it subsequently emerged that the Ukranian comrades had been asking their relatively wealthier British comrades for money to help fund their work, harsh words were said about them. There was even talk of deception. It remains, though, the most immediately effective socialist international unity initiative yet attempted.

while traitors sneer...

Enough, already. You will have concluded from this that the revolutionary left is (a) barking mad and (b) unable to find its arse with both hands, but in fact my experience of socialists is that they are unusually bright, open, sane, and genuinely committed to fighting injustice.

Neither are their efforts ineffective. Many are union activists, practising what they preach by building real solidarity with the people they work with, and enjoying the confidence of fellow workers who elect them as representatives even when they disagree with their politics. Lots of the groups listed above were active giving real support to striking miners, not merely politically but also practically. For intance, they collected and distributed food to families struggling to survive on benefits (from which strike pay had been deducted even though the National Union of Mineworkershad no money to pay it). The Socialist Party played a key role in organising the protests which led to the fall of Thatcher as prime minister and the abolition of the hated poll tax, The Socialist Workers Party was central to the organisation of the historic anti-war demonstrations early in 2003, which saw one and a half million protestors, one in every 40 of the British population, in London opposing the invasion of Iraq. All of these stories are complicated, and there are plenty of criticisms to be made about mistakes made and opportunities missed, but the vast majority of the revolutionary left are neither fools nor dilettantes.

We remain, however, in chaotic disorder, and as a result our ultimate aim of organising with the mass of our fellow workers to throw off the profiteers and create a truly democratic society remains, at present, far beyond our reach.

There is no doubt about the reason, and this reason is expressed in one of the key words of the left's private jargon:sectarianism. In everyday language it expresses a narrow minded clique mentality in any group of people, a tendency to be inward looking and suspicious or uncooperative to outsiders, or even overt hostility to anyone not in the sect. On the left, it essentially means putting the well-being of the group - measured in membership, paper sales, or even a peculiar kind of 'prestige' - before the campaign for the socialist politics the group nominally exists for.

Some have taken this so far as to develop a 'market theory' of the left. This essentially argues that the left community is entirely enclosed and self-referential:it has little if any meaningful effect on society as a whole. Under the cover of opposing capitalism, the groups are actually competing with each other: for members, for the distribution of their papers, and for the dominance of their ideas within this community. Groups shape their opinions to appeal to particular constituencies or 'markets', and thus attract members. They argue with each other, trying to gain ascendency not over their oppressor, but over the neighbouring group. They denounce each other, sell each other journals, and pinch each others comrades, in an ever spiralling frenzy of meaningless activity. It is a game played to rules determined by group psychology, and has long since lost touch with any commitment to changing the world.

It isn't true. It makes for good knocking copy, and it's an easy excuse for those who prefer to sit on their arses rather than do anything to solve the world's problems, but it isn't true. Look into the history of any of the rights we now take for granted - the right to vote (and the right of women to vote), free healthcare, education, and the welfare state, the right to legally organise political parties and unions - any of them - and you will find it was won by the serious struggle of working people: and at the centre of each struggle you will find the political leaderships squabbling and tripping over each other like a Frank Spencer dance troupe: but leading nevertheless.

So the left cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant: and the attempt to do so is itself a method employed by our opponents to isolate us and keep us in check. At first this might sound like leftist paranoia, but consider: any serious prospect of winning social justice is a danger to precisely to the wealthiest and most powerful in our existing society, and these are the very people best placed to manipulate our attitudes and understanding through lies. It has always been so. As the great old song has it, "though cowards flinch, and traitors sneer, we'll keep the red flag flying here".

However, like all great lies, the sneering is built on truth. Perhaps more than ever before, the modern British left is small, disorganised, and losing its way.

bread and butter socialism

The essence of socialism is simple. It is the fight for true democracy. Current British society allows us to determine the constitution of parliament by vote, and to express and organise around our political ideas, and these democratic reforms were hard won and remain important. However, they do not constitute democracy: not true 'government by the people'. The major political parties require the funding and support of those who control Britain's wealth - the corporations. Even the Labour Party in parliament, created by working people to represent their interests, was drawn into an intricate establishment web when it became clear that it would not be possible simply to crush it. New Labour is attempting to break even what remains of the connection between Labour and the people it was founded by and for.

And parliament is not the seat of true power. The unelected senior civil servants, the house of lords, and the monarchy, all exist to defend and perpetuate the basic shape of our society. And, behind them all, the corporations control our working lives, our conditions, and what is done with the things we make and the services we provide. This small minority of our population, wielding power in a dozen different and unaccountable ways, represent a ruling class.

Socialism aims to create real democracy, by bringing control and accountability to every aspect of our lives: the ownership and control of the factories and offices where we work, our schools and our hospitals, our means of transport and distribution, and our environment. Our vision is a society truly in the hands of the people who built it and live in it: democracy extended throughout society. Indeed, though these days the term 'social democrat' has a rather different meaning, it was originally used by Marxists to describe themselves, based on exactly this idea.

But it is naive to believe that the ruling class will yield power willingly, as the result of a vote in parliament. Throughout the world and throughout history, minorities who hold power have shown how brutal they can be in defending it. Their opposition must be overcome. This is why true socialism is revolutionary.

Finally, we do not believe that society will change 'naturally', which is to say without a conscious struggle conducted by the majority who are denied power. We believe that to have a conscious struggle we need to build a leadership which brings together the militant trade unionists, the 'anti-capitalists', the peace protestors - in fact all of those who are actively trying to make our world truly human - into joint action to overthrow those who rule us. In short, we need a workers party.

This is the ABCof socialism, what you might call bread and butter socialism. Though it takes different forms, this analysis is common to the whole alphabet soup of left groups. It is a powerful and coherent vision. It does not merely condemn but actually explains the occurence of war, poverty, and injustice. It is utterly different to all other political ideas and movements.

You might think, therefore, that socialists would focus on taking this argument to the many millions who are not socialists, but who are facing the injustices we oppose.

from principles to action

We don't.

Instead, we focus mainly on arguing with each other: not about the basic socialist case above, which we all recognise, but about how socialism can be won.

If the essence of socialism is simple, acting on it is not. The world is an intensely complicated and fast moving place, and determining how to apply our principles in order to change the world is a difficult business about which socialists honestly disagree. It is inevitable what we should.

different opinions are not the problemAt present, therefore, each group is built around a particular plan of action:again in the jargon of the left, a particular programme. We argue the merits and demerits of each, and each group does not merely describe the errors it perceives in the next programme as wrong, but - with a querulous disbelief and high rhetoric - denounces its author as a false socialist and even a defender of oppression.

Let us take an example. The problem of Palestine and Israel is violent and terrible. Palestinians live in poverty and oppression, expelled from their own lands and homes and kept in economic and political chaos by an Israeli state which fears them regathering their strength and organisation. On the other hand, generations of Israelis have now grown up knowing no other home, facing random violence and fearing the Arabs in their own population and in neighbouring states, and all the while (of course)oppressed by their own ruling class like any other workers. What should socialists do about this?

The truth is, we just don't agree. Some view the formation of the state of Israel as a crime against the Palestinians, and will be satisfied with nothing less than its abolition and the restoration of a single state of Palestine. Some further insist that it should be secular, to allow Jews and Arabs to live freely there side by side. Others argue that though Israel should not have been founded, that crime is not the responsibility of modern Israeli workers, who now have the same rights as the Palestinians to their own state and security. They suggest a 'two state solution', with a restored Palestine bordering Israel. Some also demand the 'right of return' of Palestinians to their previous homes in Israel, others say that this is impractical, but Palestinians should be compensated for their expulsion. There are, in truth, as many views as groups.

The problem is not that the groups disagree - disagreements on such questions are natural and to be expected. It is that each accuses the others of an inhuman and oppressive policy. Some 'two statists' accuse 'one statists' of inherent anti-semitism. Some 'one statists' accuse 'two statists' of supporting imperialist aggression. And so the long editorials run on.

a bad solution

So, what should we do?

Implicit in the behaviour of most groups is the idea that as their ideas are right, by arguing them loudly enough and long enough their interpretation will prevail, and true socialists will be able to unite around a programme they all agree with. We will have unity and accord: and can turn our attention from ourselves to the world around us.

There is, however, a simple but important flaw in this argument. It is nonsense. It stands about as much chance of success as George Bush at a Mensa selection board. As an encore we could try something more constructive, like, say, nailing jelly to the ceiling. Trying to ideologically coral socialists in this way is like herding cats.

And long may it remain so! Socialism is the political expression of freedom and rebellion. How could it possibly be represented by ideological clones spouting a party line? Hasn't this sort of nonsense already brought the left into sufficient disrepute? As long as our movement continues to attract the most socially conscious and politically independent people, differences between us are inevitable: and attempts to suppress or eliminate them alienate the very people we are trying to reach.

In the meantime, the effort of each group to make its case loudly enough and long enough leaves us no time for anything more constructive. In 2004, the revolutionary left is perhaps smaller than it has ever been, with maybe 3,000 active comrades in a population of 60 million: and yet we spend most of our time trying to expose what we regard as the errors of those socialists who dissent from our own views.

The irony is, we actually need every dissenting voice, every difference of opinion, if we are to work out the right answers. The differences themselves are not a problem for the movement, they are potentially a source of strength and understanding.

Neither is it a problem that socialists with different views form into groups to make their case more effectively. This promotes the debate, and the debate must be open and unceasing.

The problem is that these groups refuse to cooperate to form the workers party we need until they have won the argument, and in practise this means they refuse to form it at all.

a better solution

It is time for each socialist to face some painful realities. Take a deep breath, clutch your favourite soft toy or volume of Lenin's philosophical writings, and repeat after me:

1. The workers party does not yet exist. None of the groups on the left, Red Party included, are it. No, comrade, not even yours. We are all merely groups representing particular arguments and points of view.

2. You, of course, are entirely right about everything. Sadly, your status as the sole representative of reason and reality is unlikely to be recognised until after your death, when you will be remembered as a hero and small statues of you will be distributed to schoolchildren on your birthday. Until then, you may have to accept that (a) other socialists are going to disagree with you, and (b) there is at least a theoretical possibility that you could be wrong.

3. The failure of others to instantly accept your argument that socialist principles clearly and inevitably require (a) a one state solution in Palestine, (b) a two state solution in Israel and Palestine, (c)radical changes to the off-side rule, does not necessarily make them anti-socialists. They could simply be socialists who have got it wrong. Or you could be (see 2).

4. Without bringing together all socialists, as opposed to merely those with whom you agree, and working together to provide political leadership in the world around us, we will fail.

Repeat the mantra every day at sun up and sun down and a new vision will emerge: a vision of a party in which every member and group is free to argue (and, if necessary, publish and organise around) their case. A party in which the majority will determine a plan of action democratically. A party in which the majority will respect and indeed treasure the right of minorities to disagree, while the minorities accept and unite in action around the decisions of the majority. A party bringing together those who would fight for a true revolution: a government of ordinary working people.

A workers party.

Iwish Icould claim credit for this idea, but the truth is that the principle of freedom in debate and unity in action is as old as the struggle for justice itself. It has its roots in the simple tactic of solidarity:we have no power unless we act together. When workers vote on whether to strike, and there is no shame in speaking or voting against. There is, though, in working once the strike is on, whether you voted for it or not.

The surpreme irony is that this solution to the problem or organising people with a common aim who disagree about the means is well known to the left under the name of democratic centralism. Most groups claim to apply its principles: but their failure to do so is proven by the fact that, at a time when trade unions are militantly breaking with the Labour Party in defence of their workers rights, and millions opposed the murderous war in Iraq, the voice of socialism has no credible champion.

This failure is the true meaning of sectarianism.

the red party

The addition of 'another bloody party', the Red Party, to the array of left groups does not deepen that sectarianism: sectarianism is not proportional to the number of groups and can thrive in five or five hundred.

Our aim, rather, is to fight it: by making the case to all socialists, of whatever stamp, not for unity around our particular programme or theirs, but around the democratically decided programme of a united workers party.

We also hope to do another neglected job: to write about the left, and about society, in a way which is accessible to all, and not just those who understand the jargon-ridden language of the left. We have neglected the job of taking the case for socialism to those outside our movement.

If you are one of those not in the organised left, you may feel bewildered by its complexity and confusion: particularly as it has been highlighted in this account. Nothing is to be gained by hiding the problems we face. However, they conceal a wider agreement: the problems of oppression, war, and poverty are the result of a society organised for the pursuit of profit in the interests of a minority ruling class. Overthrowing them and putting power in the hands of ordinary people, of all humanity, is not one of a range of possible solutions, it is the only solution. Join us in our fight to achieve it.

On the other hand, if you are on the left, fight inside your own organisation for unity in action with your comrades throughout the movement. Oh, and you can put down the soft toy now.

Manny Neira