Tuesday 16 September 2008

Greens and the UK Left by Sean Thompson

This is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave to the Green Left Summer Meeting in Headcorn in August 2008. My central argument was (is) that in order to build the mass movement that is necessary to make the fundamental changes that are necessary to respond to the threats that face humanity, the Left as a whole, including the Green Party, has to be renewed and unified. While the Green Party by itself is not capable of being the vehicle for change that is needed, it (and especially socialists within it) can make a unique contribution to the daunting task of renewing the Left in Britain.

The Left in Britain (by which I mean the organisations to the left of the NuLab and the neo liberal consensus that it is part of) has never been weaker or more fragmented in my lifetime.

Many Greens, including many explicitly socialist Greens, don’t see that as a problem. After all, it could be argued that the ever changing permutations of the decreasing memberships of the seemingly ever increasing number of left sects is simply evidence of their political irrelevance and ideological bankruptcy, and that we can and should distance ourselves from them. As my old mentor Jim Higgins wrote:

“The communist tradition has, over the decades, acquired such an accretion of dross that its founders would be hard pressed to recognise it as their creation, and where they reject the child, we should be most careful not to adopt the bastard.” 1

If the traditional Far Left is becoming less and less significant as a political pole of attraction then surely (some would argue) that merely creates a bigger vacuum on the left – a larger space for the Green Party to fill. In other words, the decline of the Old Left is an opportunity for us. Indeed, last year I wrote that

“We should argue that the Party should have as its central strategic ambition to replace the Labour Party as the 'natural' home for dissidents in Britain. This sounds like a grandiose ambition, and indeed it is when we consider our incredibly narrow existing base, our very limited resources and the political limitations of much of our membership. However, it is a necessary ambition if we are to mount a challenge against the heights of the state…” 2

However, I went on to point out that such an ambition must lead to two strategic imperatives; First that we must continuously remind ourselves and our fellow Greens that we are but a part of a wider movement and that we should always put the interests of that wider movement before our own short term sectarian interests and second, we must be concerned with the issues and struggles of those in that wider movement rather than our own particular obsessions – a weakness Greens are prone to, and one which we share with the sects of the old far left.

At the moment, the Green Party is not capable of filling the vacuum on the left created by the Labour Party’s capitulation to neoliberalism and the decline of the left sects because we are a sect ourselves, a rather unusual one, but sect we are. Our Party is a sect because as an entity it suffers the delusion that it has discovered a new politics, shiny and freshly minted, that has no organic relationship to any previous or existing tradition. We see ourselves alone in a political universe of our own creation. We, as a party, haven't noticed that there is a wider movement than ourselves out there with which we are broadly in tune. On the whole, the Green Party tends just not to notice the tens, hundreds, or thousands of activists who share our basic political values (and in large measure, the same political positions on key issues) but who inexplicably won’t join our organisation.

We have to recognise that the Green Party, as it currently exists, will not become a mass party capable of taking State power (certainly not on the basis of ad hoc recruitment of largely non-active members and incremental electoral growth) any more than the SWP or SPEW or the AWL are going to become the British Bolsheviks, leading millions of revolutionary workers. We all have to learn from each other and we all have to abandon our illusions (whether implicit or explicit) that any of us hold sole copyright on the Way, the Truth and the Correct Line and we have to realise that we need to work together to build a new left.

Left regroupment

Ever since the great exodus from the Communist Party in 1956 the idea of a refoundation of a popular movement of the anti capitalist left, or more narrowly, a realignment of the increasingly fragmented far left has been (from time to time) the Holly Grail for many, if not most, of the Left. The list of failed ‘unity projects’ since then is depressingly long.

Following the failed initiative of the New Left Clubs at the end of the fifties/beginning of the sixties, Raymond Williams, EP Thompson, Ralph Milliband and others launched the Mayday Manifesto and Convention of the Left in the spring of 1968 – an initiative that was stillborn because of the sectarianism and lack of nerve of most of the groups involved, in particular the CP.

In the mid-eighties, following the defeat of the miners in 1984-5, a series of large annual meetings in Sheffield and Manchester but mainly in Chesterfield, became known as the Socialist Conference. These meetings, which were organised by the Socialist Society, the loose network around the authors of Beyond the Fragments and the group around Tony Benn in the Labour Party, gave birth to the Socialist Movement, which in turn gave birth to Red Pepper – a rare positive outcome.

In 1996, the Socialist Labour Party was launched by Arthur Scargill as a reaction to the dropping of Clause Four by NuLab, but his flawed personality and authoritarian politics effectively destroyed it within eighteen months.

From 1992 local Socialist Alliances began to be established in a number of areas by grass roots activists with the support of a number of left groups – in particular SPEW – and in 1999 these local Socialist Alliances coalesced into the Network of Socialist Alliances. The Network joined with London Socialist Alliance to establish the Socialist Alliance as a national organisation and the SWP, the ISG and a number of other grouplets joined it. In 2001, it was changed from a network to a one member one vote party (giving the SWP effective control) and thus SPEW walked out. In 2003, the SWP and the ISG decided to support the Respect initiative (which had been the brainchild of Salma Yaqoob) and killed off the Socialist Alliance. And of course, in 2007 Respect was effectively killed off as a national organisation - although fragments remain in a few localities - by the self destructive sectarianism of the SWP.

Given the almost certain slaughter of NuLab by Dave and the Cameroons the year after next, the ever more urgent need for an organised opposition to neoliberalism and the fragmentation and marginalisation of the Left, a multiplicity of ‘unity’ projects have been launched over the past year and a half or so – each by a different sect or group of sects and each with little or no success. The Labour Representation Committee failed even to get John McDonnell on the NuLab leadership ballot paper last year, while SPEW has been failing to get its Campaign for a New Workers Party anywhere for some time and the CPGB’ Campaign for a Marxist Party has the feel of a reject sketch from The Life of Brian.

The latest runner to join the list is the recent ISG proposal for a new revolutionary socialist organisation. The people involved are a decent bunch, including not only the ISG (who are involved in a serious way in developing a new ecosocialist praxis) but many of the SWP members who walked as a result of the insane behaviour of their leadership over Respect. However, their manifesto is largely just another repetition of some of the tired language and program points of most of the failed unity projects listed above. And of course, they are mainly concerned with establishing an organised but non sectarian left within the rump of Respect, which, with the best will in the world probably doesn’t have much mileage left in it.

The proposed Convention of the Left in Manchester (20-25 September, the duration of NuLab’s conference) seems like it could be a really useful and positive event. The organisers, who include independent socialists like John Nicholson and individual members of most of the left groups in Manchester (including the Green Party). The event now has sponsorship from a wide range of well known leftists, from Tariq Ali, through Ken Loach and Jenny Jones to our own dear Derek Wall. Its conscious inclusivity, its determinedly open and non prescriptive approach to discussion (big name speakers’ roles will explicitly be to introduce discussions, not dominate them) and its ambition to be a genuine forum rather than the launch pad for yet another doomed unity project, all bode well for it making a real – if modest - contribution to the development of a healthier left.

Beyond left regroupment

The reason why so many previous attempts at regroupment have failed and why all the current ones appear to be non starters, is not just because of the psychopathology of some of the movement’s would-be leaders or of the closed mindsets of some of the dedicated party patriots who inhabit the sects (though these are certainly contributory factors). At the heart of the failure of regroupment is the fact that the organised left has become more and more irrelevant as it has become ossified by slavish adherence to form without reference to content or context. So just as the CPB soldiers on with its blinkered commitment to The British Road to Socialism – a programme hardly changed since it received the personal imprimatur of Stalin himself in 1951, the SWP continues to imagine that it is building the British Bolshevik Party and God knows how many groups, basing themselves just as rigidly on what they too see as the Bolshevik template are rebuilding, reconstructing, organising for, or just proclaiming, the Fourth International.

Harry Braverman, wrote that:

“Every movement develops its own style, rhetoric, way of making itself heard. Socialism was cradled in the intolerable conditions of the primitive working class, and flamed with the barricades spirit of the revolutions of 1848 into which it was launched at its infancy. Instead of evolving with changed conditions, this tone and approach survived in frozen rigidity which sometimes even outbid Marx. One of the main reasons was that the first of the long-awaited revolutions broke out in a country whose condition was more appropriate to the Europe of the early nineteenth century than the early twentieth, and whose social struggles reflected that fact. Then, to compound the difficulty, that revolution got ossified and bureaucratized at the top, and insisted on imposing its every prejudice and dogma on the world socialist movement. The result was a Communist formation, the recognized repository of ‘Marxism,’ with a Zeitgeist from another century and a paralyzed mentality. Is it any wonder that the work of digging out Marxism and restoring it to usable form is so difficult?” 3
As a result, insofar as ordinary working people are aware of the far left at all, they mainly find its arcane ideology and the shrill slogan ridden language it uses either incomprehensible or just laughable. The obscurantism of the far left – which has in part been the product of the left’s isolation – has led to endless hermeneutic debates, usually carried on in language apparently borrowing its abusive style from the Foreign Languages Publishing House translations of Lenin’s Collected Works. It is extraordinary that there are still those in almost every left group whose idea of theoretical analysis is to trawl through the collected works of VI Lenin or LD Trotsky to find an appropriate quotation in order to deal with today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Trotsky died sixty eight years ago, Lenin eighty four – to imagine that their writings could produce detailed answers to today’s problems is to ascribe to them a measure of posthumous infallibility that both of they would both certainly have indignantly rejected when alive.

To quote Jim Higgins again:
“If the Bolsheviks took over the Smolny as their headquarters will the only begetters of British Bolshevism have to take over Cheltenham Ladies College? What is the British equivalent of storming the Winter Palace? Balmoral I suppose, although how we are going to get the battleship Aurora up there God alone knows.” 4

Without a recognition that the world has moved on and that our theory and practice must do so as well, all attempts at regroupment based simply upon a coming together of existing far left groups (or their former members) are likely to continue to end up as squabbles about who is going to wear the captain’s cap on the Titanic.

In order to be renewed, the Left (and I include the Green Party in this) must be prepared to abandon its current theoretical obsessions, language and organisational fetishes. It needs to reassemble itself from the most healthy and vital elements of its political DNA like a butterfly, leaving the dry withered shell of its old form behind it.

The role of Greens

Greens can contribute to that process in three ways. First, by practising unity in action at a grass roots level. In every locality, trade unionists, tenants, minority ethnic communities and anyone else currently finding themselves up against the state should be able to look to local Greens as reliable and honest allies who do not have a hidden agenda. We should never ever find ourselves standing off from a struggle because this or that left group is involved. At the moment, many on the left who have few, if any, significant differences with us are deeply suspicious of us, often partly for reasons of their sectarianism and sometimes partly with justification. We must always remind ourselves and our fellow Greens that we are part of a wider movement and that we should always put the interests of that wider movement before our own short term interests.

Second, we can contribute to the vital task of analysis and the development of new strategies for action that are relevant to the current situation. As Braverman puts it,

“the job is not to see where ‘Marx was wrong’ so much as to make a fresh application of his theory to the world around us as it is, not as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the field of physics, we need socialist Faradays and Maxwells or if we are lucky, Einsteins and Plancks, not people who confine themselves to knocking Isaac Newton.” 5

I think that there are four areas in particular that we can make particularly useful contributions to the development of a socialism for the 21st century: understanding the environmental crisis; renewing our awareness of how production, consumption and work are related and distorted in modern capitalist society; reassessing how the working class can be the agency of social transformation at a national and global level and developing new ways of organising ourselves and new democratic ways of working.

The environmental crisis

Obviously, we have an informed and detailed awareness of the scale and urgency of the environmental crisis and the role that capitalism is playing in the rapid worsening of that crisis. Ironically, it is in this area where the Left as a whole has most got its act together over the last few years. The need to organise against the threats of global warming and environmental degradation is now largely received wisdom on the left. However, how to do it is something that the Left as a whole has given little thought to – and arguably, the Green Party hasn’t either, apart from standing candidates in elections. We need to find ways to relate the crisis to the day to day experience of working people, to raise demands that challenge the crisis and while making sense to ordinary people – and to help them find ways to organise practically.

The current huge price increases in energy charges are a case in point. They bring the reality of peak oil and global commodities speculation sharply home to people who have never heard of the concepts. Energy conservation changes from being an abstract demand rather priggishly raised by middle class or d̩class̩ environmentalists to a practical and urgent necessity for the large majority of the population. To raise demands for the public ownership of the energy monopolies and for subsidies for the old and sick are fine as far as they go, but they need to be paired with proposals for practical activity within communities which can promote the self confidence of those communities as well as encouraging the development of a culture of grass roots self organisation. Greens, with a strong voluntarist element part of their heterodox political culture, are in a good position to play an active role in this, unhindered by the residual traditions of paternalism and statism still lurking on the left. Thus we can transform one of our weaknesses into a strength Рif a double edged one.

In reality, a modern understanding of the dynamics of capitalism's inevitable exploitation of the natural world, including humankind, that ecosocialists are developing needs to explained to Greens even more urgently than the need for Greens to explain to the rest of the Left that the environment is in crisis.

Production, consumption and work

Socialism is still often accused of being inherently productivist. There is a grain of truth in this, despite the fact that no one has surpassed Marx in analysing and condemning the relentless capitalist process of production for production’s sake, as well as the accumulation of capital and commodities as goals in themselves. For Marx, the central core of socialism was the domination of use value over exchange value – for ‘being’ rather than ‘having’. However, he was, of course, a man of the nineteenth century and was affected by the explosion of technology and the productive forces of Britain, Germany and the USA in particular. So Marx (and very much more so, later and cruder Marxists) tended to identify the development of the forces of production as the key factor in human progress. Marx never foresaw that through its inevitable dynamic of constant expansion capitalism will destroy its own conditions – starting with the natural environment

Michael Lowey made our task clear when he wrote that:

“The ecological issue is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge for a renewal of Marxist thought at the threshold of the twenty first century. It requires that Marxists undertake a deep critical revision of their traditional conception of ‘productive forces’, and that they break radically with the ideology of linear progress and with the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilisation.” 6

I believe that socialist Greens, who see themselves as in the tradition of William Morris, are well placed to undertake such a task and develop EP Thompson’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ (an economic policy based on non-monetary and extra–economic criteria) as an alternative to the obsessive and all consuming commodity fetishism of modern capitalist society. We do not have quite as much ideological baggage to leave behind as our comrades in groups which find it hard to loosen their grip on one or more of the holy books or this or that ideological comfort blanket. We can help lead the way and light the path.


Marx described capitalism as its own grave digger, not because of its inherent instability and its tendency towards cyclical crises, but because in building itself it created a class – the proletariat – which was forced into conflict with it and which was forced to act collectively and search for collective solutions. Of course we still live in a class society and the mass of us have to sell our labour value to live, so the majority in society is still working class. However, much has changed since the rise of mass trade unionism a bit over a century ago. When the Labour Party was formed, the bulk of organised workers were male, unskilled or semi skilled, and worked in large concentrations in heavy or manufacturing industries, mining and the railways. As the long boom after the Second World War started to stutter and fade, the traditional industries started to decline, a process that was hugely accelerated in the eighties by Thatcher’s programme of deindustrialisation and the moves towards globalisation kick started by the IMF. Today, the TUC’s affiliates have fewer than seven million members, and the only the public sector is largely unionised. The workforce has changed out of all recognition it is now made up of both men and women in white collar or service occupations rather than manual work in manufacturing industries. But while the combined effects of neo-liberal government policies and globalisation has eroded the traditional institutions of the British working class – and to some degree, its consciousness, the globalised economy has created a global working class. According to Paul Mason;

Industrialisation in the global south, together with marketisation in the East has doubled the size of the global working class. A billion waged workers in the less developed countries, together with 1.47 billion in India, China and the former Comecon states now dwarf the 460 million workers of the developed world. And their lives are articulated together as never before. Globalisation has stretched the manufacturing process across continents and time zones. Digital communications allow the lives of workers in different countries to be massively more transparent to each other – and more similar. 7

Clearly the Left’s traditional and rather romanticised view of the working class has to be brought up to date, taking into account the great changes in the modes of production over the past decades, the effects of the communications revolution the domination of consumerist ideology and the rise in awareness of individual, as opposed to collective, rights. However, in my view we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater and start to see social movements, such as those represented by the European or World Social Forums, as a alternative to a self organised and self conscious movement of working people as the key agent of social change.

Democracy and organisation

One of the least attractive features of the Old Left is the its obsession with various buttock clenching variations on the theme of democratic centralism. While such an approach to democracy and organisation may well have been the most appropriate for revolutionary organisation in Russia over ninety years ago (although I happen to largely agree with Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of Lenin on this issue) the fact is that our circumstances today are vastly different, so our approach to organisation has to be different too.

Despite the current trends within the Green Party towards a more centralised social democratic model of organisation, Greens have a healthy tradition of commitment to decentralised, non hierarchical styles of organisation. While this can, and sometimes does, lead to a ‘lets do it right here in the barn’ voluntarism, it is a welcome antidote to the Old Left’s aping of how it imagines the Bolsheviks operated after 1903, complete with Central Committees, Politbureaux and Control Commissions.

Greens certainly do not have a fully developed model of democratic organisation, but our lack of hang ups about historical purity and our interest in prefigurative approaches to organisation and activity is capable of making a valuable contribution to establishing how the left should operate today. One thing is certain – if we want to build a new, environmentally aware Left then we are going to have to develop new ways of organising and behaving.

Finally, we must counter the demoralisation amongst individual activists (and ex-activists) caused by the fragmentation and marginalisation of the Old Left and the obsession with electoralism and the trend towards centralism in the Green Party. We can and must provide a shelter and pole of attraction for isolated ecosocialists (whether they identify themselves as such or not) to prevent the already reduced forces of the left eroding further.

Therefore I suggest that we should take the lead in establishing an Ecosocialist Network to promote the ideas being developed within the Ecosocialist International Network. Such a network should explicitly not have ambitions to rival or replace any existing organisations, but rather to complement and support them by establishing as forum, open to all, for the discussion and development of ecosocialist politics while providing a base for individual ecosocialists who would otherwise risk isolation. Apart from the ISG, there appears to be little interest in the development of such a network from any of the far left groups, so the first step will need to be making contact with individual socialists and greens, most of whom are not members of any group.

1Jim Higgins: Speak One More Time, 2004
2Sean Thompson: Paper for GL Summer meeting, 2007
3Harry Braverman: Marx in the Modern World, in American Socialist, 1958
4Jim Higgins: Op. cit.
5Harry Braverman: Op. cit
6Michael Lowy: What is Ecosocialism?, in Capitalism Nature Socialism 2005
7Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting, 2007

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