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Michael Ford on "Left Unity"

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Post 27 Dec 2013, 12:56
Left unity is the motherhood-and-apple-pie of socialists. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption is that if only the left could crack the unity problem – the Rubik’s Cube of political intervention – then anything is possible, up to and including the relevance that has long eluded most of the left for many years.

As a result, there is from time to time a modest flutter around the issue, and this is one of those times. The reasons for this renewed interest in Left Unity include the reasonable and the nonsensical. In the former category comes the agonising but inescapable fact that, five years into an enormous capitalist crisis, the left in Britain has made negligible political impact. This is allied to a widespread and understandable disgust at Labour’s record during its 13 years in government until 2010, and at its continued hesitancy in moving away from New Labour positions, most obviously in relation to issues like welfare and privatisation, on which the old Blairite positioning still predominates. There is an argument that Labour no longer represents the broad progressive coalition that it once did to at least a limited extent, having become both less democratic and more bourgeois over the last generation. That is not an argument that should be dismissed.

Among the bad reasons we would have to place all the over-excitement generated by the incremental implosion of the Socialist Workers Party, a group with small and shrinking influence on the course of events whose recent travails have surely by-passed most of the world at large. Nevertheless, whether it is grappling with New Labour or picking up the pieces of the SWP, left unity is now presented as the answer.

Here it will be argued that this project – not so much “left unity” per se, but founding yet another new Left Party to fight elections – is founded on a flawed analysis, is misguided, and, to whatever extent it makes progress, in any case irrelevant to the actual political situation and what the left should be focussing on. A more fruitful course of action for socialists will be suggested. Our “text” is the most recent proposal advanced by the founders of the Left Unity website, Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson, by Nick Wrack of the “independent socialist network” and by the film director Ken Loach – their founding document and various articles written in support of their proposal. These are far from the least capable comrades to embark on this road, and for that reason – as well as the fact that theirs is the variation on “left unity” presently on the table – it is worth unpacking their proposals.

Full article: ... eft-unity/

The whole thing is a rather long read for an online article (it's also a half year old already), but I strongly recommend sitting through it anyway. The TL;DR version is at the end:

In summary, the project for a new Left Party

a) is based on a flawed assessment of how socialist political parties can emerge and sustain themselves;

b) prioritises “left unity” over class unity, to the detriment of the latter;

c) misreads European experience and its applicability to the situation in Britain;

d) fails to seriously address the Labour Party and working-class support for it;

e) ignores the failures of numerous similar initiatives and, indeed, the actual problems of the left in Britain today;

f) draws a causal connection between economic crisis and political radicalism which is at best questionable;

and therefore

g) cannot best direct the efforts and resources of socialists at the present juncture – indeed, it risks being an impediment to making the most of actual opportunities for advance and reconstruction.

I hope the comrades involved will address these points and consider the possibility that they may be wrong.

I don't know what has happened to the Left Unity project in the UK since then, by the way. Maybe someone else can enlighten us.

The article is about a specific project within a particular country, the UK, but it's full of points that are absolutely vital for communists to understand today, especially in Europe. I don't agree with every little point he makes, but I agree with the vast majority. Some particular insights that need to be discussed and taken in include:

  • Leftists always go on about how great it would be if we had 'left unity', as if this is some absolute necessity. What they consistently ignore is class unity. Regardless of the specifics of Left Unity in Britain, to think that a 'unity of the sects' is the way forward is a fundamental error. Even on the practical level, it's a pipe dream: is it still true 'unity' if one of the sects decides to split away again, or if they refuse to join in the first place? The fact of the matter is that the left is full of professional sectarians who have no real interest in unity with anyone. A quick look at the organisations participating in LU reveals as much. I will bet you right now that as soon as the AWL, the pretend-CPGB, etc. have milked this project for a few recruits, they will drop it like a ton of bricks. They're probably already planning for the right time to split.
  • Political space for left unity: I think Wright may be one of the few people to take a dialectical approach to this, rather than a mechanistic one that says, "There is a crisis, Labour is not responding to it properly, therefore there is political space for us." Also, it is no secret that there are already loads of organisations in the UK that are either "broad church" socialist parties, or collections of leftist sects. In fact, some of the sects that support LU are also part of other coalitions. LU will simply join the ranks of Respect, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, TUSC, No2EU, etc., etc. What is LU's strategy towards all of these? Historical experience has shown that different sects will back different coalitions, and they will stand candidates against each other with a level of vitriol unsurpassed by anything they could aim at Labour or the Tories. And the end result is that they all get less votes than the good old SLP.
  • Projects like this always say that we should "learn the lessons from the past", but they never really pick up the right lessons. I don't know if the LU project mentions this, but usually it's just the same old 100% abstract anti-Stalinism (and sometimes anti-Leninism), along with warnings about avoiding charismatic cult leaders. But what are we to make of the SWP, where horrible things have happened even though they are anti-Stalinist and every single one of their leaders has about as much charisma as my little toe?
  • What exactly are the European examples that we are supposed to look towards, anyway? In Greece, Syriza is simply becoming the replacement for the completely discredited old social democracy. Syriza is the most advanced of European "left-of-labour" formations in that they have already gotten to this point, whereas Die Linke, the Dutch SP, etc. still only attract 5-15%. Most of the European left simply represents the Flanby wing of European capital, the Hollande approach of softer austerity as a more effective means to save the system. If that is the model, then I fail to see what political space there is supposed to be in Britain. In that case, it would be better to just support Labour, because then at least you might have political discussions with some actual working-class voters.
  • Coalitions like that tend to act as if socialism-communism is just some distant matter that can always be settled later. Because of that, they tend to become poles of attraction for all those who try to spread the illusion that capitalism can be managed by politicians in a way that benefits the people.

There is more, but this is what I thought of so far. Please read and share your views.
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