Len Arthur writes: Left Unity came together eight years ago when the fight against austerity had collapsed and a political vacuum opened up to the left of Labour. The trade union leadership threw in the towel and Labour councillors and devolved parliament and assembly representatives refused to vote against cuts budgets, thus implementing the coalition and Tory cuts with a thin cover of still being a ‘dented shield’. It was at the time when Miliband was leading the Labour Party and gradually taking it to the right leading to the disastrous defeat in 2015.
Left Unity rapidly grew to just short of 2000 members, especially after Ken Loach pointed out our existence, pulling together what can be broadly described as the ‘radical left’ across the UK. It was heady stuff and in quick succession founding conferences agreed to an open and democratic constitution, a statement of principles and then, by 2015, our first detailed manifesto spelling out what those would mean in terms of demands and policies.
“Left Unity stands for equality and justice. It is ecosocialist, feminist, environmentalist, anti-racist and against all forms of discrimination.
We are ecosocialist because our aim is to end capitalism. We will pursue a society where the meeting of human needs is paramount, not one which is driven by the quest for private profit and the enrichment of a few. We are in favour of a radical system where democratic control extends across the economy. The natural wealth, and the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned in common and democratically run by and for the people as a whole, rather than being owned and controlled by a small minority to enrich themselves.”
In addition Left Unity joined the Party of the European Left, initially as observers, but then within a year as full participating members.
In total it amounted to a clear statement of what being ‘radical left’ could mean in terms of being opposed to capitalism as a system and supporting a radical ecosocialist social transformation. Broadly this overlapped with the coalition of parties in the European Left that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and allied states and state capitalist systems. Key debates about how such an ecosocialist transformation could come about has involved a continuing ongoing engagement with the relationship between elected representatives and direct action. In part it can be seen as the tension between the alternatives of reform or revolution within one organisation in the UK and across Europe, instead of one route being set against the other as an organisational identity. The reality of the difficulties of politically coping with this tension were brought tragically to the fore over the budget crisis faced by the Syriza government in Greece, when the failure to seriously mobilise a workers’ defence across the country led to a collapse into austerity under the pressure from the ECB. The ‘reform v revolution’ tension continues to be played out and raises the question about the extent to which it can be resolved within a single party organisation.
The main point of this article is to suggest that it can and that drawing upon the tradition of ‘Marxist humanism’ can help the process. But before exploring this, the position of Left Unity needs to be brought up to date.
Following the 2015 election defeat and Miliband’s resignation, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, mobilising thousands around the UK to support him and subsequently leading up to 200,000 to join the Labour Party. In a sense, Corbyn’s leadership shifted the focus of the ‘radical left’ in that direction and Left Unity consequently lost about two thirds of our membership to support Corbyn in the Labour Party. We have kept Left Unity going through our international membership of the European Left and stressing the importance of direct action and social movement campaigns to resist the constant onslaughts from the Tory government. We also took a decision not to stand candidates against Labour whilst Jeremy Corbyn was leader.
Since Starmer’s election and the purge and witch hunt of the left in the Labour Party, it is clear to all who wish to see it, that we have witnessed the return of neoliberal ‘New Labour’, if not the project of the SDP and desire to create a National Liberal Party: almost a return to the politics of the ‘Whigs and the Tories’. This is at a time when the economics, social, health and climate crises faced by the planet and workers around the world is increasingly in urgent need of being tackled. Something that will only happen if in the words of our Left Unity principles, we have a “… society where the meeting of human needs is paramount, not one which is driven by the quest for private profit and the enrichment of a few”. There is no prospect whatsoever of such a transformative and radical left ecosocialist project being adopted by the Labour Party for at least 10 years, more likely never, which is what the expulsions are about.
Comrades on the radical left are leaving or being expelled from the Labour Party in droves. We are seeing the return of a similar situation to when Left Unity was originally formed. However, this time, many are disillusioned or just despair and are ‘stepping back’ from political activity; others are joining existing organisations or more creatively building new ones such as the Breakthrough Party, Ordinary Left, the Northern Independence Party. We have experienced a small increase in membership in Left Unity but, at the moment, it is clear that we are not immediately going to return to the surge of members we experienced in 2013/14. Consequently, in addition to continuing to be actively involved and supportive of direct action campaigns, we are also working to try to prevent the radical left becoming too fragmented in the UK, Wales, and Scotland.
What does this mean for the political ‘praxis’ of Left Unity?
There isn’t a deterministic script to read off the correct political tactics and strategies. The world around us is constantly being reproduced and produced through time. Understanding the dynamic of these historical processes is informed by an analysis drawn from Marx of the balance of forces created in a class society, where the power of wealth ownership and the search for profit maximisation determines the direction of control and investment. Coping with this dynamic requires constant contemporary analysis, open discussion and understandings being regularly/frequently tested in challenging the power and strategies of capital. It has implications for our political processes and party democracy in that we draw upon the rich tradition of Marxist humanism the breadth of which is indicated in the link and more specifically in the work of Raya Dunayevskya, CLR James and more recently that of Istvan Meszaros and J Bellamy Foster.
Whilst using existing concepts to understand our current condition we need detailed evidence of our contemporary world to both re-evaluate those concepts and support workers’ resistance through making links and helping to justify their fightback and learn lessons from both successes and failures. This requires a party where open and democratic discussion involving all members takes place regularly, where comradely respect is practised in all discussions in the awareness that we are all seeking to understand and could indeed be wrong! Such a process of ‘praxis’ is the only way the tradition of Marxist humanism can survive – top-down organisational control and secrecy will kill any party.
As within the party the same political process should be argued for in all wider campaigns and action. Campaigns as far as possible need not only to maximise the potential for defeating the strategies of those that represent the interests of capital they also need to be as far as possible, prefigurative, i.e., be living examples of how socialism based upon collective control could work.
That ‘substantive equality’ exists when collectively in struggle and this enriches our resistance and reasons for that resistance as well as developing our space where we can establish a countervailing power or ‘frontier of control’ beyond the reach of capital, a frontier where the battle has temporarily stopped but the trajectory is to constantly push it forward toward having sufficient power to make a transition to ecosocialism, by steps but also by wide scale and rapidly moving revolt.
I’ve written previously about the political and organisational processes that lie behind this approach to radical left politics, the case is still relevant but needs some filling and out updating.
As a radical left party, it is not just our programme, aims, or vision that is critical to a radical transformation from capitalism but the political process of how these relate to our ongoing action and campaigning. A link is required between the problems and issues we daily experience and the systemic change that is required to provide answers: our praxis has to be one that unites theory and practice. So, when someone says to you yes we agree about the problems but what can we do about it – we can work collectively together to answer that question and make ‘doing something’ a reality.
The first consideration must be how do we kickstart the trajectory toward taking power to make the radical, transformative ecosocialist changes that are required? A key element has to be the continuous guiding idea of developing sufficient collective power so that not only can we challenge the strategies and sources of power of capital and their political representatives, but that it operates constantly as a countervailing force making them think twice before they feel strong enough to attack. Moreover, the aim has to be to see the trajectory as one of recognising how our current ‘frontier of control’ can be taken forward. It is about constantly organising in all action and campaigning situations to generalise resistance not just to people directly affected by issues and problems but to others who could be and can see that if one group can be attacked so can they: an injury to one is an injury to all. Critically, the aim has to be to always consider ways of building longer lasting and if possible permanent, organisations that can constantly monitor and act to defend and take forward our countervailing power and frontier of control. A key to any longer lasting organisation has to be open discussion and a flat democracy where all who wish to participate are free to join and leave as their circumstances allow.
A trade union is one example of building lasting organisations of resistance where majority or 100% membership in a workplace becomes the source of permanent countervailing power and collective agreements, a way of seeing the frontier of control. It is easy to see in this context that the processes of open discussion, democratic and direct accountability and involvement are vital to sustaining the union as a collective force to be reckoned with, being able to win members more easily to the need to take effective industrial action. Workers’ cooperatives can also be seen as sources of countervailing power if they combine democracy with social purpose.
Perhaps more controversially, radical left, ecosocialist control of councils, devolved parliaments, assemblies, and other elected bodies can operate as sources of countervailing power if they have the trajectory of taking forward our frontier of control and if they are likewise, open and constantly accountable to members of their parties and the electorate. A related key demand consequently and for wider political reasons relating to the constitutional crisis of ‘imperial’ Britain, is for independence and national self-determination of the UK nations. And, at a local level for councils to be independently funded with more devolved powers.
A final example could be developing single issue campaigns into ongoing and effective social movements. A local campaign to stop the downgrading and possible closure of a local hospital A&E in South Wales is one example of putting into place both the organisational structures and politics that may sustain the social movement aspects of the campaign. It is possible to start to see that with overlapping demands, collective solidarity through the aim of developing countervailing power and frontiers of control and similarity of demands, that a ‘movement of movements’ looking to more radically challenge the power of capital could start to come together, hence the need to place a radical left political emphasis on the aim of building countervailing power and pushing the frontier of control forward.
Of course, secondly, no collective fighting organisation can be sustained unless the demands or programmes do not relate first to the conscious and collective concerns of those involved and the trajectory of developing collective power will be stunted if the demands do not relate to as wide as possible a number of people. Clearly in forming these there are real dangers of opportunism, of framing demands that most easily appeal to or are used to, win support through drawing upon existing hatreds or stereotypes, readily promoted by capitalist supporting politicians and the press. As radical socialists our task is to develop transitional demands, that link the solutions to the problems that people are experiencing with the need to challenge the power and strategies of capital and their political allies, which are of course, the source of the key problems we face as a global society. Transitional demands, by relating to the wider power of capital as the source of the problems we face, not only point to lasting answers to the problems faced by people but also enable broader collective mobilisation by making links across movements.
What is a relevant transitional demand will depend on the historical circumstances. Some current examples are worth exploring. Many of the demands in our updated LU UK and LU Wales manifestos represent examples of transitional demands that relate to current circumstances. These demands were arrived at through LU democratic processes. Although these act as a general guide, it is not necessarily an easy political process to lift these ready-made and apply them to local or national campaigns. A key and critical process must take place at the start of all campaigns collectively developing and fighting for demands that are transitional in the specific circumstances faced by those wishing to fightback or take a policy forward. As the People’s Assembly Wales, we started to meet online weekly at the start of the Covid lock down. Around 50 activists across Wales participated at one time or another in these meetings and on the Facebook messenger group that ran in parallel with the same comrades. These provided a very open and democratic forum allowing new issues to be raised, campaign possibilities assessed and demands developed and agreed. The debates were highly political, enabling both transitional demands and actions to be developed collectively and campaigning success to be assessed and changes made where needed. Debates ranged over elimination or suppression demands in relation to dealing with Covid; increasing trade union effectiveness over workplace safety and now pay; the continuing relevance of fighting austerity and no cuts strategies in relation to schools, the NHS and the National Library; fighting poverty through free school meals; BLM and the role of the police and class politics; and many others. The PA Wales website reflects the outcomes of many of these debates and notes of all the meetings were taken and further distributed to a number of email lists reaching around 300 other activists across Wales. The key point is that although many of the demands ended up being similar to party manifestos, they were developed through the debates and experience of taking forward the campaigns.
The People’s Assembly Wales, meetings are now fortnightly but the same means of raising, debating and taking forward campaigns still works and the meetings being open to all, happening regularly, being recorded, widely distributed and supplemented with Messenger discussions, acts as a form of direct democracy with the minimum of bureaucracy – the chair revolves at each meeting, well mostly – and enables comrades to move freely in and out of the debates and action.
The People’s Assembly Wales experience is also an example of the third key factor in helping to ensure there is a sustained trajectory toward taking our frontier of control over the power of capital forward: transitional actions. To quote Raya Dunayevskaya “This can be so only because the elements of the new society are everywhere in evidence”. That transitional actions grow out of workers’ experiences of how to work collectively, being in tension and directly challenging individual ‘ducking and diving’ winners/losers strategies sold by the neo-liberal politics. They provide the foundation of the trajectory toward taking control referred to in point one above and it is critical that campaigning organisations build on and develop this experience not crush it with top down control and bureaucracy. The experience of campaigns built upon substantive equality and working together collectively should aim to be prefigurative examples of how ecosocialist democracy can work.
Two recent campaigns in South Wales provide some examples of how transitional actions work in campaigns. The campaign to stop the downgrading of the A&E department at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital has been written up as a detailed history. The aspect that is relevant for this discussion relates to ensuring the campaign was based upon open and direct democracy as a transitional action, from the very start. The campaign took off within hours of it becoming public knowledge in late January 2019 that a proposal to downgrade would go before the local Cwm Taf Health Board. A demonstration was called by LU and People’s Assembly activists for the meeting and a Facebook group set up to campaign for this. Within days it had attracted over 15,000 supporters and over the next couple of weeks grew to over 22,000. The working day demonstration was a huge success with around 400 people turning up with handmade banners and the Board met virtually under occupation. The meeting agreed to explore options providing space for a campaign before a final decision. Immediately after the meeting People’s Assembly activists set up an open meeting for the following week. At this meeting two strategy papers, prepared by PA activists were presented one with a list of possible campaigning actions and another with arguments against the downgrading together with a one sentence key demand that a 7-day 24 hours consultant led service would be permanently retained. One of the key arguments to support this demand was that the proposal to downgrade was rooted in an austerity driven rationalisation plan agreed in 2013. The open public meeting was attended by about 80 people and the debate ranged about the demand – abolish the Senedd; all Labour’s fault etc all came up – and whether a committee of ‘grown ups’ should run the campaign. We argued for an open flat campaign based on mass open meetings, widespread use of social media for continuous communication and just the minimum of officers. This was eventually agreed and officers volunteered themselves from the floor including trade union representatives. The ‘grown ups’ left to form their own campaign. In the end the Save Royal Glamorgan A&E (SRGAE) campaign established itself as the main one largely because of the total openness. The details can be read in the link and the campaign was by July totally successful. An ‘organising group’ of about 30 emerged as a campaign progressed based around a private Facebook group which reported regularly to open mass meetings and the wider Facebook group. It’s existence is known and people in the community are regularly asked if they wish to join. It was a group of self-selecting activists and as such new people could join and others could leave. This group still continues as an independent community group to defend the local NHS, including social care, free at the point of need.
The second campaign was much smaller, used the same open organising transitional actions approach. Rhondda County Council proposed closing what could have been all of the 11 council-owned residential care homes. People’s Assembly activists working with local people directly affected called a public meeting and set up a campaign Facebook group. The meeting was small, about 10 and the Facebook group grew to about 300. The local council unions did not wish to be involved. So, a smaller campaign but open and accountable through the Facebook group. The organising group met every fortnight, organised demonstrations, petitions, media statements etc but one of the key components was taking the Council’s case apart, demonstrating that they were misusing data to prove their case and denying they were making austerity cuts. They also proposed that through increasing ‘extra care’ sheltered housing this was an alternative to residential care. The organising group decided that we actually supported a range of options for people needing care, but it was not an alternative for people who still needed residential care. In the end the numbers due to closure were reduced to four and then when the need for care went up during the pandemic, this was reduced to two. All the details are in the link but again the key to the campaign was regular open meetings, full public accountability with all notes of meetings and reports being made public and drafts of reports being approved at the organising meeting. The group is still in contact but has now rolled itself into the ongoing independent community group.
Finally, the idea of transitional actions places democracy, openness and constant accountability at the heart of demonstrating now what ecosocialism means in prefigurative practice. In this regard it is critical to not only ensure this works in party organisations but in all areas across the terrain of struggle, in campaigns, trade unions but also in the institutions of elected democracy and in devolving power and independence to these institutions. So in the Senedd elections last year we argued for full PR; three year terms between elections; constant recall of elected representatives; full and immediate public disclosure of all documents, including discussion papers; as well as supporting independence for Wales and more power to local councils.
As these cases demonstrate, there is a distinctive radical left political process which bridges the gap between workers’ daily experiences of the crises we face and the ecosocialist transformation from capitalism that is required to overcome them. In other words, there is a distinctive political praxis aimed at constantly seeking ways of taking power to make this transformation through having a trajectory of moving our frontier of control forward by the political process of developing in struggle transitional demands and actions. This is not just a technical process but a highly critical one of constantly making meaningful the case for social transformation, in a way that relates directly to the people affected, and helping to organise action and campaigning in ways that render that needed transformation possible.
The trajectory of taking power by constantly having the aim of moving our frontier of control forward through collective action mobilising for transitional demands and organised through transitional actions, campaigns and taking control from below, places social democracy in the context of being only one part of the process and it embeds a trajectory toward transformative and indeed revolutionary change, in the daily experience and practice of struggle: thus breaking down the dichotomy of reform verses revolution.
The role of LU – a political party remains important
The dynamic of pushing forward our frontier of control through transitional demands and actions, develops and is sustained spontaneously by the collective circumstances people find themselves in. However, these ebbs and flows and it requires comrades who wish to argue the case for taking every struggle forward as far as possible and to sustain the constant pressure on capital to work together and coordinate their actions. There is a clear and critical role in being able to collectively argue the political case for the importance of transitional demands and actions in working toward the overthrow of capital.
Recently the demand for a ‘movement of movements’ has been raised. Such a development will only have direction and coherence if it is linking the demands and actions of different campaigns in terms of a specific and growing challenge to the power of capital and directly raises the question of taking control. Again, this requires political commitment and theoretical development.
One of the tasks of a political organisation is to link the demands and actions of the different campaigns, the ‘red threads’ into a programme or manifesto of government which through being derived from this source, also has to relate to radical and directly democratic forms of governance to implement it. This may of course, also involve further development of the demands. Crucially to challenge the centralised and democratically restricted structures of the British state and open deeper possibilities for working class self-determination.
From this perspective it is possible to see the distinction between a social democratic politics, which places a priority emphasis of working through the current constitutional processes, and radical left politics that aims to constantly challenge and move toward a direct challenge to capital through collective mobilisation around issues of direct concern. Arguing the case to take this challenge forward toward the system change required for a solution, by emphasising a process of developing transitional demands and actions, collectively and directly challenging the power of capital whilst at the same time building sufficient countervailing power to take our frontier forward, so that taking state power becomes a direct consequence of this strategy. Electoral politics is likely to be part of this process, but only one part and must be beholden to the demands and actions that derive from collective campaigns. This is the tradition of praxis that is rooted in the idea of a radical left and Marxist humanism.
Despite the apparent withering away of political parties, we continue to argue the case that to be effective in radically transforming capitalism the coordinated and united political action a party provides is still required. Our overall political approach is argued for here. Basically, an ecosocialist party works in these ways:
With much thanks to all the comrades in Wales who provided comments and advice on the earlier drafts.
This text is part of the ongoing 2021 pre-conference discussion. Earlier contributions can be seen in the ‘discussion and debate’ section of the Left Unity UK website.
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