The Line Of The March

While the forced unity of socialists might suggest that the era of the sect is over, G. O'Halloran argues that this is unlikely to make any difference where it really counts, in working class communities. Precisely where the Independent Working Class Association is making ground.

When a far-right candidate, famously got one less vote than he had sponsors, it was safe to deduce that conducting (and losing) running battles with anti-fascists in Burnley town centre did little to endear muscular nationalism to the electorate. Easy as well to work out that no leafleting, much less canvassing had even been attempted, and that the candidate even by the standards of the far-right at the time, was not exactly top drawer.

How the cream of British socialism must wish it had such excuses to fall back on. In late January, in an otherwise insignificant local by-election in Hackney, east London all challengers, past and present, for title of 'biggest party on the left', jointly sponsored a single Socialist Unity candidate to stand in North Defoe ward. Initially expectations were high; conditions seemed ideal. According to Weekly Worker "practically everyone who answers the door to our canvassers is anti-Labour, or very disillusioned". In strong contrast to the "low key Tory campaign", Socialist Unity ensured that by polling day "every household had been leafleted and canvassed efficiently." Moreover the candidate, a young, attractive, articulate, working class mother, who had previously stood in the ward, was far and away superior to the specimens the left is prone to put up. "A qualified success" was how the candidate described the result after coming bottom of the poll with 37 votes.
Though it made no public comment, it is hard to imagine the SWP being so sanguine. For, having for the first time in over twenty years actually backed a candidate against Labour, not out of principle, but as a deniable test run for themselves, the outcome will still surely have chilled the leadership to the bone.
From the post mortem that followed, two very distinct conclusions were drawn. On one side the recognition that "in the absence of mass political and industrial struggles we need to sink deep roots in the life of local communities...and there are no short cuts" on the other the overwhelming need for "a global vision." While sniffingly conceding that "local campaigning on grass roots issues in the boroughs is no doubt part of our work as socialist activists" 2.3% of the poll was, 'everything considered, a creditable performance'. In any case sinking roots into working class communities was "decidedly not the answer" according to the local Socialist Alliance.
Instead "we must fight hard to demonstrate that 'the left' is not a collection of hopelessly divided sectarian grouplets propounding an outmoded ideology." But demonstrate to who? The Labour Party? The working class? Each other? And what if it is? What if the left is hopelessly sectarian and outmoded? What if the left is in fact the principle problem? What then? "Have you ever thought" as Alan Shearer is reported to have said to Glenn Hoddle after yet another England disaster: "that it might be you?" Fact is, after at least half a century of false promises, cowardice, opportunism and betrayal, the working class is not merely alienated and indifferent to all socialist parties like them, but at a more fundamental level has lost faith in socialism itself. Or as Marlene Dietrich remarked: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly".
And so while forced unity might indeed signal that the era of the sect is over, merely pulling together out of desperation, neither inspires confidence or qualitively alters prospects on the ground. Particularly when it is the message itself that is the problem.
Not only is socialism itself proving an insurmountable electoral handicap; it has become precisely the type of 'sectarian principle by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement' the Communist Manifesto warned communists against.
Moreover, the entire political history of the working class this century is now in any case like a video on rewind. Just after the war, the Communist Party (CP) had 45,000 members, 256 councillors and two MP's. By 1968, it was just about capable of winning two council seats on the Isle of Dogs, east London.
Less than a decade later, the CP would find itself losing in 26 out of 29 common contests to the NF, while a Socialist Unity Mark 1 would be beating the CP in five seats out of seven. Nowadays, Socialist Unity Mark 2 can describe 37 votes as "a creditable result" and hardly raise an eyebrow. A 'global vision' by all means, but to infer that it must be regarded not merely as a priority, but as a precondition for victory in places like North Defoe is the politics of the nuthouse.
Implicit, in the knee jerk response to organising where the working class live rather than where it works (the much revered point of production) is the idea that such activity far from being revolutionary is barely political. And if it is political, is all too obviously the 'wrong sort' of politics. Compared to a 'commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the United Kingdom and the arming of the masses' addressing meetings of council tenants, even when hundreds strong, is, admittedly small beer. Possibly even misguided. Running the risk according to it's revolutionary critics of 'resurrecting the failed social palliatives of Old Labour's left social democrats'. Even if such an unlikely outcome was conceivable, ie social democratic politics without social democracy, that is precisely the dilemma 'revolutionaries' are in the business supposedly to resolve. Not sit on the sidelines wringing their hands, and limiting themselves 'to making phrases and otherwise doing nothing'.
Making phrases and doing nothing was precisely how on an instinctive and confused level, the left greeted the arrival of the trade unions in the middle of the 19th century. Then as now, the socialist sects were suspicious, if not opposed to the self activity of the working class. Indeed some of the best organisers of the new unions had to break with sects like the Socialist Democratic Federation in order to do effective work as trade union militants. Then as now, in order to unionise a factory or politicise a community, you have to be in it to do it.
A prospect that has no greater appeal for their counterparts today. One such outfit which appeared perfectly happy to be involved in the many months of intensive discussions prior to the setting up of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), used a minor incident on one of it's very first outings as a pretext to abandon any further involvement. Ironically the withdrawal sparked the instant resignation of the very people, (some of whom had been associated with them for almost 20 years) it had been designed to prevent.
For like their predecessors the Revolutionary Communist Group lacking the ambition to take the working class forward have instead 'turned marxism into an orthodoxy'. Where the RCG fetishises the "selling of communist literature", the SDF insisted on one of it's members, a dockers leader, unfurling the red flag during a dock strike. As Engels commented "such an [sectarian] act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists." (Selling Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism, would by contrast simply have complimented the propaganda of the BNP).
Now, organising in working class communities today is no easier than it was for socialists working with the early unions. Specifically, when balancing tactics and strategies, particularly the inevitable tension between immediate short term interests and long term goals. Entirely conscious of the problem Marx, in writing the Communist Manifesto quite deliberately outlined the precise relationship appropriate for communists working within the trade unions.
Though for the most part ignored by the left, as a guideline for organising and politicising working class communities today, it is word perfect. To paraphrase: 'Revolutionaries should act as a loyal left wing of the class, not as an alternative counterposed to it; they should start with the working class as it is and where it is, in order to change it; they should be a part of its real class organisations no matter how backward the class might be from their stand-point; and they should become the best militants for the immediate limited aims of that movement. But at the same time, through this association they seek to push the whole class movement upwards to higher levels of class consciousness by means of the lessons of experience, all without giving up or hushing up their own views, or ceasing to criticise mistaken policies'.
All important according to the Communist Manifesto is the 'lessons of experience'. It is first hand experience that raises working class awareness, not global visions, revolutionary platforms, or the sectarian principles beloved of the left. Not, that sectarianism is the type of trap the IWCA is ever likely to fall into. On the contrary it must instead guard against the opposite extreme; a tendency toward opportunism. This is not opportunism as is commonly understood, ie the jumping on and off bandwagons, but rather as Engels defined it, in a rebuke to a colleague: "a tendency to sacrificing the future of the party to a momentary triumph." Already in a number of high profile cases the IWCA, has shown symptoms of the tendency to gamble everything on the possibility of a momentary triumph, at sometimes fatal cost to the implementation of the wider strategy.
In 1997 in both Newtown in Birmingham and Welwyn & Hatfield in Hertfordshire it proved too eager to get a scalp; to draw class enemy blood. But in it's enthusiasm, to maximise the immediate dividend, everything, including the IWCA itself, was jettisoned the better to leave the facts, untarnished by the inevitable questions, and accusations of political manipulation, to speak for themselves.
As with the mugging issue in Newtown, the scandal of Labour corruption in Hatfield was initially addressed through leafleting and large, hundreds strong public meetings in both cases attracting local and national media coverage. Then in an effort to further politicise the campaign, IWCA activists in Hatfield decided to stand an 'articulate and attractive working class mother' on an anti-corruption ticket in the district elections. Without, needless to say, a fraction of the resources expended in North Defoe, over a 1,000 votes, and roughly 50 % of the working class Labour vote was secured. According to witnesses at the count, the look of incomprehension and horror, on the face of the newly elected Labour MP alone was almost worth it.
In two successive by-elections both contested by IWCA activists, again under the name of the campaign. The Labour vote virtually collapsed in the face of the propaganda offensive. But as in Newtown the IWCA on the ground has left itself in no position to capitalise on it. Though worthy and even exemplary, neither initiative resulted in the lasting political transformation planned for, at the outset.
So when taking on board the 'lessons of our own experience' it cannot be too heavily stressed that every momentary interest may have either of two functions: either it will be a step toward the political goal or else it will conceal it. Which of the two, will ultimately depend on the impact of the campaign on the class consciousness of the working class on the ground, not in the victory or defeat in isolated skirmishes. Simply from the point of contemporary working class morale winning is of course important, but winning is not always everything.
From very early on, Marx was alert to this danger, even then acute on the trade union front of eschewing the long term political goal in favour of immediate improvement in conditions: "the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate consequences of these struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, not with the causes of those effects... that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady." The obvious danger of relieving but not curing, is that each application comes to be regarded as a valuable achievement in itself, or at least a step along the path toward the stated goal, and the pragmatic tactic can very quickly be transformed into the pragmatic but unimpeachable principle.
In a mere twelve months, by applying these lessons, IWCA influence amongst working class communities in Islington is already substantial. From a standing start, in February last year a single IWCA leaflet led directly to discussions with long term working class activists. The resulting anti-privatisation campaign 'Fight Against Council Tenancy Sell-offs' has by confronting the mainstream parties on the issue of gentrification, secured the public allegiance of almost 50% of the tenants associations in the borough. In conjunction with the tens of thousands of IWCA newsletters distributed door to door, the overall impact of the campaign has placed the idea of independent candidates and with it the notion of working class rule in working class areas in the political mainstream.
Proving to initially sceptical community activists on the way, that independent working class activity (in contrast to appealing cap in hand to Labour) is not only the best and most effective way of righting wrongs and gaining support in the short term, but working class self determination is also a desirable intermediate political objective in itself. This is not to say that everything is already in the bag. Far from it. IWCA activists in Islington as elsewhere are still on a learning curve. From time to time mistakes will be made. Occasionally the IWCA will get it wrong, but in contrast to the partisans of North Defoe, who take the line 'that communists have the advantage of understanding the line of the march' literally, who regard it as a birthright, rather than the qualification Marx intended - a misreading responsible for a detour lasting the best part of the century - not that wrong.

Reproduced from RA Vol 3, Issue 6, April/May 1999