Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

G20: Why there’s no shortcut to revolution

Posted by Left Luggage on March 27, 2009

The G20 protests over the coming days will shine a spotlight on the state of the British Left that should make uncomfortable viewing for those committed to building a working class movement.

The media hype predicting riot, violence, and attacks on individual bankers is, of course, absurd and beneficial to the Metropolitan Police in conditioning the public mind for repression of the protests. It follows from a risible Guardian story last month, sourced from the Met, which predicted a “summer of rage” from the angry middle classes. [1] The talk is of “chatter on anarchist websites” as well as bluster from the likes of Class War[2], now fuelled by the vandalism of former Royal Bank  of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin’s house and the suspension of the anarchist Professor Chris Knight from his job.

Yet activists involved in preparations for the protests have not been shy of bombastic rhetoric either. Knight himself is at the far end of the scale, predicting, “The revolution is coming. This is our time, and I honestly believe that the army, the police, will be so intent on keeping the ExCeL centre they will lose the City of London.”[3] G20 Meltdown invites protestors to “storm the banks” and invokes the memory of the English revolution of 1649.[4] A banner being prepared at one central London university declares: “Their Recession, Our Revolution”.

More sedate observers are no less optimistic about the potential of the protests. Seasoned members of the “global justice movement” see the demonstrations as a recapitulation of the Seattle protest a decade ago and draw a historical timeline that passes through Genoa, the European Social Forums, and the Climate Camps. Katharine Ainger, editor of the New Internationalist, joins these dots: “Perhaps anti-capitalism had the right idea at the wrong moment in history. Perhaps its moment has come.”[5] Likewise, environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, claims the “wheel has come full circle”.[6] Socialist Workers Party member Richard Seymour, who runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog, concurs: “Ten years on, the ideas of that extraordinary movement turn out to be more relevant than ever.”[7]

Most of the discussion around the event, however, seems almost willfully to ignore the current balance of forces and the tasks faced by the Left. There is a strategic debate going on, but within extremely narrow parameters. For example, Ainger and Kingsnorth respectively argue for the creation of “transformational space” and “making hard, detailed demands of power”. Seymour, on the other hand, sees the potential in “carnivalesque spectacle[s]” such as protest as leading “to more militant action” like the current strike wave in Europe. There is a real difference here in the understanding of how systematic change can occur, the importance of which should not be underestimated.

However, in overstating the importance of the current protests, we risk hindering the prospects of building a movement that is capable of achieving genuine social change. This should be the perfect time to argue the case for socialism; the market economy has been thoroughly discredited, and the “givenness” of this economic model is open to question in a way it has not been for decades. At the same time, the recession is having a devastating impact on working class communities across the country. Yet the response from workers in Britain has been muted at best; the most visible expression of resistance was the wave of wildcat action towards which most of the Left was distinctly cool.

The low level of struggle is not due to apathy but because, by and large, the Left has no significant organisational base within working class communities or the union rank and file. The extraordinary emphasis placed on protests such as the G20 only serves to obscure this fact both by maintaining a facade of absurd optimism and by channelling energies away from the basic movement-building work that is necessary. None of this is to deny the correctness of the positions, the imagination, effort, and commitment involved in anti-capitalist protests. Yet there is huge self-deception involved in these carnivals. Making claims about “our revolution”, and deigning to speak on behalf of workers made redundant, the unemployed, and those who have had homes repossessed (as G20 Meltdown does) while concentrating activity on high-profile protest actions dominated by seasoned activists is a fundamental contradiction.

So what is to be done? If we aim to build a mass movement, and we accept the Left has no significant forces among the working class, part of the answer is self-evident. This is not glamorous activity. It does not involve confronting the tear-gassed might of the state or provide intense shots of adrenalin. And it does not inspire romantic illusions that revolution is coming any time soon. Ultimately, it does not matter one jot if the bankers are upset, the G20 summit besieged, windows smashed, or the City “reclaimed”.

What matters in the long run is that the Left attends to the immediate needs of the working class, and proves themselves the best representatives of ordinary people. While there is huge anger over bonuses to bankers and the impact of the recession, a movement cannot be built on an outpouring of fury by semi-professional activists. What is required is to focus energies on building support among working class people, by engaging directly in fighting for their immediate needs day in, day out. The Left has to be in this for the long haul; there are no shortcuts. Only then can a truly mass movement be built, bringing with it the possibility of deep social change that is more than pure fantasy.


1.    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/feb/23/police-civil-unrest-recession

2.    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/22/g20-anti-globalisation-protests

3.    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/22/g20-anti-globalisation-protests

4.    http://www.g-20meltdown.org/node/34

5.    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/26/anticapitalism-protest-recession-g20

6.    http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2009/03/climate-movement-global-groups

7.    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2009/03/another-tenth-anniversary.htm

One Response to “G20: Why there’s no shortcut to revolution”

  1. The Dark Dim Knight & Other Middle Class Militants

    Despite their oh so revolutionary rhetoric the G20 protesters don’t really understand the lifestyles of those who have found themselves impoverished by current events. The vast majority of working class people do not hanker after the trappings of middle class consumerism, we are not the ultra-competitive wankers that their education system would like us to be. And yet Schnews has declared…

    “Poverty hasn’t been made history but is instead coming home to us. A response – albeit harsh – to those affected by the credit crunch is ‘welcome to the majority world’.9 0% of the world’s population don’t go through consumer goods as if they fell out of a corn flakes packet, so why should we in Britain? ”

    This attitude is typical of middle class ‘activists’; they see the working class as somehow responsible for climate change and consumerism. Even if the working class were a glut on world resources – the real statistics show a different story where the oh so fucking eco middle class hog the wealth and use more resources than anyone else – we would only be doing what was expected of us under a system designed and controlled by the middle class. The same issue of Schnews (http://www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news670.htm) goes on to quote Duritti…

    “We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute”. – Bienventura Durruti – 1936

    But Spain in 1936 had already witnessed practical, grass-roots anarchism in it’s towns and villages. People had learnt first hand that they could change the world around them and, as working class people, they had the skills to do so. The modern middle class militant living in their Brighton enclave has no idea how to even interact with working class communities, let alone fucking inspire them to create a new world in the corpse of the old.

    So what do the militant middle class have to offer us. Apparently Anthropology Lecturers can tie a noose if the posturing of Chris Knight is anything to go by. Some of them are good at planting flowers, many of them are web designers and they all write darn good letters to their MPs. But when it comes to the shit work of cleaning their sewers (or digging their humanure pits) and picking their organic crops, we know full well that we’ll be back to square one in no time at all.

    Who are the MPs? Who are the bankers? Who are the businessmen? Who are the parasites? They are none other than the middle class. Despite their claims to radicalism they maintain a position of privilege and, as the writer of the Schnews article has shown all too clearly, they cannot disguise their contempt of the working class.

    None of this is new, it is all too familiar in the history of working class struggle. As my namesake, Jack Common, wrote many years ago…

    “One of the distressing things about the socialist movement is the remarkable number of twisters and crooks it turns out. Not even borstal apparently produces so many ornaments of a piratical society as the movement which discovered the piracy. The biography of almost any Socialist leader is apt to be the story
    of a falling rocket.”

    The militant middle class are overwhelmingly composed of ‘twisters’ and ‘crooks’; working class people are all too aware of this, but middle class activists – with typical arrogance – see our unwillingness to indulge their fantasies as a lack of political understanding or class consciousness. But we’re savvy enough to know our enemy and we also know that a middle class media circus like the G20 protest will never help to improve conditions in working class communities. Again, Jack knew what was needed…

    Socialism must be built in the working-class, by the creation of nerve-centres throughout that class which provide cultural contacts and prepare the new world-feeling which is the basis of the new order. We will have inevitably parties of the class-war. What we need is communities in which classlessness is a virtue and is understood in all its forms.

    Yours in working class solidarity,
    Jack Common/underclassrising

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