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.  The talk is of “chatter on anarchist websites” as well as bluster from the likes of Class War, 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.” G20 Meltdown invites protestors to “storm the banks” and invokes the memory of the English revolution of 1649. 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.” Likewise, environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, claims the “wheel has come full circle”. 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.”
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.