Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Spoiling the party

Posted by Left Luggage on April 22, 2009

Lenin’s Tomb blogger Richard Seymour makes a revealing observation from the Left Forum in New York this week, commenting that while debates at the event were stimulating the absence of Left political parties was unfortunate. He says:

It has gone very well, with a very high level of debate and discussion, although it is sad to see that the only parties really present around the perimeter of the premises where the event is taking place are tiny sects with placards that look like a mixture of The End of The World is Nigh messages and Scientology posters. This perhaps speaks to a particular dilemma of the US left: huge numbers of knowledgeable, talented, committed people, but hardly any organisational presence. Sad to say it, even the ISO [the Socialist Workers’ Party’s sister organisation in the US] don’t appear to have a stall

This comment resonated with me because my experience of similar events in the UK has given me precisely the opposite impression; the British Left’s dilemma is precisely the proliferation of parties.

What strikes me most about the US Left is its comparative openness when compared to the UK. It has several excellent online publications that are both widely read and present a broad range of discussions and opinions. Since launching last month, we have easily been able to place three articles on such sites, even on controversial issues such as questioning the Left’s attitude to crime. Contrast this with the British Left. How many well-read publications or websites exist that have a relatively relaxed editorial line or are not tied to a particular party or sect?

The multiplicity of small groups with failing strategies, and the political alignment of virtually all well-read Left media, has quite an impact on our political culture. It leads to hostility to comrades in other groups or none, and leads us to spend energy directing our fire on each other. It leads to an unwillingness to debate strategic issues or engage in honest self-criticism, for fear of “giving ground” to opponents. It leads to suspicion about the agenda of others. It leads to groups whose policies are virtually indentical not cooperating or even acknowledging each others’ existence publicly. To a certain degree, this is all the inevitable outcome of politics, though the British Left seems particularly infected by this disease.

So, are more far-left parties what the US working class needs? Well, the British working class has plenty to choose from. But the Left here is largely marginalized politically and, almost uniformly, its strategies are not leading to increased membership, effectiveness, or support among ordinary people. At the same time, unlike the US it does not have a culture of open debate and discussion, most importantly over questions of strategy. Therefore the “huge numbers of knowledgeable, talented, committed people” in the US are potentially far better placed to adjust their strategies and create groups that are focussed on the enormous tasks at hand – re-engaging with and winning victories for working class people.

6 Responses to “Spoiling the party”

  1. Duncan said

    I would suggest that the antics of some groups on the far left inhibit and damage the ability of other groups to ‘re-engage with working class people’.

  2. We couldn’t agree more, Duncan.

    Some people we’ve spoken to on this go along the idea that “any activity is good activity”, others a kind of “don’t worry, be active” approach to politics. Of course, we need to be active. Yet as in any area of life, it’s patently obvious that some actions produce positive results, some are neutral, and some are counterproductive. The fact that often we instinctively adopt a familiar pattern of action or tactic, rather than considering its possible effects, is troubling.

    Another factor worth considering is about how the Left presents itself to people not politically active, both symbolically and rhetorically – something we hope to write about in future.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. I would disagree with some of this. The far left in the US, if anything, is in much worst shape and more sectarian than the “scene” here. Where the US differs is in the absence of a mass workers’ party there is a considerable layer of leftist activism that is only loosely tied to parties, be it the far left, greens or Democrats – and it is able to pull together meetings like the one above.

    That said the left here can do the same. The convention of the left, convention of modern liberty, the annual Fem conference, Historical Materialism, etc. etc. are all outside the control of the far left and do attract an audience beyond it. With the exception that the far left, should it choose, can intervene more effectively.

    I’d also say not all of the far left are the same. But being a member of the Socialist Party, I would say that šŸ˜‰

  4. You think the US has fewer sects, but is more sectarian?

    Agree totally that the far-left in Britain is by no means all the same, and there are many groups doing good work. Still, I hold to the idea that the proliferation of sects and sectarianism over here hinders the long-term prospects for the Left.

    Thanks for your comment.


  5. Alex Doherty said

    Hi I used to help run ukwatch.net – I know one of your group is familar with us (hi! šŸ™‚ We may be relaunching and I just wonder if you felt that we fell into the failings that you described. Genuinely interested in any constructive criticism.


  6. Hi Alex

    I actually think ukwatch was one of the very few British left-wing media outlets that welcomed a diversity of opinion, possible precisely because it was unalligned. Where else would you find articles from the SWP, IWCA, and the Morning Star on one page? This was one of its major strengths. Even more so than the US site Znet, upon which ukwatch was basically modelled, it included contributions from a very broad range of the left.

    However, because it functioned as an aggregator of opinions from the UK left, ukwatch unavoidably reflected the current priorities, interests, and shape of the left as it stands. This was not a failing insofar as it was an inevitable outcome of the nature of the site. There’s certainly a place for such a site – ukwatch was a useful resource and I frequently came across interesting material there.

    But such a site does rather reinforce the status quo as regards the left’s orientation, something we argue is one of the biggest problems the left has to overcome. On the other hand, another problem we have found is that there is a real dearth of good material analysing strategic issues facing the left. Therefore the aggregator form of ukwatch seems a little incompatible with addressing these questions, if that was an aim. Perhaps you could have ukwatch 2.0 as a more tightly-focussed site, with less material from elsewhere and more original articles on the kinds of questions you think are pertinent?

    Good look with the prospective relaunch and thanks for your comment.

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