Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Moving beyond the sect

Posted by Left Luggage on May 29, 2009

Our essential reading for the weekend is a new article by The Commune’s Dave Spencer which aims to draw some lessons from his decades of experience with far-left groups. It’s a little heavy on obscure and now obsolete sects, but at its core is a searing analysis of the problems of vanguardist parties and the Left’s methods of organising in general:

A key feature of the failed politics of the Left is its aping of the hierarchical and adversarial politics of the bourgeoisie. Without exception the parties and groups on the Left were and are bureaucratic. They conduct policy-making in a Machiavellian manner, doing deals behind the backs of the members. Internally their regimes are undemocratic and characterised by bullying and the use of personal abuse. Our politics has to be the opposite — open and democratic and comradely. This will not be easy because we are not used to it. We have to make a conscious effort.

This is not just a broadside against easy targets, however, but an attempt to highlight examples of where the Left has been effective in organising and how these efforts have been stifled and why. He contrasts the creative and effective developments initiated by grassroots working class members with the centralising tendencies of party leaderships, which too often moved to shut down activities that were not within their control. He first cites the Socialist Labour League (SLL) which, working through the Labour Party, organised social events for working class youngsters, a strategy initiated by young SLL members in Wigan that apparently met with some success:

The way the SLL achieved this was by getting University students to go into Council Estates to organise weekly discos and weekly meetings for the youth of the area. Delegates from the youth groups were then sent into their local constituency Labour Parties.

Next he cites the case of the International Socialists (IS) in the late 1960s, before the organisation became the Socialist Workers’ Party in the early 1970s. Within this group a fraction called Workers’ Fight began to produce industrial bulletins to hand out to workers at particular factories, adopting this idea from a French group:

We used to produce fortnightly bulletins which were handed out at particular factory gates on both the day shift and the night shift, to both shop floor and office staff. Once a week there would be a paper sale at the factory gates as well. The bulletin itself consisted of one sheet of A4 with comment on topical political events on one side and comment on what was happening in the factory on the other. Naturally we needed contacts in the factory to get information and to discuss what went into the bulletin. At least once a fortnight a meeting of a factory fraction of IS members and contacts would discuss the next bulletin and how to produce and distribute it.

This initiative spread throughout the party and was relatively successful. But Dave said this initiative came to an end when an internal struggle led to the banning of internal fractions, the expulsion of the Workers’ Fight group and the closure of the party’s internal bulletin.

Finally, he cites the case of the Labour Party in ther 1980s where independent socialists had the freedom to organise at constituency level. He gives examples of the Left’s approach to local working class people in Coventry: doing house-to-house surveys, directly addressing problems raised by residents, arranging social events, etc. Dave criticises the role of Militant, the Trotskyist group within Labour at the time which later became the Socialist Party, accusing it of sectarianism and of operating with top-down control.

He also mentions briefly other organising strategies, including setting up pub gigs in Coventry for working class youngsters, and having stalls at car boot sales with the Socialist Labour Party during its 1997 general election campaign.

Learning the lessons

Dave’s account gives some very useful insights. His best experiences as a Left activist were when activity was grassroots led. It was then too that it connected best with working class people and was most effective. Furthermore, actions that were focussed on meeting the immediate needs of the working class, whether providing social activities for young people, communicating with factory workers directly by discussing issues at their workplace, or addressing community problems as local Labour Party members, overwhelmingly had the best results.

At the same time, hierarchical and bureaucratic parties more often stifled such efforts rather than aiding them. Sectarian concerns and the tendency of the leadership of professional revolutionaries to assert their control often meant negating the efforts of ordinary members, setting up a master and disciple dynamic that is all too familiar. This process in most cases resulted in the gulf between activists and the working class widening, as activity became focussed on issues of interest to the party rather than ordinary people’s concerns. A lack of democracy also had an alienating effect on many members, causing them to drift away from Left politics altogether.

But how to move beyond the era of the sect? One thing that Dave’s article emphasises is the preponderance of far-left groups, their sectarianism, and their relative ineffectiveness. At present the Left is almost consumed by its own ineptitude. One criticism levelled at Left Luggage when we established this website was that there was no point in trying to change the Left, it was a lost cause. The more one considers the insights Dave provides and the continuing failure to break out of the sectarian mould, the more credibility such claims have. Can a Left that is made up of a multitude of mostly small, largely undemocratic sects find a new direction? Can such groups be turned around and reoriented by their memberships towards reengaing with working class people?

If not, what’s left? One possibility we have flagged up before is the multitude of community organisations and campaign groups that have sprung up in the past decade, many filling the vacuum left locally by Labour’s abandonment of the working class. Many are not explicitly political, but could provide a basis for new forms of working class self-organisation to regenerate outside the despair-inducing milieu of far-left sects.

Dave suggests returning to and engaging critcally with the original sources of Marxism and Leninism to rebuild our theory. But will we find the answers to our organising strategies now so desperately needed therein? I would argue that Dave’s experiences outlined here provide a clearer path for today than we are likely to find in Marx and Lenin’s writings. It’s not just a case of “doing what works”; clearly we need theory. But theory is in a dynamic relationship with action and, in terms of action, as Dave’s article highlights, the way forward – if not the organisational vehicle – could not be clearer.

2 Responses to “Moving beyond the sect”

  1. Bob Morris said

    Another major problem is the party usually has split purposes. You can’t effectively build a genuine mass organization when your real objective is to recruit for the party. A emphasis on recruiting means the moderates will be pushed out and the focus will be on appealing to the far left fringe only. And you can’t build a mass organization that way. In fact, by such tactics, you’ve insured that you can never do that.

  2. modernityblog said

    John Sullivan has plenty of examples as well


    You are right when you say:

    “At present the Left is almost consumed by its own ineptitude. “

    Combined, I would argue, with an almost complete lack of self-awareness and sense of history.

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