Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

What Left?

Posted by Left Luggage on June 7, 2009

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine recently, in which he questioned Left Luggage’s strategy. He asked why we direct our arguments towards the section of the Left populated by groups whose names contain the word “Socialist…” or “Workers’…”, rather than towards much larger groups involved in global justice, human rights or environmental campaigns. He acknowledged that the latter groups were not explicitly socialist (or often even left wing) in orientation, but argued that they were preferable to the groups we currently address in a number of ways.

Firstly, he argued that these groups had far more members and supporters than the openly socialist groups, even if most of those members were middle class. This, he said, gave the “soft Left” a greater reach than the “hard Left”, and a greater potential for influence.

The second argument was that the soft Left was far more internally democratic than the hard Left, and less attached to the kinds of symbols, slogans and dogma that might put ordinary people off. These two advantages make the soft Left better able to launch creative campaigns that capture the attention of the public, he claimed.

My friend felt that the involvement of the soft Left in environmental and global justice campaigns was proof of their progressive values, and suggested that it might be a strategic error to ignore such a numerically significant and (potentially) influential demographic.

These are all fair points, but after considering them I came up with some reasons for the fact that we don’t make a special effort to address the soft Left.

1) Most groups on the soft Left are middle class both in composition and orientation.

That isn’t to say that many avowedly socialist groups and parties don’t have a predominantly middle class membership (indeed, many are almost exclusively middle class). Nor is the argument that middle class people are incapable of becoming involved in a socialist movement.

The crucial point is that the soft Left lacks an orientation towards the working class, and does not see any special reason to appeal to working class people. Take environmental groups. At best, environmentalists might try to convince working class people of their arguments because they realise that campaigns need a degree of mass support to be successful. However, green groups do not apply this strategy where working class support is not required, or where it is easier or more expedient to appeal to other sections of the population. Another friend of mine who works for a major environmental pressure group bemoaned that fact that his employer showed interest in community groups campaigning against airport expansion only for as long as it needed such groups, then abandoned them once they failed to achieve their aim.

The soft Left often deliberately addresses itself towards middle class people, who generally have greater political and financial power than their less affluent equivalents. This is true for ethical living and fair trade movements, as well as for human rights groups like Amnesty International.

Now, it is certainly true that some groups on the hard Left court middle class support. Nevertheless, at least at the level of theory and rhetoric, there is a commitment to campaigns lead by and for working class people. This is not just because working class people constitute the overwhelming majority, or because they are the “most exploited class”. Rather, working class workplace and community campaigns are an end in themselves because they increase the confidence and develop the political consciousness of working class people, who are (in the final analysis) the only class capable of bringing about long term, radical social change. This brings me to the second reason for not concentrating on the soft Left…

2) The leadership and membership of soft Left groups often has an understanding of how social change is achieved that differs profoundly from that of socialists.

A while ago, we featured a flyer for a meeting organised by a “radical” environmental protest group that contained the following sentence:

Climate change is the most urgent challenge we’ve ever faced – and politicians are not showing the strength of character needed to actually address this problem.

The assumption here appears to be that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed primarily through government action, and that lack of “strength of character” is to blame for the absence of such action. Those who hold such assumptions are likely to organise campaigns that focus on lobbying political elites rather than building mass campaigns for their own sake. Mass campaigns might be used, but often as a stepping stone towards closer contact with elites. Make Poverty History is a prime (arguably extreme) example of such a strategy. While we wouldn’t want to over-generalise about the politics of environmental or global justice groups, there is undoubtedly a good deal more faith in elites among those on the soft Left than among convinced socialists, and a good deal less commitment to building mass movements.

3) Even if it were possible to convince large numbers of soft Left activists of the value of working class community and workplace self organisation, due to their social position they would often be poorly placed to implement such a strategy.

The global justice and environmental NGO sector is notoriously competitive, and although I’m unaware of any detailed study on the matter it seems to me that a huge majority of workers in this sector are upper middle class. Judging from electoral support for the Green Party, the main centres of support for environmentalism are in young middle class areas of cities like Brighton and gentrified inner city areas of London like Stoke Newington and New Cross Gate. For these reasons, activists and supporters of the soft Left are unlikely to be in the best position to build links in working class communities.

There are a wealth of problems with the cluster of parties and groupuscules that now constitute the British far-Left. It is certainly true that radical environmental and global justice groups often have more democratic ways of operating than some Leninist sects. We also agree that the attachment some groups have to certain words, symbols and doctrines is unhealthy and unhelpful. Nevertheless, we don’t hold out much hope of the soft Left becoming the nucleus of a new socialist movement in Britain.

We would not want to deny the importance of the rise of social movements concerned with environmental, global justice and human rights issues. Sections of British society that were once bastions of reaction now provide the active support for broadly progressive movements. I recently spoke to a friend who lives in a very affluent area of Cumbria that had returned a Conservative candidate since the constituency was created, until 2005 when the Lib Dems won a shock victory. The area now has a thriving environmental and global justice scene, and groups such Christian Aid and the World Development Movement are very active. Large numbers of elderly residents made the journey to the huge anti-war demonstration in February 2003. There is no doubt that sections of the middle class have changed, and are changing still. But such changes (while welcome) show no prospect of feeding into a mood of resistance to the ongoing attack on the British working class. There is no reason to suppose that middle class people who oppose the bombing of Palestinian civilians or the building of coal-fired power stations will be as active in opposing the privatisation by stealth of the NHS or mass lay offs in manufacturing.

The experience of the US shows how a vibrant, but overwhelmingly middle class, progressive movement can coexist with a political culture that obscures class division and economic exploitation. America also shows us the consequences, as large numbers of working class people are alienated from liberalism and attracted to the Christian Right.

Sections of the hard Left may be associated with some fairly unpleasant and authoritarian ideologies. But as long as the soft Left remains middle class in composition, outlook and orientation, it will remain blighted by the shortcomings of middle class liberalism.

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4 Responses to “What Left?”

  1. Jon said

    Surely we should be aiming to organise with the economic working class? This would include the social middle class, most of whom are in shit exploitative work. I dont think we need choose between (the social) middle or working class to organise with.

    In a campaign, for example, against school closures, It wouldn’t make sense to refuse to organise with socially middle class families, or for working class and middle class schools to not fight the cuts together.

    Also, the social middle class is actually the larger demographic in the UK, so it doesnt make tactical sense to only organise with the social working class.

    Clearly, socially middle class people lack class consciousness – but that is also a problem with working class people too. What is needed is to show everyone who is a wage labourer in our society that they have the same interests – and that the bosses and politicians have different interests, in opposition to ours.

    These definitions are always a bit clumsy, but I think we should re-emphasise the hard left, definition of working class. I think it will be more useful.

  2. Hi Jon,

    To clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t try to organise the whole of the working class (which, as you’ve pointed out, includes people who are socially / culturally middle class). The article was intended to be a justification for why Left Luggage doesn’t specifically try to appeal to members of what I called the soft Left. It’s a question of how best to use the resources that we have, and the argument is that we would end up expending more time and energy for less reward if we targetted the soft Left.

    I’m interested in the suggestion that more people are culturally middle class than culturally working class. I’m not at all sure I agree with this. I’m also not sure that our task is as simple as pointing out to middle and working class people that they have common interests against the bosses. There are significant divisions between (culturally) middle and working class people, and there are many ways in which these two groups have interests that are opposed. Take education. It may well be the case that middle and working class people would ultimately benefit from an egalitarian system of education, but at the moment sections of the middle class do very well out of a system which maintains class privilege through selection, funding, higher house prices in “good” catchment areas etc.

    In any case, a campaign which tries to obscure divisions between working and middle class people is vulnerable to the use of “wedge” issues by the right, where appeals are made to the working class over cultural / moral issues, rather than economics. This tactic has, of course, been perfected by the Republican right in America.

    Left Luggage

  3. […] organizing possibilities between the doctrinaire hard left and the broader-based soft left. The experience of the US shows how a vibrant, but overwhelmingly middle class, progressive movement can coexist with a […]

  4. matt d said

    I think there is definately a logic to your friend’s suggestion, but as Jon said it is the working class we should be orienting ourselves to – and Left Luggage among other groups currently rethinking our strategies and activities already know that.

    It makes sense to engage with existing social movements, the last thing we want to do is adopt an abstenionist position, but we need to ask ourselves do these movements offer us the space to engage with working class people who are either in conflict, or at least pushing for progressive social change? I would argue that the trade union movement for all it’s flaws is one worth working in wherever possible, Christian Aid for all the good work they may do is not.

    With anything though, it only makes sense to get involved with a plan for what you want to get out of it.
    Do you want to go in to recruit to your organisation or ideas? Or do you want to in to assist in building a combatative movement that can increase working class self confidence, organisation, and the ability to win?

    If we assess social movements and progressive organisations on these criteria I suspect many of those your friend was talking about will not meet our needs.

    Whatever though, it is essential that alongside this engagement we are promoting our tactics and ideas among the class itself outside and beyond any existing social or political formations.

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