A chance to reshape the left?

Submitted by Anon on 10 December, 2006 - 6:38

By Kate Ahrens, LRC Steering Committee

JOHN McDonnell's campaign for Labour leader is the first venture in a long while to raise the banner of the political left on a large and public scale.

Since 1998 the leftish element inside the Labour Party has, for setpiece purposes, called itself "Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance". More widely, of course, the Labour Party now names itself "centre-left", rather than "left", or claims to "go beyond traditional divisions of left and right", as do many greenie radicals.

"Left" has become a dangerous word. This is the first time since Tony Benn and Eric Heffer won 11.4% and 9.5% (respectively) in an attempt to unseat Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley from the Labour leadership in 1988 that the
Left is standing up openly and saying that it positively wants to create danger for the Right and the entrenched interests of privilege.

The ebbing of the left since the 1980s is nothing unprecedented. The history of the labour movement is full of defeats as well as victories. It will continue that way until we overthrow capitalism. Some defeats, or accumulations of defeats, throw us back a long way. The left and the labour movement recover. But it can take time.

In the first half of the 19th century, British workers created the first mass political labour movement in the world, the Chartists. Despite tremendous mobilisations, it suffered setbacks, and, eventually, a humiliating, quiet defeat in 1848, which ended it as a mass movement.

For decades afterwards, "Chartists" were mostly older people who kept the faith and maintained links through small meetings and small newspapers. Bronterre O'Brien, the nearest to a Marxist in the old Chartist movement, lived until 1864, though disabled by illness in his last years. The "Owenites", the first large socialist movement in Britain, sustained their paper The Reasoner until 1860.

A few individuals became living links between the old Chartism and the new socialism and mass trade-unionism which eventually emerged in the mid and late 1880s.

Benjamin Lucraft, for example, was an 1840s Chartist; chair of the last Chartist convention in 1858; then an activist alongside Karl Marx in the First International, in the late 1860s; the first independent working-class representative elected onto the London School Board, in 1870; and active in the labour movement until his death in 1897.

In the 1850s Marx and Engels thought that left revival in Britain would take the form of a renewal of Chartism. As late as 1882, Engels could describe a series of articles he'd written as an attempt "to pick up the threads of the old Chartist movement".

In fact, when a new Left emerged, it drew on the lessons of Chartism, but was not at all a replica. The sections of the working class now in the lead were new (matchworkers: their industry, in England, dated from 1862; gasworkers: the big gasworks in East London dated from 1870; docks: the steamship docks dated from 1855). The handloom weavers and craft workers who had been central to the Chartist movement scarcely existed any more.

Our position today is shaped by the defeat of the Left of the 1960s and '70s. Around us, we can see a new Left beginning to emerge. As in the 1880s, building on older experience is vital; as in the 1880s, the new Left is not and cannot be a re-run of the previous generations.

From the 1930s through to the 1970s, the Left was mis-shaped by the huge distorting force of Stalinism. There were always lots of leftists who were not full Stalinists, but mostly even their thought was shaped by the idea that the Stalinist USSR, China, Cuba, and so on, whatever their faults, were at least some crude form of "post-capitalist society". The uncompromising "Third Camp" socialists, who counterposed working-class struggle both to western capitalism and to Stalinism, were a small minority, and by the 1960s a very bedraggled and battered one.

When the left expanded rapidly around 1968, many of the new radicals became Maoists - maverick-Stalinists. Even the would-be Trotskyists had had many of their ideas bent out of shape by the magnetic field of Stalinism. Many of the great opportunities for the Left in the 1960s and '70s were missed through sectism and ultra-leftism.

The trajectory dipped from lost opportunities to outright defeat in 1979-85. The fiasco of the 1974-9 Labour government's last years, and the shock of Thatcherism, generated a big Labour left mobilisation focused around Labour democracy. That failed, ultimately, because it was unable to translate into an accompanying mobilisation to democratise the trade unions. Too many of the Labour activists were willing to take the left-talking union leaders at face value; too many leftists active in the unions neglected the political battle, or even the battles inside the union structures, saying that workplace direct action was all that mattered.

The Labour left of the early 1980s also generated a big left surge in local government. Defeats there set us back, as all defeats do; transformed thousands of people from class-struggle activists into managers of the local state; and eventually played a big role in the culminating defeat, the defeat of the miners' strike in 1984-5.

If the leftists who led local councils in 1984-5 - Militant (now Socialist Party) in Liverpool, Ken Livingstone in London - had fought the Tories head-on, instead of going for rotten compromises as they did, then that second front, alongside the miners, could have overwhelmed the Tories.

In the event, the left councils, and the miners, went down to defeat separately. John McDonnell himself first became politically prominent at that time, as the deputy leader of the Greater London Council who resisted Ken Livingstone's choice for rotten compromise, and was sacked for doing so.

The defeat of 1984-5, followed as it was by huge economic restructurings which swept away or shrivelled whole industries previously central to the labour movement, set the frame for the rise of Blairism. It did not happen all at once, or without resistance, but it happened.

Now a new left is beginning to emerge. Our job is to understand and be sensitive to what's new about it; to take into the lessons of past struggles, including the negative lessons from the influence of Stalinism; and to tie together the threads.

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