Regrouping and building the AWL
Resolves from DB344
Use Solidarity, website and social media to promote general ideas of rational democratic-minded Marxism based on working-class interests and independent organisations. Continue to focus our branch work and student work on establishing regular public activity: public meetings, campus meetings, public sales. Office resources is likely to be centred on helping to support this work, following up interested people and building our national events.
To produce a regular paper, weekly if we can secure sufficient staffing, supplemented by audio version, videos, pamphlets, and to develop our social media, e.g. setting up a social media team for promotion.
Aim to expand our staff at the office by at least one extra person (FT equivalent) and to put efforts into fund-raising to make that happen.
Raise the tempo of purposeful local political activities which will be focused on (but not confined to) supporting and building interventions into anti-Brexit work (AEIP, LFSE, LCFM), and helping to establish a broad student activist group.
Continue with an elected industrial committee which will develop the politics of our work, support all fractions (with a particular focus on strike solidarity and other activity through PCS) and FOU and organise regular industrial schools.
Set up an AWL committee to support our work around climate change across the unions and student groups and organise a Marxist ecology conference early in 2020.
Aim to establish a "Two states in Israel-Palestine" campaign.
Develop Labour Party work including getting expelled comrades readmitted, intervening into Young Labour, setting up political caucuses (e.g. around climate work) where possible, regular motions.
We note as background to the election results on December 12, 2019 the serious decline of social democratic parties in other European states such as France and Germany which have been in part due to losses in ‘post-industrial’ regions which have traditionally voted for them. Though skewed by the British voting system, Labour’s loss of 60 seats, which enabled the Tory victory, has largely occurred in the areas of the North of England and Midlands that have been traditional Labour ‘heartlands‘. This has occurred as a result of the decline in jobs that formed the basis for traditional labour solidarity, a consequent decline in labour movement institutions rooted in local communities, an ageing population and a feeling of neglect. The origins of Labour’s decline in these areas goes back well before Corbyn became leader or the Brexit referendum. Rather than Brexit being the cause of it, the votes for leave in these areas is rather a symptom of the same factors.
This is a reflection of a more general problem. The labour movement is weak because of 40 years of neoliberalism, of a ruling-class attack against the institutions of our movement, because of the atomisation of the working-class and the removal of the labour movement as a source of hope and a better future. The leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions has done little to turn its organisations towards addressing this problem.
#1. More immediate reasons Labour lost on December 12 were:
In the first place is not the natural party of government under capitalism.
For it to win usually requires that the Tories have discredited themselves even with their own supporters, or that a sizeable chunk of the ruling class sees Labour as an acceptable fallback (or even preferable, as in 1964 and 1997), or both.
For Labour to win when it is proposing a program beyond what sizeable chunks of the ruling class see as prudent reforms, it needs a grass-roots movement that is organisationally and politically capable of breaking through the imbalance of resources, media bias, bourgeois ideological hegemony, unfair electoral system and other strong factors against it.
Labour was unable to generate such a movement because of failings during the last five years, and because of more serious failings in the previous decades which had steadily eroded its working-class base.
Specifically since 2017:
• The group round the Leader's Office failed to convince voters that it was serious and reliable about the left-wing policies it proposed in the manifesto.
• The party was not organised to debate and educate and argue for those policies over the necessary months and years (rather than just days).
• The leadership attempted no overall socialist message which the policies were tied into. They were a miscellany of good ideas, presented sometimes as radical change, sometimes as just bringing Britain closer to the European norm.
• Over five years since 2015, the group around Corbyn did not help the new mass membership created by the 2015-6 influx to become a campaigning force on the streets and in the workplaces and to rebuild roots among the worst-off.
• It hadn't even used its support among young people to build open and active youth and student movements.
• There had been no broad revival or rejuvenation in workplace-level trade unionism, and the Labour leadership did essentially nothing to promote such revival or rejuvenation.
• Since 2017 and until the actual election campaign, the Labour leadership had largely reduced its "anti-austerity" message to complaints about cuts to the police and occasional tired scare stories about Tory intentions on the NHS.
• On the hot political issues where it could not avoid saying something, Brexit and antisemitism, Labour was evasive, and seen to be evasive.
• Where voters could see Labour "in action", i.e. mostly in the activity of Labour councils, it was conservative, uncombative, and managerial, or worse.
#1a. A compounding factor is that the consequences of the Momentum "coup" in early 2017, which shut down political life and debate within Momentum, have led to the paradox that in a much bigger Labour Party, with a broadly leftish membership, there is less of an organised broad Labour left (with real life) than maybe even in the Blair years.
#1b. The story that "Labour lost the working-class vote in 2019" is false. There has been a decay in the ligaments connecting the labour movement with the working class over decades now.
The special thing about 2019 in that regard is that the opportunities given by the big influx into the Labour Party after 2015 to renew some of those ligaments were not taken.
In terms of votes, the big fact of 2019 was that the Tories managed to scoop up and channel the "Brexit vote" which at other terms has been dispersed to Ukip, the Brexit party, etc. There are evidently some sections of working-class people - at the core, sections of older white men in declining smaller towns where union organisation was shattered decades ago - who have been won to Tory voting on the Brexit issue. There is a parallel with the sections of working-class people, over many decades, who voted Tory for religious reasons, but this rallying is shallower than the religious rallying.
We do not really know the reasons why there is now such a steep age gradient in voting patterns. We do know that equating "the working class" with "older white male workers and retired people in declining smaller towns" is false. The labour movement needs to renew connections with the working class in all its diversity.
#1c. As we recognised in the main document on Regrouping, "profit from the discredit for mainstream, established neoliberal politics since 2008 has mainly gone to right-wing 'identitarian' politicians…
"Paradoxically, this rise of illiberal right-wing policies - and adaptation to it by self-ascribed leftists - comes simultaneously with a low-temperature drift to more liberal and 'social' attitudes [in public opinion]. The right-wing demagogues have succeeded by cohering and dynamising minorities".
That is true with Johnson and Brexit in Britain, too. Labour would have lost some votes on the Brexit issue more or less whatever it did. Labour's inept and evasive response made the losses greater, and made it more difficult to secure compensating gains.
#1d. In the wake of the election defeat, the old David Miliband cry about Labour turning to "community organising" has revived, including on the left.
We should indeed be concerned with neighbourhood-level activism, and have been (private-sector renters' organisations, campaigns over benefits, campaigns against cuts or privatisation in local government, health, and schools). On the whole those have sagged in the last couple of years. We cannot at will create big campaigns of that sort, but we should be constantly attentive to and active in the campaigns that do emerge.
When Labour leftists talk about "community organising", we talk with them about that sort of campaigning - geared to self-organisation of the worse-off - and about workplace organising, rather than quasi-charitable activity (e.g. running local food banks).
#2. The arrival of a Tory government, with a purged and more right-wing Tory party, and a clear majority, is a serious defeat. The left and the labour movement have been set back.
There is no guarantee that the political economy and labour movement of the post-war period will return; we must build a movement that articulates the needs of the contemporary working-class. To recover from this defeat requires the labour movement to campaign and organise around issues that can draw Labour supporters into activity outside election times and can begin to rebuild a dynamic and combative movement that will both resist the Tories’ attacks and serve as a pole of attraction to bring new people into labour movement activity. This turning outwards and rebuilding of labour movement organisation is a precondition of future electoral success as well as beginning to reverse long-term decline.
#3. To recognise the defeat is right and necessary. To see it as already consolidated is wrong and defeatist.
Johnson's stated Brexit policy is unworkable. He is regarded as an unreliable charlatan by the bulk of the ruling class, and they will put pressure on him, creating divisions among our enemies. We should not assume in advance that he will get everything his own way, or even know what his "own way" is.
The end of 2019 saw two big and continuing industrial disputes - South Western Railway and UCU - and still-brewing moves towards the biggest industrial battle for many years, in Royal Mail. The latest available official statistics on industrial stoppages (to October 2019) show no upward trend. Maybe those three big disputes are exceptions in a continuing stagnant trend. Even if so, they are big exceptions. And, with unemployment reduced for some time and even the Tories feeling under pressure to increase legal minimum wages, the three disputes may quite possibly be the start of a new trend.
On the precedent of 1983, it is not definite, indeed not even probable, that even the most undesirable new Labour leader will want to or be able to close down Labour Party life, or that the leftish Labour activists arrived since 2015 will vanish en masse.
There is an outside possibility that even an undesirable new Labour leader will decide that they need proper Labour youth and student movements.
On the Labour left, at least a larger minority will realise that "back Corbyn and hope" cannot be the answer, and will be open to rethinking.
We made a bigger impact at Labour conference in 2019 than for a long time, maybe even more than in any year in the 1980s. We are well-known enough that Stalinoid-minded people in the Labour Party blame our influence for the 12 December defeat, and informed commentators see the battle in the Labour left as between Trotskyist-influenced and Stalinist-influenced currents, with us as the main Trotskyists.
Full regrouping text from DB344 (as amended)
1. Regrouping an internationalist, democratic, and class-struggle left
Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader in 2015 brought together a left which previously had been atomised and ‘on the back foot’.
Over the four years since, that left has become dominated in many areas by older ‘returners’. Their politics were formed in the 1970s and 80s and decayed since then by decades of inactivity or marginal activity. Most are economically comfortable. This carries Stalinoid and ‘kitsch-left’ baggage. The staffing of the Labour Leader’s Office also has this baggage.
The weight of this has stalled the development of the left that was revived by the ‘Corbyn surge’. That left has not generated a culture of, or channels for, debate and education.
The Labour leadership has failed to oppose Brexit, and the Labour Leader’s Office has doggedly resisted conceding that ‘absolute anti-Zionism’ is unacceptable. These failures have, however, generated a small milieu of Marxist, Trotskyist and left social democratic opposition. This is represented in overlapping networks through Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a Socialist Europe, Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Socialists Against Anti-Semitism - and, to their right, Left 2030 and Open Labour.
There are a good many others around the labour movement and around student activism and climate activism who will be interested in that opposition if they can see it as an active option. However, they are currently atomised and often unable to see channels for activity.
This left needs to clarify the political lessons of the last ten years of austerity, and the mis-steps of the Corbyn movement. Bigger political issues underpin those debates:
- the limitations of social democracy
- the renewed influence of Stalinism
- the fight to make Labour an independent workers′ party (which opposes ‘progressive alliances’ with the Liberal Democrats)
- consistent democracy on international questions
- the importance of democratic culture.
Over the coming years, we need to work for a new left, a new selection and regroupment of the left, on the principles of internationalism, democracy, class struggle, and orientation to workers.
We are seeking discussions on this now. However limited their immediate results, these will help shape longer-term and more solid political regroupment.
- continue these discussions
- explore the possibilities of new international link-ups along these lines
- argue that a new left of that sort is important to rally the broader labour movement adequately for the coming battles against the rising forces of the hard right and the far right.
Strengthening the AWL, making ourselves more vigorous and active, is the axis for all such activity. No-one else will do it for us.
Explaining that we are working to build AWL not just as a sideline think-tank or discussion circle, but as the axis of regrouping of the left, will help convince people to join us and strengthen that axis.
2. World economy after 2008
The capitalist world economy crashed in 2008. Big aftershocks followed in 2011-12 (Eurozone) and Brazil (2014-6). In recent years economic recovery has been more or less widespread, and, in the USA anyway, unusually long-lived.
But sluggish. Labour productivity in the US grew on average 1.0% per year 2009-19: compare 2.8% per year 2000-2007 (bit.ly/fred-pr). The UK's figures are worse.
From World War 2 through to 2008, world trade almost always grew much faster than world output. No longer. In 1960 the total of world imports and exports was 24% of world output; by 2008 it had risen to 61%; by 2017 it had fallen to 58% (bit.ly/wb-t-gdp). The relative stagnation predates the recent US-China trade jousting.
Capitalist governments dealt with the 2008 crash by some emergency "socialism for the rich", plus financial expedients ("printing money", pushing official interest rates low, "quantitative easing"). Those measures fixed none of the background to the 2008 crash, and have little to offer for the next crash.
Trump claims that the US economy is at its "best ever". It surely isn't. US GDP per capita has been rising, and unemployment falling, fairly steadily since 2011. But the latest, with Trump, is signs of slowdown and, for example, black unemployment beginning to rise.
Global inequality figures show a decrease, because incomes in China and India have risen faster than the world average; but within countries, on the whole, inequality has increased since 2008.
That is a continuation of a trend since 1980: between 1980 and 2016, the bottom 50% took 12% of the global growth of income, and the top 1% took 27% (bit.ly/wir-80-16).
With privatisation, stocks of public wealth have declined sharply. Private wealth (and thus income from wealth rather than labour) has increased relative to total income; and private wealth has become more unequally distributed (bit.ly/wir-80-16).
In the UK, the result for recent years varies according to what measure of inequality you choose, but without question the best-off have been doing better than low-paid workers and people heavily reliant on working-age benefits.
"Statutory" homelessness in the UK rose 42% between 2009 and 2017-8. Both that measure, and "rough sleeping", may have levelled off recently, but the roll-out of Universal Credit, and other benefit changes, threaten to raise them again.
Financial asset prices have been ballooning out of proportion to real-economy prices (bit.ly/fred-f-r, bit.ly/bis-db). This is one of the standard (though not infallible) signals of a coming crash.
The next crash could compound itself by tipping the tentative US-China trade jousting into trade wars. China has avoided recession since 2008 at the price of ballooning debt levels in its economy and slower growth. It is less likely to escape the next world crash.
As this is written Boris Johnson is pushing for a general election under the threat of ignoring the Benn Act which will trigger an extension of Article 50 and delaying of Brexit. We are in a proxy general election period and are starting our campaign to support and build Labour for Socialist Europe — arguing for Remain and for socialist policies, getting out on the streets with stalls and leafleting.
What we can do now to help Labour Parties and activists overcome the obstacle of Labour′s continued ambiguity and illogical position on Brexit and, for now, refusal to back conference policy on free movement, will help to push back against the broader right-wing political drift.
Success in pushing Labour to offer a new public vote on Brexit is the result of tenacious campaigning and we should draw the lessons from that fact.
A longer amendment to this section of the document will be brought to conference once we know more of the results of these political battles.
4. Union movements and strikes
The labour movements, generally, met the 2008 crash in poor shape. They had suffered material and moral attrition in the decades of neoliberalism.
There were grassroots "social movement" responses following the crash, most notably the Arab Spring, which mostly was defeated but now has follow-on in Sudan and Algeria. Where unions were fully involved, in Tunisia, the longer-term outcome of the revolt has been better. There was the Occupy movement, and the social-democratic surges with Sanders and Corbyn. Climate activism, which declined after the setback at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, has revived recently with the school students' strikes and other mobilisations.
Yet the crunch years brought setbacks for workers, and they have been continued or not reversed in recovery years. Generally levels of disputes and strikes have been low.
France has the world's highest rate of striker-days per 1000 workers, five times as high over 2007-16 as the UK's, but even in France strike rates have trended downwards, except for a spike with strikes against Sarkozy's pension measures in 2010.
The UK's current rate is very low.
But in none of the big economies have labour movements been crushed; and there are two contrasts to the poor general picture.
In the USA, though striker-days are still way down on rates before 1981, and union membership numbers stagnate, 2018's figure was the highest since 2004, and 2016's was one of the highest. Health, education, and social assistance have become the main areas for strikes (over half the total of "major" stoppages in 2009-18: bit.ly/us-st).
In China, despite there being no legal independent workers' movement, and no real right to strike, strikes spiked in 2010 and have resumed an increasing trend since 2011: bit.ly/st-ch. Those strikes have decreased in big manufacturing, which itself now has declining worker-numbers, and increased in smaller-scale enterprises, in the service sector, construction and transport, involving protests over lay-offs and unpaid wages. Unionising work, though necessarily ″underground″, continues (bit.ly/2Zzqtbh)
There is a race on, to determine whether unions can use the current relative recovery to develop capacities to deal with the next crash. Union officialdom in Britain is scarcely even dawdling.
In the UK union membership has risen slightly since the low of 6.23 million in 2016 (6.35 million in 2018, including an increase of 149,000 in public sector members in that year, though union density is still sagging 24.7% 2015, 23.3% 2017, 23.4% 2018). As UK strikes of the last decade have been concentrated in the public sector, dips and peaks there strongly shape the overall strike figures. The exception to this pattern is the transport sector, where strikes have taken place at a consistent level since 2008, but were relatively high in 2017 and have been relatively low so far this year. In some sectors (Food and Retail for example) there are next to no strikes.
5. Decay of mainstream consensus politics, mainly to the benefit of the right
Profit from the discredit for mainstream, established neoliberal politics since 2008 has mainly gone to right-wing "identitarian" politicians: Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Salvini, Duterte, Orban, Netanyahu, Farage, Johnson…The short version of the reason for their success is that they have been more adaptable than factions of the centre and "centre-left" in combining use of established political machines with projecting themselves as "populist" mavericks.
They have been thin on economic measures and even on economic demagogy, but rallied support on "values" - "identitarian", nationalist, "party-of-order" basis. Thus for example the Republican Right remains buoyant in the USA despite decades of its figures, including Trump, "delivering" nothing material to its plebeian base.
Often this new right has developed support first in an apparently self-marginalising demographic - older men of the majority ethnic or religious identity in declining small towns. But often it has been able to build on that initial base to win support among younger, female, and big-city people.
It draws on antagonism to the abstract, depersonalised workings of global capitalism. Its success is the flipside of failings by the labour movement to develop and popularise "big ideas" to explicate those workings and propose action against them.
6. Mass opinion
Paradoxically, this rise of illiberal right-wing politics - and adaptation to it by self-ascribed leftists - comes simultaneously with a low-temperature drift to more liberal and "social" attitudes. The right-wing demagogues have succeeded by cohering and dynamising minorities.
A 62%-28% majority in Trump's USA of 2019 see immigrants as a plus, whereas in Clinton's USA of 1994 a 63%-37% majority saw immigrants as a "burden" (pewrsr.ch/us-mig). The percentage "religiously unaffiliated" in the USA tripled from the early 1990s (8%) to 24% (2016) and stands at 38% among 18-29 year olds (bit.ly/us-rel). 47% in an April 2019 said they would vote for a "socialist" candidate for president (bit.ly/glp-soc). Awareness of and wish for action against climate change has risen, not fallen, in the USA (natgeo.com/us-cc).
Likewise, and sharply, in Australia (bit.ly/cc-au), despite the "climate election" of May 2019 being won by the right-winger Scott Morrison ("coal won't hurt you").
In Britain, assent to same-sex relations as "not wrong at all" has risen from 11% in 1987 to 69% in 2017; assent to "men should get jobs and money, women should look after homes and children" has fallen from 49% in 1987 to 9% in 2017; identification as "no religion" has risen from 31% in 1983 to 52% in 2018 (bit.ly/bsa-36). The percentage saying that there is "a lot of poverty" in Britain has risen markedly since 2006, the percentage saying that large differences of income are "acceptable" has fallen markedly since 2008.
7. Social media and politics
The period since the crash of 2008 is also a period in which the technology of politics has changed substantially.
Twitter "took off" around 2007. Facebook went into the hundreds of millions of users and towards the billions only from 2009. Smartphones became ubiquitous only from about the same time. Now most internet traffic is over smartphones rather than computers.
The technological change has created new possibilities for us. Meetings and activities can be advertised more widely and quickly over social media. (The first big anti-Brexit demonstrations in Britain after June 2016 were mobilised almost entirely through social media. We ourselves got 140 people to our London forum on Rosa Luxemburg in 2019, mostly people reached through social media who would not have known about the meeting otherwise).
Social media enable us to sustain low-intensity political communication with contacts who live at a distance or aren't ready for real-life political activities in which we'd sustain communication. The web gives us (and our contacts) access to a range of writings and archives we wouldn't previously be able to get to without winning access to specialist libraries. And there is evidence of awareness of the limitations of social media, of “savviness”. For example, a recent Ofcom report showed a bias towards low trust in news derived from social media, much higher trust in the longer written word.
Yet there are downsides. The shift to web-browsing by smartphone makes it fairly certain that reading from the web is mainly skim-reading, or reading of short snippets. The technological change has created a new sphere of communication dominated by short fragments, and fragments selected for emotional reaction rather than weight of logic or evidence.
The new technology thus creates a new sphere of thin, low-intensity, atomised, labile politics. That pool will be marginalised, or become an adjunct to better political life rather than a factor tending to push that aside, as political mobilisation rises sufficiently to impel people to read many more books and pamphlets, to attend many more meetings, to set up many more in-depth personal conversations; but it hasn't been yet.
Social media can be no substitute for real-life picket lines, demonstrations, meetings, conversations, and close-reading. In the meantime we have to understand the implications of what's happened in recent years.
In some ways it has brought regression to the days before mass literacy and mass-produced newspapers, when social and political ideas were spread mainly through individual chat, with the most limited possibilities of comparing a range of ideas, studying them closely, weighing and comparing evidence. Except that now some individual chatterers have quick access to a big range of people beyond their neighbours. And they don't have to attend meetings or do "real-life" campaigning to any large degree in order to consider themselves politically active and "in the swim", or indeed to become influential.
An example is Red London. Another and larger example: the new non-party parties: parties deliberately set up with only electronic networks, with no structured membership and with little or no deliberative democracy. These can be right-wing, explicitly "centrist", or leftish, but even the leftish ones create fewer openings for working-class self-education and self-development than even very bureaucratic structured parties.
Examples: Macron's LREM, Mélenchon's France Insoumise, Five Star, the Brexit Party. Momentum since the 2017 coup is in many ways of the same species.
The "gilets jaunes" movement in France, from late 2018, was organised primarily through social media, and that fact had considerable weight in shaping the dead-end character of what was in some ways a big and plebeian movement, with apparently social and political objectives.
The movement has had no measurable follow-on after its initial victory in getting fuel tax rises postponed. In the May 2019 European election in France, a "gilets jaunes" list got 0.54%. It is hard to see a discernible "gilets jaunes" effect in any other score, even in that of Marine Le Pen's Ralliement National, which seemed at first the most likely beneficiary.
A December 2018 survey found the main common unifying theme among "gilets jaunes" supporters to be species of conspiracy theory.
The statement "immigration is deliberately organised by our political, intellectual, and media élites so as eventually to replace the European population by an immigrant population" won the assent of 59% of those describing themselves as active "gilets jaunes", as against 13% of those describing themselves as "not gilets jaunes".
62% of those identifying as "gilets jaunes" (active or not) agreed that government and industry are conspiring to conceal the harm from vaccines (vs 24% non-GJ). Princess Diana's death was murder rather than accident: 57% GJ say yes, 19% non-GJ. There's a world Zionist conspiracy: 44% GJ, 12% non-GJ. And so on (bit.ly/jj-comp)
8. The constellation of the right
The right is accruing advances at different levels, over different timescales. These advances are unstable.
One example is changes in attitudes to social spending, in part, an attritional effect of decades of cuts. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey support for increasing taxes and spending more on health, education and social benefits fell from a stable high of between 63-65% through the 1990s up to 2002, and reduced to 32% by 2010 (i.e. during the Blairite years). But opinion has shifted again: the percentage increased to 37% in 2014 and 48% by 2016.
The right has built on ideological retreat; in the US and Europe a key policy has been “racial welfarism” — the argument that societies can have a welfare state, or immigration but not both (an idea shamefully echoed in a lower register by some on the left).
Brexit would be a powerful new victory for the right with implications beyond Britain’s borders.
In the era of digital politics, where irrational, evidence-free arguments have new ways to get traction, the right benefits. Trump′s Twitter account is a powerful outboard motor for the ideas of right-wing projects, personalities and platforms. Those groups position themselves both outside and inside the mainstream; they are boosted by the way Trump “mainstreams” their obsessions – against migrants, Muslims, the “fake news establishment”. But those obsessions and their underlying logics do creep into “real” political life and policy; for example when Trump tweets about Antifa being a terror organisation he is backing up Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy’s Senate resolution which labels Antifa “terrorists, violent masked bullies who ‘fight fascism’ with actual fascism, protected by Liberal privilege.”
The new far right in the US and Europe is a disunited, heterogeneous network of online and offline white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, nativists, men’s rights activists and anti-feminists, fundamentalist Christians, nativists, anti-Muslim bigots, homophobes, Holocaust deniers and other antisemites. It is strongest in the US, but precisely because of its ability to digitally boost itself, is difficult to quantify. Despite hundreds of thousands of retweets, there were just 5-600 far-right “activists” at Charlottesville.
The hard core of the new far right in Europe is more clearly formed around a pan-European identitarian ideology (for example Generation Identitaire in France, Germany and Austria). It is perhaps more coherent organisationally. As in the US some of its ideas are “mainstreamed” through electoral, more populist political projects.
A key idea across the spectrum, both in Europe and the US, is the ″Great Replacement″ (Grand Remplacement). This idea, which can be traced back to the 1970s, says there is a conspiracy to replace Europe’s white Christian population with Muslim immigrants. Propaganda is also directed at globalisation, and associated with the decline of Europe as a premier power; the EU project is part of that conspiracy, as it is responsible for wiping out “historic nations”.
Through this nationalist, identitarian ideology, and sometimes personal connections, these movements have links to electoral parties such as Germany’s AfD, Austria’s Freedom Party and France’s National Rally (Front National).
The Lega (Lega Nord) is now one of the most important and dangerous right nationalist-populist electoral parties. For Salvini the defence of “Christian” Europe, and attacking LGBT people and “gender ideology”, are important. His campaigns are supported by (financially and otherwise) by American ultra-conservatives.
The financial crisis and military intervention in Ukraine and elsewhere have fuelled already-existing Russian nationalism; officially, the reclaiming of Soviet glory days and whitewashing of Stalin; less mainstream, a myriad of extremist nationalist groups. The fortunes of these groups have been volatile. For example Rodina won 5.4 million votes in 2003 Legislative elections, just 800,000 in 2016.
Since the crash, the response of some leftists have mirrored the right-wing in some ways. When Adbusters, a moving force behind the US Occupy movement, brought the Rothschilds into their attack on Wall Street, kneejerk reaction to possible right-wing smears led to denialism and a categorical refusal to recognise antisemitism. This dynamic repeats in Labour’s recent crisis over antisemitism; and social media claiming antisemitism in Labour antisemitism problem is marginal or a smear have poisoned the debate.
Some leftists exploit the one-sidedness, nihilism and “anything goes” attitude of the current mood. A gleeful desire to cause offence to “liberals”, Antifa, and the “woke” (for example by the US Red Scare podcast) is nowhere near an effective alternative to the real weaknesses of identity politics. The more sinister identitarian/contrarians of Spiked have amplified their schtick by jumping in with the Brexit Party. Red London and other neo-Stalinist individuals joke about the killing of Trotsky (and by extension of hundreds of thousands of others in Stalin’s “Great Purge”). And that′s not offensive?
A strong movement for socialism, the potential for which we saw in the Corbyn surge, can still be built. But it has to reject tribalism and aim for more than reactive “anti-austerity” activism. Solid, class politics, informed by history, advanced through democratic and rational evidence-based debate, will create the left which is strong enough to beat the hate-fueled politics of this new right.
9. Social democracy
In France, the Socialist Party is (though with various "refoundings" along the way) by far the oldest of the political parties, and was the country's strongest political party from the early 1970s to 2012. It got only 6% in the presidential election of 2017 and the same (with allies) in the European election of 2019. Its membership seems to be down below 40,000.
In Netherlands, the PVDA (Labour Party) dates back, through various "refoundings", to 1881, ran at 25%-30% of the vote consistently between 1946 and 2002, still had 25% in 2012; but was down to 6% in 2017.
Usually social-democratic parties have shown little adaptability or initiative in the aftermath of 2008. There are exceptions. The PVDA recovered to 19% in the 2019 Euro-election. The Socialist Parties have recovered in Spain and Portugal. The Labour Party has recovered in Britain.
All those recoveries must be considered unstable. In Britain, with Corbyn, the recovery goes with adapting to strands of nationalist, "identitarian", social-media-oriented politics.
The "broad left" parties (Rifondazione in Italy, SSP in Scotland, etc.) hailed for a while by the Mandelites as the wave of the future (and lively and important in some countries for a while) have everywhere faded.
10. The activist and Marxist left
There has been no big rise of workplace or street struggles since 2008, nor any deep political radicalisation.
There have been enough struggles, and enough diffuse radicalisation, for the activist left to grow and to develop a stronger profile in advance of the next economic crash.
The political "machines" of the reformist left are still much bigger than us. The latest parliamentary report on Labour Party leadership political operatives paid from "Short money" (public money allocated to the opposition party) lists 125 of them. Some are on salaries over £100,000 (bit.ly/sm-list). They are the centre of a layer of politically-connected officials in unions, NGOs, MPs' offices, groups like Momentum, and so on, with good connections in the media, who number many more hundreds.
But that layer of paid officials of various sorts lacks "depth". It lacks the connecting ligaments of a network of active politically-skilled people reaching down to local and workplace level.
Not only are the "laws of history" stronger in the long term than the "bureaucratic apparatuses": a solid and energetic activist left can challenge them for the allegiance of young people newly coming into left politics even in the short term, even before any large radicalisation.
On the whole that has happened only in a very limited way since 2008. In France, where the activist left is strongest, the LO-LCR-NPA score in presidential elections has evolved from 10.0% in 2002 through 5.4% in 2007 to 1.7% in each of 2012 and 2017.
French law requires political groups to declare their income from membership subscriptions. LO's has developed from €0.9 million in 2002 to €1.1 m 2008 and the same in 2018. The LCR-NPA, from €0.6 million in 2002 to €1.3 m 2008 and €0.6 m again in 2018. (All inflation-adjusted).
In the USA, strikes have increased, generically socialist ideas have become more popular, and the nebulously-left DSA has grown from maybe 6,000 members to 60,000; yet the main groups with some Trotskyist background (ISO, Solidarity) have declined and then dissolved (ISO) or started discussing dissolution (Solidarity).
The identifiable backstop reason here is the ideological erosion, loss of self-confidence, adaptation to "negativism" and catchpenny-ism, of the activist left since the 1980s. The syndrome is summed up by the article from the group in Australia linked to the ISO-USA, Socialist Alternative (itself still relatively prospering), implicitly responding to the ISO's collapse: proof in Australia that a revolutionary socialist organisation is necessary is given (it says) by the experience of the IWW around World War One and the Communist Party of Australia in the 1970s. Politics? Big ideas? A well-grounded system of alternative "values"? No: just ability to help along piecemeal struggles.
11. Rebuilding and preparing
Helping along piecemeal struggles, being able to build alliances, remains essential. An activist-left group which retreats into nothing but "big-idea" education, without engaging in the actual battles of the day-to-day, however limited they are, will wither.
The evidence, though, suggests that the chief factor in the activist left's (including our) failure to make better advance on the "molecular", "one-by-one" level is adaptation to the "thin", "low-temperature" environment - a failure to make our political intervention "deep" and "hot" enough. That can express itself alternately in absorption in low-level busywork, or in sectarian aloofness ("no-one will listen to us, so it's not worth the stress to intervene").
Wrestling with the problem of building revolutionary socialist parties when the first great upsurges following World War One were receding, and it was becoming clear that the hold of the old reformists was formidable, both Paul Levi and Hermann Gorter, representing opposite political poles in the movement then, raised the same issue from differing angles.
Levi wrote that: "There is not a single Communist in Germany today who does not regret that... the Communists did not come together [long ago] even in the form of a small sect... In a period of illegality, by very rigorous selection and simply by the process of adding one Communist to another, [Lenin] formed a good party". But (argued Levi) somehow the new German Communist Party in the maelstrom of the 1920-1 had to combine the process of one-by-one education of activists with drawing in new hundreds of thousands.
Hermann Gorter, speaking for the orientation which the "ultra-left" adopted after their first hopes of a short straight line to revolution were dashed, wrote that his "ultra-left" would "strive, above all, to raise... individuals to a higher level, to educate them one by one to be revolutionary fighters, by making them realise... that all depends on them, that they are to expect... all from themselves" (bit.ly/hg-20).
At that time Gorter's one-by-one orientation meant essentially giving up (and in fact Gorter himself was only marginally, or not at all, active after writing those words). But today demands an orientation to the recruitment and formation of individuals able and willing to go into a loosely-knit and low-temperature broad movement to fight for deep and hot ideas.
12. Taking initiatives and building the AWL
The political initiatives we discuss below are aimed at building a more rational, democratic-minded, less sectarian, more internationalist and educated left – in the first place, to build the AWL – and to make that left able to renew the labour movement. Combining these political initiatives with more consistent and systematic public AWL activity, and building on each gain, is the best way to increase capacity and the tempo of our activity. Education and organisational support from the office and AWL committees, from and to branch and fraction organisers, has to underpin this.
The key political initiatives of the next year, all geared into the perspective of reselecting and regrouping a new left, are: opposing Brexit from the left as a new stage becomes clearer; consolidating our work in the student movement; establishing work around fighting climate change; supporting our industrial work, especially new opportunities in PCS; building the Free Our Unions campaign; and boosting our AWL profile through regular meetings, street stalls, literature sales, etc. We may also be able to develop broader campaigning activity for “Two States” in Israel-Palestine and against antisemitism: that depends somewhat on what allies we can pull or push into activity on that front..
The left campaign to stop Brexit has won successes. It has won wide support in the Labour left and forced a Labour leadership machine which is at core pro-Brexit into backing Remain, at least against all available Tory Brexit formulas. We should acknowledge to ourselves the important political role we play; more rounded, more consistently socialist, more willing to get out on the streets and into workplaces, more dogged than others in the milieu. While opening up discussion with this left, it is important to codify that political approach.
The “reforms” in the National Union of Students, gutting its democratic structures, have also served to dramatically clarify political divisions and directions. After failing to adequately fight the reforms, the NUS soft-left now presides over the remodelled organisation. We pressure the soft left, fight to reverse those reforms; we aim to build networks of student unions and activists which will respond to the higher education funding crisis. Our job is to help the Student Left Network grow and broaden out.
The context is difficult. Political activity on campuses has been declining for some years. One lesson to take with us now is the need to constantly reassess. The fact that we let NCAFC continue to function on the same lines for years after the 2010 student revolt subsided, without adequately reassessing, meant neither NCAFC nor the AWL had sharp, relevant and clear political profiles in the student movement.
At 2019 NUS conference we benefited from a much clearer, non-sectarian political line on reforms, which also differentiated from the soft left and right.
In the last year, our reading groups, public meetings and sales were not consistent. This year we can do better at our own political profile. We have to judge our campus political activity by whether or not it makes us accessible to the tentatively-interested left-minded student who want to check us out. For accessibility, regular weekly meetings and stalls, predictable and well-publicised, are not just a bit better than an occasional scattering of meetings and stalls: they are the minimum for effectiveness.
We can and will have better interventions at Young Labour and Labour Students events.
The main organisational focus of our environmental work is linking up youth climate activism with the labour movement, through a variety of mechanisms, helping to build the Student Left Network conference and initiatives that follow on from that and holding our own conference around Marxist perspectives on ecology and climate change in the new year.
As explained by John Moloney in his election to AGS of the PCS, the job of Marxists in the labour movement is to argue for ways to renew the unions, build membership-led unions and ″start fires″ i.e. industrial disputes wherever that makes sense.
The Free Our Unions campaign we have initiated is also consistent with that ″renewal″ strategy. In some, but not all areas, for example our other industrial fractions such as school workers and rail, we are finding footholds and ways in which to argue for solid campaigns and win more influence and support.
But precisely because of low levels of class struggle, because such campaigns need to be consolidated, their lessons assimilated for the future, we need to find ways to make new contacts and allies for the AWL, people who will continue to work with us as well as join. All our union fractions need to work on ways to develop and monitor individual contacts, especially in workplaces.
The local and national collective political life of the AWL needs to be lively in order for the purpose of building a socialist organisation to make sense to ourselves and to others. As on campuses, so in cities and towns: a regular schedule of well-publicised meetings, stalls, and sales is the minimum required to make us accessible to the tentatively-interested contact. The programme of activity we′ve outlined above will be ambitious, and through it we will meet new people.
We have to stop being slow to invite people into collective activity with us. If the AWL appears to someone as just an individual whom they know, whom they respect, but they have little idea of what AWL does collectively, or of what they might do if they worked with or joined AWL, then they won't join except by a fluke.
The AWL needs to be accessible. The practical mechanics are simple: hold meetings and public meetings regularly and attend them ourselves; do stalls and sales. Attend broader demonstrations, meetings, and so on consistently and purposefully, explain to contacts what we’re doing and why, invite them to come with us. Hold more online discussions (such as the ″virtual branch″ and ″Radical Readers online″). Strive for consistency. Take confidence in small gains and build on them.
13. “System of press” and its promotion.
We want a weekly paper because we want a weekly tempo of activity, and weekly hard-copy material to complement and underpin our daily work of discussing politics in meetings and in conversations.
We want the paper to be “spiky” and a “big read” because the milieu of left-minded people around us is one with fewer well-mapped points of reference for debate than in other periods. To a greater extent, we have to establish our own points of reference.
For the same reason, we need to circulate and continue to produce substantial books of our own. “Marxism” is never a given, a fixed and widely-known system of precepts; but it is further from being that now than in many previous times. We have to build signposts for a “Marxist culture” in terms of book-learning. We cannot just rely on a short list of “classics”, shared with a wide spectrum, to serve as signposts instead.
At the same time, an education in the Marxist “classics” can be picked up “on the hoof” to a smaller extent today than in other times: that too we must develop ourselves.
Doing those things will make us better able to learn from and engage with a wider range of broadly-Marxist research and writing, as we do for example through speakers at IFF, interviews in the paper, and so on.
With the rise of electronic communication, the website, and our social media accounts feeding to it, simultaneously become more important, day by day, hour by hour.
With these tasks in mind, we have increased the frequency of the paper, the number of articles per issue, and the number of people writing for it. We have put new office resources into circulating our books and pamphlets. We have put considerably more office resources, and also bought-in resources, to improving our website, which includes, for example, adding more video and audio files to it. We have increased the tempo and output of our social media operation.
The main deficiencies to be worked on? People still buy left papers: take our very big sales on the anti-Brexit demonstrations as an example. But our routines of literature sales (on the streets, door-to-door, at work, in meetings, etc. are still far too patchy. A determined and systematic focus on increasing street activity (combining anti-Brexit work and sales) in the autumn months of 2019 will positively help boost all aspects of our work into the future.
Our resources of central staff (for the production of the paper and other publications, for sales promotion, for organising “teams” to cover important events) are still too scanty.