Notes on Left-Unity

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Currently there is a quite a lot of reflection along the left about how we are going to recompose as a political force. The idea that this is necessary is widely shared, since it’s absolutely absurdly obvious that despite a massive hiccup in capitalism – potentially a relatively long term stagnation – the left has turned this into almost nothing approaching success. This goes strongly against a popular dogma that a heightening of economic contradictions would provide us the objective conditions for stronger political awareness, and thereby lubricate our ability to organise. Many in 2008 were crying out that neo-liberalism was dead, and yet neo-liberalism has merely marched forward with new vitality.

This theory that we would make progress when presented with contradictions in the current socio-economic system has not panned out. However, the useful outcome of our failure is that the left has been forced into a bit of soul searching. The quality of theoretical reflections on the left does seem to be increasing. Lately, we’ve seen more on our current historical condition on the question of progressive change. While we could have hardly hoped for more than theoretical regurgitations during much of the 80s, 90s and 2000s we’ve finally started to see a bit of a renaissance in progressive theory.

Any attempt to change the socio-political climate of our current society will require a mass movement, and that means lots of people. Consequently it’s not unusual that the question of left-unity should come up. After all, progressives and the left are not only currently a tiny group, but one which is also highly divided. If we need numbers, perhaps we would be better off leveraging the numbers we already have.

But is this a good strategy? Some claim that the other sections of the left are both insufficiently large and excessively wrong to be worth having any attempt at unity with. Instead we should be trying to grow the participation of the broader public in an organisation.

There is some sense in this opinion as the left itself has no shortage of internal insanity, general navel gazing etc. Focusing on not-already-on-the-left people has other advantages as well. Not-already-on-the-left people are more likely to be representative of what other not-already-on-the-left people are likely to find convincing. Being able to convince an Anarchist, or Trot of something tells you vanishingly little about what might be convincing to the general public.

However, there are reasons to suspect that this analysis might even undermine the strategy it hopes to employ. In general, people tend to take theories which are more widely held more seriously. Most will take bigger organisations more seriously as a bigger organisation tends to demonstrate that some shared opinion is not a fringe idea. On the whole, most humans most of the time take the generally supported theories as correct when they themselves don’t spend most of their time thinking about them. Certainly, I would not worry myself with the proper modelling techniques for material science or whether or not gender is a sensible concept in Baltic Languages. I’m content to guess that the most widely held theory is probably more right than the others. If I choose something outside the norm because of peculiar factors, it’s liable to be another widely held theory. This fact of human psychology biasing towards the common (a quite reasonable bias) means that a broader left will be, just by virtual of the greater participation, be more likely to convince.

Another complaint often levelled against the idea of unity is that it would undermine theoretical and/or tactical unity. This claim, made by Anarchists, Trotskyists and various Marxists is clearly true. There are at least as many ideas of proper tactics and theoretical frameworks as there are people on the left, and probably more. However, tactical and especially theoretical unity are not only over-rated, they are potentially quite dangerous.

Theoretical unity can only be maintained if an organisation is essentially already moribund. No political party with active participants who are actively attempting to understand the world around them can have a close theoretical unity unless they are in a cult. Exploration simply can’t exist in such a context. The very attempt to find such theoretical unity can only be dealt with in two ways. Either questions of theory can be systematically avoided lest the problems of disunity manifest, or the organisation can become a cult, or some combination of the two.

Theoretical disunity can be a source of dynamism. The scientific community is a great example of the strength of theoretical disunity. It is only through sharp disagreement of theoretical questions that progress is made at all. Tiny journals which tend to repeat a monotone idea are generally considered to be weaker than contentious ones. Conflict is actively sought out, provided it remains within a fairly broad general objective. So what does it take to be in this broad objective? Essentially unity is found in a general (but also somewhat fuzzy) acceptance of methodology – that theories should be tested and supported with examples and quantitative information and strong arguments whenever possible.

Obviously politics, economics and sociology have deficiencies in replicating these criteria directly. To come by useful quantitative information is more difficult. Questions and how to answer them are often much less clear. However, we do have history as a guide and we should attempt to use more quantitative and empirical approaches when possible.

Tactical unity is also overrated. Nobody is clear on what will work now and if they are then they are probably wrong. There are only possibilities and arguments regarding them at the present time. Even more importantly though, there is a strong likelihood of synergy between tactics. Activities which are likely to exhibit synergistic effects include media, social centres, cultural organisations, organs and journals of theoretical development, interventions in the unions, single issue campaigns and cooperatives. These are potentiated rather than undermined by diversity. The primary factor which stops us from using all these strategies is numbers, which would be alleviated by abandoning a focus on tactical unity.

Certainly there are times when tactical unity would make sense. General strikes and mass protests can only occur with some level of tactical unity. There should also be unity around tactics which are liable to induce state repression such as adventurist forays (bombings, bank robberies and the like).

But is there really a project on the left that it makes sense to unify around? Can anarchists, Trotskyists and social democrats, or others from the diversity of the the left, all usefully belong in the same organisation?

A minimal core belief for unity is that people must think such a project is worth doing in the first place. This belief is obstructed by some of the most common ideologies of the left. There are a number of stories about why a mass party is a bad idea. Let us examine these problems.

First, a notion shared by many of the left’s more modern participants is that, through a number of historical failures, the democratic road to socialism has shown itself to be a dead end. This analysis is shared by anarchists and Trotskyists alike, but also a large number of unaffiliated leftists. The first major historical example given of a failure is that of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The inability of the SPD to strongly oppose the issuance of war bonds in the run up to WWI spurred a split in Social Democracy, one which the Bolsheviks helped to seal (Zinoviev’s intervention in the Halle conference of the USPD). This split in social democracy gave rise to two major branches, the official communist movement and its third international, and the various social democratic parties which remained organised in the second international.

The second is the failure of Social Democracy during the historic compromise following WWII. This compromise between labour and capital, in the wake of an amazingly destructive war, laid the basis for the modern welfare state. However, this compromise has been deteriorating since the mid 1970s and the social democratic parties have become indistinguishable other liberal parties.

The third is the movement of the official communist parties towards Eurocommunism. Eurocommunism is generally viewed by its participants as distinct from the original social democratic movement but it is in fact not. While the two groups had quite distinct relationships with the tradition of the Bolshevik party and their orientation towards the USSR, they were functionally and behaviourally of the same general strategy as the SPD. The SPD’s original orientation was the creation of a communist society through the democratic road by bringing the vast majority of the population with them. Minus the hammer and sickle and the USSR, the Party Communist Italia (PCI) for instance, was practically not much different in its orientation from the SPD. It hoped to bring about a socialist transformation through the democratic road, seeing change as a gradual process which would require transforming the cultural and political climate in Italy and gaining mass support with the majority.

However, during these same time periods the most successful insurrectionary elements also came out of these mass social democratic movements and not the sectional movements that are currently reproduced. The Bolsheviks came out of the (Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party) RSDLP, not out of some tiny sect of ideologically pure orthodoxies, but out of an ideologically diverse party. Trotskyists who are attempting to reproduce Russian conditions may be deluded for attempting to do so in a historical context which is not conducive to it, but they are further historically illiterate if they are attempting to produce the outcome without any of the trajectories which enabled it to exist in the first place.

Anarchists have one further example in the Spanish context which also needs to be dealt with, the CNT. The CNT did not take a party approach in the Social Democratic sense. Instead it had a strange amalgam of political party, cultural organisation and union. The peculiarity of the social conditions which lead to the CNT being viable are too complex to go into here, but it’s worth pointing out that the model only ever got significant traction in Spain during a specific historical period in a state which was only barely constituting itself as a republic.

The fact is that nothing has brought us to socialism as yet, so every strategy, when viewed specifically on the basis of total success has to be seen as a failure. Weaker criteria have to be used to find a notion of success. Viewed in this light it’s clear historically that partial successes in terms of reform, or at least barrier to deterioration of conditions, can be found from the mass parties and syndicalist movements and mass participation in single issue campaigns.

What options are available for a mass movement? Well, there are simply not that many possibilities. The possibilities include the political party, unionism, community organisation (of various types), networks and single issue campaigns. Of these, the party form seems most promising in terms of our current historical conjuncture. Unions are on a decline that is unlikely to be stopped by on pure force of will. Community organisations are generally quite limited in political view and the most promising methods of intervention in all of the known party forms are by specifically political organisations themselves.

The Basis of Unity

But unity on what basis? There have to be at least some basic values which are shared for any shared project to have any hope of success. The fault-lines can only be bridged with real substantive agreements on something beyond the notion that more people is better – if that were strictly true then we might as well all go out and join the Labour Party, as it’s obviously bigger.

The substantive feature which must be shared at least in its most minimal form is a belief that we can recast the socio-economic organisation of society. This transformation of society must be done in a way that improves the general quality of life of the vast majority of people, coupled with a critique of why capitalism is not capable of bringing this about. That is, an aim to transform the present society towards socialism – a pro-social, egalitarian society with an economic system not predicated on profits but focused on satisfying human needs and quality of life.

A party which hopes simply to provide some reforms to capitalism as a sufficient goal is useless. Capitalism will not remain viable and even now we are watching the political economy of the world transform into something else. The question is merely what type of thing it will transform into. Beliefs that we can form a political party around a platform of little more than a Keynesian programme or some ameliorative pole will prove useless. Neither will the goal be possible, nor will it be possible to transform anyone’s thinking about how we should approach problems. At best it will serve as a pole for the progressive elements of parties such as the greens and labour, and will quickly follow their lead of collapsing into the consensus view of economic necessity.

A party in Ireland attempting to claim a Keynesian future can only seriously promise a return to the Punt and the subsequent collapse of its current economic model as a tax haven for multinationals in Europe. This coupled with Ireland’s status as the most open economy in Europe really makes immediate goals of reform on the basis of merely re-extending the welfare state an absurdity.

Does it have to be socialism? There are lots of arguments that we just have to articulate the vision we want to see. However, labels can be useful for conveying this information. Is it possible to coin a new movement not in the historical tradition of socialism? Perhaps, but it’s quite a lot of history to lose.

Fault-lines of the Mass Party

But can extra-parliamentarian socialists be in a party which also runs in elections? Is it possible to have a party in which there are fundamental differences on the role and mechanism of leadership in a party? Opinions about external activity in a mass party can often be resolved by allowing a diversity of tactics, but the internal organisation of the party can not be so easily dealt with.

Electoralism is a contentious issue and this fact is not at all restricted to critiques advanced by anarchists. A list of the core problematics would have to include at least the following:

  1. The contradiction between responsibilities to the party and the constituency
  2. The need for money in elections
  3. The weakness of parliament in the modern democratic state
  4. The displacement of extra-parliamentary approaches, a.k.a. parliamentary cretinism

(1) Election is useful from the standpoint of campaigning. It gives an opportunity to talk to people on a political level in a forum in which most people believe it acceptable. By contrast it is much more difficult to make broad political interventions in unions and community organisations unless specific circumstances present themselves. Otherwise it simply looks bizarre and out of place. However, the utility of such an approach finds fuel when there are some electoral successes. This means that an electoral approach which also is not interested in getting some people elected is unlikely to be very fruitful. In order to get people elected it is necessary to give some sense to the constituency that there will be success on some level.

In a place like Ireland, in which clientalist politics are the main method of political success this is especially tricky to deal with. The responsibility to the constituency can develop in direct contradiction to the aims of the party. Politicians will always have possibilities of separating from the party in order to please a constituency, abandoning the people who enabled them to get elected and perhaps even abandoning the principles which led them to politics in the first place. This problem can never be fully overcome but there are some tactics which can be employed to mitigate it. The party could hold the resignation letters of parliamentarians which ensure that splits will result in loss of the seat. However this could also damage the parties reputation in the constituency and possibly in the public generally. Perhaps the best prophylaxis is a strong culture which views such defections in a highly negative light.

There is the additional problem that the public may in fact be more rational in its decisions than the party itself and therefore following the constituency rather than the party is the better approach. No organisation can ever be perfect of course, but on the whole, unlike the small sects, a mass party is more likely to drift towards capitalistic solutions than too strongly away from them.

(2) Being elected is expensive and is getting more expensive all the time. Since socialists don’t generally have much money this means more time has to be devoted to electioneering than is necessary for other parties which are not so oppositional to moneyed interests. This can further exacerbate (4).

Money is in fact a problem, however success in elections also brings money. If TDs are bound to the average industrial wage, the combination of surplus from salaries and state money (given for a sufficiently large party) then successes in elections can easily outweigh the electoral costs in the first place. Comparing the ULA to the extra-parliamentary groups in Ireland demonstrates this fact quite clearly.

(3) The Irish state in the capitalist system is really and truly weak. No amount of sheer force of will or numbers can overcome this basic fact. The economy is highly dependent on other economies and the international bond market. This places strong limits on what parliament can do. This in turn limits what can be truthfully promised a constituency. Of course lying to the constituency is a tried and true practice which socialist parties have also engaged with, however there can be no surer way to destroy long term credibility than unrealistic promises. There will be no successes from promising the moon and then blaming others when it can not be supplied. It is the responsibility of those who think most about politics and economics to be most truthful about what can actually be done.

The situation is even more extreme in the county councils. In fact, it is so extreme that it seems even the most principled anarchist could not easily dismiss running for county-council as dangerous. A truthful description of the total lack of power available through this democratic farce could be an instructional message and could even be used as a platform for campaigning for greater public participation in civic decisions. There is certainly no danger of abdication of real power.

(4) The forth factor is perhaps the most interesting. Indeed modern “social democratic” parties in the tradition of the second international, such as the Labour Party (UK), are not mass parties. This was not always the case. The SPD had a very large and diverse constellation of affiliated unions, cultural organisations (such as cycling clubs and choirs), social centres, cooperatives, pubs, theoretical journals and newspapers. The lack of attention to the importance of extra-parliamentary approaches is a factor in the degeneration of mass parties in general. Perhaps extra-parliamentarian activists should instead be helping to ensure that these areas in the mass party remain vibrant — helping to derive some synthetic benefit from being part of a larger movement, while also providing for those aspects of the party which they feel are the most important.

The Leadership Question

There is another danger which is tangentially related to the fear of working with electoralism and that is the leadership question in the party and the form of decision making which should take place. This is a thorny problem indeed, and yet I think the problem has become less thorny than perhaps any time in the past. Openness and democratic method is generally accepted as a necessity.

How much centralism is necessary for organs of the party? The Workers Solidarity Movement is an interesting case in point. The party found it necessary to elect an accountable, but representational body, called the Interim Decisions Committee in order to make quick decisions between branch meetings of the organisation. The problem of responsiveness will always be a serious one in a party which does not trust some level of delegation of responsibility and representation. In the best of possibilities a quorum in the party might be able to take an emergency referendum on some subject, but the presentation of the referendum itself would have to be written by someone with some wording. If the press contacts the organisation for comment on an immediate situation, waiting for consensus would be preposterous. A strong insistence on total horizontalism simply will not be possible.

Almost antithetically, the approaches of tight central leadership as exists in many of those parties in the Leninist tradition produce only stagnation. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about these methodologies is that they are quite a lot less democratic than the Bolshevik party itself prior to the civil war. The Bolshevik party was birthed from an even more democratic party, the RSDLP. A long term leadership of a mass party may be possible but it will need to remain in place with the consent of the party itself, and it must be possible to advance alternative theories without fear of expulsion or muting of political critique.

The best that can be hoped for in a functional mass party will have to be some level of representation and accountability with the most democratic and open method possible. This may not please everyone, but its unlikely that there are other choices which will be stable.

A Dead End

But does parliamentarianism lead up a blind alley? As was mentioned previously the scope for change at the national level, especially for a state such as Ireland, is incredibly restricted. Indeed, analysis which stops at success in Ireland is a dead end. There simply will never be success. The only hope is a broadening to a larger movement, and the most obvious target on which to aim the guns is the EU. The EU is a largely closed economy. Imports are a small fraction of GDP. The possibilities at an EU scale can be quite a lot larger. However, we need some way to make steps in that direction and we have to have the goal of doing so. A cooperation among socialists in Europe is not only a good idea, it’s the only idea that has a chance in hell of presenting avenues of serious progress against capital, within the time frame of the next two generations.

This is perhaps the most difficult stumbling block for the left as almost absolutely everyone on the left, save a very few social democrats, see the EU as necessarily useless. The idea of focusing on a larger basis as a stepping stone is not, however, new. German and Italian unification in the 19th century can both be seen as presenting possibilities for progressives which had not previously existed. The fact of the right wing content of the Irish state does not stop anyone in the SP or SWP from focusing their guns on it. Do they eschew Irish politics because Ireland is “essentially a neo-liberal project”, or perhaps because it is “essentially a nationalist catholic republican” project? Such a deferral of responsibility to act on the scale necessary for success would rightly be derided as bizarre. And yet most socialists are functioning on a methodologically nationalist basis. That is, despite the fact that they know that the greatest utility of elections is as a platform for communicating to the public, they somehow deny that this logic can function at the European scale. They instead revert to reinforcing a nationalism of practice, even if it does not make explicit use of nationalism in its signs.

And yet, without such an aim of moving upwards to the scale approaching that at which capitalism functions we simply have no hope of success.

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