Crisis and opportunity inside the UK left

The left in the UK is at a crossroads. Economic problems are breeding dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, a situation in which the left should thrive, according to the usual ideas.  But the organizations that see themselves as presenting a positive alternative are in a state of flux.  Established parties are rupturing while new outfits are springing up.  One prominent left blogger has said that “it will take a generation to reconstruct the left, and might not happen at all,” [1] while others are touting the possible formation of  “a new mass party of the left and the working class” [2].  What is going on here?  What are the causes?  And how does all this inform new efforts at organising a successful movement for radical change?


What’s happening?

Since the 80’s, the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) has been the strongest force UK revolutionary politics.  A Trotskyist party with the usual commitments to democratic centralism and a fairly orthodox Marxism, members of the SWP are to be seen in force at every major protest amidst a flurry of papers, petitions and membership forms. However, the party suffered the “Counterfire” splintering in 2010, in which a group of activists split to form their own group, mainly in protest over the party’s attitude to United Front politics (illustrated by the SWP’s formation of its own anti-austerity campaign separate from the Coalition of Resistance and later the People’s Assembly), outdated outreach methods, and the group’s own treatment by the party’s Central Committee (CC).

This turned out to be insignificant in comparison to the problems ahead. 2011 saw a storm break out over allegations of rape against a member of the Central Committee (CC), and the subsequent mishandling of the situation by the CC and their allies [1]  [3] [4].  Early on, four members were summarily expelled by the CC for discussing the issue on Facebook.  In the ensuing controversy, the SWP bled activists and members, and saw the rise of the largest public factions in its history.  A large chunk of the most active members left to form new groups such as the International Socialist Group Scotland (ISG), rs21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century) and the International Socialist Network (which has since split again).  All this has left the party with damaged relations to the wider movement, a shrinking and confused general membership and a seriously reduced cadre of activists.

The issues involved were diverse, broadening from the most immediate problems surrounding the allegations and the party’s reaction to them.  This catalyzed an overdue debate about the entrenched position of the CC in the organization, lack of transparency, and autocratic practices.  Critics inside the party pointed to a “party hack” culture encouraged by the employment of numerous full-time party workers whose jobs depend on the CC, and complained that the supposed democracy of the conferences is a de facto rubber stamp for CC decisions  [3] (notably, both Counterfire and ISG Scotland coalesced around formerly prominent members who had fallen out of favour with the leading group within the CC).  As well as this, critics within and without criticised the party’s failure to properly absorb the lessons of feminism and women’s liberation.

While the SWP crumbles, other socialist groups are optimistic. Socialist Resistance, the UK section of “the” 4th International, has moved away from centralism and some other aspects of Trotskyism, is happy to work within broad issue-based movements like the People’s Assembly, and has more fully embraced feminism than the SWP.  Another group called the Anti-Capitalist Initiative has left the more doctrinaire Worker’s Power and declared for an inclusive “New Left” based politics, intending to draw from “the best elements across the radical traditions”. These two groups are considering merging to form a diverse but revolutionary group, along with International Socialist Network, Plan C and perhaps even Worker’s Power and/or the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World [5].

These groups are also promoting a newly founded “broad party” called Left Unity, aimed not just at revolutionaries but a broad spectrum of progressives, “people who might or might not label themselves reformists, revolutionaries, Marxists, independent, feminist, libertarian or green” .  Recruitment is individual membership-based, although pre-existing groups are pushing the organization forwards, and have played the main part in early recruitment and setting policy.  Left Unity already claims over 2000 paying members and hopes to become a force to the left of Labour, just as UKIP have emerged as a force to the right of the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the Anarchist Action Network has broken onto the scene. This is a current that arose out of the anti-globlisation movement, and has effectively existed on the ground for many years, with experience and organizational clout forged over many mobilisations, including G8 Gleneagles, Climate Camp, G20 London, and Dale Farm.  The new organization now seeks to add more outreach work and other movement-building tasks to this practical resistance.  AAN is already attracting some attention from the one percent’s media while gearing up for the NATO Conference soon to be held in Wales.  Unlike pre-existing groups, The AAN does not pin its colours to a particular strand of anarchism, and defines itself instead by the more practical PGA hallmarks.  Members tend to adhere to modern multi-focus anarchism, with an outlook combining insights from environmentalism, feminism and racial justice with opposition to capitalism and the state.

At around the same time, the International Organisation for a Participatory Society (IOPS) was set up, based on innovative New Left-inspired theory and organizational practice.  The founders believe this approach is more appropriate to the task of winning a radical transformation of society than any of the traditional forms of anticapitalism. Unlike the AAC, the idea was to form an organization almost from scratch, attracting initial membership via a website while folding in some small pre-existing groups. Instead of the PGA hallmarks, the “IOPS statement” lists many core commitments on vision and strategy in each focus area.  All this was agreed on by an initial steering committee, which otherwise has played little active role. Michael Albert, a prominent social activist and alternative media worker, championed the idea, and the proposal received many early endorsements from the likes of Noam Chomsky, David Harvey and John Pilger, helping the virtual organization to reach over 3000 sign-ups, with around 450 in the UK.

A revolutionary group with 450 members would be a great start. Unfortunately, IOPS does not amount to that.  Because of the scattered nature of the Internet recruitment process, many members are inactive or isolated, and initial efforts at organizing these individuals have seen limited success.  Partly as a result, the group has not become fully active, and seems set to fail its own deadline for forming enough local groups to formally found the organization.  Where active members decide to take the effort after that remains to be seen.


What are the causes?

What explanations have been given of the splits in the SWP?  The undisguised glee that has been expressed by some of the Trotskyist micro-parties is not particularly informative or helpful.  However, for supporters of IOPS, it seems as though the crisis is a result of exactly the practices and ideas that they have been criticizing for years.

Those who have left the party complain of the symptoms: autocracy led by the central committee, “party hack” culture and a dismissal of claims of sexual abuse without proper consideration.  As far as the disease itself goes, Marxist-Leninists inside and outside the SWP have pointed to causes such as the how the permanent jobs in the party are dolled out, and other details of administration.  The IOPS critique goes deeper.  Although the SWP leadership sometimes criticize union bureaucracy, they have a blind spot for the dynamics of bureaucracy in society and within our own organisations, which is linked to the group interests of technical workers and managers more generally (the “co-ordinator class”).  They continue to use democratic centralism and stand against permanent currents (or “factions”) within the party.  These organizational tactics were championed by Lenin for the illegal revolutionary parties of early 20th century Russia, but are now being applied by the heirs of this tradition in radically different circumstances.  They only serve to widen the gap in empowerment between the rank-and-file, paper-selling activists and the informed, connected minority making top-level decisions.  This leads the party away from serving the interests of the workers and other groups in struggle, and towards the interests and perspectives of its own CC and the co-ordinator class in general.  Far from helping the party to be more efficient and effective, the latest round of splits shows how this leads to ossification of ideas and strategies, disillusionment and confusion amongst the disconnected majority and lack of initiative from below to bring new life into the party.

While other Trotskyist groups criticize the symptoms they fail to recognize that the disease is the orthodox approach to Lenninist organizing.  Some of these groups have a more open culture than the SWP.  But if they grow and regroup as the SWP declines, picking up large membership and permanent staff, have they innovated enough to prevent the same issues occurring there?  Rather than tiptoeing away from the SWP model by rebranding democratic centralism or emphasizing social media, groups such as ACI, IOPS and AAN recognize the need for a ground-up re-evaluation of the underlying understandings of revolutionary strategy.

The SWP’s attitude towards feminism is also an issue.  The “participatory society” (ParSoc) theory, developed from the 80’s onwards, has the lessons of feminism built in at a deep level [6].  Rather than seeing economy and class as the root of all significant social relations, this set of ideas embraces the fact that, while economic forces are often crucial, social dynamics can at times also be crucially affected by cultural issues such as those focused on by many racial justice advocates, political and organizational issues, and the kinship issues that are crucial to a proper understanding of women’s liberation and gay rights.  There are lessons to be learnt not only from these four ways of understanding society, but also from how they interact and combine; the relevance of one may be more or less important in a given historical situation (e.g. culture and race taking on more prominence in South Africa).

This was radical in left circles at the time.  It is now more fashionable to embrace at least some version of this view such as “intersectionality,” “kyriarchy” or a “multi-axis” approach to social change.  The more traditional Marxist groups sometimes dismiss this as “identity politics” and at other times pay lip service to anti-sexism while, at a deeper level, maintaining the view that class and economy are the only true driving forces behind what is going on, denying most of the core insights of feminism.

This is not only a bad model of the society we are trying to change, but also destroys chances for unity between campaigns and groups with understandings focused on different areas of struggle.  The ParSoc view not only allows this, but also encourages shared understandings to develop.  The recent crisis is arguably a result of the failure to take these lessons on board in the organization and culture of the party itself, mixed with the power gradients and unaccountability induced by a high level of bureaucratization.  Again, Socialist Resistance is in an intermediate position: it has promoted feminism to a priority issue, but, remaining nominally a Trotskyist group, they do not share the thoroughgoing “holism” of IOPS.


 New hope?

What of the new initiatives of ACI, Left Unity, AAN and IOPS?  As for Left Unity, a broad party to the left of Labour has its place on the political scene.  But if it is successful, what is to prevent this Party from being sucked down by bureaucracy and rightwards pressure just like labour and other social democrats the world over?  Perhaps the massive influence of bureaucrats and technical/managerial level professionals on the formation, practice and philosophy of the Labour party is worth reviewing here [7].  Have lessons been learned from the defeat of social democracy, and are they being applied in this case?  Will the blind-spot of orthodox Marxists towards bureaucracy, and the associated power and interests of the co-ordinator class, prove to be an Achilles’ heel?  Or can structures be put in place to ensure participatory democracy prevails, and acts as a bulwark against backsliding?

If we do want an alternative to the more traditional Leninist parties, where is it to be found?  With a solid basis of ideas, some public support of many leading thinkers, and a great deal of goodwill, IOPS had things going for it.  But the attempt to produce an organization more or less out of thin air was problematic.  A website with minimal oversight attracted a large number of people selling their own unrelated ideas, well-meaning but confused people who would probably have been better off in other organisations, and outright kooks.  Like a political squat with no door policy, things quickly got messy; good will, focus and momentum suffered.  Secondly, without any preset milestones or policies, pre-existing support for the points of unity was the only “selling point”.  But as it turned out, there was not enough of this support to build the organization, and not enough pre-existing organization to promote the ideas, catching the fledgling organization in a chicken-and-egg predicament.

The Anarchist Action Network shows that national organisation can be achieved on a far different model.  Trust, affinity and resources were built up over years of practical struggle.  Problems with random people entering the group without a clue about its purpose were more easily dealt with in this context, and ideas and organization built themselves up hand-in-hand.  But, with its roots as a vehicle for direct action, it remains to be seen if this group will play a larger role in spreading revolutionary ideas or continue to be more or less self-contained, as it has in the past.

The shift of a number of former Marxist-Leninists towards New Left politics also shows promise.  If a group emerges from this process with enough new structure to be truly open to grass-roots participation and multi-focus activism, this might just be a natural home for a current of advocates of Participatory Society ideas in the UK.  Such a group could spur more activity and initiative amongst members than parties like the SWP have done, while allowing greater unity across the revolutionary left, as well as presenting a more attractive vision to the wider community of people struggling for social change.  In this case, the crisis in the British left could well have a positive outcome.


1. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/comrades-war-decline-and-fall-socialist-workers-party

2.  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/salman-shaheen/ken-loach-left-unity_b_4302871.html

3. “SWP in Crisis: what do Socialists say?” Lennin’s tomb blog, seemingly recently removed but available here, and subsequent posts on “SWP in crisis”.

4. http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/2013/01/laurie-penny-what-does-swps-way-dealing-sexual-assault-allegations-tell-us-abou

5. http://socialistresistance.org/6155/an-important-contribution-towards-far-left-unity

6. For the seminal text on this subject see http://robinhahnel.com/2013/05/27/liberating-theory/.  See also http://zcomm.org/fanfare-for-the-future/

7. For a libertarian socialist perspective see http://libcom.org/history/tradition-workers-control-geoffrey-ostergaard

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