Notes on Left-Unity

Unification Algorithm

Unification Algorithm

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 from 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 2 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.

About Gavin Mendel-Gleason

An ex-patriate American living in Ireland. Former anarchist, present mass partyist, but always committed socialist.
This entry was posted in Politics, Proletarian politics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Notes on Left-Unity

  1. Desmond O'Toole says:

    An interesting and refreshingly original article from an unexpected source. Leaving aside the usual dismissal of the achievements of the mainstream Left the author’s recognition of the limits of oppositionalism and the probing of the question of how to build a majority for Left politics in a hostile political environment offers some important insights. Whether these can lead to Left unity is very doubtful as the irreconcilable differences between the mainstream and the fringe as well as the slow collapse of the ULA in Ireland amply demonstrate. However, the recognition of the importance of the European sphere for organisation and political attention by the Left has significant potential to offer other avenues for co-operation in the one area that actually has the necessary economic scale and political resources to challenge and contain global capital. I’m thinking specifically in the areas of taxation, competition policy, workers rights and market regulation in particular. I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops.

    Desmond O’Toole
    Dublin Citygroup, Party of European Socialists

  2. modulus says:

    I can’t say I’m overly impressed by the “successes of the mainstream left”, if by that one means social democracy. PASOK, the SPD, the Labour Party (UK), PSOE, have achieved what? A regime of austerity to be imposed throughout the continent?

    That said, and this is one aspect I forgot to write about on my piece on party building, it’s almost impossible to deal with the problems generated by modern international capitalism without acting at a supranational level. In this regard, the analysis by social democracy that the European Union is necessary, if not sufficient, is more on the mark than the escapist and frankly unproductive attitude of ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

  3. Mark Hoskins says:

    just read your article. Some interesting points, the most interesting ones I don’t think you developed fully, like – what would an organisation that included socialists who support the parliamentary method and those who don’t, look like. How would it function? I’m doing a lot of reflection on what is necessary to build a mass organisation myself, but my purpose for posting this is to pull you up on a couple of things.
    Firstly, your description of theoretical and tactical unity:
    “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.”
    I think you misrepresent the idea here – at least misrepresent the anarchist perspective on it (your description can indeed apply to the Trotskyist groups that exist in Ireland and their conception of Democratic centralism). Firstly, I would agree that theoretical unity is undesirable in a mass organisation. Its place is where smaller groups affiliate to promote a certain theoretical outlook within a mass movement (the problem for those groups at the moment being there is none). Even within those grouings, theoretical unity would be around a limited number of points and should constantly be debated. On Tactical unity, the type you describe as being desirable is roughly what I’d subscribe to in a mass movement and just a little more in the smaller political groups.

    Your point on the Bolsheviks – yes I agree the current “heirs of the tradition” haven’t a clue when it comes to how they organised, however it is worth noting that the RSDLP was already a large organisation before it ever had the chance to participate in elections.

    “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.” You attempt here to place the growth of the CNT in a historical context. This is the correct approach, however your conclusion is completely ahistorical. The exceptional thing about the Spanish movement was not that it was predominantly anarchist, anarchism was pretty much the dominant political trend everywhere outside of Germany and Russia until 1917. The difference was that the forces of marxism were so negligible in Spain that while the left in most of Europe went that direction after the apparant success of Bolshevism, the CNT quickly saw what the soviet state was becoming and opted out. It was this apparent success that understandably swayed many socialists and anarchists alike towards marxism at the time – France and Italy being prime examples of this. The success of the CNT came from the roots and it put down with working class in the Spanish state and the type of organisational and educational methods you describe – methods that were later taken up by the Italian Communist Party but with quite different results.

    I think you defeat your own argument on the usefulness of elections. Your main point is the old platform for socialist ideas one. My previous objections to this still stand – you don’t really have an opportunity to talk about socialist ideas on the doorstep. People want to know what you would do in government and who you would go into a coalition with. It is a very deflating experience. In the media your representatives do not set the agenda and end up being forced to propose solutions on the basis of capitalism – which seem more sensible to the public because they stay within the dominant paradigm but as you point out are completely unworkable, would be disastrous and I would add are utopian. Paul Murphy on the referendum issue in the media being a case and point.

    On the finance aspect. You say that the election of reps will bring in money if they are on the average workers wage etc and compare favourably with extra parliamentary groups. Firstly this is somewhat of a gamble, assuming the return on the initial investment of participating in the election in the first place will pay off. Secondly, your reps, once elected under our system are only voluntarily accountable to the party and can walk away whenever they like – see Clare Daly. Thirdly, what is the basis for the favourable comparison between parliamentary and non-parliamentary groups. When I was in the SP we lurched from one financial crisis to another. Joe losing his seat in the dail in 2007 was an absolute disaster for the party from that perspective because expenditure was based on him holding that seat. In my time at least in the WSM, there have been no such problems with finances.

    Which brings me to another practical point. You point out the potential pitfall of constant electioneering. Add to that constant fundraising – for in the SP when I wasn’t asking people for votes, I was asking them for money, christmas raffles, easter raffles, monthly draws, you name it – not to mention the equally demoralising paper sales (another platform for socialist ideas) where you were essentially a door to door salesman, convincing someone with even a minimum amount of respect for Joe or Clare to buy a paper which they would most likely never read for the simple reason that we needed to pay the fulltimers (there were times the woefully underpaid fulltimers ended up taking home envelopes full of change from paper sales as part of their wages).

    A final point (point of information?) for now – you mention the IDC in the WSM. I think in the time I’ve been a member it has been called to make one decision. The other structures and committees of the organisation operate sufficiently and the delegate council and the branches meet often enough to be able to make most decisions. Having said that, in a larger organisation such a committee would probably be called to use more often.

    So over all while I disagree with most of your conclusions, this article is a welcome addition to a debate that is only just beginning and is of the utmost importance.

  4. yeksmesh says:

    I would also ask what exactly would extra-parliamentary groups such as class struggle anarchists have to gain with joining these broad formations? Certainly in countries where little other tradition of class struggle exists outside of the social democratic one and thus where the left is mostly compromised of trotskyists and the assorted diverisity of smaller organizations, and where these broad coalitions will probably be a war between the different trotskyist parties for the seizure of positions and where this organization will probably be used solely for electoral uses. Thereby giving little incentive for the smaller extra-parliamentary groups to join these new formations as they can much more effectively follow through with their activities in a small yet coherent organization that has an actual organizational base rather than a large and diverse organization that is instable. Unless you can actually start implementing some form of tactical disunity and freedom of action that is. As it might be more usefull to have a left that is organized into several smaller formations that are at least capable of engaging in decent organizing rather than one big, propped up unity formation that has little other purpose but to make budding politicians feel relevant.

  5. James O'Brien says:

    Mark: I think you defeat your own argument on the usefulness of elections. Your main point is the old platform for socialist ideas one. My previous objections to this still stand – you don’t really have an opportunity to talk about socialist ideas on the doorstep. People want to know what you would do in government and who you would go into a coalition with. It is a very deflating experience.

    For sure, at the micro level, that kind of experience is inevitable. It is, however, worth taking a broad and long, i.e. decades long, view of its function. Folks aren’t going to be won over to socialism from a few chats at a door. Shifting people’s values, consciousness, and tribal loyalties is a complex process. But each interaction can be a contribution to gaining a movement credibility. Every iteration of positive, even neutral contact between socialists and Joe Public chips away at the negative assumptions inculcated by the wider culture.

    But, more than that, electoral participation and victory conveys the impression of a competent organisation and as low-level messages for socialism seep through, the idea becomes normalised. Electoral validation helps create a culture where socialism can be discussed.

    Now, for micro-interactions to be a contribution, it has to be a contribution to something. And something with a capability to scale. Promulgating revolutionary insurrection, smashing the state etc does not at all mix with chatting to Mary about the cut to child benefit.

    There is such a chasm between the micro-level activity and the overall message that it is very hard to see how a revolutionary organisation can emerge from a million iterations of the process. Critics who argue that electoralism necessarily dilutes the revolutionary message have a point I think.

    This raises larger questions about the usefulness of the concept of revolution for socialists. Some hard – in both the sense of emotionally difficult and politically ruthless – choices have to be made.

    The contradictions within capitalism open up opportunities from time to time. In order to be available to take advantage of them, a movement needs pre-existing organisation and credibility. And if the public are completely unaware of your existence, then obviously the movement has little by way of credibility and by definition an insignificant organisation. Overall, from an examination of history, electoral activity has been far more associated with the growth of truly mass labour organisations than electoral abdication and the conditions which fostered non-electoral revolutionary movements, namely the absence of democracy, have gone, at least in Europe.

    Mark: In the media your representatives do not set the agenda and end up being forced to propose solutions on the basis of capitalism – which seem more sensible to the public because they stay within the dominant paradigm but as you point out are completely unworkable, would be disastrous and I would add are utopian. Paul Murphy on the referendum issue in the media being a case and point.

    I didn’t pay too much attention to that referendum campaign, but I thought young Murphy and our Taaffite friends came across pretty well, all things considered. But your general point stands. The mass media is structurally pro-capitalist and have a sort of immune reaction to socialist ideas being aired. Since public consciousness is to a large degree moulded by the mass media, there is no prospect of socialism until there is a left-wing media capable of reaching hundreds of millions.

    No small task, but with the internet not as costly as it was in the age of television or even print. But dividing socialist resources between small groups is very inefficient. To just take Ireland, the SP, SWP, and WSM alone could finance a much higher quality news-website than any put out on their own. And unity attracts independent and otherwise despondent socialists, so a multiplier effect is very possible.

    In the longer term, a mirror image of the capitalist media will be needed and on that scale it can only be financed by profitable business. In practice, that requires profitable co-operative ventures which can plough in funding into starting large scale media outfits. They should also be able to fund the political wing, thereby lessening the pressure on activists to harass the public for money.

    A purely political strategy is not viable. The ruling class have the current game set up so that they can’t lose. But the answer is not to retreat to revolutionism and, in particular, an approach that renders it impossible to build mass organisations.

    And now for something completely different:

    Mark: The exceptional thing about the Spanish movement was not that it was predominantly anarchist, anarchism was pretty much the dominant political trend everywhere outside of Germany and Russia until 1917.

    Just taking Europe, Anarchism wasn’t at all the dominant revolutionary ideology prior to the Russian Revolution.

    In Spain they were the principal labour organisation for a long time, but weren’t the dominant one by any means. Regionally, they were, but not nationally. By the time of the revolution the UGT was pretty much the same size and much stronger in Madrid while its political party was by then a leading party of government. And there would have been no revolution at all had there not been an election won by a socialist led coalition.

    In France, there was a strong syndicalist presence for about 20 years, arising out of an older Proudhonian tradition, but there was also a long running socialist political tradition, one that pre-dated Marx. It was very influential and survived the Russian Revolution.

    In Sweden the Marxist Social Democrats dominated.

    In Austria (then a major continental power), the Social Democrats dominated.

    In Germany the Social Democrats dominated.

    In Italy, there were remnants of anarchism, but the socialists were more powerful, syndicalist influence in the unions notwithstanding.

    In England, the trade unions created the Labour Party and both Marxists and Anarchists were fairly marginal. But even here, the Marxists and other political socialists were much bigger than the Anarchists.

    In Russia, the Social Revolutionaries were by far the most popular of the left parties. They probably have as much claim to Bakunin’s heritage as anybody. But between the ideological anarchists and Marxists, the latter were vastly bigger, vastly better organised and vastly less crazy.

    In Belgium, I forget the details but I think de Paepe’s stature precluded the emergence of a significant anarchist movement. It did however develop a political socialist party.

    In Holland, there was no anarchist institutions of any note, a minor syndicalist union for a few years and a political organisation that once the anarchists forced the Social Democrats out shrank to nothing. The SDs marched forward.

    The Anarchists could sustain mass organisations in only two countries for any length of time. The CNT in Spain and the CGT in France. In France they lasted about 20 years; in Spain about 30 and even in Spain they weren’t strictly anarchist but a coalition including and sometimes led by Anarchists. That’s not bad, but it isn’t too impressive in the scheme of things and it is far from dominance.

    Overall, Marxism exerted a much larger, a much more sustained influence on the labour movement over a much wider area. Of course, Anarchism and Marxism weren’t the only two competing ideologies in the labour movement. There was also “gas and water” trade unionism and over time it was this tendency that proved the strongest, particularly after the revolutionary conditions dissipated when representative democracy and civil liberties were won on the continent.

    This non-socialist trade unionist socialism, to coin a phrase, existed in all major organisations of any note, whether they were Marxist, as in the case of the SPD, or Anarchist, as with the CNT, and at crucial moments it made its presence felt.

  6. yeksmesh says:

    @james, in relation to some of your comments on anarchism, marxism and social democracy

    I don’t know what you exactly mean by a mass organization but the CNT and the CGT were by far not the only anarcho-syndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist organizations that managed to accumulate very high number of members, at the time of the creation of the IWA the Italian USI had half a million members, the Argentinian FORA notwithstanding splits was for decades the dominant political current in labour politics, with other South American anarcho-syndicalist fulfilling similar roles although this area of research tends to be underresearched with strong currents existing in Peru, Brazil and Mexico all of them having hundreds of thousands of members at various times in their existance (which is more significant than it seems in a South American context), in Germany first the fdvg and later the FAUD also incorporated hundreds of thousands of members during their existence and of course the syndicalist-esque left communist organisations (although all of these had quite a dramatic downturn during the interbellum), you had the Polish ZZZ which had 150 000 members at the time of the German invasion, the still relatively strong IWW notwithstanding its tendency to heavily fluctuate in strength, and besides that you could point to a range of underresearched groups all over the world who incorporated significant numbers of members (particularly in the colonized world).

    And of course you can say that social democrats were alot more powerfull in most countries even before world war I but this does not necesarily discount the thesis of Mark that anarchism was the dominant trend. As for that you need to define as the dominant trend in what, as social democracy even though they often carried marxist theory with them generally were quite far from what we now would consider marxism, they often were heavily reformist (particularly the leadership of many of these parties), were strongly composed of labour aristocracy and petty bourgeoisie groups while seeing little problems with allying with bourgeoisie liberal groups and did alot of stuff like support world war I (only one revolutionary syndicalist union did that, the cgt, and this while most of their revolutionary leaders were in jail and while significant anti-war sections still existed within its ranks) or acted heavily counter revolutionary after the war such as for example the SPD during the German revolution. Groups that we would now consider as typical for marxism were before world war I relatively small groups that existed at the edges of the larger social democratic parties. Them only managing to become big and really mass organizations after the success of the October revolution with the international prestige plus foreign support that brought with it.

  7. modulus says:

    Clearly there’s an interesting question here: how should electoralist and anti-electoralist elements cooperate, if they can do so at all? I have a few ideas:

    1) There are many things a broad mass party–understood as a large class alignment oriented towards attainment of state power–should do. Only a few of these are related to elections at all. Acquiring funds, convincing people, running–or at least funding–a media ecosystem, supporting worker struggles, helping form, fund, grow and integrate workers’ cooperatives… the list is endless. These are all things that anti-electoralists can participate on. Conversely, electoralists can also participate in them even if they also deal in electioneering.

    2) I’m in favour of a strong “evidence-based” approach to tactics. Is Parliament capable of effecting change? Let’s take it and find out. If such a broad left formation attains a majority or even a very significant minority and nothing changes, then give up the electoral strategy, or scale it back; if, however, the parliamentary power of the party corresponds to advances elsewhere, then keep it up. This same approach should be used with anything else the party does. I’m exagerating a bit, but we could do things like correlate the number of party seats, with a Kendall or Spearman coefficient, against the gini index. Or some other statistically valid magnitude. For that matter, measuring support for socialism before, during, and after an electoral campaign may give us valuable information on crucial things like how much people’s views can change in those periods, how long-lasting the changes are, and so on.

    3) On funding, it’s true that the electoral funding comes and goes depending on parliamentary success, but it’s entirely additive to whatever else can be obtained: membership dues, cooperatives, media sales, etc. The worst that can be said about electoral funding is that it may bias the party to spending too much work on electoral work, but this is largely seasonal and episodic, while the funding can allow greater independence to carry out projects.

  8. yeksmesh says:


    1) Yes in theory there is much to do for anti-electoralists in such a broad party, but in practice you can most of the time observe how these things are heavily deprioritized in favour of electoralism or things related to electoralism (selling/making pamphlets and newspapers with constant references to voting and the need to vote for the party), so you can talk all you want about how it is possible for anti-electoralists to participate in these broad parties, but if you look at the left at the moment the most likely result of this sort of participation is that anti-electoralists and in turn the entire party will be forced into a mindless focus on electoralism thanks to the much stronger strength and/or experience in party politicking of social democrats and the marxist -ist parties.

    In contrast I would like to propose a counter idea here, namely that the creation of such a wide party would only be possible thanks to extra-parliamentary activity as the only way you are gonna create this kind of party is thanks to strong organisational bases, the creation of which are mostly desemphasised in favour of electoralism in most parties and political tendencies. And you can talk all you want about the theoretical validity of how usefull electoralism will be to building this sort of base, but the reality is that you are not gonna get past the culture of one sided electoralism in the radical left anytime soon. Thus making electoralism more of a distraction towards building your kind of party than a help, with much more useful activism being capable of being done when can just shut out the electoral part of politics in favour of building an organisational base upon which you could build something resembling a balanced approach to electoralism.

    2) This will probably be of little use as electoralists will boil down any changes either to their activities or the need for more of their activities, and vice versa for anti-electoralists. Or as one of my teachers used to say, you have truths, you have lies and you have statistics.

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