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Obstacles and Opportunities

Obstacles and Opportunities: Prospects for Direct and Participatory Democracy in Early 21st Century England

If we are serious about wanting social and political change, what kind of Party or Network is appropriate at the current time (and in the foreseeable future) and why?

In the opening statement of this blog I sketched out a preliminary analysis of what was wrong in terms of radical left and pro-working class politics in England at the current time and put forward some tentative suggestions for development.  I now wish to develop that further by looking at what constrains political organising and what concerns should influence those of us who see the growth of alternative local political expression as important.  This may well be uncomfortable reading for some – I will not mince words about unacceptable and dead end politics.  Critical analysis is what this blog is about – not pussy footing around in some warm glow of fake left unity, but addressing the real situation as I see it, warts and all.  Doubtless I will lose some readers who will henceforth condemn me as a sectarian.  That word, along with “reactionary”, “rightist”, “ultra-leftist”, “anarchist” etc.  seems a stock response of those who prefer to put people in boxes and hold to platitudes and unexamined certainties rather than original thought.  Such people are welcome to their comfort zones.

In the points for development attached to my first post I said that we should perhaps be looking at a network that was not exclusive, but which people can support whilst in existing political formations.  I make clear below that this does not mean abdicating critical analysis of existing organisations.  I also said that we should not make a fetish of mass organisation having to be based on theoretical unity.  The more important aim is for practical unity based on shared class interests.  (The breadth of the classes that can be said to share crucial interests is an argument for another day).

These points beg a whole series of questions and counter arguments, particularly those who have not quite shaken off the dead hands of the Leninist and Social Democratic legacies!

Why Not “One Big Party”?

Those promoting Leninist or social democratic/democratic socialist agendas at the current time are united in the need for a single “Workers’ Party” – where there is disagreement is on how soon this can come about, how it should be composed and the level of ideological rigidity it should have.

I want to question all of this.  In short, I think that this longing for a “Labour Party Mark 2” in the UK (or alternatively, for a somewhat less likely or appropriate “Bolshevik Party Mark 2”) betrays a an ahistorical approach and an unwillingness to consider new or alternative approaches, perhaps born of the political and ideological insecurity felt by people in organisations/mindsets that feel they are either under constant public ideological assault or on the verge of extinction.  Both game plans seek to mimic early 20th Century organisational and ideological models in early 21st Century conditions.  Both shrug away the relatively (in terms of Labourism) and absolutely (in terms of the Bolshevik model) disastrous consequences of adopting these models the first time around.  (And this awareness that these models were historically – long term – disastrous does not mean that I deny that both models helped achieve significant – short to medium term and temporary – gains for certain groups of working class people or the class as a whole.)


To examine Labourism first, the chief arguments either for continued faith in a renewed Labour Party, or in the prospects for a new Trades Union based “Party of Labour” seem to rest on very great importance being put on the existence of an “organic” link between organised labour in workplaces and a political party of/for the workers.

The difference between unitary political organisation and unitary economic organisation needs to be drawn out here – they are not the same thing.  I favour one and not the other.  Economic organisations – unions, workplace assemblies etc – in ideal form the shape of the new world growing within the shell of the old, are based on tangible class unity at a basic level, and on the practical (day-to-day) need for cooperation and coordination.  The challenge of course, is to make these both democratic and fighting organisations rather than mechanisms for mediation between capital and labour that are open to easy co-option.

Unitary political organisation however (Party of the class rhetoric aside) is usually based on at least a   basic level of ideological unity rather than day-to-day needs – and so is more likely to be captured by those who are specialists in ideology, a group of people that can easily evolve into a professional political class.  This political class (as we have seen) become progressively less representative or typical of the broad mass of working people and their dependents.  The argument of Labourists would be that the unions should directly control the Party and these evolving political specialists.   In real historical practice what has happened has been the strengthening of a third group of political actors – union bureaucrats who filter demands of workers to professional politicians and filter the mealy –mouthed  accommodationism and self-interest of the politicians back to their members under the label of “realism” (“new” or otherwise).  All this is crucially shaped by the self interest of the bureaucrats themselves, particularly when the base economic organisations have become dominated by specialists in mediation between capital and labour.  The bureaucrats’ attitude to mediating with politicians is of a piece with their mediating with bosses.

The way out of this corrupting set of relationships would be to have delegate rather than representative democracy, controlled from the base by internally democratic workplace and community organisations – but then we come to the big question – such widespread internally democratic and class conscious workplace and community organisations do not (for the most part) currently exist (at least in England where I am writing) – and where they do exist they are not linked up.  So to speak of syndicalist parties or parties of labour or workers’ parties (in a meaningful sense rather than organisations which simply replicate past failure) is to put the proverbial carts before the proverbial horses.

The barrier to political representation of labour is therefore structural and historic, but it begs the question of whether mere “representation” is what we should be aiming for in the first place.  Seeking a new workers’ party at the moment would – even in the unlikely event that it was successful – merely reproduce the alienating and self-defeating trajectories of either Labourism or Bolshevism.  The dead end of Labourism is evident all around us – but we must also address the siren song of those who seek their own “De-Stalinised” version of Bolshevism, whether they be Trotskyists or latter-day Gramscians.

The Trotskyist Barrier

To talk of a “Workers’ Party” in Britain at this time is unfortunately also to hand the initiative to those most associated with that demand at the current time.  That means handing the initiative to experts in manipulation, caucusing, meeting-packing, front organising, opportunism and monopolistic practices.

The Trotskyist parties and groups (or groupuscules as the Situationists wittily put it) are currently the largest organised groups to the left of Labour and the Greens in England.   They are also significantly represented in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales.  It is not a “sectarian” statement to express the understanding that every significant initiative towards broadly emancipatory political organisation independent of union bureaucrats and the professional labourist politicians in the last 30 or 40 years has been wrecked on the rocks of Trotskyist rivalry and manipulative practice.  It is not sectarianism (something in which few can compare with the practice of most of the Trotskyists themselves) – it is a statement of recorded history.  I see no evidence whatsoever that the vast majority of Britain’s Trotskyists have any intention at all of abandoning their classic approach or methods.

The practice and methods of most modern Trotskyists are derived from the writings and historic practice of the Russian authoritarian and militarist himself, as even a cursory reading of his writings and biography will show.   The only significant differences between most orthodox Trotskyist groups (and a good number of “unorthodox” or “reformed” ones too) appears to be which part of Trotsky’s deeply unappealing (for me – I cannot speak for the power hungry) repertoire of theory and practice that they emphasise at any one time.   So with some it is entryism that degenerates (in those cases where it does not simply lead to the “revolutionaries” going native and joining the establishment) into Mafiosi-style clandestine manipulation of democratic processes.  With others it is the open “capture” of previously democratic organisations followed by the elimination of opponents by various nefarious methods (though admittedly not as deadly and nefarious as those employed by their Bolshevik role models).  This leads to the all-but-inevitable death of the resulting empty shell or now automaton-like front , deprived of the life blood of democracy and the free exchange of ideas.

My revulsion at these forms of practice is not just moral or ideological; it is based on personally witnessing the catastrophic effects of entryism, factionalism, frontism and “democratic” centralism over 30 years of political activism.  It is not made any better by hearing the dismissals of the more honest Trotskyists that these objections are somehow “bourgeois” or “liberal” – as though those who believe they are working for the interests of the working class are somehow exempt from many of the commonly accepted standards of ethics that are not exclusive to Western capitalist society but are present (though obviously not observed) across much of human civilization and history.  They seem blind to the observation that such reasoning was used to justify the worst excesses of Stalinism and is indicative of a similar thought process and trajectory.

I am sorry if this offends those of my audience who still in some way identify with that ideological tradition, but in my opinion the methods and practices of Trotskyist parties and groups in Britain STINK, and are derived from a political analysis that is elitist, dogmatic, authoritarian and in many cases, cult-like.

The cadre-based “revolutionary socialist” organisations in some cases resemble alternative religions for their members.  It is there in the way that sacred texts by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or even the minor guru of that particular sect is quoted as a substitute for original thought, or consulted in moments of doubt or uncertainty.  This is not to underestimate the appeal of alternative religions – everyone has a need for security, for belonging – for something to fill the empty spaces in lives made miserable by capitalism or prejudice.  Rigid and hierarchical belief systems give a feeling of safety and security to the insecure and remove the need for the labour and personal exposure entailed by independent thought.

The leadership of Trotskyist sects are a different matter.  Some of them have been in power in their little empires, unchallenged by few apart from those soon to depart the organisation for many years.  Some of the groups have had the same leading groups of people in charge, elected on a slate, for 20 or 30 years.  For the “failed Mandarins”, the social failures and petty megalomaniacs who have often led these groups their privileged positions have been routes to personal-egotistical, and sometimes economic or sexual self-aggrandisement that would have escaped them in most other walks of life.

Beneath this layer pass a succession of starry eyed idealists and angry enthusiasts who believe the often pseudo-anarchist prospectus of direct democracy and workers control given to new members of some of the larger groups – a vision largely negated by the actual practice and theory of Trotsky himself, let alone that of the toy town Castros who lead the sects.  For a shorter or longer time these idealists struggle on, comforting themselves with dreams of revolution until the reality of their exploitation in the workhouse of the ossified political sect finally leads to crisis and they leave for greener pastures of less dogmatic groups, or often total political disengagement and bitter disillusionment.

All this is not to say that the Trotskyist groups in Britain have not had some success – in their own terms – certainly compared to the even smaller and less influential anarchist movement.  But that success can be gained by using authoritarian and hierarchical (and often underhand) methods is hardly news to anyone living in our present society!  We can marvel at the advances and technological progress made under capitalism making use of similar methods without necessarily seeing capitalism as a desirable endpoint for human civilization.  The point is, the means play a big role in determining the end point.  Authoritarian leaders and sheep-like followers, an ideal and methods adopted from early 20th Century Civil War conditions in an undeveloped economy accustomed to massive centralization do not lend themselves easily to a radically egalitarian 21st Century democratic socialist movement.

Trotskyist groups in Britain could be said to have had notable success in maintaining small circulation newspapers, controlling lower layers of bureaucracy in ossified Labourite unions, dominating protest campaigns with their branding strategy and establishing a near monopoly on the expression of middle class student anti-establishment feeling.  However, they have not been able to achieve any of their main, headline aims – a mass party of the working class, a united and educated revolutionary movement, hegemony for their ideas amongst the most radical minority of the working class (outside a minority of public sector trade unionists and largely transiently leftist student radicals).

With all this in mind it is clear that whilst expending too much time politically attacking Trotskyism (which is a failing of the competing anarchist movement) the task of conscious democratic, syndicalist and libertarian socialist elements must be to help create and build organisations and movements which are able to resist capture or perversion by Trotskyists and which are capable of being built largely without their dubious (and these days far more limited) “assistance”.  It is not out of place to say that the chances of success for any new democratic, emancipatory and socialist movement in Britain may to some extent hinge on whether that movement can contain, marginalise (or transform into something more benign) British Trotskyism – the heir to 50 years of left wing failure.

But What Kind of Platform Is Required?

If ideologically based organisation is required, it would be something most resembling those groups from the libertarian socialist tradition that have seen their prime task as defence of workplace and community democracy and independence.  But unlike these previous groups new organisations would hopefully be less influenced by a desire to emulate Leninists and less dependent on a dogmatic interpretation of anarchism – hopefully they would not be averse to working people taking the fight at the base level onto the electoral battlefields.

In short, a left syndicalist network  or platform would  seek to defend, build and extend independent, direct democratic workplace and community organisation.  Its’ role would be to unite militants committed to direct democracy, share information and form a coordinated defensive bulwark in popular organisations against the inevitable attempts at capture and subversion by power-hungry Leninists (of whatever variety) or social-democratic mediators and accommodators.

The Task

The task before us is not about dreaming of, or trying to build a single ideologically united (on however broad or watered down an ideological base) mass party of whatever left political flavour.  Likewise it is not about creating some hardcore vanguard to ride and control a mass party.

The chief task for those serious about emancipatory democracy and the exercise of the latent power of the oppressed is to assist in building the base organisations of struggle that will form the building blocks of the new society.

Secondly, given the numerous obstacles to be overcome in the way of this, and the need for theoretical and tactical clarity there is a need for a network of those politically conscious elements who specifically do not seek power for themselves, but always seek the most thorough and direct forms of democracy – in effect a kind of “anti-vanguard”.   Their mission would be practical, theoretical and combative – to defeat by all means necessary those who would seek to mislead, exploit or subvert the movement for economic democracy to their own ends.  The role of such a network would not be to place itself at the head of the movement or claim privileged knowledge, but to clear and light the path to the future cooperative commonwealth whose coming is the creative task of the whole movement.




Breaking Free

For Workplace and Community Democracy

Ideas towards a syndicalist left political strategy

Why here, why now?

The idea behind this blog is to launch a space for developing ideas as to what might be done to engage with the current social and political situation. I write from the perspective of a long term activist in social, political, environmental and union fields in England. So, whilst some of these ideas might hopefully be more widely applicable, they will necessarily be largely based on what I have experienced, and the situation I see around me at first hand. This does not mean I will not draw on experiences of others from other parts of the world and other times, or from existing political theory, but it does mean that ideas I put forward are not necessarily meant to have universal application. Whilst I would hope that this will be a space for debate in comments, this blog is the product of one individual and should not be seen as an attempt to lay down some infallible programme – it is more about thinking aloud.  I aim to remain anonymous at least for the time being, both to protect my privacy and hopefully enable people to address the ideas rather than an individual or his current or historic  political affiliations.

Recent months have seen various initiatives similar to this launched in the British political blogosphere, this is a sign of the current pressing need for well thought-through and openly discussed strategies for those who currently find themselves outside of what passes for the “mainstream left” in Britain. This is not the place for discussing the malaise of decaying social democracy in Britain, the long drawn out tragedy of the Labour Party or the inability of most of the historic (Leninist or Anarchist, Green or left Scots/Welsh Nationalist) non-labour left to gain an echo or a hearing for their ideas in workplaces and communities of late. Suffice it to say at this stage it looks as though the disengagement of ordinary working class people from “official” politics, their disempowerment and even their drawing into the circles of influence of the far right is set to continue. People like the Left Luggage bloggers have begun to address the state of affairs, the IWCA and similar groups and offshoots have been doing this in a (necessarily limited, given their size) way for some years. However, many of us who have similar socialist, left libertarian, left syndicalist and democratic politics may find ourselves still within existing left parties and groups whilst disagreeing profoundly with some of their leading ideas, structures and strategies. This is because no alternative seems to currently exist and left libertarian groupings, Green, left/civic nationalist, Labour or Marxist parties at least offer a collective framework and somewhere that we might meet those of like mind.

However, whilst we might not be prepared to throw ourselves out into what might seem the political wilderness, this does not mean that those of us who are a conscious radical democratic minority cannot discuss another way forward to the current sectarian decay of the left.

As someone who has been involved in the libertarian left before involvement in green electoral politics and one who remains a committed member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) I am fully aware of the strategies generally put forward by the most coherent left libertarian groups – the most convincing currently being the platformist group, Liberty and Solidarity. I am in complete agreement with them (and this links also to the ideas of the Left Luggage people) about the necessity and desirability of the chief focus in British circumstances at the moment being workplace and community organisation – tenants and residents groups, community campaigns, shop stewards networks and the IWW. Where I differ though, is agreeing also with the IWCA (Independent Working Class Association) that the electoral field cannot be abandoned if the far right and establishment politics are not to be allowed free reign over an important part of people’s lives and worldviews. The problem with the IWCA is that they appear to have thrown out the baby (workplace organisation and syndicalism)  with the bathwater of compromised trade unionism and labourism.

Why use the word syndicalist rather than labour or socialist?

I make no apologies for using the word syndicalist as a label. Several things may be said about this. The chief arguments about the “legitimacy” of the Labour Party of old in Britain were to do with its’ “organic” link to the working class through the unions. It is in the very name of the party. Now there is no time just at the minute to go over all the arguments about the bureaucratic and undemocratic nature of both Party and Unions for much of their history and the route to the current ongoing debacle, but the key point is a legitimate one – working people demand representation within the (flawed and treacherous) field of “official “ democracy, and their organisations have therefore had some role in this. Likewise, there is no time at the moment to go over all the arguments over not “specially privileging” economic over community organisation, but again there is debate to be had there. What seems clear to me is that there is an argument that working people should seek to elect directly accountable (where possible, mandated) people to existing bodies to act in a number of roles – amongst them, investigators, whistle blowers, spokespeople and an extension of popular resistance and opposition into enemy territory. There is no need for an ideological commitment to a vision of “social democracy victorious through conventional channels”, though. Such a vision has been responsible, (along with the perhaps inevitable corrupting effect of official politics) for progressively sidelining the more important democratic goal of local workplace and community organisation and struggle. The kind of democracy those that I associate with and sympathise with seek – economic and social – is to be achieved at this level – with political office as its expression, not its cause.

Obviously this political expression is more likely to be both possible and desirable in the foreseeable future at lower and more immediately accessible levels of the political set up in Britain. But in using the word syndicalist, the message is given that real control and democracy lie in the community and workplace and their democratic bodies, not in political parties divorced from the base. Indeed, the main location of struggle is the workplace and community, not the realm of “official politics”, important as it might be for other reasons. Of course, the regrettable political journey of a minority of renegades in the historic European syndicalist movement, and abuse of some syndicalist terminology by the opportunist far right means that we must attach the word left to syndicalist to avoid mischief. However, this is not so much a problem in England as opposed to other parts of Europe as there never was any significant syndicalist movement outwith those left-wing industrial militants (like Tom Mann and the Industrial Syndicalist Education League or ISEL) who eventually found themselves tied to the fate of the official “Communist” movement. Our commitment to direct democracy and our opposition to authoritarian partyism must make clear at what point we part company with the dodgier parts of the European syndicalist legacy. I would trust that a left syndicalist political current in Britain would hold fast to internationalism, resolute opposition to racism and scapegoating, opposition to militarism and the glorification  of violence, and opposition to state worship. Similarly the “left” word draws a line between what I am proposing and historic continental anarcho-syndicalism, which while offering many useful examples, was flawed in its attachment to inflexible anarchist ideology – an ideology that would be very difficult to advance here in current conditions, and which like Leninism carries too much negative baggage.


Intervention on the field of official politics at a local level in the foreseeable future would not be through another factional or sectional Party, but through Independent candidates agreeing a common general programme, key amongst their aims being to take direction from community and workplace bodies in their locality. An added minor advantage of Independent status for candidates would be to avoid many of the bureaucratic and intrusive demands of the British state when it is dealing with parties – a process that both ties up militants with bureaucratic tasks and helps to create a layer of political specialists divorced from the base in conventional parties. This bureaucratic layer soon acquires a different outlook and priorities to the membership, but are often in a position to exploit their advantage within party structures.

Independent left syndicalist candidates would not represent a single union or group (Industrial Unions like the IWW have anti-political rules that generally require members to suspend their membership of the union whilst they are in elected office anyway, and left unions in Britain like the RMT, FBU and PCS either have had a bad experience of affiliation to a single Party or have political independence as a goal ) The Independent left syndicalist candidate would seek to take a mandate and direction from those expressions of popular democratic organisation within the area where the vote is taken. This means that those of us who would adopt this strategy would first and foremost be interested in supporting and building fighting workplace and community organisation at a local level, which is in fact more of a pressing concern and necessity than contesting elections.

So it is this question of how those of us with history and experience of struggle, and some vision of what used to be termed “the cooperative commonwealth” engage with, promote and assist the development of basic workplace and community organisations. It is a question of how many of those who would clearly benefit from a new approach can be won to one. And as Left Luggage and the IWCA have suggested it is a question of prioritising in our work and study those questions that have immediate relevance and importance in our communities – crime, health, education, poverty, housing, overstretched services and the local environment.

Stargrave 22/04/2009

Points for further elaboration and discussion  in the near future –

· What kind of Party/Network is appropriate at the current time and in the foreseeable future and why? (A network that does not require exclusivity and which people can support whilst in existing formations whilst they still see being part of these as having value – why the theoretically based membership organisation should not be fetishised.)

· How to oppose reactionary currents fighting on the same turf?

· Linking together the existing independent left.

· Internationalism

· Sources of useful ideas and viewpoints – links.

· How being more effective on local issues will lead to being more effective on global issues – e.g. climate change.

· What is the trajectory of mainstream politics in Britain?

· What is the global trajectory – what is the big picture?

· Answering criticism – Diffusion v Democratic centralism – the false choice.

· Class alliances and differences, real and imagined.  The “class blind” and “class blinded” objections.  Class in Britain versus the rest of the world.  Language and terminology.

· Nuts and bolts – community and workplace organisation –the dangers of bureaucracy, co-option, diversion, entryism and exhaustion.  Focus and broader cooperation in balance.

· Why do people join?  Why do people stay?  What puts people off?  Openness and honesty.

· The skills of activists – organisational and motivational

· The unorganized.  Helping the unorganized to get organized.  Base unionism and rank and file within TUC unions.

· Sober appraisal of circumstances.  The prioritising of winnables versus diffuse universal solidarity controversy. Workplaces and communities in need.  Avoiding co-option.

April 2020