Wednesday 17 February 2010

Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left.

Radical politics, like romance, inevitably disappoints. It has become a cliché that liberal infighting gets in the way of liberal action, but this week has been a flashpoint for the British left, struggling to organise itself in the face of an upcoming election which may well bring greater gains for its enemies on the right and the far-right than the country has seen for a generation.

Fifty core members of provocative far-left group The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) resigned their membership yesterday in a dramatic public walkout that has sent shockwaves through the British left. The catalyst for the walkout was the resignation of party stalwart and recent Mayoral candidate Lindsey German after members attempted to block her appearance at a local Stop The War meeting, amid ferocious internal debates. "Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement, [and] fits into what is now a well-established pattern," conceded the fifty former SWP members in their joint resignation statement.

They are right: sectarianism has crippled progress on the left since the formation of Respect in 2004, and has prevented any genuine electoral alternative to the three central parties from forming. The SWP has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade, gaining themselves a reputation for petty squabbling that, for many, overshadows their valuable work in opposing the Iraq war and propelling the anti-capitalist mobilisations of the start of the decade. It’s almost enough, in the words of singer-songwriter Frank Turner, to make one hang up one’s banner in disgust and head for the door.

The inertia that inevitably results from destructive leftist squabbles is heartbreaking for anyone who believes in progress, but there is something to be said for infighting - within reason. The nature of the left is multifarious. We are progressive not in spite of our differences, but because of them: we are progressive because we have the imagination to think beyond the good old days or the status quo, and sometimes that thinking will take us in different directions. However, radical politics, like romance, isn’t a thought or a feeling – it’s something that you do. The usefulness of the British Left will not be judged by the purity of our ideals, but by our actions, and by what we manage to achieve together for the benefit of ordinary people.

Lenin's maxim of "freedom of discussion but unity in action" is the founding principle of Democratic Centralism, the nominal organising principle of most liberal and left-wing parties, as well as several others. Unfortunately, sectarian groups like the SWP have historically been so scuppered by internal squabbles and personality politics that they haven't even managed to nail the first part. And that's no way to build a flat-pack cabinet, much less a coherent platform for the future of British progressive politics.

Factional splitting is hardly unheard of on the left, but yesterday's walkout offers genuine cause for hope. Most significantly, the mutineers acknowledged the need to prioritise agitation over irritation, saying that “the most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left.

“Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left,” said the mutineers, who recognised the achievements of the SWP in their statement. Their call for unity in action could hardly be more urgent.

Were we living in a period of peace, stability and economic ease, without the pressing necessity of a response to climate change, the left could be forgiven for allowing itself the luxury of protracted ideological self-scrutiny – a pastime that has never overly troubled the British right. But we are cowering on the tracks of a cultural crisis, and there is a train bearing down upon us, and it is brutal, and relentless, and recalcitrant, and intolerant, and if we don’t hold it up it’s going to roll right over us. If we want to halt the approach of a grim Tory future riddled with fascist pressure groups, the left needs to prioritise action over solipsistic squabbling – because if we don’t, the far right will.

[adapted from a talk I gave at Mutiny last week and cross-posted at The Samosa]


  1. There is a tradition in the Bolognese left known as transversal politics. It basically emphasizes coalition building rather than fractionalising because of what are often minute differences. There is a really good introduction here at

    Secondly, there is a real need for taking up "systemic practice" in the left as a means to reunify fractured relationships and networks - which are very similar to transversal politics - one of the starting points is the concept of individual views being partial - and the importance of using "multiple partial views" to rebuild a bigger picture. Google Peter Checkland and Stafford Beer for a "soft systems" perspective. There is also a good bit on the Open Universities website since they have a diploma course that runs on the subject.



  2. I have a lot of sympathy with where you're coming from, Laurie, and share your frustration at the left's inability to get its act together. Sometimes I feel we've missed our window.

    As far as the specific question goes, though... I spent longer than I care to remember in the SWP, and have been pondering at inordinate length about the failures of the further left, because we do have this serial problem in that you've got a lot of talented people fired up to change the world for the better, and we keep making a terrible hash of it.

    There are plenty of things wrong with the SWP specifically, but introspective infighting is not one of them. This is an outfit that's had two contested elections to its leading committee in the last thirty years - the recent dispute is very very unusual, and a bit more argumentation on a regular basis would probably do them the world of good. Your broader point about petty infighting in the left as a whole holds good, though.

    We have, as I see it, two problems. One is that the left is too small, weak and fragmented to make a meaningful impact on society. The other is that so many people on the left are in the habit of behaving like dicks, and that this is learned behaviour. I can't help thinking the two things are connected. But I don't have an easy answer to this, except to hope that if we do useful things and try to behave like decent human beings, we might start to get things right.

  3. thanks for the insight into this. cadres, factions: so much a part of the left and far left.

    progressive lefties love them some ideology. wait. off to listen to some b bragg. sheesh....

  4. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I've never got on with the SWP. One of them falsely accused me of racism and refused to apologise when I pointed out that he had misheard me. It was a long time ago, but if he'd just said sorry, I'd have put it behind me and shrugged it off.

  5. The absence of any reference to the main elected left-of-Labour alternative is strange. Greens - on the London Assembly, in the European Parliament, in the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Irish Assembly, countless councils and soon, hopefully, Westminster.

    Heaven forbid those fleeing the SWP decide a spot of Green entryism is the thing, though..

  6. I remember the fun I had with the SWP/SWSS when I was at University, and to me this reminds me very much of the attitudes I saw back then. SWP had three modes of operation it seemed: 1/. lockstep thinking; 2/. complete disassociation or 3/. claiming leadership of any campaign they were even marginally involved in.

    But on campus, they were it as far as the Left were concerned and so that's where I went to get involved. I let my membership lapse after the first year though...

  7. @ James Mackenzie, eek, what a horrible thought! Maybe I'm paranoid, but I got the distinct impression that the SWP looked down their noses at Greens and wanted to smear us.

  8. Why do you keep talking about 'liberal' parties? This is not the United States; we have a politically organised labour movement home to social democrats, socialists and all manner of leftie radicals. We do not need to hide that it is egalitarian and collectivism, not middle-class hand-wringing, that unites and defines our left.

    Do not denigrate us with the term 'liberal'. I've never seen a liberal on a picket line.

  9. To be perfectly blunt, I have nothing but contempt for the SWP. It's always struck me as a rather weird gang of control freaks and oddballs obsessed with building their own little nest at the expense of pretty much everything else.

    As for the purging of Lindsey German...well, she's done her share of purging over the years. As you reap shall you sow, and all that.

  10. Well, it certainly sad to see that the woman off of Big Brother is one of those to quit. Is she the last celebrity to leave the SWP? I think we should be told.

    The more famous names amongst the 50 quitters are the cheerleaders for the policy of joining Mr Galloway in cobbling together the most cynical and pernicious psuedo-progressive political organisation formed in the UK in my lifetime.

    The results speak for themselves.

  11. "radical politics, like romance, isn’t a thought or a feeling – it’s something that you do."

    love love love this quote. don't like the swp much, total opportunism on every cause that might vaguely be seen as left wing seems pretty unappealing to me, but never actually engaged with them so should probably shut up.

  12. Hey,
    As one of those who left the SWP and a co-organiser of Mutiny, I'd like to respond to the comments re: green politics. Nearly all of those who left are committed to engaging in anti- climate change protests and see hope in the revitalisation of the Seattle-type anticapitalist movements to combat climate change and demand system change. So no, we don't sneer at green politics.
    Thanks for the support, Laurie, and hopefully work with you in the future on Mutiny ;)
    A. Mutineer

  13. I might be way off-piste here, Anonymous, in which case, apols, but um....the Lib Dems? Are they not left-leaning?

  14. Leninist Trotskyist would be Marx Engels socialist.Doomed to failure for the adherance to higher control by a bourgeois vangaurd, and torch and pitchfork justice.

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