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]