What type of organisation is Counterfire and what should be its priorities for the coming year? The Counterfire steering committee presents the following article for discussion at our annual conference
Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation that aims to bring together as many of the most militant, dynamic activists as possible. The history of working class struggle tells us again and again that, in order to have an impact, revolutionaries need to organise together to clarify our analysis, campaign for the most effective strategy for the movement, and popularise socialist arguments.
The last thirty years of neoliberal offensive and the more recent imperialist wars have led to a popular political radicalisation. People have become cynical about establishment institutions and alienated from official politics, including social democracy. Demonstrating has become a mainstream pursuit, and the impact of Occupy amongst other things shows a growing openness to political alternatives.
All this has been intensified by the failure of the neoliberal economic model and the disasters created by the west’s wars. The left faces big and exciting challenges as a consequence.
Even at times of radicalisation, there is inevitably unevenness and all sorts of different ideas circulate, including reformist ideas which insist that change can only come from above. That is why those who believe, with Marx, that socialism is about working class self-emancipation, need to organise together in a party to win their vision of change in the movement. Without such a party, other, less radical ideas will dominate, and the movement will suffer.
Simply reproducing organisational blueprints from the past won’t work. Marxists need to be imaginative and creative, and place a high premium on understanding the way the world is changing. But the truth remains, without coherent revolutionary organisation, a successful challenge to capitalism is impossible.
We use all means available to promote our arguments and organisation. Amongst other things we have been quick to experiment with social media, we have launched the first free broadsheet
on the left and we have opened Firebox which, as well as being a space for discussion, performance and organisation for the movement, houses our political organising centre.
We have a flexible and democratic structure. We are organising Counterfire groups wherever possible in towns, cities and colleges around the country. These groups are planning centres for activism and intervention as well as forums for socialist ideas. We discuss and decide our priorities and strategy at regular national members’ meetings and our national conference where we also elect our leadership body. Then we collectively do our best to carry out the decisions we have made.
A crisis on the left
The combination of a multilayered capitalist crisis with widespread radicalisation has been accompanied by a crisis on the left. This has had a number of medium-term causes: the capitulation of social democracy to the market, the collapse of the soviet union - a blow to the confidence of many who retained a sense that it was some kind of socialist alternative - and a continuing low level of industrial struggle.
But these have been exacerbated by the left’s failure to face up to new realities and to find ways of dealing with them. In particular, after playing an important and creative role in mounting unprecedented opposition to the war on terror, the radical left has failed to meet the challenge of creating credible resistance to austerity.
Instead much of the left has fallen back on a faith in spontaneous struggle on the one hand and a tendency towards sectarian and formulaic propaganda, emphasising difference, on the other.
Understanding a changing world
Counterfire has responded in two main ways. One has been to try to develop a serious analysis of the changing situation without either rehashing old formulas or jettisoning the key insights of the revolutionary tradition. We have tried to examine what is new in the situation and how revolutionary Marxism can be creatively applied to current conditions.
We have developed a pioneering account of the way imperialism is operating post-Iraq war and the Arab revolutions. We have argued against the ultra-leftism that has hastened the decline of the student movement, and we have attempted a realistic assessment of the state of working class organisation, linked to a theoretical analysis of the importance of the new movements.
We have also tried to re-establish the practice of strategising in the movement. From Cairo to Athens, the radical left faces the same question in different forms: how can the militant minority find ways to draw in the large populations of people being buffeted by the crisis? How can we make socialist ideas practically relevant to millions of people?
As we have argued throughout the year, neither abstract calls for strike action, nor ever-more-militant propaganda provide any kind of answers to these questions. The first task of socialist organisation at a time like this is to find real strategies that can take the movement forward from where it actually is.
Making a difference
This leads us to the second main element of our work, the practical job of helping to organise campaigns and struggles to mobilise the widespread discontent and challenge the government’s priorities. Over the last eighteen months Counterfire members have been involved in struggles over cuts and closures, strikes over pensions and pay cuts, the campaign against the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, international solidarity over Palestine and Greece, the launch of the Emily Wilding Davison and much, much more.
We have argued for a strategic, national response to austerity and war. We have placed a high priority on strengthening the Coalition of Resistance as the only alliance with a real possibility of providing some coherence and co-ordination for the anti-austerity movement. This year’s People’s Assembly promises to mark a major step forward in the development of a real movement against austerity in Britain. It can also be the launch pad for a realistic campaign for a general strike.
At a time when many on the left have withdrawn from anti-war activism, Counterfire has campaigned to keep the Stop the War Coalition mobilised as we face the threat of wider war in the Middle East.
But all such movement initiatives need strong revolutionary socialist organisation at their heart. Our effectiveness in this work depends on Counterfire being as solidly rooted in as many workplaces, colleges, towns and cities as possible.
The year ahead
Counterfire has grown significantly in less than three years of existence, though we have also experienced a level of turnover in membership. Our website has a consistent online readership of thousands and hundreds have shown a willingness to join by signing up online and on paper since we launched. In the last year we have begun the process of setting up new groups in a number of cities and universities.
This is only a beginning. It is obvious from the success of our events, the popularity of our website and publications that many more people are interested, but there is a big gap between the reputation and support we have and our level of ‘hard’growth. Addressing this gap has to be our first priority in the months ahead.
Growth in 2013 depends on four things:
- Recruitment - Many members will have been working closely with people in various campaigns and movements. We need a membership drive now to reach out to these people and establish a more serious, systematic relationship based around joining by making a financial commitment to the organisation. This is the only way Counterfire can strengthen its influence in the long term. It is also the only way we can ensure the increase in regular income necessary to consolidate our central office and improve our website and publications.
- Strengthening our organisation - We need to organise more local Counterfire groups and develop our membership. It is through regular, local, organised collaboration that activity is best sustained and experience and confidence gained. We need to raise our theoretical level with more political meetings and Marx 101 educational series. This year a new series of books by Counterfire members will be out. Local groups should use these as the basis for meetings, discussions and the general process of education.
- Co-ordinating strategy and tactics - Counterfire has had its biggest successes when we have all been pulling together around particular initiatives, whether it was the launch of CoR, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the TUC demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, or various anti-war events and campaigns including the recent protests over Gaza. It is at these moments when it is clear that we can influence events and draw impressive numbers of people around us. 2013 will provide more opportunities for this than any previous year, including the international anti-war conference in February, and the people’s assembly and the Athens alter summit in the summer.
- Promoting our politics - In the last six months Counterfire.org has run a series of controversial arguments at a number of crucial moments. These include articles about Syria, Julian Assange, the question of the general strike, and the problems in the student movement. At a time of widespread disorientation on the left, such sharp arguments have helped to clarify a layer of activists in the movement, increased our profile and influence and brought people closer to us. Promoting our online profile is key here, but follow-up meetings wherever possible to draw out the debates have proved essential. And in the new year we need to use our publications much more systematically and produce the free broadsheet more regularly as a means to reach a still wider audience.