Palestine demonstration, 9 December 2023. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 Palestine demonstration, 9 December 2023. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

At a time when mass protests better represent the public than official politics, Chris Nineham explore how socialists can organise to achieve transformational change

Israel’s assault on Gaza and the massive pro-Palestine demonstrations in response have deepened the political crisis in Britain and raised questions of how the left should organise. Coming on top of his relentless attacks on the left, Starmer’s shameful refusal to call for a ceasefire in particular has concentrated minds on the need for new left initiatives.

A number of different responses are on offer. There are those who continue to believe we should organise in Labour, some stress the need for a new electoral alternative, others are pursuing various versions of grassroots or revolutionary organising.

To determine the best way forward, we first need to consider the social and political context. Two aspects of the situation are widely accepted. One is that disenchantment with Labour and other social-democratic parties has been growing for decades. Almost everywhere, social-democratic parties have succumbed to pro-market economics and abandoned their foundational project of state-led planning in the interests of working people.

A second, connected, characteristic is a gathering cynicism about mainstream institutions, including parliament. Poll after poll show plummeting levels of trust in the mainstream media, the police, big business, and, especially, politicians. Turnout in elections is declining almost everywhere too. All this is often put down to apathy or disengagement, but is better understood as a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions than the depoliticisation of the population.

The third characteristic is much less widely discussed, surprisingly even on the left. This is the fact that the massive movement for Palestine, though particularly impressive, is not untypical of our times. We are in fact living through an era of mass popular movements. Partly no doubt because of the parliamentary impasse described above, the first quarter of this century has been marked by cycles of historically significant and sometimes insurgent protest.

The century began with a series of massive mobilisations against the international financial institutions at Seattle, Nice, Genoa and elsewhere, leading to huge anti-capitalist assemblies in various parts of the world. That movement helped provide the impetus for the historic global protests in 2003 against the Iraq War, which were particularly intense and prolonged in Britain.

Since then, international protests against post-financial-crisis austerity coincided in 2011 with the revolutionary movement beginning in Tunisia and Egypt that became known as the Arab Spring. In Britain the anti-austerity mood led to significant strikes and a huge TUC demonstration in 2011, and coalesced into a movement with massive People’s Assembly demonstrations in 2014 and 2015. In 2019, just before the pandemic, there were further upsurges across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America reaching revolutionary levels in Sudan.

The cycles of Palestine protest of the last two decades have to be seen in this context, as do the impressive if short-lived explosion of Black Lives Matter protests. The recent Palestine protests have been the biggest ever and have proved once again that millions of people are open to a politics based on mass mobilisation rather than just ticking a box in an election every four years.

In some countries, these movements have been accompanied by a revival of industrial struggle. In Britain, the strike wave kickstarted by rail workers in the summer of 2022 brought large numbers of workers out on strike for the first time in decades. Its leadership was often tentative and its results mixed, but workers in the private and public sectors have rediscovered the power of collective action.

Protest and politics

These movements should be much more central to the discussion about left organisation than they are. Protest is often counterposed to politics, but for Marxists, the two are deeply connected. The waves of protest have been interspersed with periods of relative stability. But one of the things that has characterised the anti-imperialist and anti-austerity movements in particular has been an unusual combination of huge social reach with political generalisation and radicalism. One of the defining slogans of the anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the century was ‘another world is possible’. A favourite chant on anti-war marches, ‘welfare not warfare’, testifies to the way the movement is a challenge to the wider priorities of Western governments. These movements, more than anything, have kept alive hope for change over the last few decades and raised the possibility of a revival of anti-systemic mass politics.

This is first of all because, despite scepticism in some quarters, they have had a very deep impact on society. The movement against the Iraq war, for example, didn’t stop the attack on Iraq, but it created a crisis in government and an anti-war mood in the country that has frustrated our rulers ever since. It drove Blair out of parliament, and helped lay the basis for the Corbyn takeover as well as the pro-Palestine movement. To take the more recent examples, the 2022/3 strike wave may not have reached its potential, but it forced the issues the cost-of-living crisis and low pay into the mainstream discussion, destabilised the government and caused deep anxiety in boardrooms around the country. The recent Palestine protests have thrown the government onto the defensive again over foreign policy, seen off an attempted Tory ban, removed a toxic Home Secretary, humiliated the far right and caused turmoil in the Labour Party.

They also provide an answer to the perennial question of how ideas change and how people can become radicalised. One of Marx’s central insights is contained in his comment in the German Ideology that ‘it is in the process of transforming the world that people transform themselves.’ If socialism is about working people actively taking control of their own destiny, then mass struggle is the beginning of wisdom.

When working people get involved in strikes or street protests, they start to overcome the passivity and sense of powerlessness that normally ensure acceptance if not buy-in to the system. People sense their collective strength, confidence rises and divisions and prejudice start to break down. Mass struggle also helps to reveal the true contours of the capitalist landscape, exposing the role of the media, the police, the courts and so on, and in the best cases, the tremendous power of solidarity. As a result, it is in the midst of these kind of campaigns that people are most likely to recognise their own class interests, challenge ruling-class ideas and glimpse the possibility of a struggle for a different kind of world.

In order fully to understand the significance of these movements, we also have to grasp their limitations. While they can raise the question of wider social change, they don’t automatically answer it. Even the greatest mass movements don’t spontaneously overcome all the conditions from which they spring. People develop fast when they are involved in mass protests, but they still carry some of the old ideas in their heads. ‘The past’ Marx commented memorably, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’.

As a result there are always competing views about how to go forward in mass movements. Moderate leaders, organisations and their ideas don’t just evaporate in the heat of the struggle. Some will still argue for limited action, for keeping the movement constitutional, focussing on parliamentary politics and so on, even in the deepest crisis. During the recent strike wave for example, most union leaders rejected socialists’ arguments that there needed to be more coordinated action between the different disputes. They also tended to oppose socialists’ case that calling all-out strikes would be more effective than a series of one-day actions. Socialists responded by trying to build cross union rank-and-file networks to promote a more effective strategy and implement it in practice.

In the Palestine movement, the socialists’ case that the movement should defy the attempted ban of the 11 November demonstration came up against real internal opposition. Not everyone in the movement sees the importance of pushing for school student, university or workplace walkouts. It is socialists that have carried the arguments for these tactics and in the process helped to strengthen and deepen the movement.

The conclusion must be that socialists need to play an active role in the movements, not just to be a part of them, but in order to shape them to try to ensure that they fulfil their potential. The left needs to have the greatest possible organised weight within the movements, not to promote artificial differences, but to fight for strategies that can actually win and to point out the connection between these immediate struggles and the wider project for change.

The limits of electoralism

The Labour party is incapable of delivering real change or of playing a constructive role in the movements. Since taking over, Keir Starmer has spent most of his energy trying to destroy the left and bury even the memory of Corbynism. What remains of the left in Labour is effectively trapped. Given the post-Corbyn balance of forces and rule changes, the right wing in Labour is unassailable. The fact that Starmer has been able to silence or sideline the few remaining left-Labour MPs makes ‘staying and fighting’ look futile.

More fundamentally, with its massive activist base and widespread popular support, Corbynism was the best opportunity the left has ever had to take command of the Labour party. The fact that the Labour right and the party machine was able to destroy the project shows that Labour cannot be transformed into a party of radical change.

In this situation, a new left electoral project, even a loose network, would be a step forward. It would help break the political logjam. It would provide some representation for working people who rightly feel abandoned, and it could be a focus around which the left could start to unite.

Moving toward a new organisation won’t be easy, however. The left is fragmented and there are a number of different initiatives already in play. Britain’s first-past-the-post system makes electoral progress for start-up organisations very difficult.

There are other issues that any new initiative will have to address. The most obvious of these is that seemingly radical electoral projects can succumb to the pressures that have pushed social-democratic parties to the right. Those that have had some success, do not have a good record of supporting the mass movements.

Even in the best of times, parliament is not the real seat of power in society. Elected politicians are hemmed in by various unelected institutions of the state; the civil service, the courts, the police, the media and so forth. These institutions are in turn tightly connected to the banks and big business, whose interests they tend to represent. Electing a different set of politicians to parliament doesn’t alter the class interests or instincts of those running the centres of state power.

In a period like the post-war boom when profits were good, ruling classes were prepared to accept some reforms in return for relative social peace. But today we are in a much harsher world. Profits are flatlining, bosses are brutal and state machines have abandoned welfarism for war against the poor at home and against competitors abroad.

There have been a number of new left electoral initiatives over the last few decades in Europe that have tried to challenge or replace failing parties like the Labour Party. Their record has been mixed at best. Only Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and La France Insoumise in France have managed genuine mass appeal. Of these, Syriza capitulated to the European Union and the banks, and Podemos collapsed after joining a moderate coalition government. Only La France Insoumise remains as a radical alternative with really mass appeal.

Most of these electoral projects have been political expressions of mass social movements. Syriza emerged from the great anti-austerity protests that shook Greece from 2011, Podemos came out of the similar movement of the squares in Spain, La France Insoumise gained much of its impetus from a cycle of upsurges in France. Corbynism itself was a kind of movement insurgency into the Labour party that sprang from the anti-war movement and the anti-austerity demos of 2014 and 2015 in Britain.

Despite this, with the exception of La France Isoumise, they have had a poor record of relating to the mass movements from which they sprang.  Stathis Kouvelakis, a radical member of the Syriza central committee, pointed out that one of the big failings of Syriza was the inability to articulate parliamentary politics with popular mobilisation, ‘when the second is lost’ he explained, ‘the first becomes weightless’. Momentum, the main organisation of the Corbynite left, called itself a movement, but in reality, quickly became a pro-Corbyn ginger group within the party, focussed on internal battles rather than mass mobilisation.

This is not surprising. Electoral organisations are by their nature very focused on the parliamentary process and there is huge pressure to downgrade anything else. In the discussions about new left organisation, the left must not reduce politics to what happens in parliament. Forcing through real change will require, more than anything else, serious levels of class struggle on the streets and in the workplaces.

Revolutionaries and the movements

To relate most effectively to social struggles demands socialist organisation specifically orientated towards them. It requires groups of the most conscious activists co-operating together in a systematic way to deliver solidarity for strikes, to strengthen and broaden campaigns and protest and to make links between different struggles. It also requires political analysis that draws out the logic of the insights gained from the experience of struggle, which is what real Marxist analysis is about. And it calls for a vision of change based on what humans are capable of at their active best, not on the electoral calculations of parliamentary politics. This is what is meant by revolutionary organisation.

The exact approach to the movements matters. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, communists ‘have no interests separate and apart from the interests of the proletariat as a whole.’ Our starting point must be to build the widest, most effective possible movements.

Revolutionaries do our best to draw trade-union leaders, reformist politicians and others into the movement because this will broaden the resistance and help attract their rank-and-file supporters. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued, such united-front work is not a manoeuvre or an occasional tactic, it is a method that revolutionaries should try to use at all times. Revolutions themselves will be a product of a united front between conscious, organised revolutionaries and those who arrive at revolutionary action through the force of events, often still organised in non-revolutionary parties. Hence Trotsky’s comment that the basic democratic unit of the Russian revolution, the soviets or workers’ councils, were ‘the highest form of the united front.’

Socialists shouldn’t, however, simply throw ourselves blindly into campaigns or movements. If we do that, we will fail to shape them, and allow others to assume leadership. We need to build socialist organisation that can campaign for the most effective, militant strategy possible within the movements.

This does not mean standing on the side-lines or setting up rival, left-wing campaigns. The result of that can only be fragmentation, the squandering of the huge potential of the movements and the creation of sterile sects. The problem is not that socialist ideas need to brought in from the outside, but that life under capitalism much of the time tends to obscure working people’s interests.

What is needed is a dynamic interaction between struggle and socialist organisation and ideas in which working people can become fully aware of their class situation. This interaction involves socialists first of all doing everything possible to lead struggles alongside others and actually to make a difference in the here and now. If this is linked to raising slogans that generalise and take the movement forward, it amounts to what the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács called ‘accelerating the maturing of revolutionary tendencies.’

In order to achieve considered, conscious impact in the wider movements, however, revolutionaries do have to group in a separate organisation. Such organisation is necessary to report on, discuss and analyse and theorise developments. It is needed to produce newspapers, social media, and other publications that can popularise Marxist ideas. There has to be some discipline about this. Revolutionaries come together in their own organisation to discuss interventions, and then implement them together in a unified way. 

If there is success in establishing a broad alternative to Labour, for example, then intervention by revolutionaries will be important to try to ensure that it maintains a principled opposition to war and to austerity, and that it doesn’t make the mistake of turning its back on the mass movements. If, in another case, Israel’s aggressions lead to a wider war in the Middle East, new arguments and actions will be needed to respond.

But as Lenin put it to the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, ‘first separate, then come together again.’ In other words, an independent revolutionary organisation is necessary and useful only if its aim is to work more effectively with others to build the most powerful possible movements of resistance.

Challenging power

In very difficult times, and despite the pessimism of some in the movement, the left has big opportunities.

The Western leaders’ support for Israel’s ethnic cleansing has reinforced the view that our rulers are callous, cynical and self-serving. This impression has been gaining ground for years through the terrible experience of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, inaction over climate change, police racism and sexism and a host of other grievances.

The sense of alienation from politics and the official institutions shows that the elites are dangerously isolated and suggests a popular instinct that the kind of change we need will not come from parliament.

The popularity of the strikes, the Palestine protests and the whole series of recent mass movements shows that there is a mood for resistance amongst a big minority and a much wider sense that it is justified. 

The big prize for the left has to be to make links between the issues and find ways for the various movements to make common cause. This is never automatic and will not always be easy, but is clearly worth the effort. It can help open the way to a movement with the capacity to challenge the very structures of power. 

To make this happen, we need many more rank-and-file socialists consciously co-ordinating on the ground. We need, in other words, much stronger revolutionary organisation.

Before you go

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.