Whilst resistance grows the organised Left continues to be weak. Chris Bambery looks at the difficulties and changes the Left has endured since ’68 and what the Left must do if it’s to grow and influence the anti-austerity struggle.

Young woman with clenched fist

As resistance to austerity measures grows globally the stakes are high, but to move forward we have to accept an uncomfortable fact: that the radical and revolutionary left is weaker today than it was a decade ago. It is a stark fact and one which should raise alarm given it was a decade defined by 9/11 and the anti-war movement at its beginning and by the sharpest recession in decades and revolt against austerity at its close.

The numbers of people within Britain who have been on a demonstration and who identify themselves as left-wing has risen in the last 10 years but those people clearly have not found a home within the existing left organisations.

The figures for the electoral performance and membership of radical left parties and alliances in Europe over the past decade make uncomfortable reading (see Bertil Vedert’s introduction to New Parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe, Resistance Books, August 2011).

The most shocking event was the removal of any communist deputies from the Italian parliament in the 2008 general election following the participation of Rifondazione Comunista in the disastrous coalition government led by Romano Prodi in the previous two years. The right have constantly referred to this as evidence that radical left wing politics has no future.

But the suicide of Rifondazione was only the most extreme example of a general trend. In France the hopes generated by the launch of the New Anti-Capitalist Party have turned to disappointment as its electoral results disappointed, it was overtaken by the Left Front and then spurned an offer of unity from it. In Britain we saw the collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party and then Respect south of the border and the end to a brief period when the radical left had enjoyed parliamentary representation for the first time since the 1945 Westminster election.

The first half of the last decade seemed to offer so much. It opened with Seattle and carried through events like the G8 protests in Genoa and the first European Social Forum in Florence, both of triggered a dramatic period of mobilisation in Italy and beyond. In February 2003 millions demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq. Everything seemed possible, but while mass mobilisation on the streets remains an almost permanent feature of the period (allowing for ups and downs in particular countries) the fact that the Left has not garnered the promised harvest remains.

’68 and today

The last great upturn in struggle began in 1968 with the biggest general strike in world history, the French May. The following year’s ‘Hot Autumn’ in Italy was on a similar scale` but more prolonged. All of this meant there was wide spread acceptance among the new left that emerged that the working class was central to social change. As a teenager having the lights go out in your school classroom because power workers and miners were on strike was an obvious demonstration of that.

In the last 10 years we have not seen a May ’68, the possibility has been there but it has not happened and currently we are seeing strike action against austerity in Europe limited to one day general strikes. They are impressive but fall short of a French May or an Italian Hot Autumn.

So the centrality of the working class is not something taken for granted in the current radicalisation. There is also the question of who and what is the working class. Academics, the media and the likes of Tony Blair have argued the concept of working class is outmoded. The left has to offer an explanation and analysis of the structure of the working class in 2011 which is accurate and convincing but that is largely lacking yet.

In the post-1968 period virtually every new left formation defined itself as Leninist in one way or another. In the last decade Marx has experienced a come back, despite attempts to confine him to the grave, but Lenin certainly has not. In large part that is a result of sustained assault on the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The demise of the Soviet Union and its satellite states should have been a cause for celebration, but the left did not prepare itself for the ideological assault on the legacy of the Russian Revolution which followed in schools, universities, in countless books, articles and TV and radio programmes. It is caricatured as a grubby coup d’etat carried out with little popular support with the aim of creating a totalitarian one party state. Stalin was simply Lenin’s natural successor.

Factionalism, routinism and bad traditions

Despite the undermining of the lefts strengths industrially and ideologically, the left did achieve growth in the 1990s and the first half of the last decade. Consequently we need a further explanation about why things have fallen back so badly.

In ‘New Parties of the European Left’ a member of the Danish Red Green Alliance points out, that in ‘reaction to the sectarianism and factionalism of the Left of the 60s, 70s and 80s’ the coming together of various groups and individuals ‘was established with a mood of “no more infighting” .’

The idea of an ‘ideological free’ left was an attractive one for many alienated by the all too frequent sectarian squabbles which marred much of the left but it would also mean a series of very real issues would confront the radical left to which all too often they had no coherent answer.

From very early on after 9/11 the issue of Islamophobia was one. Too many retreated into an anti-religious stance which owed more to Voltaire than Marx, did not allow them to confront the key ideological underpin of the ‘war on terror’ or to build unity with the Muslim communities in their own country. Since then we have seen a growing number of states and regions follow the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in banning the burqa, which extends the attacks on Muslims to support for excluding them from European “society.” In recent months we saw confusion reign over what attitude to take towards western military intervention in Libya.

A second trend noted in ‘New Parties of the Left’ is the problem of shifting existing ‘cadre.’ The word is French for network, the idea being that around this framework growth will bloom. But the price of survival for revolutionary organisations is always high. The party cadre is immensely proud of its achievement and of the party routine they have developed but the same cadre and routine can become an obstacle towards into immersing the organisation in new movements and offering an ideological edge which is sharp and relevant to a new generation of activists.

The experience of the Russian Revolution was one in which Lenin had to overcome the resistance of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ again and again, often from a minority position within the party, the most famous example being his fight for acceptance of the ‘April Theses’ which put socialist revolution as the dominant strategic aim. The Bolsheviks were a clandestine party until 1917 and subject to less ‘routinist’ pressure than their counterparts in western European democracies, but the conservatism of those who’d held the organisation together in the previous years came into play when a sharp shift was required.

Another pressure noted by members of radical left parties in Europe flows from the fact that many members were central to holding trade union organisation together through years and decades of low levels of struggle. Many became piled up with case work or took facility time which removed them from the shopfloor. The result again is routinism when a sharp turn is needed.

This should not be viewed as a denunciation of ‘old members’ but it is to point out the contradictory pressures at play in the class impact into left wing organisations especially when working class struggle is at a low level.

We should be aware that every upsurge in struggle tends to throw new forces to the fore, either the left learns from these new forces and adjusts its operation accordingly or conservatism will mean it stays within the comfort of past practise. This leads to believing there is something wrong with those resisting: they are influenced by bad ideas or their struggles haven’t matured sufficiently for the left to grow.

In Britain the dominant tradition on the far left has been one which accompanied a stress on trade union work with propagandism, making fairly abstract appeals to socialism. This was often washed down with an anti-intellectualism which produced ideological sterility.

Any whiff of that is going to repel those who are radicalising fast although not necessary according to the recipes of the existing left.

The huge and dramatic rise of a student movement at the close of 2010 in Britain was of immense importance but it ebbed away after the Christmas break. Its easy to lay the blame for this retreat on the nature of student struggle, but the left could have done much more to sustain momentum if it didn’t allow the movement to be split between competing campaigns and between the left of the movement and the official movement.

The left’s response to the August riots and social unrest in London and other English cities was at best mundane and quickly seemed to be reduced to being seen as an opportunity to recruit and sell publications.

‘Real Democracy- Now!’

Upsurges in resistance can and do bypass existing organisations and nor do they need left organisation to happen. Capitalism breeds resistance, as Marx argued. That has happened in Spain with the indignant movement and in Italy where the dire state of the left has not stopped a one day general strike in September and many other mobilisations. There the left in its broadest sense counts hundreds of thousands who identify themselves as communists and despite being orphaned will rally to resistance. In that sense the Italian, Greek and even Spanish left has greater social weight than in Britain and much of northern Europe.

As we enter a global battle against austerity and a western ruling class who will be more confident after Libya of launching further imperialist wars, we need a revitalised and growing left.

That requires facing the hard reality that most activists look at the left and do not recognise themselves, and either the left waits for them to change or it changes.

It also means something else. In every fresh upsurge revolutionaries have to base themselves within that section of the working class that is in the van of the struggle. In 1917 Lenin, in order to win support for carrying through a socialist revolution based on the soviets, appealed over the heads of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ to the factory workers of St Petersburg. In 1968 that meant focusing on the students fighting back on campus and forming the biggest percentage demonstrating in support of the Vietnamese. A few, short years later, in Britain, that meant shifting focus to the young, militant shop stewards who were breaking free of labourism and the shackles of trade union officialdom.

Of course that does not mean dropping everything and everyone else. The point is to organise to ensure those in the van set an example which others follow. That means generalising the best example and making an argument among other sections of the class, and indeed the left, that they have to raise their level to those that are most effectively challenging the government and the state.

Today we need to look to the British students, the Spanish ‘indignados’ and the Arab revolutionaries militancy, unified mass mobilisation and state confrontation as the way forward for the anti-austerity struggle. The message of ‘Real Democracy- Now!’ from the mass occupations in Madrid and Barcelona connected their struggle to the Arab revolutions and politically challenged the neoliberal parties and austerity. As a starting point for renewing the left taking up the spirit of this message by sounding and looking more like the revolts of 2011 would be a good place to start.

From International Socialist Group (Scotland) website


Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.