Chris Bambery reflects upon the fortunes of the British left in recent times, whilst looking forward to potential roads to progress in the coming years
There is no question that the global recession on the back of the constant 'war on terror' has produced a radicalisation. Anti-capitalism is widespread. Evidence comes from the sheer scale of popular mobilisations over the last decade. Once, achieving a demonstration of 100,000 in Britain was regarded as an immense achievement. When grizzled lefties looked back on the demo of that size against the Vietnam War in October 1968, tears welled in their eyes. Now a London demo has to be counted in hundreds of thousands, to be a success.
Yet this radicalisation, in Britain at least, has not been accompanied by the growth of any of the political currents which you would expect to benefit from this anti-capitalism. And I mean any, even those who reject the label ‘Party’.
The situation the left finds itself in is worse than when it entered the new century.
Other traditional yardsticks for measuring radicalisation will not suffice either. Once people would quote rising trade union membership; but while the unions have retained their membership over recent years there has been no major growth.
No other period of radicalisation in British history has experienced this lack of any formal political expression. It’s not that people opposing austerity, war and much else are without politics. They are busy devouring articles, books, online videos and much else.
What explains this phenomenon?
Politics in Scotland and south of the border are diverging but there are common factors in how things developed during the last two decades.
Fans of Margaret Thatcher would like to think she eradicated socialism and destroyed the trade unions. That was her boast after all. But she did not.
That’s not to deny that real changes followed from the free market “reforms” of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Britain today produces as many cars, if not more, than in the 1970s. But back then if you got a job at Dagenham, Linwood, Cowley or Longbridge you not only had to join the union (because of grass roots organisation) but you found strong and rebellious shop stewards organisation and a vibrant left presence on the factory floor. Now there’s union organisation, organised from the top with what are virtual no-strike agreements, little real shop stewards organisation and little significant left presence.
Protest after Thatcher
After Thatcher fell, things changed for the better. The Poll Tax rebellion at the end of the 1980s heralded a revival of struggle which reached its climax in 1992 with two major demonstrations to stop the closure of Britain’s remaining coal industry. Arthur Scargill, held up as the “enemy within” a few short years before became a popular hero and the media feted South Yorkshire miners, once hate figures.
Unfortunately, the protests alone could not stop the end of our pits. As an alternative to protest on the streets working people, including those young people who had mobilised against racism and the Criminal Justice Bill, began to look to electing a Labour government as the common sense solution. That’s what produced the 1997 landslide victory for Tony Blair.
In many ways it was Blair, not Thatcher, who inflicted lasting damage on the left. Firstly, the hopes, however, mininimal Labour voters had in the new government were dashed. The lies told about the invasion of Iraq encouraged a belief that all politicians were the same – liars; and, after the expenses scandal, corrupt.
What Blair also did was effectively destroy the left within the Labour Party, with honourable exceptions like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There were always major limitations to the Labour left but its very existence ensured the language of socialism was heard in parliament, on the BBC and so on. Tony Benn was the last in a line including Nye Bevan and John Strachey. That meant Marxist ideas were on the fringes of the public domain. That’s gone in large part.
The Fall of the Wall
Accompanying this was the ideological assault began by the right in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We should not pine for the days of Brezhnev and those other Stalinist autocrats or the societies they oversaw. They were the antitheses of what Marx meant by socialism. But since then the 1917 October Revolution, Lenin, Marx and much else has been under a profound attack.
Post 1968 a generation of the New Left looked to 1917 for inspiration. Today the accepted version of history portrays a caricature – a grubby coup which installed a one party state which Stalin quickly controlled.
This affects even those who reject Leninism and October because it is part of a wider attack on the very idea of revolution. Edmund Burke, who attempted to rubbish the French Revolution and failed, must be eating his heart out.
Yet even this cannot fully explain a radicalisation without a growth of the left.
At the start of the last decade that would have seemed a highly unlikely outcome.
The protests at the 1999 World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle opened up the period of mass, anti-capitalist mobilisations we are still living in.
Some of us on the left grasped this at the time, some did not. Those who did reacted rightly by mobilising for the big European wide mobilisations which followed, accompanying any gathering of world and EU leaders. We should be proud of that.
The first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 was not only a big success with a huge and moving demonstration through the city accompanying it, but it also issued the call for the February 2003 global protest against the approaching US led invasion of Iraq.
Again, sections of the left had understood that challenge. Down south they had launched the Stop the War Coalition within days of 9/11 (it came later to Scotland for reasons I haven’t time to go into).
In the anti-capitalist movement the left that took part had to work with diverse forces, so too in the anti-war movement. It wasn’t what was written on the tin that mattered, more what people were doing that counted.
Of course in Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party was in existence and that represented a massive leap forward. Never before had the radical left succeeded in building an organisation at the heart of working class communities from Lerwick to Berwick. Let’s pass over the reasons for its destruction for now, the wounds are too raw to dwell on, but let’s have the ambition to get back to that point as soon as possible.
South of the border, the electoral expression of the anti-war movement was Respect. Again that was the right move but, again passing over the reasons for its divisions, it was no more than an electoral alliance and its appeal to young anti-capitalists was, therefore, limited.
Nonetheless, the SSP and Respect were in different ways a breakthrough for the radical left. Their disintegration was a blow from which we have not yet recovered.
It ensured the dominance in the existing organisations of those who believe their routines are the only way to be, but that’s ever a danger, as Lenin understood. It has also been accompanied by a paranoia about “defending the tradition,” which reduced itself to the faithful addressing the faithful.
As a New Year opens, I ponder on the immediate past.
Joining the movement
Why is the left not growing now, with some honourable exceptions? Because it does not feel and look like it’s an integral part of the real movements which are taking place.
On both sides of the border we need a vibrant left which can draw anti-capitalists together. It is not going to be the case they will suddenly convert to joining any of the existing “revolutionary parties,” instead we need to involve wider forces. We cannot wish an anti-capitalist front together but we can come to a common aspiration and, having set an objective, seek to develop joint work across a range of issues.
The 20 October TUC demo showed there is a will to resist austerity is there and the People’s Assembly against austerity being launched by the Coalition of Resistance, the People’s Charter and others is a welcome move.
In Scotland things are moving now at a different pace following the success of the Radical Independence Conference. Together we can build a popular movement across every town, city and village. That will open up new possibilities. Let’s make sure they don’t slip through our fingers. I’ve had enough of hindsight.
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.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win