Marking ten years since the launch of Counterfire, Alex Snowdon reflects on why the organisation was set up and some of what we have achieved in the last decade
Counterfire will be 10 years old on 8 March. Both the website and the organisation were publicly launched on International Women's Day 2010. A radical manifesto for women's liberation was our first article.
It felt like an appropriate occasion for launching a new socialist organisation. Although too often sanitised nowadays, International Women's Day had its origins in the collective struggles of working class women and was pioneered by radical socialists. It was, for us, a gesture that - while starting something new - we saw ourselves as rooted in long historical traditions of working class resistance, internationalism and opposition to oppression.
This article is merely a few reflections on the last decade and the modest role we have played in renewing the left, not a thorough history of either the website or the organisation. There are consequently many notable contributions that I have no space to mention, so apologies in advance.
Socialists in an age of mass movements
We began with a strong commitment to building wider social movements - and have maintained that commitment ever since. Since the turn of the century, we have witnessed a series of major protest movements, in this country and internationally. The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements were vitally important arenas for left-wing activists in the first decade of the century. The phenomenon of mass protests has continued since, with big demonstrations in opposition to austerity, in solidarity with Palestine and for action to tackle climate change.
Globally there have been sometimes momentous popular revolts, above all the Arab uprisings of 2011. What seems to be a new wave of revolts has developed over the last year, particularly in parts of South America and again in the Arab world. The worldwide youth climate strike insurgency has taken climate activism to a new level.
Counterfire has taken all of this seriously, analysed it and contributed to the debates about organisation, strategy and tactics that have emerged from such hopeful developments. We have been guided in this by a core commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class and the Marxist tradition that has, for nearly two centuries, been built around that central idea. That has required flexibility and creativity to suit changing circumstances, not the stale repetition of familiar dogmas.
Practically, we have done all we can to strengthen the movements and connect them with socialist politics. The anti-war movement has continued to be indispensable in the last decade. Stop the War was utterly vindicated by the Chilcot report on the Iraq war. There have been new arenas of campaigning - like opposing military interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen - as well as sustaining longstanding commitments like solidarity with Palestine, opposition to Islamophobia and campaigning to end the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The record of the Trump administration - unwavering support for Israeli apartheid, escalating conflict with Iran, support for Saudi Arabia's brutality in Yemen, and more - has illustrated why it was crucial to sustain the work of Stop the War. The tight allegiance of our current Johnson-led government to Washington politics is further proof of why the movement is necessary. Counterfire members can take some pride in their contribution to the anti-war movement.
Social movements and renewing the left
We also played an important part in establishing the Coalition of Resistance in 2010. This anti-austerity alliance was later supplanted by the bigger and broader People's Assembly. We had a hand in its launch and development. Our members recognised the urgent need for coordination and unity in resisting Tory austerity, doing our bit to develop a coalition with significant reach into the labour movement and the capacity to mobilise.
Although strike levels have continued to be at historically low levels, we have always looked for opportunities to connect unions with the energy, social breadth and politics of the social movements. We have emphasised the positive role that unions play, taken strikes (including the current UCU strikes in higher education) extremely seriously when they have happened, and promoted what has sometimes been termed social movement trade unionism.
On a personal note, I am writing this article on the train home after an excellent international solidarity conference of my union, the National Education Union. The NEU's international work is one illustration of how socialists can raise the level of politics in the labour movement, build alliances and demonstrate the unions' relevance. Our own efforts can in many ways be seen as aligned with this broader left approach.
The very large People's Assembly demonstration in summer 2015 illustrated the value of our approach to coalition-building. Even more so as it fed into the popular enthusiasm and organising around Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign that summer. Stop the War's campaigning also prefigured, and helped lay the basis for, the emergence of the Corbyn project.
The political project represented by Corbyn's leadership had our critical support throughout. Though an organisation outside the Labour Party, Counterfire recognised the very positive possibilities inherent in Labour's leftward shift and the renaissance of left politics that went with it.
We analysed the developments and debates in Labour politics in numerous articles (those by John Rees were recently collected together in book form). The June 2017 election campaign saw Lindsey German contributing a popular daily election briefing. This became an ongoing weekly briefing that continues to grow in reach, offering topical commentary from a socialist perspective.
A revolutionary thread
The Labour left revival of recent years has been enormously significant, but we have never wavered from two closely related convictions: the great value of extra-parliamentary organising and the need for independent socialist politics. It has always followed from these two convictions that revolutionary socialist organisation is needed to connect ideas and action, to pull together revolutionaries and coordinate their efforts, and to renew the Marxist tradition in turbulent times.
The website has been, for the last decade, a continuous thread supporting these aims. Topical analysis, theoretical pieces and our weekly book reviews (edited to a high standard by Dominic Alexander since the early days) have all helped in developing and strengthening a tradition of revolutionary socialist politics and activism.
We are a modest size, but we started tiny and have grown substantially – and we often make a significant impact beyond our numbers. The website has seen a very impressive increase in readership in the last few months, indicating the growing appetite for our ideas and analysis. A key challenge now is turning that into bigger and more effective organisation.
The energy and ambition of Corbynism needs to be re-orientated to focus primarily on rebuilding mass action in the streets, the workplaces and the universities. For that to happen we need a dynamic extra-parliamentary left. That is what Counterfire is trying to create. We urge you to join us.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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