How to be unpopular

August 14, 2009

At the moment a lot of what the Left stands for and speaks out at is popular.  We are swimming with the tide when we denounce free market neoliberalism, the war in Afghanistan, defend the NHS from Tory attacks, and laugh at David Cameron squirming in his tetchy defence of his party’s position on the NHS.

Whether this is doing us any good, in terms of our ideas spreading and being taken up, is debatable.  The Vestas occupation was a spontaneous act by the workforce, and even when you consider the disputes that the Left has played a key role in, such as Visteon and Lindsey, the general reaction to job cuts and reduction of hours has been grudging acceptance.

In times when we are looking to use the fact that much of what we are saying (like workers control of banks) doesn’t sound outlandish or strange, should we take the risk and voice opinions that are likely to be viewed as extreme or weird?  If not now, then when?  When there is no audience for socialist ideas?

I have to say, this is a problematic one, do we go for the ‘radical honesty’ of the CPGB, or the avoidance of certain issues like drugs and assisted suicide like many other Left organisations?  I think neither, though I don’t pretend to offer a real solution, more a series of thoughts that hopefully people will react to and develop.

I think the problem with the CPGB’s approach is that they put forward positions, such as the right to bear arms, that are fairly abstract and are not the sort of thing that most people talk about.  As it happens, I broadly agree with them on the right to bear arms, as I don’t believe that a State monopoly of arms is desirable, and I don’t believe that guns kill people, rather the other determinants and causes of crime working through individuals.

To raise the point is foolish though, as being the correct thing to say doesn’t mean you should go about saying it – water has the formula H2O, but it would be a little odd to devote countless articles in a newspaper (or the Weekly Worker, whichever applies) to the fact, as it is largely irrelevant when there are so many things to talk about – workplace democracy, getting the private sector out of the NHS, scrapping Trident etc., where we can be correct, relevant, and link them to other arguments.

If I was asked about my position on the right to bear arms, I would state my position truthfully, regardless of the views of who I’m talking to.  In a country where probably the majority of workers support strict control on guns, to do otherwise would be opportunistic yet unproductive, as it would mean missing an opportunity to discuss the nature of the State,  and the real causes of crime.

Drugs is another one, and this is where the major Left parties keep quiet.  Now, I don’t know whether this is because their position is to maintain the status quo or to legalise the purchase and consumption of currently illegal drugs, perhaps through licensed shops in the same way as alcohol.  For some it may be the former, perhaps because of effects of the sale and taking of drugs on individuals and communities.  If it’s the latter, a position I hold, why are they keeping quiet?

I think it is because the perception is that it would be very unpopular if they advocated legalisation.  It may be, but it can be presented as a means of undermining organised crime, decriminalising casual users who cause no harm, raising taxes, reducing harm by guaranteeing purity and dosage, and treating drug addicts as a health problem rather than a criminal one will go some way to helping them, and reducing their need to commit crimes to fund their habit.   It would also really annoy Daily Mail readers, always near the top of the ‘Pros’ column.  The case can be made quite easily, particularly to young people.

Taking a risk in advocating something that might be unpopular, but which you can persuade people to support it is likely to further improve the Left’s image as detached fully from the hypocrisy and stale consensus of mainstream politics.

The secret I think lies in being relevant, not getting ahead of yourself, and having the courage of your convictions to put forward a position that won’t be immediately popular.  Workers will not put up with airy-fairy ideas that sound as if they were cooked up at 1 in the morning in a student house with a suspicious smell and enough empty pizza boxes to block out the light from the street.  If we are going to put forward an unpopular position we need to gather all the evidence and examples we can to put forward the case, and put forward practical suggestions that could be implemented tomorrow.

By coming out with unpopular ideas we could well improve our image as straight talkers, change ideas about particular issues and open up opportunities to discuss deeper issues underlying them.   As with most things it’s about getting the balance right, regularly talking to other workers so you don’t get distracted by unimportant matters, and being honest.  And not being afraid of getting it wrong, so long as we’re prepared to admit it when we do.

That might be a little difficult for the likes of the SWP, of course.  If George Washington had been a member of the SWP, when confronted by his father over the felled cherry tree with an axe in his hand, he would have denied that there was a cherry tree there, then claimed it had always been lying like that, then would have angrily denounced his father for distracting from the urgent need to defeat the fascists.

It’s no wonder they are in the state that they are in, when they can’t even acknowledge certain home truths themselves, let alone be honest with the rest of the Left or the wider working class.

The trap of ultra-leftism

July 17, 2009

A critical step in developing a socialist viewpoint is the realisation that the key problems in society cannot be solved while capitalism exists, that capitalism needs to be done away with and replaced with a radical democracy with planning at all levels.

The problem is that in order to get to that situation we cannot fall into the trap of appearing to be abstract and irrelevant.  In order to do this we effectively have to act as both revolutionaries and reformists, posing the destruction of the social system on one hand, and advocating changes within the system on the other, in order to gain credibility and support for our ideas and actions.

It was said by Engels that an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory, and this is undoubtedly true, provided it is not misinterpreted as a ‘know-nothing’ approach to politics, as abandoning theory, ideas and argument can only lead to accepting ‘common sense’ or conventional wisdom and an inexorable drift to the Right.  I often laugh when bourgeois thinkers claim that they have no ideology or preconceptions.  They have internalised the orthodox values of the status quo, and elevated them some some timeless, neutral position.

In an intellectual sense, it is dishonest (though not necessarily wilfully so), and dangerous, because an acknowledgement of biases and general assumptions is essential to avoiding dogmatism and building arguments on a framework of your pre-existing ideas, rather than using those ideas to help analyse new phenomena and evidence, to construct theory and recommendations for action based on facts and objective reality rather than twisting and selecting information that best fits preconceived ideas.

I don’t think the Left has much trouble in acknowledging the importance of theory or the philosophical basis of it’s theorising.  I do think that some groups get the balance wrong, and fail to understand that the relationship between theory and action is a dialectical one, not one which flows in one direction, from theory to action.  It is all very well having pristine theoretical outlines and prescriptions, but these have to be tested in action, and modified according to the experiences of that action.

A prime example of the importance of this can be seen in the political outlook of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a marginal ultra-left sect with an overblown opinion of its own importance, mainly due to the fact it publishes the much read (but little bought) Weekly Worker, which, excellent coverage of events in Iran notwithstanding, is the Heat magazine of the far-left in Britain.

Aside from some of the baffling editorial decisions made in the Weekly Worker (not for them coverage of the postal strikes or Afghanistan this week, but the anniversary of the Moon landings), their coverage is dominated by people who seem to spend a lot of time reading and writing, but not much time actually getting active in campaigns and the labour movement.

The tone that results is an otherworldly analysis of the positions and events of other parties, usually concluding in the ‘correct’ Marxist analysis provided by one of the CPGB gurus, who avoid the pitfalls of economism and opportunism that seemingly befoul the rest of the Left.

The fact that their ideas are never tested on picket lines, in workplaces or other arenas where their elaborate positions would be exposed to vigorous scrutiny and ridicule, means they are only ever criticised by other Lefts, who can be dismissed as they have strayed from the critical tenets of Marxism.

Some of the results of this have been hilarous.  I look forward to the regular finger wagging of Dave Vincent, a PCS member who continually warns the ruling broad left that their supposed craven opportunism and rightward drift is bound to let the Right wing back in to office.  One recent missive, which had the air of a clever spoof, made this admonishment after the Left had actually made gains on an already impressive base in the National Executive elections, with the wise Comrade Vincent, who clearly strikes a chord with the PCS rank and file, improving from bottom of the pile to second bottom.

The position on No2EU was utterly baffling, and seems to have generated some ructions within the sect.  First they started out with critical support, a fairly reasonable position, consistent with their critical support of the Lindsey strikes.  But then they decided to set ‘tests’ to various No2EU candidates, or at least the ones who would talk to them, namely four Socialist Party members and Dave Hill of the ISG.

These tests were, quite arbitrarily, on the question of ‘fortress Britain’ and bizarrely, the right to bear arms.  It was deemed that No2EU failed these tests, so jaw-droppingly they opted to call for a Labour vote instead, that party well known for its progressive views on immigration and opposition to gun control.

I don’t intend this to be a lengthy critique of the eccentricities of one ultra-left sect, more a cautionary tale.  Left groups and their members need to get dirty, even if the campaign or movement they get involved seems to have politics that are less than pure, or even particularly dodgy.  If you believed the bourgeois media about Lindsey (the SWP did), it was a nationalist strike.  Other Left groups decided to go down there and judge for themselves, and made the correct call after they did.

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.  We can’t do that if we go along with pre-determined theories that are incapable of being altered and moulded, even awkwardly and uncomfortably, by reality, or by bypassing reality altogether.