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.