Rolling Back the Right Wing. (I)

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — almost the only bit of Gramsci which anyone remembers.

“Positional warfare” — remembering this bit of Gramsci marks you as a potential activist.

This is a necessary thing if civilisation is to survive, let alone remain comfortable. There are some people who think it would be an improvement if we went back to hunter-gatherer conditions. Perhaps they are right. If they are wrong, however, then we have to check the growth of a reactionary movement which seems unstoppable, and which also seems to grow only more powerful and more right-wing with every passing year.

How can we do this?

There are certain solutions which seem not to work at all well. One is to hope that a party which pretends to be left-wing will save us once we bring it to power. The trouble is that the pretense is very often quite extreme at first, so that such parties claim leftist opinions, and incorporate leftist people, but actually are not led by leftists. Hence there is a big disjuncture between what the party’s membership wants, and what the party’s intellectuals say ought to be done, and what the party actually does.

The most obvious example would be the British Labour Party in the 1940s and the 1960s and 1970s. Another obvious party would be the French Socialist Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Less crassly obvious, but still, perhaps, an example of this, is the African National Congress in South Africa. Such parties, led by conservatives who employ rhetoric to conceal their actual political positions, but who also are often interested in shifting rightwards, are not likely to bring any kind of millennium. On the contrary, they tend to discredit their most principled supporters as well as themselves.

Another doomed solution is to rely on tiny parties which claim to be principled although their leaders are not. Supposedly, because these parties are tiny they can afford to be principled, although because they are out of power, this theory is not likely to be tested in any way. Of course, the further theory is that by supporting these parties one will gradually grow them into behemoths which will be able to challenge the major parties at the elections. The trouble is that the more these parties grow, the more likely they are to become fissiparous and split. Sometimes they split even without growing. If they successfully grow, they usually betray their principles. Big surprise.

Alternatively, the parties choose not to grow because to grow entails compromising principles. In extreme cases, as with the Anti-Privatisation Forum in South Africa, this generates reluctance to take part in elections at all (historically also true of many Cape Trotskyists, such as the New Unity Movement). Tiny parties which have an extremely narrow membership base and a narrow, restrictive political perspective are problematic. (On the other hand, almost every party was a tiny party once.)

What this means is that simple trust in a powerful party gets us nowhere. Touching faith in a principled party also gets us nowhere. We need a party which is powerful enough to do something, and principled enough for what it does to be remotely socialist. This is not at all utopian. In history, there have been many social democratic parties and even socialist parties which have fulfilled these criteria to a greater or lesser extent. The trouble is only that the right is so powerful, and the forces of corruption and co-option so ubiquitous, and the left so crushed by its long tradition of perennial defeat, that conditions are worse for the left than they have been since large-scale electoral politics began in the early nineteenth century.

The temptation — the practice — is to simply withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need to be a member of a party, and soon you are telling yourself that you don’t need to vote. Then you tell yourself that there is no need to feel guilty about this because voting is a sham and all politicians are corrupt. “Don’t vote — the government will get in” sums up this approach, but this approach is often made a lot more attractive by the fact that someone who does not vote because he recognises that none of the existing parties are up to his exacting standards is someone who is effectively saying that he is better than anyone in those parties, and also, better than anyone who foolishly votes.

That way lies complete surrender to the right.

We need to take a liberal, radical or social democratic party, or rather a party which purports to be these things but is not, and press it to move leftwards instead of rightwards. We also need to persuade a large number of people to support a party which is well to the left of the other, more powerful party, so as to have the alternative that if the large but less committedly leftist party wobbles or backslides, there is someone who can take them on from the left and threaten them with serious electoral problems. Without both of these two things (no doubt other factors are also important, but surely these two things are very important) it will be very difficult to succeed.

Of course, sometimes circumstances get so bad that the electorate decides that they need a change. Sometimes the Right ends up behaving so badly, as in Britain in the early 1960s or the mid-1990s, or the United States today, that the electorate wakes up to realise that things are pretty tough and decides to go elsewhere. Alternatively, sometimes the Left gets a charismatic leader who sweeps them to the polls, as happened at, at, at — well, anyway, perhaps it might happen. The point is that you cannot wait for these things, and also, if you wait for these things, you are not changing your party and hence you are waiting for someone you don’t particularly like, to get in. As for the charismatic leader, apart from possibly Tony Benn, it’s hard to think of one who could be trusted. (In South Africa, Chris Hani would probably not have been as left-wing as the spin-doctors who exploit his name pretend.)

So what’s needed are parties which can be relied on to do the right thing. How to manage that? There’s a fine line, obviously, between saying that you have to be principled, and becoming so enamoured of your party’s policies that you fail to notice that the public don’t support them, and consequently you lose the next election. Another huge problem is that if the Left, or what passes for it, takes over a faux-Left party to the extent of imposing a vaguely Leftist agenda on it, that is liable to alienate a big chunk of the party’s organisation.

McGovern, the last liberal to run for President of the USA, would probably have lost anyway, but it didn’t help that his party’s national machinery were working against him. Most of the powerful figures in the British Labour Party were opposed to the party’s expressed policy in 1983 and were therefore glad to ensure that the party lost the election. In both cases, party members engineered calamitous defeat so as to regain control. (Greg Palast has discovered some similar points about the American Democratic Party in the 2004 election, where local Democratic wheeler-dealers often preferred Republicans to win so that unsympathetic politicians could be unseated.)

Perhaps it’s worth considering the different levels of party organisation. At the top you have a substantial handful of leaders (in small parties they can be counted on the fingers of one hand), most of whom got there because they wanted to be there. These are professional politicians, often from a kind of caste from which such politicians emerge, with a great deal in common, therefore, with the professional politicians of the other side. In the case of large parties, such people need to be Superglued to the party’s constitution and manifesto, and permitted to speak only when elected representatives of the party’s National Conference are watching. In practice, these days, such people run the party, rewrite constitution and manifesto whenever they choose, and orchestrate National Conference to ensure that their friends and relations are the representatives.

Below them are the party bureaucrats and elected officials. Again, in theory, such people are supposed to serve the party’s interests; they manage membership, they help flesh out policy in consultation with elected bodies, they organise events and manage things like funding drives and polling campaigns. Therefore they are supposed to be responsible to the party, which in practice should mean, the party’s mass membership if not its broader support base. In practice, however, since the mass membership has allowed the leadership to take charge of the running of the party, party bureaucrats and elected officials tend to be obedient to the will of those leaders. (In some of the more advanced parties, the terrible burden of deciding on who will be the party’s candidate is taken out of the hands of constituency party organisation or conferences, and handled directly by the leadership — except in the United States, where it is handled by neither, but is organised more or less directly by corporations.)

Below them, and actually treated as the lowest of the low, are the party’s volunteer workers. In a tiny party these make up the overwhelming majority. In a large party they are still the majority, but are caught between a sizeable bureaucracy and a large passive membership. (In small parties there are usually few passive members; membership and volunteer work are more or less synonymous. Obviously this cuts down on membership.) No left-wing party can survive long without a mass of volunteer workers. If a party outsources things like envelope-stuffing and phone-calling and membership drives to private companies, which parties often do these days, then it obviously needs a hell of a lot of money.

Membership usually has more time than money to donate, so you can more easily acquire envelope-stuffers than cash with which to hire envelope-stuffers. Hence, a party which pays people to do such things is a party which is getting money from other sources than its membership, which usually means a party in bed with big business. Volunteer workers are also usually ignored except when they are working — so they are tremendously experienced and motivated and the business of the party is to make as little use of that experience, and to discourage that motivation, as much as possible. (This is even the case with small parties, because the leadership of such parties is invariably paranoid about their positions, not being really competent to hold them, and thus terrified that activists will overthrow them.)

Then there’s the membership. In a big party they are supposed to give without receiving. Seldom is anybody interested in asking them why they joined the party, what they expect from it, or what the party can do for them. Sometimes they are allowed to join in a raffle with a large cheap cup with a picture of the Leader emblazoned on it as the prize. Sometimes they are allowed to discuss policy so long as it is absolutely certain that they have no power to change it. They are also allowed to vote, at branch or constituency level, for the policies and representatives that the leaders have chosen. They may sometimes vote against, but if they do, their votes are ignored. It is immensely frustrating to be an active member of a big left-wing party; it is tempting to become a volunteer worker and then fall back into active membership out of embitterment, then fall into passive membership and then leave the party. Bad experiences in parties sometimes lead people to change parties, and sometimes even to move rightwards. Bad experiences, sadly, are standard practice.

Being a member, though, is in some ways better than being a voter. You hold your nose and vote for a party you despise, with a leader you detest, because the alternative seems to be worse. A few weeks later you turn on the TV and discover the detestable leader in earnest consultation with the worse alternative, after which the worse alternative proves to have become party policy. You can’t be arsed to go to Party conference, because they’re a gang of sick shitheads, but you write a cross letter to Party headquarters, which goes straight into the circular file. You go to a party (not a political party) and someone asks you why the hell you vote for such a bunch of obvious hypocritical losers who are only out for number one, and what can you answer? “Because it is there”, is probably the best answer. Alternatively you kick him in the shins and get banned for life by the hostess.

The Creator is starting to become slightly miserable. This was supposed to be an optimistic piece. Instead, even the will is getting pessimistic. However, there will be room to discuss remedies later.

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