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Groupuscule politics: Can the old left become the new left that's needed?

by Dave Riley

The plethora of groups makes for a rather quaint cottage industry on the Australian far left which this year was expanded with the addition of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.

There's an interesting discussion thread appended to this post by Jim Jepps (since republished in LINKS) which seems to be trying to attack the LCR's NPA package in the same terms as the Socialist Alliance is criticised and was related
to (and not related to) here.

The same sort of barrage was thrown at the Scottish Socialist Party for a long time.

It doesn't take much to recognize a sort of far left mindset in play.

There's this chronic schematism that simply by repeating often enough that you are revolutionary and by inserting the correct POV into any exchange then you really and truly must be what you say you are.

the far left's curse because in one way it's a sort of substitutionism. Sort of "INSERT PROPAGANDA HERE" approach.

There's nothing wrong with propaganda of course but real world politics has to deal with the benchmark that, outside the religions, it's not just what you say but what you do that counts.

While it's true that for a long period the doing if active at all, can seem at least very restrained. That was "the long march" of the Trotskyists that bears down upon the many branches in that current today. It was primarily about what the US SWP called "revolutionary continuity".

The question is, of course, whether that time is over. That's the judgement being asked. This is why a lot of the discussion on the far left stretches across a pessimism to optimism axis. The debate is whether there is political motion you can relate to or not.

I think that's the core debate in the UK SWP dispute at the present time despite the organisational distractions. If there is motion how do you relate to it.

And to some degree that prospect is obscured by the organisational question. There are those that want to push an anti-Leninist wheel barrow as though all there is to Lenin was a formatted party structure passed on by formula -- while ignoring the fact that at Lenin's core advocacy is the methodology of dialectical materialism.

The complication is that if you only see issues of party structure you cease to analyse contemporary politics in the same potential light as Lenin did. Trotsky's handicap -- and the burden of the Trotskyists -- was a certain timelessness that relied on a Felix like "bag of Tricks" toolbox of options: often formulated either "allowed" or "not allowed" . That was this legacy in a way, a DIY package that supposedly fitted all occasions.

I find the SWP discussion about the united front very much contained by this sort of formalistic thinking and I can remember similar exchanges in like manner in the DSP going back to 20 + years ago where the nomenclature of Trotskyism was standard discourse.

So thinking outside the square can be a hard ask for this left. That's certainly my impression after the three years of debate -- 2003-2006 -- in the Socialist Alliance with the small affiliates.

You may be able to lead a horse to water, but....

But to see the same arguments replicated in the exchange around the French NPA suggests a sort of universal political culture,almost a lingua franca that all these groups share. It's almost a moralism when you look long and hard at it, and ironic given that they are still so keen to remain separate from one another.

Letting go

The problem is letting go. I think that's the correct term as there is a sort of catharsis at stake. There's a knee jerk response that presumes that if you let go an inch you are surely going to go all the way and before you know it, there's your revolutionary perspective flying out the window and everything you spent years preserving in way of political modus operandi is spent in a twice.

I don't make light of such dangers as we all know our history lessons. But it seems to me that a generic wastage of revolutionism is oftentimes buoyed up by major shift rightward in key sectors of the working class or petti bourgeoisie. A move rightward should have a social base to consolidate a broad subjective shift. It happens. That's what history tells us anyhow.

But is it happening now? And is there a danger of the far left trialling along behind whatever currently is moving in that direction?

We know for instance that those Trotskyists who joined the ALP -- and Bob Gould is a good example of the ilk -- preferred to stay there and moderate their politics to fit the milieu. But that tendency -- this pressure to adapt -- is standard for any one revolutionist or any number of revolutionary groups. The problem with the groups is that they adopt a bunker mode to protect themselves from the ideological barrages of the bourgeoisie and tend to so often freeze their all in a programatic timelessness as they try to preserve their Real McCoy politics until their day in the sun comes around.

Of course that's not absolute as I'm being general rather than group specific. However versions of this proclivity are shared by all the Trotskysist groupuscules. So while it is correct to argue that sectarianism is a product of isolation from the working class, you can rationalise that isolation in a way that is sure to chronically deepen it and even make it a badge of honour: your raison d'etre. Soon enough you begin to believe that that isolation is the way the world was meant to be and there is no way around this seeming reality in front of you. So what you do in your cul de sac is work at perfecting your program because sustaining that becomes your major focus.

This is why you can have groups in Australia who number less than 20 members and all of these few think they rather than someone else are the true Marxists. And like Socialist Alternative you chart a propagandist course convinced that from little things big things grow.How they supposedly grow isn't necessarily something that you should be too concerned with. After all with the right program your day will surely come.

I think the right word for this is passivity -- a passivity born upon a certain pessimism that all we lefties can hope for is survival and the now and then primitive accumulation of cadre.

If you have spent years playing around with ideas and perspectives as you try ever so hard to get your viewpoint (and less often your dopoint) just so, it is disconcerting to relate to a prospect where political academe like that may not be so important. I admit that I am torn myself between the thrill of political discovery and inquiry, of debating out conflicting points of view in order to arrive at a 'correct' position -- and the often mundane business of , I guess, networking, rooting for and negotiating alliances with people who in the main don't give a fig for the theory.

The former seems so safe and cosy in comparison to the free form of the latter. Where's the friggin rules!? Where's Marx supposed to sit?

The complication is that it can become so very difficult to notice the difference between the circle spirit milieu of the far left and the everyday reality of the rest of the population. This failure to note the divide has been obscured I think by the buoyancy of movement politics these last 40 years. So there's been an outer defence perimeter that has protected the far left in a the way that a moat protects a castle. But as that wave of movement growth recedes -- as it has done over the last decade -- the difference between the groupuscules and the pressing political reality seems sharper as there's less veneer in place to dampen the contrast.

Party politics

The irony is that there's this massive deference to the potential role for party, as distinct from movement, politics and this determined disinclination of most the far left groups to seize the day and do anything about it. Surely their day in the sun has arrived, hasn't it?

The complication is that the party that people will relate to is not like the many varieties/one clone on offer from the groupuscules. And therein exists not only a problem of practice but a problem of theory because the historical debate is whether the groups have misread their Bolshevik histories. I think that is indeed the case.

There's a interesting commentary by the late Peter Camejo where he takes up the dedicated inadequacy of the far left mindset:
The idea that a group of a few hundred people who are not in the leadership of any mass movement, much less integrally involved in leading the working class as a social force, can be referred to as a Leninist party and having a “correct program” would never have crossed Lenin’s mind. In 1918 Lenin would refer to such an idea as clowning.

By the 1940s, however, within the Trotskyist movement a conception had taken root that no matter how small or disconnected from the workers movement a group might be, if it had the “correct” program and a cadre, it was a Leninist Party and would eventually “win”.

Of course there's a problem inherent in just surviving politically under capitalism -- but what has happened I think is that the sentence that all groups face is inevitably the Alice in Wonderland ruling that you have to run very fast in order to stay in the one place. And that survival mode has warped the ability of the groups to think outside where they're at.

This is a very serious mistake that only becomes evident in the present context that the far left is trying to deal with. In places where there has been a strong history of woking class fightback against neo-liberalism the what is to be done? question is a little easier for some groups to relate to and begin to answer. But the general trend has been to fight tooth and nail against the tide toward broader, more user friendly party formations for the 21st Century's version of socialism.

The problem may be that if this stand off is persevered with, given time, the far left could be more marginal than it is now.

2 Com:

Dave Riley | December 29, 2008

There was another element in this theme that I didn't get a chance to develop.

Where the notion of a new broad party has taken off and even in those sectors who have embraced the Green Party option there's a default attitude that the party we want is a party to the left of social democracy; a party that can begin to get the politics right.

So in fact what is being aspired to is indeed a new left party as though a new left party is all we want. I think that's an attitude shared by so many socialist group exers in the Greens here in Australia and the same sort of attitude seems to be buoyed up around the RESPECT project in the UK. So in one sense any broad left party will do so long as it fills the political space on the left -- and the broader, the better.

So the main game is seen to open these projects up to all comers. You can see that debate now on the topic of the LCR's attitude to the French CP and sectors coming out of the Socialist Party. In some quarters the LCR is being called sectarian for being too narrow in its NPA pitch.

While I cannot comment in depth about the French context, I think generally there's this attitude that what the Marxist left needs to do is facilitate these new formations, dissolve into them and wake up on the morrow in a new political context, having done their bit for the cause. In part this is why there's a certain huffing and puffing around the question of the Leninist model that these far left groups supposedly carry into these new pluralist formations -- and the "Leninist party model" is seen as a handicap that is sure to cheapen the exercise, even skewer and cripple its potential.

Whether that may be the case is not proven at all as where Marxist groups have embraced the core new party dynamic then there's no major hassles.

Where they don't, such as with the SWP or the SP in the UK, you do indeed have problems, and if you like the SWP's experience of RESPECT is a text book example of how not to engage in these new party projects.

That said, the seeming opposite is not true either: that these new party projects are the end of Leninist ways and means. I don't like using the term "Leninist" because it can be thwart with so many different meanings. What I want to suggest is that the business of creating a mass revolutionary party doesn't take a rest, a backseat or negotiate a detour just because the main arena of activism is within these new formations.

There's this crude fit that tries to argue that what in effect you are seeking to do is trade in an "old style" (Leninist / groupuscule) party formula for a new loosey goosey pluralist one. That's not true at all as it isn't about marking down your politics.

Of course there is plenty of room for some debate on this point as the complication of how electoralist the new party is to be does begin to shape its platform, advocacy and probably its style. But if these formations were just electoralist or overwhelmingly so then they would be constrained by that focus. And that's the rub. It isn't about creating new left parties for the sake of creating new left parties. It's about continuing the business of forging a party that can build a movement to overthrow capitalism.

It's about doing that in the context of consolidating ongoing partnerships that are aggregated in , by and with these new formations. It seems to me that the LCR/NPA axis is clearer on that point than some other projects, and I think Mullen catches that when he points out: "“The NPA is a party which has some people who are revolutionaries and others are not. Debate will continue within the party on these issues, while together we build all the struggles which are needed to oppose the dictatorship of profit.” But that doesn't mean that the new party has to resolve the reform or revolution question from early on in its existence. Concretely, and that's the key issue I think, how much would a declaration of revolutionary intent make to what the party does?

This seems to be a ongoing complication of the groupuscule mindset: that so long as you have the rhetoric in place then everything else is secondary. And maybe as each year's annual conference is notched up you seed the party platform with greater swathes of the Transitional Program - which will somehow force the party to veer ever further leftward.

But it's not that simple or so linear.

Dave Riley | January 05, 2009

In like mode, another post. This time to Marxmail
Louis Proyect wrote:
What's sad about Mullen's cluelessness is that it is most certainly shared by the Australian DSP that printed this interview in Links. When
I proposed that the DSP should have dissolved itself as the LCR is now planning to do, one of their members (or ex-members, I am not sure)
shrieked about how I had an answer for everything. I don't have an answer for everything, but I am pretty damned sure about the sectarian

Don't have an answer for everything? I think Louis Proyect is being far too modest.

But he also misrepresents his shrieker. The charge was that Louis was "organisationally schematic" which, of course, he is.

There are all these things happening in regard to new party dynamics at different paces around the world in very different political contexts and all Proyect can do is yell from the sidelines -- at some considerable distance -- "Dissolve ye bastards! Dissolve!"

That's his magic bullet. His one panacea that prevails upon the organised Marxist left: get these new projects going (by such means he fails totally to share with us) and once they appear on the horizon, forthwith dissolve into them.

The complication is that no outfit -- Marxist or non -- would commit to such projects on the basis that they *had* to dissolve into them.
That's very different from *deciding* to so do .

The question of dissolution is complicated as it is both an organisational and tactical question in the same way that forming something is. I doubt the Salvadoran FMLN would have lasted as long as it has as an aggregating party project if it had been ruled by organisational precepts as stringent as those that Proyect advances.

There's a word for this complication: politics -- the matter and motion stuff. And it is politics that has stalled the DSP's own merging into the Socialist Alliance.

Proyect also ignores the history of some of these new party projects. The formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance wasn't so much a party dissolution issue but a split in the Scots section of the CWI. It was a major tactical divide. With a rise in Scottish nationalism in the throws of the Poll Tax fight, the ex CWIers threw their all into a new party project.

In the case of SWP and Respect , the issue of dissolution didn't exist because the SWP had this strange schematic view of Respect (and the English Socialist Alliance before it) as an electoral milk cow sponsored by a special rendering of the "united front tactic". It was no good preaching "dissolution" to the SWP as the exercise was supposed to be an area of occasional intervention which could be turned on and off as required rather than a new party project which would serve only to compete with the SWP for real estate.

So containment was always going to be the main game.

In the same sense this is why the CWI/SP and the SWP remained so implacably hostile to the Scottish SSP even though they had no option
but to affiliate to it.(And when they aided in the split in that enterprise, MarxMail cronies covered for them under guise of doing the right thing by the class divide.)

The core problem with the SWP wasn't or isn't that it won't dissolve into Respect. The core problem with the SWP is that it is opposed to
the new left party option.

But lookey yonder how the chickens have come home to roost...

In the wake of this it has been very useful to monitor the developments in England's small Socialist Resistance grouping in regard to Respect. While SR has committed to the Respect project, having instigated the Respect newspaper, it is also running a
supplementary regroupment agenda with SWP exers and their kin.

Should they also now be immediately dissolving into Respect because Louis Proyect has so ruled with his one size fits all precept?

Similarly in Australia, the aggregation pending is much broader than the Socialist Alliance and it would be a mistake to assume that the Socialist Alliance was *it.* even for now (regardless of whether the DSP was *dissolved* into it or not).What was clear from the discussion
at the SA's conference last month was that real advance is always going to be political and strategic -- and that no organisational schemata will do it for you.

Maybe I should repeat that for Louis' benefit: "no organisational schemata will do it for you."

Nonetheless, I think the history of the Socialist Alliance has been the history of competing schemata. The grand daddy among these, (also
presumed by Proyect) is that reliable stalwart: build it and they will come. Fulfilment is thus neatly reduced to a question of structure.

This is the new party adherents' version of a sect's "our day will come".

So let's just say that when you are in the regroupment /new party business day in, day out -- year in year out -- you pick up a bit of know how on what to do, and what not to do, next.You may get it wrong, of course, but at least you are trying to locate yourself where it's all supposedly happening -- rather than, say, just talking about it.

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