24 hour Vanguard Party People: the Organisational composition of the British Left
Co-authored with @gegenhegemonie2
The radical left in the UK is generally divided along ideological lines, between parties, unions, associations and sects. However, while such a division plays a role in picturing the landscape of the left, dividing things along the lines of formalised ideological position obscures what it is that these organisations actually do. And in political action, it’s what we actually do that actually counts.
In fact, what we do in our communities and localities often counts for far more than the theoretical ideological positions that we espouse, particularly when we seldom follow through on the meanings of those positions. Anyone familiar with militant leftist organising in the UK will be very familiar with a certain discrepancy between stated intentions and outcomes. The disparate formations within the left generally identify themselves ideologically, drawing positional comparisons between themselves and other groups in the milieu, rather than comparing what types of activities they take part in. Any given small socialist party will generally compare its rhetorical positions on matters such as foreign policy with those of a different small group and so on, ignoring that both of them are generally characterised by very similar forms of practice.
Given the current state of affairs in the UK, and the multi faceted political crisis before us, re-orienting assessments towards looking at praxis is fairly urgent. This approach is partly borrowed from an essay by S. Burns, an American communist who has written extensively about organising in the US political context. In the essay, Burns divides the American left into 4 general categories of practical behaviour: Government Socialist, Protest Militants, Expressive Hobbyists, and Base-builders.
As Jean Allen explains in How Many Tendencies, a reply to Burns’ essay: “ Burns makes an argument that’s been popping up more and more in the last two years, and one I generally agree with: that the geopolitical splits which defined US socialist politics during the Cold War (or even going further back, to the 3rd and 2nd Internationales) no longer hold, and that the US left is now defined more by the differences between groups who are increasingly converging around shared practices than around differences between ideologies. This does not mean that past lines of thinking are useless… … but that the boundaries between these analyses aren’t as hard as they were decades ago, and in many cases are indeed collapsing under their own weight.”
Burn’s original essay listed four types of leftist: Government Socialists, Protest Militants, Expressive Hobbyists and Base-Builders. These categories are not universal, and merely serve an illustrative role, laying out the general trends of leftist political work as perceived by the author. Given that the map is not the territory, and the issues with this approach noted within Allen’s essay, there are obvious limits to how much this system can map onto real life. For one thing, it largely overrides matters relating to ideological positioning entirely. However it is a useful tool if grounded in understanding that these groups are not an island unto themselves, but rather pieces of a cohesive ecosystem. Accordingly, a similar analysis has been attempted here, in order to lay out the main forms of activity within our radical politics. Notably there is much overlap between the roles that some organisations take on for themselves. While dividing groups along ideological tendency lines is excellent if one wishes to draw a family tree of the left, dividing groups by practical tendency reveals more about the left as an ecosystem in its own right.
1:Government Socialists and Entryists:
The dominant faction is that of, obviously, electoral entryists and government socialists.
While much of the US left retains a cautious distance from the “official” progressive parties such as the Democrats and the Green Party, it is difficult to overstate the influence of Parliamentary politics within the left in Great Britain. For many British leftists the Labour Party is practically synonymous with political organising, and its various appendages are almost omnipresent. A large swathe of leftists in Great Britain sincerely view the Party under Corbyn as a route to socialism, whether that socialism be Nordic-style social democracy or something more akin to a genuine break with the present. As a result, many leftist organisations in the UK have openly supported and practiced entryism within the Labour Party for a full century- and on a scale proportionately far greater than their US counterparts.
In practice however, this can often end up consuming the energies of entryist radical groups entirely, especially when they encounter friction with established social democratic structures in the party. Momentum has seen its fair share of bloody noses over the last 5 years of pitched internal battles and a variety of entryist groups have come into conflict with each other while attempting to seize control over the same spaces within Labour Party infrastructure. It is worth noting that this organising strategy on the far left is almost entirely confined to the British Labour Party. Other broad-church progressive parties, such as the Greens, or arguably SNP and Plaid Cymru, do have radical elements within them (nearly entirely in their youth wings in the case of the latter two), but these are generally self-contained and independent of outside leftist formations, and run into organisational or ideological limits imposed by the main party structures.
Notable examples: Momentum, other pro-Corbyn institutions within the Labour party proper,Trotskyist groups, CPB/YCL & intellectual hubs such as The World Transformed.
2: The Alphabet soup
One of the most recognisable features of the left is the vast array of socialist and communist parties, as well as various anarchist groups and other radical formations. CPGB’s and SP’s dot the landscape like spent golf balls on the White House lawn. These parties attempt to function as recruiting and organising hubs for younger activists, and are normally controlled by committed core activists. While some can work moderately well, most are beset by institutional lethargy; the general mode of practice for such organisation members is either to herd part time activists around, do the leg work required for organising protest attendance at big summer demos, promoting newspapers and websites, and of course, entryism. Indeed there is much overlap here with government oriented socialist, for obvious reasons.
The purpose of this array of tactics is generally claimed to be agitation, building for the revolution etc, but is basically about organisations maintaining their ability to continually self reproduce. For this reason there is a heavy overlap between people whose main area of activity is in building and maintaining a particular micro-party, and those involved in entryism within Labour and the unions, and protest militancy. This can then lead to territorial run ins with other groups, or jealous guarding of control over a campaign considered to be of high importance. For example, the SWP (the Socialist Workers Party) are generally given a reputation for rubbing up against everyone else involved in anti-fascist work, while RCG ( Revolutionary Communist Group) refused to work with a Cuba Solidarity Campaign, instead opting to form its own, named Rock Around The Blockade. They are also notable for fixating on campus organising, and University Marxist Societies are frequently subjected to minor territorial squabbles.
This is slightly less applicable to the anarchist/libertarian left side of the alphabet soup, as the committed ACG, AFED, and SolFed side of things tends to direct its efforts more towards the less accessible forms of protest militancy, antifascism, and the occasional local mutual aid group project. That said, the general model of alphabet soup activism is essentially one of directing efforts towards maintaining a position within the leftist ecosystem, hence leading towards territorialism if a given group is particularly strident. Fundamentally, practical energy is directed towards the continued reproduction of a given formal party, and tends to be either be focused on very specific milieus, such as university students, or upon other similar activities (newspaper selling, essentially).
Notable examples: Marxist groups such as CPGB-ML, CPB, RCG, plus a variety of libertarian-left groups such as the ACG or AFED.
3. Traditional Trade Unionists
Another area of political action which overlaps with that of government oriented socialist activity is that of trade union work. This is reflective of the comparative leftism of the mainstream trade union movement in the UK as opposed to its counterpart in the US, where the Democratic party leadership tends to hold unions at arm’s length, depending on the weather. While mainstream unions in the UK have been largely stripped of serious radicalism, they still make some claims to leftist politics, with Unite, for instance, offering its members a ‘2 in 1’ deal of free Labour membership along with membership of their union. Some business unions are a home for many radicals and are known for comparative militancy at the ground level, such as the RMT transport union.
However, in many of these large unions there is a critical disconnect between the more radical activists at lower levels of the organisation and the bureaucracy at the top. The latter are extremely reluctant to act outside of the UK’s draconian labour laws, and this can lead to active discouragement of militant action from the upper echelons of the union structure. Essentially the mainstream union movement often fights in order to stand still, and has not engaged in a major non-defensive battle in a long time.
A consequence of this is that many emerging sectors have woefully little union presence, and that the cadre of organisers in these unions is aging rapidly. As in Labour, entryism is also practiced by some leftists into some unions — this is a tried and tested tactic employed by the SWP, Britain’s largest Trotskyist party, as well as the CPB.
Notable examples: Large sections of Unite, Unison, RMT and UCU, large sections of the SWP and the CPB engage in entryist activity within the major unions.
4. Protest Militants and Expressive Hobbyists
Nearly every group on the left commits a portion of its resources to mobilising in the large summer protests. However not every group, or every individual, specifically focuses on this area, and there are some groups that largely ignore it in favour of other forms of activity. The obvious corollary to this is that there are of course many people who do specifically focus on protests: the protest militants, and similarly, leftists who Burns has dubbed “expressive hobbyists”. Protest militants are especially prevalent in the left in Great Britain, which has resulted in a recognisable scene in most British cities often featuring a lot of regular Alphabet-Soup members, scene anarchists, student activists and former members of the now defunct student movement, who still hold prominent positions within activist circles. Many single issue campaign groups also fall into this definition, as do university based political groups, and much of the new ecological protest movement. Other protest militants may be those who refrain from membership of specific leftist groups, but still wish to put their boots on the ground, as well as those who are new to leftist political activity or otherwise are not deeply engaged aside from being in agreement with given leftist causes.
Protest militancy and expressive hobbyism either manifest as people adding their numbers to a crowd, in an attempt to add weight to a political stance or campaign, or as promoting engagement with leftist ideas through propaganda. It can also include engaging in radical artwork or music, study groups and other forms of academic debate over theory, and creating publications, which are areas of strength for the expressive hobbyist side to left wing activism. It is often reflexive for some to dismiss these contributions, for various reasons, but these activities are not necessarily bad. Context matters, as it determines the political usefulness of such output. While many projects can be introspective or otherwise useless, many others can be worthwhile, both intellectually and politically, providing areas of political activity for people closed out of other forms of organising. They are also important for the continued variety of thought in radical left circles.
Expressive hobbyists often compete over a pool of potential recruits, as involvement is often predicated on a reasonable understanding of leftist theory. Accordingly they tend to focus on theory based events, often around topics du-jour, conducted in open-discussion format or as reading groups. Though this can be useful and worthwhile, elements of the left activity dealing in solely in online agit-prop or debate frequently drift in and out of this milieu, may be regular attendees at larger protests or driving the more popular output of intellectual labour. By contrast, protest militancy is by definition,much more easy to access, and requires a bare minimum of political theory. Nevertheless these two forms of action are to a certain extent sides of the same coin, and generally represent another subsystem of activists within the whole, this time integrated with art scenes, groups that focus on being present on marches, and the general milieu of leftists not involved in more focused forms of organisational work
Notable examples: Protest militants are found in every group but are particularly common in groups like Class War, most of the militant antifascist movement, most university radical scenes, some elements of SolFed, Plan C, AFed, RCG, etc. The expressive side of this is generally all over the place and by its nature can be done by literally anyone.
5. New Social Strikers and Grassroots Unionists/Infrastructuralists
This category is arguably the newest and fastest-growing large organisational tendency in the UK. While the total number of people involved in this area of political activity is small, growth is spurred by an emerging awareness of the need for union style or union-derived tactics in combating capitalist decay. The rapidly-growing movement in response to the housing crisis is an excellent example of this, with direct action against landlords and rent strikes have been seen alongside emerging tenants’ unions. Some grassroots unions have also taken up organising roles in sectors where traditional trade unions have fallen behind, frequently in the gig-economy. The overarching common ground of these new efforts is that all are proactively attempting to organise the unorganised and to create lasting networks in areas untouched by other sections of the left. This being said, the actual ideological composition of this tendency is incredibly varied, from more mainstream groups like ACORN and IWGB, over to much more radical and unconventional organisations like Angry Workers. In this sense, therefore, this category is by far the closest to doing what US activists in the Marxist Centre call ‘base-building’ i.e. generating a lasting working class base independent from and in open opposition to capitalist structures, whilst comprising of a wide range of militant left philosophical traditions.
Notably this practical tendency is also very skill-oriented, due to the requirement inherent in union based activities for an ability to organise workplaces- as opposed to the comparative simplicity of simply turning up to protests. Organisers in this area are often given specialist training for particular types of activity, directly suited to the organisations needs and purposes. There is also some overlap here with community organising focused on meeting and campaigning on behalf of local material needs, such as with food banks, an area where much of the left has been very un-engaged, or community support groups. In this respect the emergence of Tenants unions and the resurgence in independent union activity intersects with community based mutual aid organisations, in that they are all focused on directly tackling the physical effects of austerity. This arguably makes such groups a potential seed of dual-power organising in the UK, and therefore of critical importance for the conflicts to come.
Notable examples: ACORN collectives, Living Rent, London Renters Union, elements of Solfed, IWW, IWGB, UVW, local organising groups focused on poverty solidarity such as Angry Workers, parts of Plan C, material-need focused organisations such as Fuel Poverty Action, Living Rent, Food-Not-Bombs or Queercare,.
Between these general varieties of practice there are a lot of commonalities, which is reflected in the acknowledged fact that pretty much no-one fits into one category alone. Protest militancy, Micro-party membership, and entryism are all things that go hand in hand, and indeed there is still a fair amount of overlap between the traditional trade-unions and the new independent grassroots unions. Furthermore people happily migrate from forms of activity all the time: Indeed a large branch of ACORN, a tenant advocacy group, was formed when activists from Plan C upped sticks and decided to focus on tenants rights campaigning, instead of Plan C’s usual pursuits. The intent of this analysis is not to create any kind of hard and solid categorisation where people might be defined into species of leftist- the reality is certainly more fluid than that.
Instead what one might get out of seeing the UK left in this manner is an image of various complexes of activity. Which organisations focus more on specific kinds of action? Which are truly helping develop working class power? Which are simply engaging in self replication, waiting for tomorrow, which for them, must eventually come, lest the whole thing be pointless? It is certainly true that a focus on one or two kinds of activity are generally dominant: activities within the labour party orbit, or protest mobilisation. But what dominates today isn’t necessarily a guarantee of future success. The material realities in the UK are rapidly changing, hence the emergence of the grassroots unions, and most assessments would have it that the political and economic situation is basically headed for fairly steep decline before one even attempts to factor in climate collapse. Large scale resistance is currently conducted via methods that have an increasingly short amount of time to prove their worth. At what point does the clock run out for parliamentarism?* Does the energy poured into protests actually result in enough of a tangible result in return? We are now at a point where compounding crises are forcing us to confront the imminent failures of both these tactics. Given the gravity of the current situation, it is becoming clear that militant leftist work should increasingly focus less on those methods, and more upon new and emerging forms of action.
What goes for old tactics goes for new ones: its not the degree of familiarity which decides success, and it isn’t the degree of novelty either. Extinction Rebellion initially seemed to be a problematic but at least somewhat novel protest movement. However we are now several months in and can see that it has also basically failed. What should actually decide our priorities is an assessment of the practical outcomes, and the role that new methods would take in the radical and revolutionary left political ecosystem. The UK leftist milieu exists currently as a subsystem within the wider complex of the British political economy. If our stated ideological goal- the overthrow of capitalist order- is to become something that we are actively practically working towards, then we need to examine which strategies are actually building new political power centers with which we can generate that outcome. Dual power strategies and insurrectionary activity are the main alternatives. Insurrections cannot really be predicted, and largely defy advance planning, instead being largely down to macro-economic, cultural and social forces reaching decisive points of confluence and chance. Hence community organising, and direct establishment of independent economic and political power outside the party-system are our best bet going into a period of increasingly terminal crises.
The biases of the authors of this piece are fairly plain: we tend to favour the latter of these general tendencies of practice- the new grassroots unions, the organisations directly resisting the physical economic aspects of austerity, the nascent dual power or infrastructural institutions, as well as any projects that might be compared to “base building organisations” such as they exist in the USA. These may well be the best possible core for what we need to do both today and tomorrow. The key strategic questions are these: Are they enough? And if not, what should the greater whole, that they must be components of, look like?
*post script remark: The main body of this work was written approximately 2 months before the general election sealed this particular matter.