Tendance Coatesy

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Socialist Party on “Left Populism”, “Miserable experience” of Momentum and fighting for a “Socialist” Brexit.

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Image result for socialist party Taaffe TUSC

Taaffe’s Socialist Party draws lessons from Momentum’s ‘miserable experience.”

There has been discussion of sectarian bearpits.

Leave it to the experts to show what real sectarians are.

The ‘Socialist Party’, currently attempting to be admitted to the Labour Party, publishes a lengthy theoretical article on the Labour Party.

Corbynism and the rise of left populismPeter Taaffe. (Socialism Today November).

Taaffe begins with this observation,

…how did Jeremy Corbyn use his colossal victory at the Labour Party conference in September? He and his main ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell – along with their supporters in the Momentum group – attempted to offer the right a way back. This has been the pattern throughout Labour history. On those rare occasions when the reformist left have won, they invariably failed to capitalise on their victory. When the right are in the ascendancy, they go all out to isolate and crush the left, as happened in the purges and expulsions of the 1980s, first against Militant and then the rest of the left, including the supporters of the late Tony Benn.

Now this unqualified identification of the left as a bloc, putting the Militant, a would-be Leninist combat party (albeit a very bureaucratic sclerotic one) in with democratic socialists, is pretty unremarkable.

What is clear is that Taaffe is arguing that the ‘right’ should simply not be “in” the Labour Party. As if all the MPs who are not on the ‘left’ should…well, disappear…

Taaffe, after a lot of glowing phrases about the SP’s activities over the years attempts to render his own organisation’s ‘theory’ of the Labour Party intelligible.

From its outset the Labour Party was, in Lenin’s phrase, a bourgeois workers’ party. Its mass base was composed of workers, particularly from the trade unions, while its leadership always had one foot in the camp of capitalism. Blair changed all that and created a ‘capitalist party’.

The Corbyn insurgency represents an attempt to turn back the wheel of history, to re-establish a new workers’ party.

How the laws of changing quantity into quality work are remarkable.

Bourgeois workers party – bourgeois party- new workers’ party.

This veritable triad of thesis and anti-thesis needs a lever to perform the process of Aufhebung to result in the synthesis.

One might have  guessed what – or rather who –  the SP.

But I anticipate…..

Taaffe wanders into an analysis of the forces at present trying implicated in the ‘Corbyn insurgency’.

It is the effects of this crisis, taken together with the worldwide anti-capitalist movements preceding it, as well as the political rottenness of the leadership of the ‘traditional’ social democratic workers’ parties and organisations, which have led to the emergence of left-wing populism. This is a loose term employed to describe nebulous phenomena, not clearly left but appealing to ‘the folks on the bottom of the ladder’.

Comment: the key feature of populism is not the vague notion of appealing to just plain folks. It is the opposition between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’, la Casta (as Podemos calls the political and business elite). The problem is that the ‘people’ is a category which is also against a much wider group of the ‘anti-people’. Populism is also for the people (by definition), their rule, and their sovereignty. In the EU Referendum the Socialist Party stood for the same Leave – Brexit – vote as ‘populists’ (UKIP, Brexit Tories) against the EU ‘elite’,  for the Sovereignty of Parliament and the British ‘People’. (1)

 It is hardly surprising that a carnival of reaction accompanied this result as the British ‘people’ turned against the ‘non-people’, foreigners. 

Taaffe attempts to wish this all away with rhetoric:

The leave vote in the EU referendum represented at bottom an uprising against the elite by the working class alongside sections of the middle class.

They perceived the imperialist EU as an author of their misfortunes and took the opportunity to strike back against it and the British ruling class. Incredibly, sections of the left – including some alleged Marxists – opted for remain.

When did the concept of an ‘elite’ become a Marxist marker? If the SP leader  means “A group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege” why doesn’t he use the language of class. Or is the Socialist Party advocating the progressive nature of  a populist movement mobilised for the power of ‘regular people,’ and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite. Even without the difficulties flagged above – we see here the drift to an endorsement of ‘uprisings’ against “political insiders” without examining the politics of the movement. That somehow the ‘class’ nature of that ‘revolt’ (a very very contestable claim that ignores the position of the labour movement and very large numbers of workers) is somehow more ‘authentic’ ‘regular’ than the Remain left camp. Who are, one assumes, part of that “elite” – and, hey why not, the cosmopolitans – another word associated with ‘elites’….

Relishing the prospect of Brexit the Socialist Party leader fails to mention any benefit to the left or the labour movement other than a potential split in the Tories,

The negotiations over Brexit could result in Britain leaving the EU, which will have colossal repercussions in the Tory party, and probably split it from top to bottom. This could result in a schism similar to that of the early 19th century over the Corn Laws which kept the Tories out of power for decades.

Taaffe’s views on on the ‘two parties‘ in  Labour, with a hefty dose of patronising lesson-giving, is the following,  “These transitional parties and organisations, inherently unstable, can give way through splits to a more defined form of left reformism. They contain elements of the past, alongside the undeveloped ideas and forces of the future. This is why we have described the present Labour Party as no longer a completely right-wing social democratic party but one which contains these features as well as the outline of a new radical socialist mass party. There are two parties fighting for domination within Labour.”

Transitional forms…one wishes for the old Trotskyist clarity: he means ‘centrists’ who waver between ‘reformism’ and ‘revolution’. Apart from this, these ‘features’ and the “outline” – clunky expressions if ever there were any – of a new radical socialist mass party are left undefined. The struggle between these “two parties” (barely defined beyond the most general level), given the criticisms of Corbyn and his allies, is all very well, but who defines what is on one side and what is on the other?

The impression – the correct impression – is that there is a ghostly ‘Socialist Party’ side (everything they agree with from Brexit onwards) called the left,  left populists in the middle, and the Right. Too terrible to be even in the same party.

At this point we would ask what of winding up the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC)  which campaigned for a mass working-class party and was the “side” in which the Socialist Party openly set out its stall?

Taaffe modestly describes TUSC’s present suspension of activity as  the means, “to consolidate the victory of the left.”

But for the real strategy inside the ‘war of two parties’ after TUSC’s – present- truce,  we have to turn to the Socialist’s Editorial today.

It’s theme is “Imagine if Jeremy Corbyn was currently campaigning for a socialist Brexit.”

But the article soon gets down to the issue of Momentum – dispelling the illusion that this it is part of the forces working for a ‘new workers’ party.

Few, however, will be inspired to get active by the Momentum leadership’s current strategy of endless conciliation with the right. This road, if continued down, will ultimately lead to widespread demoralisation and therefore defeat.

We warned of this when, soon after the foundation of Momentum, Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, and Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary, met with Jon Lansman. Even then Lansman argued against fighting for mandatory reselection, believing that many of the MPs could be won over to Corbyn, enabling him to ‘cling on’ until 2020. Our warnings that the right was irreconcilably opposed to Corbyn and an attempted coup was inevitable were dismissed.

They warned, but were their counsels heeded?

The consequences of Momentum’s continued strategy of ‘clinging on’ are currently being demonstrated in the attempts of its unelected leadership to prevent any kind of democratic Momentum conference taking place. They are terrified that a conference might embarrass them by voting to combat the Blairites.

Because no doubt Momentum shovers at the very thought of a “combat” with the (unnamed) “Blairites”.

That is why they are proposing the conference be organised on an online voting basis. While online voting can play a useful supplementary role in some circumstances, if it is used to replace meetings and conferences it is always a means to consign the majority to the status of passive observers, whose participation is limited to the occasional click, while central decisions are taken by an unaccountable leadership.

Those who became active in Momentum in order to fight to transform the Labour Party need to draw the necessary conclusions from this miserable experience.

Which they can only counter by offering this sound advice: we were right. 

As the Socialist Party has argued from the beginning, what is needed is an open, democratic, fighting organisation that brings together all who want to fight to transform Labour into an anti-austerity party; whether or not they are currently allowed into the Labour Party by the right-wing machine. Such a force should fight clearly for the transformation of the Labour Party; including the democratisation of its structures – mandatory reselection, restoring trade union rights, readmitting expelled and excluded socialists – see our petition – and allowing socialist organisations to affiliate.”

The Socialist Party’s opposition to Momentum leadership is indeed a “warning” to the left, though perhaps not in the way the Editorial intends.

It would be interesting to know, from a party that has the loudest yelps for ‘democracy’, how its own party debates take place, their pre-conference discussions, their internal discipline, rules, and their rules on dissent inside their organisation. Oh, and their membership, figures and all. 

******

(1) See Ernesto Laclau On Populist Reason (Verso, 2005) and, more immediately relevant:  Podemos: In the Name of the People Chantal MouffeInigo Errejon , Owen Jones (Introduction). 2016. 

Update: the latest contribution to the Momentum issue:  The row in Momentum: a Q&A. Sacha Ismail.

More: How Momentum entered the crisis zone. Stephen Bush. New Statesman.

Warring Momentum members reach truce over ‘virtual reality’ talks.   Guardian. 

Written by Andrew Coates

November 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm

8 Responses

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  1. If you want something more miserable than Momentum join TUSC/SP/CWI. I hear Taaffe has been General Secretary for almost as long as Stalin has.

    @pplswar

    November 2, 2016 at 9:14 pm

  2. It’s unfortunate that the SP is just relevant enough in the UK labor movement that it’s necessary to pay attention to what Taafe says. Of all the strains of Trotskyism, Militant’s was always the most simple-minded.

    jschulman

    November 3, 2016 at 4:53 am

  3. Andrew Coates

    November 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm

  4. Sanity has broken out …

    Jim Denham

    November 3, 2016 at 11:45 pm

  5. Taaffe: “The leave vote in the EU referendum represented at bottom an uprising against the elite by the working class alongside sections of the middle class.

    “They perceived the imperialist EU as an author of their misfortunes and took the opportunity to strike back against it and the British ruling class. Incredibly, sections of the left – including some alleged Marxists – opted for remain.”

    As you, Andrew, correctly note, “When did the concept of an ‘elite’ become a Marxist marker? If the SP leader means “A group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege” why doesn’t he use the language of class. Or is the Socialist Party advocating the progressive nature of a populist movement mobilised for the power of ‘regular people,’ and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite. Even without the difficulties flagged above – we see here the drift to an endorsement of ‘uprisings’ against “political insiders” without examining the politics of the movement. That somehow the ‘class’ nature of that ‘revolt’ (a very very contestable claim that ignores the position of the labour movement and very large numbers of workers) is somehow more ‘authentic’ ‘regular’ than the Remain left camp. Who are, one assumes, part of that “elite” – and, hey why not, the cosmopolitans – another word associated with ‘elites’….”

    In other words, Taaffe is not only utilising the non-Marxist concept of “the elite”, but toying with very dangerous, potentially fascistic populist conspiracy theories.

    Jim Denham

    November 4, 2016 at 9:33 am

  6. It is simply a heap of unexamined assumptions and half-thoughts.

    One aspect is very striking: the attempt to build on this idea of the ‘elite‘ (I noted a few days ago that the SWP leader Charlie Kimber uses it as well). There’s little doubt is use comes out of their effort to be the UK’s Podemos – in this case, trying to translate La Casta (which is a problem in itself).

    Apart from being wonky the word itself is hard to say.

    I was talking to a comrade this morning and pointed out that nobody actually says ‘elite’ (even in its original form, une élite): it’s a written, half-academic word.

    Can you imagine these ‘regular people’, the masses, the workers, shouting,

    “What do we want? Get rid of the elite!”

    Andrew Coates

    November 4, 2016 at 1:13 pm

  7. To be fair, Andrew, I can’t even imagine most of them shouting “get rid of the bosses!”
    The concept of “élite” has its uses, especially in today’s world where in many areas the most powerful people derive their power not through wealth or ownership of the means of production, but through their position in the upper echelons of various institutions and bureaucracies. The problem with anti-“élitism” is that it generally involves one set of powerful people manipulating grievances against another (often less powerful) one for their own purposes.

    Francis

    November 4, 2016 at 2:06 pm

  8. That, Francis, rather reinforces my point: whenever I hear this word, I think of the (pro-Mussolini) sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) and the “circulation of elites”.

    http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/paretos-circulation-of-elites-characteristics-and-criticisms/43779/

    Andrew Coates

    November 4, 2016 at 5:40 pm


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