fighting the cuts: the task ahead

By Kojo Kyerewaa

The emergency budget comes as no surprise to most on the revolutionary left. The Coalition agreement, rather than holding back Conservative plans for dismantling the welfare state, has instead legitimised them in the public’s eyes.

we should put forward a vision for public services, not only defend the status quo

The day after the budget, polls showed that 57% of the population approved of the cuts. Although polls can’t necessarily be trusted, there was a distinct lack of protests.

The Trades Union Congress burped that this was reckless and the government must think again, Labour ex-cabinet ministers cried that it is unfair and should be done in a more “responsible” way.

At the same time some on the left called for a general strike and Greek style resistance from a population pacified by insurmountable personal debt, the Sun newspaper and Sky TV.

Make no mistake, this is the gravest attack not only on public services but also on the working class since Thatcher.

However, it is far wide-ranging, cementing and deepening Labour’s attempts to privatise state-run services.

The impact and long lasting effects of these proposals if implemented will be a shock to many and devastating for millions. The unemployed pit valleys in Wales and desolate streets in sections of Liverpool mask the deeper psychological trauma, working class communities are still recovering from 30 years on.

Ken Livingstone angles for office, pitching his tent as the trusted defender of London against the Tory government, Bob Crow has been handed the opportunity to don his cap as the 21st Century’s Arthur Scargill calling for a general strike.

Yet this is not the 1980s: trade union membership is half what it was in 1979, whilst the average age of members has doubled and Thatcherite anti-trade union laws are firmly established.

Moreover, the Labour Party is much more right wing and the revolutionary left far smaller. Moreover the 1980s ended in defeat, which resulted in the decline of trade union power and militancy.

Though now the cuts have started to nibble at the edges of previous pledged spending plans, there have been howls of pain, pledging resistance, even from Liberal councillors: but what is the task now for those who not only want to defend our class but advance it?

We need to build the strongest united front, the British left has ever seen. It will probably not be in the form of a political party, but a network of coalitions, diverse in its support, but not reliant on politicians or union leaders.

It can only be composed of the working class – even if with middle-class sympathisers – united in the objective of opposing the attacks on the living standards of the working class.

Though the situation is severe, alarmist slogans will not draw out the latent power of our class.

We need a story to tell to inspire our class, it must resonate with all members; the young as well as the old, the migrant and British born.

The message is that the Emergency Budget is in the interests of the rich few, at the expense of collective wealth of the many.

Left unchallenged it will be devastating for the majority. Nothing other than our collective strength through a campaign of civil and industrial disobedience will be able to stop this dangerous ideological experiment.

This campaign cannot be one that defends the status quo or has a rose-tinted view of the welfare state.

Where we will differ from our social democratic allies is that our aspirations go beyond perpetuating a bureaucratic and capitalist-serving state.

We must argue for the abolition of the state, a tool for the transfer of our collective wealth to a privileged, parasitic class.

This doesn’t mean we should resort to sectarianism or bickering with Labour Party members: but whilst uniting with them on actions, we remain distinct in identity, something that can only be maintained in open democratic structures.

To maintain and propel a genuine united front, we need open, transparent and democratic structures, involving positions of accountability, not to form hierarchies, but to ensure responsibility for agreed action.

For example, South London Anti-Fascist Group has built small scale united fronts, involving anarchists, Trotskyists, and various members of the working class including social democrats, trade unionists, Muslims, Catholics and Gurkhas.

We need more of a ‘unity in action despite diversity of outlook’ position.

Community organising is essential: the trade union movement cannot be relied on alone. History tells us that this isn’t enough.

We must act locally, but move from haphazard individual anti-cuts coalitions to build this broad network of alliances, focussing on action and not sectarian interest.

Sectarianism is a luxury for those who will not face destitution by failure.

The government has declared class war and we will be tested for loyalty to our class by our ability to overcome sectarian divisions. Failure to do so is a gift to the ruling class.

8 thoughts on “fighting the cuts: the task ahead

  1. The strongest united front ever seen by the left? Is the left going to form a united front? is this the communes perspective? An editorial gives the impression of a collective view. Is south London anti fascist group a model to follow for a united front of catholics,muslims gurkhas? sounds popular frontist or SWP ish. social democratic allies? dont argue with labour party members? action is everything?

    The focus of the proposed conference in september is a communist focus on what self activity might emerge from any mass action against the cuts. Going beyond current left campaigns. The emphasis is not getting the left together and leaving their sectarianism behind in joint activity. (as if) The assumptions of the proposed conference might be optimistic but at least there is an attempt to rethink things in todays context.

    Historically the united front was about mass organisations. The “communists” had a significant section of the class say a 20% or a third and they tried to win over the rest with a united front with social democratic parties which generally ment leaders. Leaders of mass parties not small groups. Britain was exceptional and the united front with the Labour party was an historic failure.

    The leaders of the Revolutionary left are unlikely to leave their sectarianism behind( look at the recent UNISON election where opposition to Pentice was divided between SP candidate and SWP candidate) Hopefully any mass response to the cuts will leave these leaders behind. But a communist response needs to be developed and this does mean putting a distintive point of view which does mean critically debating arguing with other points of veiw. The editorial or lead article seems to have a vulgar view of sectarianism. It is not sectarian to have differences and argue them out.

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  2. “a communist response needs to be developed and this does mean putting a distintive point of view which does mean critically debating arguing with other points of veiw. The editorial or lead article seems to have a vulgar view of sectarianism. It is not sectarian to have differences and argue them out.”

    I think that’s an unfair reading of this passage:

    “This doesn’t mean we should resort to sectarianism or bickering with Labour Party members: but whilst uniting with them on actions, we remain distinct in identity, something that can only be maintained in open democratic structures.”

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  3. The Left needs to use this situation to review its politics and strategy, something the Commune has correctly attempted from its creation. I disagree with the Commune’s attitude to the LP, which I think is sectarian and Ultra-Left, but I strongly agree with the Commune’s refusal to continue the Left’s long infatuation with the Capitalist State, and its soporific effect on the working class via Welfarism etc.

    I have long since been pointing to the fact that Marx never shared the Left’s Lassallean view of the State. On the contrary, the Critique of the Gotha Programme is the clearest statement of opposition to it you can get. Marx argued for Workers to establish Co-operatives rather than the idea of “State Aid”, whose modern equivalent is the demand for nationalisation, and he ridiculed the idea of “democratic control” of such organisations owned by the State, again the modern equivalent of which would be the ridiculous idea of Nationalisation under Workers Control.

    A good start woud be re-reading Marx’s position as set out in various documents and speeches to the First International. Modern Marxists should read Marx’s hostility to the idea of State Education, which he described as “wholly objectionable”, arguing instead for independent education for children tied to their employment. They should read his demand that the Capitalist State keep its hands off the Workers Friendly Societies that had been set up as independent, worker-owned and controlled solutions to the problem of unemployment, sickness, and old-age. Although, Marx argues that care for the old and sick was the responsibility of “society”, marx always made absolutely clear that “society” was NOT the State. When he says “society” should take on that responsibility what he really means is that it should not be left to the individual, he means that workers had to organise it collectively themselves through those Friendly Societies etc., just as they had to create their own Co-operatives, and not rely on the State.

    Perhaps, the strakest expression of that approach he gave in his attitude to tax, which today reads more like something you’d expect from the Taxpayers Alliance. In his 1866 Instructions for Delegates to the IWA General Council, he wrote,

    “a) No modification of the form of taxation can produce any important change in the relations of labour and capital.

    (b) Nevertheless, having to choose between two systems of taxation, we recommend the total abolition of indirect taxes, and the general substitution of direct taxes. [In Marx’s rough manuscript, French and German texts are: “because direct taxes are cheaper to collect and do not interfere with production”.]

    Because indirect taxes enhance the prices of commodities, the tradesmen adding to those prices not only the amount of the indirect taxes, but the interest and profit upon the capital advanced in their payment.

    Because indirect taxes conceal from an individual what he is paying to the state, whereas a direct tax is undisguised, unsophisticated, and not to be misunderstood by the meanest capacity. Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government.”

    Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council.

    Opposing the cuts, and privatisation does not require us to be uncritical of the Capitalist State, the Public Sector, or Welfarism. On the contrary, all of those things have significantly undermined the independence of the working class over the last century, undermined what Marx describes above as its need to develop “self-government”. His analysis of the Capital-Labour relation demonstrated how Capital traps labour, forcing the reproduction of both. He goes on to show that even as Labour becomes more affluent (that is workers living standards rise) that relation traps workers even more, because the more dependent they are on Capital, the more they need to continue to sell their labour-power in order to sustain that higher level. But, the Capitalist State reproduces that relation at a higher level. As an employer, workers become highly dependent upon it to maintain their livelihood, and that will override consideration fo whether or not the work they are doing is actually socially useful, whether it actually meets the needs of their fellow workers. A look at all of the Trade Union (and the left has largely tailed the Trade Union dialogue) has been framed in terms of merely a continuation of the status quo, of workers struggling only to ensure their continued exploitation at the hands of Capital in the form of its State. In opposition to the idea of establishing Social Enterprises/Co-operatives to run Public Services that dialogue was in purely those Economistic terms about wage levels and conditions, and ignored the question of whether in the longer term, and for political, social and ideological reasons, there was an advantage in establishing such worker owned enterprises, precisely in order to break the domination of Capital within the Capital-Labour relation, even at the cost of lower wages. That is the power of bourgeois ideology within the labour Movement that forces the discussion always to be in terms of Economism. Rarrely if ever is the discussion framed around the idea that an alternative form of property could provide a longer-term solution for both workers, and those reliant upon the services provided – that despite all the evidence we have of the poor provision of health, social services etc. by the bourgeois state.

    Yet, that approach is the opposite of that adopted by Marx. In Value, Price and profit he wrote,

    “At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.”

    And in the CGP he develops that idea further writing,

    “Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

    Critique of the Gotha programme

    The immediate task is to organise to support workers in fighting the Tories attacks, even though it amounts to one of those “guerilla” struggles that Marx referred to. But, the more important task within that struggle is to provide workers with a strategy and a vision worth struggling for here and now as an alternative to Capitalist property. Unfortunately, most of the Left seems happy to simply engage in Economistic struggles through which it hopes to pick up a few more recruits to “Build The Party”, happy to put off the building of a socialist alternative until some time in the future after the “Revolution”, which may never come, and is the more likely not to come unless an alternative workers can believe in, begins to be built here and now.

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  4. good points from arthur.

    But in reply to communard. I was not commenting on one passage but on the tone or spirit of the editorial,which is about how we must unite the left and overcome sectarian divisions. But our differences with the socialist party leadership and the leadership of the swp are not sectarian. These type of organisations will not unite and that kind of organisational division will persist. our project is not some unity of the left groups, forget our differences approach.

    Also why snear at Bob Crow for calling for militant action. And the patronising view of the working class: pacified sun readers up to their ears in personal debt. Poor things! No protests after one day following a mere announcement of cuts,what does he expect?

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  5. Barry,

    You are setting up straw man arguments to knock down. It is not sectarian to argue about differing political perspectives but it is sectarian to diminish collective working class power by spending more time arguing than actually building actions that will advance the interests for our class. We will not agree on every step of the way forward but we must agree to take action and build a united front. I am not a Leninist and see discussion & argument as essential to the health of the movement.

    The defining feature of a popular front is one that involves those from outside working class interest. This is what the SWP have done and what we must avoid. We won’t be politically uniting with imams or clergy that protect ruling class interests but we must win over and unite with their supporters.

    As for sectarianism, I’m not in the Commune or any other political grouping because I’m far too sectarian to join anyone who doesn’t agree with me.

    I will sneer at Bob Crow time and again, I’m irreverent in nature and like to knock “good people” and other leftist idols. Bob Crow isn’t going to save the working class, I welcome his call but if the RMT remains the leading voice of the militant working class in this struggle we won’t even achieve the failures of 1984-5 miner’s strike.

    This fight isn’t going to be won by rhetoric or purist diatribes of why the Labour Party is shit (it is, but I will still work with LP activists), it will be won by collective struggle not just of communists but of social democrats and members of our class who include Bangladeshi Muslims, Latin American Catholics and lefty middle class atheists. If you want to wait for everyone to join your political position before acting then, we have a real disagreement comrade.

    Discussion and debate should not be stifled but ideological consensus shouldn’t be fetishised either.

    In solidarity

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  6. Let us be clear. We have a real dilemma on how to work in Anti-Cuts Cttees. The Anti-Cuts Cttees will be first set up by TU, LP and Left group activists. Kojo’s position as I understand it is that we work within these to form a United Front against the cuts. This would be a normal and natural response.

    However — Kojo says that the “revolutionary left” (Who are they?) expected the cuts from the Coalition and these cuts are only a continuation of New Labour. Well they have had 13 years to prepare for this event and to create an alternative. What were they doing? Have they no sense of strategy? Must they always react to immediate events?

    In these 13 years there were a number of United Fronts which opposed New Labour for example the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. Where were the “revolutionary Left”? The SWP and the SP deliberately sabotaged both organisations which they saw as being possible rivals to themselves. The other Left groups either helped them or stood by and did nothing. Why would we want to set up a United Front with people who are likely to sabotage it, given their record? Furthermore, put one foot inside the Labour Party and cause trouble and they will expel you, make no mistake about that. Do not be naive. It’s all very well to say behave nicely in the company of Labour councillors and the SWP but you are not dealing with democrats and open-minded people. “Watch your back!” has to be the message.

    To come back to the dilemma. It would be sectarian to ignore the Anti-Cuts Committees and/or to go into them and at every available opportunity to denounce people as saboteurs and bureaucrats. On the other hand to go in there expecting a United Front would be foolhardy, a waste of energy and misleading ourselves and other people. And certainly we should be critical and not keep quiet to avoid offending unity and promote democratic practices always. But we have to devise an alternative strategy based on building communism from below. We should build a United Front around that strategy not around the existing “revolutionary left”.

    PS On “sectarianism” it would be good to have a discussion. One definition I would like to put forward is that it is the building of a sect which sees itself as embodying The Truth. I would say that all the Left Groups come under that heading. They will go into the Anti-Cuts Cttees looking for members to join their sect not to create a United Front. They are the sectarians not those of us who criticise them.

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  7. The editorial is built of straw.” A population pacified by insurmountable personal debt,sun readers and sky TV! This might be irreverent, but betrays a tabloid stereotypical view of the working class worthy of the sun itself.

    I raised the question of a United front. You do not define this, but your words are about a united front of the British left which seems to imply the small setarian groups which hang on to the labour party and trade union leaders. Yet you write we should not be relient on politicians and trade union leaders.Also if you argue for a united front of the left this cannot involve democratic structures : they are undemocratic.

    Historically a united front was a unity of communists with the mass organisations or traditional organisations of the working class. It was a unity with their leaders Or a call for unity with leaders.It assumed the membership would follow their leaders and go through the experience.It assumed loyalty to leaders, many to the right of Bob Crow Rather than directly appeal to them as communists in action as well as words. It did treat these leaders most to the right of Bob crow as saviours in a sense. The political logic was these leaders whould in a limited way be responsive to the rank and file demands and take the class forward. Most of these tactics failed .

    I Think the proposed conference was attempting to find a unity in struggle or action below or deeper than the official structures and personalities of the British left. Something your editorial did not address.

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  8. @Dave Spencer

    You misunderstood my article if you think I am calling for a united front around the revolutionary left. I call for the revolutionary left to get involved in building it but they are too small and untrustworthy to lead it. I advocate democratic structures not leadership from any quarter.

    I share your criticism and definition of “sectarianism” and I am not involved in any revolutionary group for that very reason of their evangelical and pseudo-religious nature.

    “Watch your back” is an attitude that may be wise to have but if too vigorously adhered to, it will stifle working relationships and development of open democratic structures. Naivete is cured by experience, and I have had quite a bit of that in the last two years.

    @Barry
    The Sun is Britain’s best-selling newspaper and almost 10 million people subscribe to Sky television network. It is not just irreverent to mock this, it is a fact. Don’t get rose-tinted about the state of the British working class, a quarter are in part-time employment (highest percentage ever), they are not militant or ready for this fight, they are less equipped and prepared than the mining communities during the Thatcherite onslaught.

    Though they are debt ridden, they are living at their relatively wealthiest in history. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are reaching new ideological heights (or lows) in popular culture and the majority currently support the cuts.

    I don’t understand why you say a United Front means unity amongst the leadership. Though it may historically be true, this isn’t the core principle of united fronts, it is collective action of the class across various groups defending their collective interest of self-preservation and self-determination.

    If you feel that I was arguing for leaders to unite as opposed to the ordinary members of the working class then I cannot help you any further.

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