Ian Roberts offers his thoughts on our communist network
I write neither as a theorist nor – compared with many communards – a consistent activist. I’ve participated in the left intermittently since the mid-1960s. Since I have never belonged to more than three of the myriad groups it includes, I have no specific criticisms other than to observe that the presence of two members of rival groups in the same telephone box would be more likely to result in a fight over holding the receiver, the number to dial and who should speak than a successful call.
I made contact with others in Bradford after being impressed by Commune and its aim of providing an open forum for a broad spectrum of leftist thought as a foundation for action. When we hosted the aggregate in Leeds, our targets were to get agreement on a platform and constitution. The meeting was well chaired, enjoyable and – with give and take – appeared to secure unity on the issues we had hoped to. Its aftermath, however, was dire. My inbox was inundated with theocratic dissent from – and proposed amendments to – what had been agreed.
What is the point of healing differences in a quorate democratic vote and then picking at the scar? If this is a reflection of where those in favour of an open forum are – with financial, political, police and media corruption and the consequences of the politics of capitalist selfishness never more starkly exposed – all that is left to do is sound the death knell for a reinvigorated, united left. It cannot be this difficult to agree on what unites us, trust each other to keep to what we agree and show enough solidarity to avoid endless arguments about the number of Marxists you can get on the head of a pin. Inevitably, those who genuinely seek openness and unity will bring different views to the table but the aim is to prepare a meal which will sustain a movement: nitpicking over the ingredients of the starter is the dialectics of diversion and defeatism.
In my lifetime the history of the real left in Britain, i.e that beyond, and what little remains in Labour, is dismal. Claims to internationalism are laughable: we are still failing to even engage with immigrant communities here, far less accept them as having their own voice in a struggle for progress; no less so with those dismissed as representative of an ‘underclass’ – shorthand for the view that they don’t deserve to count.
The crucial issue, whether in terms of debate or action, is surely communication. The vocabulary of Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism or Anarchism simply doesn’t cut it. Few, even on the real left, have read much of their writing, far less that of later theorists – and a lot of ‘commentary’ is no more than exclusivist jargon. The left shouldn’t have icons, and if any were about now I doubt they would still be debating every last dot and comma of their thoughts then. Marx and Engels could rightly claim the Manifesto still says it all but, given that discipline has its place, Trotsky and Lenin would struggle to claim democratic centralism was any less of a contradiction in terms than liberal democrat. All of them would undoubtedly be appalled at their words being pored over as if religious articles of faith. All that will achieve will be that left-wing thought will become no more than a scholarly exercise for political philosophers – with action regarded as a vulgar pursuit
‘Class analyses’ have little to say without resistance, nor to the uninitiated – and initiation is for the likes of the Bullingdon Club. It has no place in a left-wing movement. It provides neither support nor empowerment for the many. Leftists who claim the right to define the travails of people in struggle show them little respect. Rather, all of us should listen more and learn to contribute to a common vocabulary of dissent and resistance. In this respect – and from my admittedly limited familiarity with it, I feel some aspects of Commune’s coverage fall short. Its language, tone and content could still be inclusive, for instance including more about the politics of sport, the home, image, media and the arts, and invite writing from people who would normally not think of contributing to a political periodical – perhaps through branches.
I didn’t attend the aggregates in Sheffield and London that. There are too many repeats on television without taking up role playing in old and threadbare real life versions at my age. But I’m grateful to have been given this opportunity to explain my views.
I hope they aren’t seen as a counsel of despair: currently, the left has the best opportunity to make itself relevant in many years – but has to address the fact that it will not do so without trust among those who support unity, less elitism, a greater willingness among its factions to swallow some pride and less insistence on engaging in time wasting navel gazing. If this can’t be done even within the framework of Commune, whose prospectus I would argue offer the greatest hope, progress is likely to be stillborn.