The People’s Assembly: an auto-critique

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The People’s Assembly (PA) is still 13 weeks away, but many aspects of how it will work are already clear. A very large number of national organisations have given the call for the Assembly their support. Nine national unions have already signed up (http://union-news.co.uk/2013/03/unions-signal-mass-resistance-to-austerity-by-backing-peoples-assembly/): good. The chief sponsor of the People’s Assembly is the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), on which something like around 100 different left-wing parties, campaigns etc, are represented. Most if not all of these, we can assume, will sponsor the PA. We can anticipate that there will be speaking roles reserved for individuals who have played prominent parts in the various hospital campaigns, and in the protests against the bedroom tax. Size matters; we are facing a government which is co-ordinating austerity measures in every area of the public sector, social benefits, private employment, health, housing, education, etc. It would be churlish not to welcome an initiative on a grand scale.

The PA will announce “action”, in other words a national demonstration, timed presumably to coincide with the return of students in the autumn. It will coincide with an international anti-austerity conference. It will announce the formation of further Coalition of Resistance groups / People’s Assemblies, which are to be set up in every area. So far, so reasonable. Among those in the audience of the PA there will be many hundreds of people who are not activists, or who have not have had a means of being active for several years. It is possible that some of them will become permanently involved in the movement, and, if so, this is to be heartily welcomed. But for those of us who have been part of the movement for more than a few months, there is a method here, and one that we know only too well.

It was John Rees of Stop the War (StW), Counterfire (CF) and CoR who led off the discussion of how the PA would work at the recent CoR National Council. (http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/2013/02/minutes-of-coalition-of-resistance-national-council-sunday-10-february-2013/). We can imagine, without needing to be conspiratorial, that the plan for a People’s Assembly was first discussed round “that” Clapton Square dining room table, with Lindsey German. Lindsey will have been on the phone to Chris Nineham, then Clare Solomon, James Meadway and Sam Fairbarn, and only much later will the plan have been visited upon the world.

Like Terminator VI (“I’ll be back … back … back”), this is of course a sequel. The first People’s Assembly to be held at Westminster Central Hall was the Stop the War Coalition People’s Assembly against war in Iraq on 15 March 2003. This too was planned by John and Lindsey and then agreed with Chris. This too had various international speakers and spin-off events. This too was intended to be a “meme” (in the Dawkins sense: a unit of cultural transmission, a unit of imitation and replication), to be copied by local assemblies of the parent organisation.

Above all, People’s Assembly I was a talking shop: with dozens of speakers making essentially the same points in lengthy succession. The choice of the venue determines the method: Westminster City Hall is a huge public forum seating 2500 people. There are not 50 separate halls there capable of hosting 50 separate conversations all then feeding back to a single, main event. The “conversation” has to be orchestrated, pre-scripted, and controlled. PA I, like PA II, announced further actions (a concert that evening, protests on 18 March, a demo on 19 March and further “spontaneous protests” five days later). PA II takes place (sadly) in a quieter context, and we can imagine that the action plans will be shorter. Moreover, experience teaches that even the action plans will be “memed” in advance. Tony Cliff used to joke that the first New Left had both theory (reading Edward Thompson) and practice (hearing Thompson speak). The CoR / StW / PA generations has its counterpart. Theory is hearing John and Lindsey address an indoor gathering. Practice is hearing John and Lindsey speak at the end of a long outdoor march.

There are more problems here though than mere repetition. If the various anti-cuts campaigns are to cohere into a national movement capable of bringing down the government (an ambition I anticipate we will hear from PA II, as grand ambitions are needed to keep the troops busy), key to this will be protests of a scale to make the country feel ungovernable, and to achieve that there will need to be a generation of movement activists with a shared political understanding. Don’t get me wrong, by “understanding” I don’t necessarily mean a shared, developed ideology. I just mean an idea, the simpler the better (“No Poll Tax” / “Peace, Bread, Land”).

Behind PA II there is an unstated analysis of how this generation will be formed. And it is based on reasoning that is – ultimately – bleak and unrewarding:

1. Revolutionaries should be organised in parties characterised by a very top-down vertical leadership
2. The leadership establishes its right to lead through forming “perspectives”, i.e. general analyses of the balance of forces within global capitalism which join up the international, the national and the local, finding in each the key point at which capitalism is weakest. By definition, these can only be formulated by a tiny number of talented individuals with time on their hands. Initiative within the parties, it follows, can come only from above
3. The sole, real purpose of the parties are to provide a succession of talented individuals, “cadre”, who can be recruited by the party’s leadership into the regional leadership of front organisations, where they can win individuals to the perspective of the party’s leaders
4. The shelf-life of cadre is narrow: they should be used, exhausted, and new cadre recruited in their place
5. We are in an age where (for reasons which are never properly explained) front organisations are the primary way in which the political left should present itself to the public
6. Front organisations give a practical expression to the assessment by the leadership of the revolutionary party of the point at which capitalism is weakest
7. Front organisations are composed of revolutionaries, who create them as alliances of left organisations with individuals to their right. As long as these individuals are helpful to the revolutionary party they should be courted with the same determination that a lover woos his or her fiancé (should the individuals lose their usefulness, the courting stops abruptly)
8. It is absolutely crucial to the method that the revolutionaries are homogeneous – having different revolutionary groups genuinely represented in the leadership of the front would deprive the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement, lead to arguments over tactics, and diminish the opportunities for revolutionaries to hegemonise the people who join the front
9. It is also crucial to the method that the front brings together more left-wing groups with more right-wing individuals (never groups or parties); an alliance of a revolutionary party and a reformist party would be dominated by the latter, depriving the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement
10. This is a plan for rapid movement when times are propitious. There is no plan B to deal with (for example) if capitalism has no weak spot at a particular time or if the revolutjonary party (for any reason) has difficulty in finding enough allies or members to sustain a front.

I have not drawn up this list maliciously: everyone who was there and is still capable of looking back at the period honestly will admit that the first incarnation of Respect was wrecked by mistakes by each of its key leaders, a declining window of opportunity as the anti-war movement (its motive force) declined, political differences between its constituents (“a united front of a special kind”), and the inability of John and Lindsey’s method to deal with periods of retreat.

If you take just the last sentence of number 7 in the list above; this actually happened. When you read George Galloway’s description of the last days of Respect (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/politics/GallowayRespect.html) some of the most moving passages are those where he describes the seemingly-inexplicable shift in John and Lindsey’s behaviour, from wooing him and other leaders of Respect, to ignoring them. He focussed on the treatment of Salma Yacoob:

“There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era. “

“Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher. “

“There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures. “

The key text explaining the Rees-German method is a small book by John Rees, ‘Strategy and Tactics: How the left can organise to transform society’ (available for only £4 from Amazon and from the Counterfire website). Rees’ Little White Book explains how with proper leadership a political party can use the movement to start a revolution. It distils the StW experience into various lessons, which he suggests can be applied generally. A surprisingly large number of the lessons set out at 1-10 above (but admittedly not all of them) find their way into Rees’ book.

Just to take number 4 in my list above, the deliberate destruction of the human personnel that form the rank and file of the revolutionary party. Rees writes:

“The cadre of the organisation gives it stability, durability, and effectiveness in the struggle. But this can also give rise to problems especially when the conditions of struggle change quickly”.

There is then a quote from Trotsky before Rees continues:

“This highlights an important point: cadre only remain cadre if they continue to relate correctly to the turning points in the struggle. If they do not, in spite of their accumulated knowledge and experience, they turn from an asset into a liability.”

After another Trotsky quote he continues:

“Especially at such times, new members of the organisation may much more accurately understand what it necessary for the party to act effectively.”

I focus on these examples, because common to them is an idea that at the heart of revolutionary politics is a “churn”, under which the leadership constantly appoints new people to work with it, as allies in the united front, and as followers in the party. It is far from pleasant to be on the receiving end of the purges.

A few further problems occur to me:

This method I have just described is expressly very “Leninist” in that strange Zinovievite way that the British left does. The last two sentences of John’s pamphlet are a quote from Lukacs writing in defence of Leninism: “Leninism represents a hithero unprecedented degree of concrete, unschematic, unmechanistic, purely praxis-oriented thought. To preserve this is the task of the Leninist.”

This notion of defending Leninism from history, from the present, from all of us outside the leadership who risk corrupting it, is made doubly odd by the seemingly very open public, democratic politics of CoR / CF, which constantly emphasises new, participatory media-friendly ways of doing things. Like in all capitalist advertising; you are invited to “see” one thing; what you get is something else.

This kind of top-down, personalised leadership requires a very high degree of trust between the leadership of the party and both its allies in the movement and its followers in the organisation. Top-down leadership of the left can just about work when the person who asks for your loyalty is someone with a very high degree of personal incorruptibility, or someone who has made a political, theoretical or practical contribution which earns your trust. Without that trust, both the party and the front are constantly no more than a mistake away from disaster.

I haven’t pointed out here how these politics will shape the People’s Assembly on the day, beyond observing that the speeches will be in succession, and that their content will significantly overlap. But it seems safe to me to predict that every effort will be made to repeat certain core messages – in terms of particular, pre-sanctioned activities, which will be repeatedly plugged from the top table. This is what happened in StW, and, going back to those CoR minutes, you can seem the same mentality (once memorably satirised by the anarchists as “Monopolise Resistance”). This contribution, for example, gave me a pre-emptive chill:

“There was an appeal for people not to organise alternatives, but to organise for the PAAA to be inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the movement.”

I know what this means in practice: finding a line of least resistance, which is acceptable to the least dynamic within an alliance, whoever that may be, and closing down anything else with a spark of originality about it.

In this article, I am not going to say very much about which forces within the unions CoR plans to work with. Thinking away from CoR for a moment, I spent Saturday at a meeting of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG), where the word “rank and file” was used repeatedly, and in a way that chimed with the group’s authentic politics. There were two General Secretaries at the BSG, but they were repeatedly challenged and had at times to fight for their audience. They had to go to the rank and file, for fear of being isolated. There was nothing cosy about the BSG meeting; the atmosphere was very different from the top-table love-in I expect of PA II.

Now if you look carefully, you will find plenty of people today in CoR, CF, StW etc who will tell you that John and Lindsey have changed, that despite the similarities between the present method of organising (PA II) and things that were done 10 years ago (PA I) all is much better beneath the surface. I am hearing this not just from the usual faces, but from people whose good judgment I trust. My own party, the SWP, plans to support the People’s Assembly, and I am not disagreeing. If people are to join – it is a process – they should join, but with their eyes open.

What I am really criticising here is a method, a way of doing politics. Yes, I have focussed on one or two individuals, but no-one who is active on the left and has been active for several years, should be under any illusions that my applies only to Counterfire, or John or Lindsey, or the People’s Assembly.

The left is awash with acronyms; far too few of them are based on a principled, active unity. Far too often, they are supposed to fill a need where there is no need at all. This is a self-criticism.

How many national “Stop the Cuts” movements do we have now anyway: PA, CoR, UtR, NSSN, do Right to Work or the People’s Charter still exist? How has the left been strengthened as we have “grown” from 2 to 3, 4 or 5 of them? Do any of them work to strengthen the self-activity of the majority of people?

My real criticism is of the “front” method; and of the assumptions behind it. The revival of the left on a sustainable basis will depend on working out which – if any – of those 10 dubious assumptions I set out above are worth retaining.

(Originally published, with thread, here).

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