Category Archives: RS21

It doesn’t have to be Weimar



The old swung it. There’s no mystery about why Exit triumphed; it had its core vote among the over 65s, among the generation who could remember Biggles and Baked Beans and when diversity on TV was the Black and White Minstrel Show. Of those young people who voted, three-quarters voted to remain but a greater proportion of the old actually voted and it is their greater turnout which explains why exit won.

You could, if you wanted to, blame the young for not voting in even large numbers. But who with their heart beating could vote happily for the Europe of Schauble and Merkel, the Europe that imposed water charges on Ireland, the Europe that forced bankruptcy on Greece?

The main organisations of the British left have hardly covered themselves with glory in recent weeks. A year ago they said that UKIP was an existential threat to socialists and demanded that everyone unite with them against its threat. This week, they were not Standing up to Ukip but Voting with Farage. All the rest of us still defer far too much to them.

The new left says “Defend” – starting with the rights of the EU migrants which are now in jeopardy. This is a humane and necessary  response. I will be part of it, starting with the first protest for migrants’ rights this very evening.

But the referendum shows us that the will to protect what we have is insufficient.

The reason the right won is that they were not defending. They were not maintaining a position from the past. They were demanding something new. We live in a moment when social resources are rationed, and everyone who depends on them can see for themselves that in future there will be less free education, less free health care, less social housing. In circumstances where people are told repeatedly that our defeat cannot be reversed, it is not absurd to conclude that if only foreigners are excluded from the welfare state then there will be more for “the likes of us.”

It felt as if remain was saying “we have enough rights now”. This was a weaker and more defensive argument. How could the poor be better off than they were already? Even those of us who argued for left remain positions could not say that “voting with us will make things better”, only that it would not make life worse.

The British population has grown in sixty years by 20%. Let us concede the possibility that to host 20% more people you need 20% more houses, 20% more jobs, 20% more cars. In the same period, GDP has grown, not by 20 or 25% but by 2500%. There are more than enough resources to go around. Limiting benefits by nationality is not a strategy to maintain the welfare state but to surrender it.

This is the argument the left needs to win, and we can only do it in the same way as previous generations: by making demands and winning them and showing that it is possible without racism to win more for those without.  A hundred years ago, people argued for pensions, for benefits for the unemployed. With each reform that was won, people’s ambitions for the future were raised. The task in our own time is to show, as Corbyn briefly argued a year ago, that the homes of the landlords are not theirs for life but can be returned to the people who rent. To restore the corporations and the rich to the tax system, which they have been allowed to escape. For a universal basic income, available to all irrespective of nationality.

Only if the left learns to defend less, and demand more, will we avoid more wretched mornings like this one.









Sherrl Yanowitz: Rest in Power



My friend and comrade Sherrl Yanowitz has died this evening. She became a socialist at Berkeley in the mid-1960s, joining SNCC and Core and hearing Hal Draper speak. She was part of a generation that sat down on train tracks to stop military trains and marched on the Bay Area docks to stop ships loaded with weapons for the war. She came to London in 1969 and was a part of the women’s and anti-racist movements, I remember finding an archive photograph of her and her partner Neil Rogall, both with giant hair, on a protest against the NF’s racist landlord Robert Relf in 1975. She joined the International Socialists, later the SWP and was amongst many other things a member of that party’s unofficial AgitProp committee, whose launch statement declared, “This first national AgitProp meeting wants an end to drab socials, colourless meetings, boring education, unconvincing propaganda and bad jokes…”

In 1977, Sherrl had the idea for a Stuff the Jubilee badge: the printer laughed at her when she took him the design, but so popular did it prove that in the end 40,000 of them were stamped, and the slogan took a life of its own, inspiring other leaflets and events. She was a woman in the male-dominated printing industry, and on strike at Wapping, and toured the country speaking on behalf of the strikers.

In 1991, when I was in central London and under-employed on a gap year, Sherrl made me an honorary member of the SOAS SWSS group, and persuaded me to give my first political talk (the title, “What’s wrong with British Justice?” turned out to be a larger part of my life than I could have guessed). She was comfortable in a diverse left which included anarchists and orthodox Trotskyists (Paul Mason was standing behind another SOAS table), academics, both Marxist and otherwise. She shared the memories of her working life: speaking with Paul Foot about Wapping, sharing an elevator once with the hulking, sweating evil that was Robert Maxwell.

She found her own path in the 1990s and patiently for her friends to join her, telling me on my first departure in 2003, “Welcome to the biggest political party on the left in Britain, ex-members of the SWP”. She left and she never stopped being an activist. In 2003 she was taking photographs against the war and helping build the movement. She did not hide her view that the leaders of Stop the War were failing the movement but few things gave her (as an anti-zionist Jew) more pleasure than watching the sudden dialogue that emerged between the socialist left and British Muslims. Where people were in the wrong she could be as hard on them as nails, but when people (sometimes the same people who were otherwise at fault) got something right, she did not stint in her praise of them.

Sherrl was the most generous friend that anyone could ask for. She lived by another dissident US Marxist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s idea, that you can tell the worth of a leftist by the love they show to children. She came to see us and photographed my eldest son when he was just three days old. The picture still is on our walls at home and in Sam’s grandparents’ home.

When the crisis happened in the SWP in 2013, Sherrl knew immediately what side she was on and behind the scenes gave the most support she could to the people who fought. When a new organisation, RS21, was launched, it felt to her that here was a chance – at last – of creating the principled left that for years she had missed. I can’t promise that we are, or ever will be, quite what she wanted. But thanks in part to Sherrl we’re still trying. My love to her and my love to her partner Neil.

One day we’ll win and when we do, I’ll be thinking of Sherrl.

Demanding the right to breathe



If there had been any doubts about the meaning of the agreement reached by Syriza and the Eurozone, they were resolved by the publication on Tuesday morning of Greece’s proposals to reduce its deficit.

Panagiotis Sotiris has subjected them already to a detailed analysis and I will do no more than endorse the points he makes that Syriza has agreed to an absolute cap on the public sector wage bill (and therefore a wage freeze), the agreement weakens Syriza’s previous commitments not to allow the auctioning off of homes which are in debt, and it concedes in principle to the continuation of the privatisation programme including of workplaces which are central to the Greek union movement such as the docks at Piraeus

If anything, there are still more criticisms could be made. For example an English-language audience will be attentive to the implications of promises to “develop the existing scheme that provides temporary employment for the unemployed”, or to “strengthen the independence of the General Secretariat of Public Revenues” (ie. the Greek equivalent of George Osborne’s Office of Budget Responsibility) “from all sorts of interference (political or otherwise)”, in other words from attempts by an elected Syriza government to control its own economic policy. And in addition Syriza has given the troika, now relabelled “the institutions”, an unwelcome, express veto over any future increases to the minimum wage.

One writer who wishes Syriza well has cautiously welcomed the agreement saying that it “cancels the previous Greek government’s planned cuts to pensions”, which may be true, but the proposals tabled by Syriza still involve cutting pensions by reducing early retirement, and index-linking of payments in future. In any event, the right comparison is not with the plans of the previous government, but with Syriza’s own Thessaloniki programme on which it was elected. This had promised to restore the Christmas bonus for pensioners, and increase pensions thereafter (along with public sector wages) as a means to increase demand in the economy. Both of these promises appear to have been quietly shelved.

The most important part of the Thessaloniki programme were the starting principles of Syriza’s policy in regard to the Eurozone, ie that it would “write-off the greater part of public debt”, obtain “a growth clause in the repayment of the remaining part so that it is growth-financed and not budget-financed”, and “include a significant grace period in debt servicing”.

Now, of course, you can only reach a fair agreement in negotiations with someone who is willing (or compelled) to bargain fairly with you. And, Syriza’s negotating position was reduced even beneath any foreseeable position of weakness by Greek savers’ removing £12 billion from their bank accounts.

To grasp the enormous pressure Syriza was under, imagine a trade union which is trying to negotiate a pay increase from a hostile employer, while at the same time, its savings are separately being withdrawn from the union’s main bank account at the rate of about 10% of all its money every single day. Whatever other difficulties Syriza may have had, it simply did not have the ordinary negotiator’s option of stringing discussions along in the hope that something better would emerge.

Without falling into the ritualistic language of “sell-out”, it is not hyperbole to accept that the Greek government is being “strangled” or to compare it to “a debt colony with a bit of ‘home rule’”. Those, including 20 Syriza’s MPs, the speaker of the Greek parliament Zoi Konstantopoulou and Syriza’s chief economist John Milios, who have criticised Tspiras for trying to portray a defeat as a victory when it is in Milios’ words “suffocating” are right; no healthy politics, reformist or revolutionary, can start except from stating the facts truthfully.

How then might the harm of the last week be undone?

A return to the movements (with two notes of caution)

There is an almost universal desire on the Greek left, from the leadership of Syriza as far as Greece’s anarchists, to see a shift from the government to the social movements, so that it is the latter which initiate policy and the latter which control the former. How this change is conceived depends on the politics of the different groups.

Syriza itself to some extent supports the idea, and included within its Thessaloniki programme promised to “empower the institutions of representative democracy and introduce new institutions of direct democracy.” The detail of the programme included legislation to allow referenda, removal of MP’s immunities from prosecution, and a democratisation of radio and television broadcasting.

But there is potentially a much more inspiring version of the same vision in which the balance of forces within Greece is changed by the emergence within Greece of powerful social movements demanding a return to the sorts of politics which won Syriza the election.

This would the best next step. But I do have two notes of caution. First, merely seeing the best hope does not conjure it into being. Among socialists in the English-language world, there is still often a conception that Greece has enjoyed a continuous five-year period of open struggle, with widespread workers’ strikes, occupations, etc, and that therefore it is inevitable that any moment now, a social movement will emerge which will have interests clearly opposed to both those of their own government and those of the Eurozone. And yet the pages of indymedia Athens, or of the major Marxist organisations in Greece, whether pro-Syriza or anti, do not give an outsider the impression of a society on the verge of open ferment.

Second, it is important that the re-emergence of social movements is not abstracted from their politics. The last occasion when a social movement “broke through” to challenge austerity was during the revolution which took place in Egypt from 2011. This was a movement which for two years, like the great revolutions of France or Russia, seemed to constantly renew itself. It had a similar effect to Syriza’s election in terms of raising hopes internationally. At its peak, workers were involved in around 1000 strikes or protests every month. Yet, at the end of the revolution, the fatal moment was the emergence of a counter-revolutionary force “Tamarod” which portrayed itself, plausibly, as just another reform campaign. The form which the counter-revolution took was a series of public protests which were widely (and inaccurately) described as the largest demonstrations in history.

Socialism means democracy; it means the abolition of the present state and its replacement by one governed by the mass of producers. Any process which tends in that direction is always better than one that does not.

Yet in a context where very many Greek unions are linked to the political parties which been voting together in parliament against Syriza (ie New Democracy, Pasok and the KKE) more politics is needed than the simple analysis which says that we have had too much of government and now we need a syndicalistic return to the movements.

What Greece needs is something more specific a local counterpart to the huge numbers that rallied in support of Chavez against the 2002 coup and then radicalised and transformed his government, in other words a mass movement with a democratising dynamic.

Breaking with the Eurozone (but)

Syriza’s survival as a government will depend on it taking measures which could be seen as the beginning of Grexit, i.e. the introduction of capital controls, and limits to withdrawals from personal and corporate bank accounts. If it does not introduce them, then in four months’ time, Syriza will be faced with the same difficulties it faced in the last week, ie it will be nearing the end of negotiations with hostile powers, while money drains out of its banks leaving its negotiators without any leverage at all over Greece’s creditors.

Accordingly, increasing numbers of activist in Greece would not just agree with this analysis but go further, arguing that Syriza must take Greece out of the Eurozone altogether. If nothing else, the politics of Syriza’s isolation in Europe seem to compel this approach. At present, it is in a minority of one, and even in if Podemos wins the Spanish elections in November of this year, the radical left will continue to be a tiny minority among the governments, and will lose repeatedly.

But the vision of a Grexit without a change in the underlying social relationships was criticised by Antonis Davanellos of Syriza’s Left Platform, in an article from 2011:

“a return to the drachma, if it happens under the direction of capitalists and their state, would have devastating results for the Greek population. The drachma would be undervalued from the start and would instantly lose even more value when it is introduced. This would wreak havoc on the value of everything that is important to wage-earners (their wages, pensions, housing, etc.) and also farmers (the value of cultivable land). On the other hand, the capitalists–who would retain over 600 billion euros deposited abroad, more than twice the sum of the Greek debt–would be able to grab for just pennies public enterprises, hospitals, land and more”.

Those who know their history will recall how the solution to the German debt crisis in 1923 had exactly the dynamic that Davanellos cautions against, ie that inflation enabled a massive concentration of wealth within Germany, with the largest businesses buying up their dozens of their smaller counterparts on the cheap.

It also involved the impoverishment of Greece’s savers who then turned to the far right, which is not something that the leadership of Syriza, motivated as they are by the fear of Golden Dawn, will countenance lightly.

And the assumption that Davanellos makes that Grexit would lead to devaluation (and therefore inflation) is, notably, accepted by Grexit’s supporters, for whom devaluation is of course the mechanism to encourage increased foreign trade. A devalued currency is intended to sell its goods abroad for less, kick-starting the economy – but even to formulate the policy in these terms is already to see Grexit as a strategy for defending Greek business, rather than Greek workers.

Moreover a Greece equipped within an independent currency would not lose the economic problems which are weighing presently on its workers. Greece would still have a debt larger than its GDP; merely announcing “we will not pay any more” would not make the debt disappear unilaterally. It might be for example that an independent Greece would seek to trade occasionally with the European states which surround it. They, of course, would attempt to make trade conditional on the payment in full of the debts they are now enforcing.

The problem is not Grexit but the failure to attach it to transformation from one kind of society to another – from one ruled by its bosses to one ruled by its workers. Socialists often make this invocation, sometimes ritually, but this really is a situation where seemingly the same possibility (the departure from the euro) can have a wide range of different outcomes, from the most hopeful to the most desperate.

The vision has to be not the restructuring of capitalism, but its defeat.

So, there are two solutions, albeit neither is straightforward. Yes, Greece needs a return to the movements, but one which arms Syriza (and its left critics) rather than its opponents in the parliament or the Eurozone and one which changes the relationship between the government and the streets.

Yes, Greece needs to take steps towards Grexit, and possibly Grexit itself, but one based on a changing dynamic between classes within Greek society, rather than the mere exchange of capitalism in one continent for capitalism in one nation.

Syriza: what to watch for



Up at the League, says a friend, there was last night a brisk discussion as to whether what had happened this week in Greece was already the Morrow of the Revolution, which shaded off into a forthright statement by various of the comrades on their views as to the nature of a revolutionary government.

Continues our friend, all things considered, the discussion was good natured for if comrade Tom was sitting at the back with his face in an expression of utter scorn, at least the remainder of the seven people present did not always attempt to speak together, as is the custom when persons are assembled together for any social occasion. The hall was not wholly empty, the building not wholly unlit, and the situation of the apostles of Humanity not too unpleasant. One of the company, says our friend, began by explaining that the Syriza government had achieved more reforms in a week than the Labour Party here has managed in 40 years, drawing in particular on the government’s stated intention to increase the minimum wage, restore sacked cleaners, and sack the ministries of their neo-liberal advisers.

Now it was hardly expected that those present would agree with each other’s opinions, but that comrade was followed by her neighbour Sam: a man of celebrated revolutionary sentiment. His riposte was that governments of the left or in his language “reformists” (a term uttered only with a clearing of the throat) came and went, and that Syriza should be watched with the greatest caution. Reminding those present of the story of the Ox and the Flea, in which the latter, the perennial advocate of another country’s militant cause, claims half the credit for the great work done by the former, he concluded with a muted call on those present to observe, “Let us watch it for a month”, he said, “we can but wait and see…”

If we can but watch, albeit in a spirit of solidarity, what should we be looking for?

There is a common analysis on the left which explains the success of Syriza in terms of the depth of the social movements in Greece, in particular the very large number of general strikes, in comparison to Britain where enthusiasm has been drifting out of the movements since early on in the Coalition, when the students were physically beaten of the streets and the unions failed in their joint strikes in defence of pensions. In this explanation, the large social movements are the prior cause of Syriza, and the modest movements here the cause of our weakness.

One problem with this approach – in terms of understanding Syriza –  is that the relationship between what used to be called party and class must always first be established and can never be assumed. In particular, it would be wrong to underestimate the barriers that had to be crossed so that the leaders of Syriza, who as recently as 2009 were only the third-largest party on the left in Greece with a mere 4% of the vote, could become the unifying force they are now generally perceived to be.

A further difficulty comes when you start to see social movements as (say) merely the base and the party as merely the superstructure, with the movements providing the money, activists and voters on which the party relies. Such a metaphor implies that the structure takes without giving and the base gives without anything being returned. Yet there must be an extent to which Syriza reshapes its supporters: it provides an explanation as to who is to blame for Greece’s crisis and how the crisis can be solved and a strategy combining elections, negotiations with the EU, etc, all of which has an impact on the movements. It structures the issues they campaign about, and to whom they protest and how.

Given that Syriza is now in government, I want to see if it will enact reforms which pave the way to more powerful social movements. This ought to be the point at which a reforming administration earns its name. When Barack Obama was elected as American president in 2008, this was down to the millions of people for whom the importance of having an American President was an overriding priority. The main policy achievement of his administration – greater healthcare – may have all sorts of strengths but it is almost wholly devoid of any feature that might enable new social movement activists to emerge from it. This puts Obama in contrast to his obvious predecessor, Roosevelt, whose New Deal contained a large number of measures which were likely to strengthen the movements on which the Democrats were based. The Wagner Act gave workers collective bargaining rights, assisting the great sit-down strikes which forced the car industry to conceded union recognition. The Works Progress Administration gave work to left-wing writers, musicians, artists, etc. The New Deal was so successful at deepening the movements on which the Democrats were based that it established them as the natural party of government in the US for thirty years; Obama by contrast has failed to strengthen the social movements which sustained him.

A further question is whether Syriza will take steps which enable the movements to retain a degree of independence rather than merely co-opting them – either into Syriza or the state. Co-option can take place inadvertently, as for example, after the October revolution, when the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the party of workers’ (“Soviet”) power. Within six months, the Civil War had begun and by winter 1918-1919 a huge proportion of the working-class activists on which the party was based were fighting in the Red Army. By this point, the historic potential of Bolshevism had not yet been exhausted, but there was no meaningful sense in which unions, soviets or co-operatives were in control of the state – tens of thousands of activists had been killed and the social movements of the working class were vastly weaker than they had been.

The right hope is that Syriza must accede power to the movements without expecting anything in return, and while this notion of what you might call the unselfish state (unselfish in its relationship to the movements) sounds paradoxical, there are clues that the party might understand the need. For example, the removal of barriers outside Parliament is a small but important suggestion that Syriza welcomes protests against its policies, and even encourages them in order to discipline it in government.

I want to see if Syriza will enable a turnover in the power relationships constituting the state. If you think for example of the last decade in Venezuela: Chavez’s plan was to achieve state control of the oil industry and use its income for social and economic development. From early on oil revenues were spent on social programmes (“Missions”) in health, education, land redistribution and housing which were always intended to benefit the poor and indigenous majority. A key question was whether the Missions were going to be simply conduits to reward loyalty to the state. It was an attempted coup by the old order which caused the regime to become radicalised, and a very different project emerged in which, although still part of the state, the Missions were now intended to represent a grass roots democracy – ie a different kind of relationship between the people and the state.

Given who Syriza has just entered coalition with, I will look to see if there are going to be measures which illustrate the weakness, or the power, of Syiza’s partners. For example, if the Coalition holds good to its promise to grant citizenship to migrant children born and raised in Greece, this seems in complete kilter to everything the racists of Anel stand for. But of course there will equally be pressure – votes in Parliament which can only be won in return for the sorts of small compromises whose ultimate effect is to denude a left-wing party of the things which once made it worthwhile.

The one point at which Syriza seems most interesting is in its commitment to renegotiate the Greek debt, beginning when the last bailout ends, which is only next month. Immediately, Greece will have to borrow £22 billion euros (to cover debt repayments in 2015 and 2016) with the immediate prospect of either of the likely lenders – the EU and the IMF – demanding that Syriza in return concedes the very policies (eg an increase in the minimum wage) on which it was elected. Syriza has attempted to position itself as a combination of the mild and the militant: keen to talk, opposed to an EU exit, but determined to concede nothing of substance. Its plan B, such as there is, is to overstep the heads of the negotiators and to speak to the people and then the leaders of Europe. This helps to explain why Pablo Iglesias Podemos’ leader was present at quite so many Syriza election rallies: if Podemos wins the Spanish elections, he will be a key ally. Even if he does, if the election drags on till December (as under Spanish election laws it may do) it may not come soon enough to resolve negotiations starting in February. Faced with an impasse, will Syriza turn to the people, ignoring investment strikes as Chavez did after the 2002 coup?

So long as this possibility remains open, events in Greece will be worth watching – because if Syriza does turn to the people of Europe to put pressure on their behalf – at that moment, much more will be required from us than mere observation.

What Engels’ supporters did next



In the great split of 1884, Engels took the side of those who demanded the earliest possible break with the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF’s flaw, as he saw it, was the party’s utter dominance by its leader, HM Hyndman. An aristocrat with a distinguished record of academic publication, Hyndman was a constant intriguer. Hyndman is “petty and hard-faced”, Engels complained, “possessing a vanity in excess of his talent and natural goods”. William Morris agreed, complaining about Hyndman’s habits of “discreditable intrigue and sowing of suspicion among those who are working for the party”. The historian EP Thompson diagnoses a relationship between Hyndman’s patrician upbringing, his sneering personal style, and his determination to create a party of followers, “Supremely self-confident himself himself, he saw the question of leadership as a matter of loyalty to himself and his Executive. If only the workers could be won to follow, he would look after the leading: the workers were the club he would swing.”

To demand an immediate split was to break apart the only socialist party on the British left, at a time when the far left was seemingly better united than it had been at any time since Chartism. The faction should think twice before continuing on a course that will lead them to abandon the SDF, Hyndman and his supporters urged. The SDF was Britain’s largest and only Marxist party, not a negligible acheivement, and one that should not lightly be abandoned. With around 1000 members prior to the break-up, the SDF contained in its ranks all the outstanding individuals of the most recent period of struggle; William Morris, Belfort Bax, HM Hyndman, John Burns, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Plenty of socialists outside the party – George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells – may have looked askance on the day-to-day pronouncements of Hyndman but at just the same time they assumed that in the coming social ferments the SDF would be reinvigorated, and that it would be capable of taking the practical leadership of the mass movement, a role that an individual could never hold but could be played only by a party.

Those who repeatedly and mechanically promise unity on the left are often the most desperate advocates of private intrigue. In public Hyndman may have promised that he would allow a space within the SDF for his critics; in private, he did everything in power to stiffen the resolve of his own partisans against a reconciliation with the faction. Morris was invited to speak at meeting of the SDF in Edinburgh. Hyndman sent eager comrades to break up his meeting, heckling him, by asking him repeatedly if he accepted the party’s line on economics.

While the ground on which the internal struggle rased was the sole question of inner-party democracy, the whole left was shaped by the patriachal culture of British public life. The SDF portrayed the class struggle as the key to creating a system of general equality, it existed in a world structured by sustained gender as well as class oppression. Among the SDF’s early supporters were Annie Besant, who on the break-up of her marriage had lost the custody of her children, the High Court ruling that as a socialist and secularist she was incapable of being a fit mother. A second prominent SDFer Edith Lanchester would be forcibly confined to an asylum after telling her family that she intended to live openly with her lover, without the two of them marrying. Another SDF activist Belfort Bax insisted that an urgent task facing socialists was to refute the feminism (the term not having yet been coined, he wrote instead against”gyneolotry”). Only class, he maintained, had the power to liberate the oppressed: “The real state of the case”, he wrote “is that the condition of women has been determined by that of the men of the class to which they belonged. Women of the privileged class have always been privileged, women of an oppressed class have been oppressed, not as women, but as belonging to an economically inferior section of the population”. Bax’s book on The Legal Subjection of Men justified his approach to his comrades.

After weeks of intrigue and attempted coups and counter-coups, Engels’ and Morris’ factions quit the SDF to launch a new party, the Socialist League, with branches in Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford. There were a preponderance of writers on the SL’s first steering committee – Marx, Aveling, the poet Tom Maguire, and the most talented of them all, not a journalist but an author of alternative imagined futures, William Morris.

The League had certain virtues – an independence of spirit, a hostility to top-down leadership, a youthful membership – but within months these strengths had become the League’s equal weaknesses. Charles Mowbray, another member of the Provisional Council, would drift into anarchism after years as an activist among he unemployed in Norwich. Franz Kitz was rumoured to have previously led a cell of East End bomb-makers. He was an extreme individualist and the an advocate of copying the revolutionary Terror in order to strike fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie.  Before long, Engels was expressing his disappointment with the decisions of the steering committee, “The League is passing through a crisis”, Engels wrote, “Morris has fallen headlong over the phrase ‘revolution’ and become a victim of the anarchists.”

Members of the SL began a discussion on the merits or otherwise of “Communist Anarchism”. The League should not become a party it was argued but should restrict itself to a “centre of relations and statistics” without initiative, or leadership. Morris himself cease to play a day-to-day role within the League. His critique of the increasingly anarchist direction taken by the League was expressed in a coded passage in his greatest novel, during which the inhabitants of the future considered the individualist anarchist ideal, “To wit, that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”. The citizens of the future “burst out laughing very heartily” at the idea.

As for the SDF, beyond the undoubted accomplishment of maintaining any organisation after a bitter split, it became a shrunken memory of the party that it once was. Besides losing members in the formal split, it also shed activists towards careers in the trade unions and the Liberal party (John Burns). It retained an industrial cadre of very senior trade unionists who continued in office, increasingly elderly and indifferent or hostile to struggle. While on paper such figures as Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, General Secretaries of the boiler makers and dockers’ unions, were still members of the SDF and therefore Marxist revolutionaries, they argued for immigration controls and against strikes, and took seats in Parliament on the centre-right and far-right of the Labour spectrum (and this in a party which had the corruptible Ramsay MacDonald at its centre).

Hyndman was in private contemptuous of the class which his party supposedly existed to represent, “our working men are so ignorant and depressed by a hundred years of capitalist tyranny that it is hard to rouse them”, he told William Liebknecht, “the Trade Unions … stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”.

While Morris battled with the Socialist League ultra-left, a second group ex-SDFers (the ones closest to Engels’ heart) also drifted away but without in any way giving up on activity. At the 1888 conference of the Socialist League, Eleanor Marx’s Bloomsbury branch unsuccessfully moved motions called on the League to stand candidates for Parliament and to work to this end with others on the left. On the defeat of its motions, the Bloomsbury branch quit the League. Rather than give up on politics, they then attempted to work out a way of being revolutionaries that would be principled and effective and which would contribute to the renewal of the working class. In 1889, a revolt of unskilled workers began – with strikes among Beckton gas workers and East End dockers. Ex-SDFers such as Eleanor Marx in London and Tom Maguire in Leeds ignored both the SDF and the SL and threw themselves into participation in this nascent movement. In spring 1890, the boilermaker’s union, with Eleanor Marx on its executive, attempted to bring about a practical alliance of the unions and the socialist parties through a campaign for the 8-hour day. Tens of thousands of workers demonstrated jointly in Britain’s first May Day. Marx herself spoke twice a day at strike rallies. For the next four years, she would speak across Britain and internationally as a socialist but with no organised position beyond her seat on the executive of the boilermakers’ union.

At the end of the upturn of 1889-90, the remaining SLers split in three directions. A number became anarchists of the deed, while others dropped out of the movement. A third group moved rapidly in the direction of parliamentary politics. The League’s members in Leeds and Bradford swung one way and back between plans for incendiary devices to be used against local business owners and projects for standing for municipal office. A group around Maguire helped to choose the venue for the first conference of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford, while other ex-SDfers provided several of the office-holders (John Burns, Tom Mann) of the new electoral movement. A good case could be made that without the Socialist League there would have been no ILP. The League’s ultra-leftism in 1889 gave way surprisingly quickly to a longer future of mild reformism.

Morris, isolated and increasingly wooed by Hyndman, declined to write for his paper but admitted that the League was doomed, “I want to pull myself together after what has been, to me at least, a defeat”. Various branches of the SL (Hammersmith, North Kensington) defected from the increasingly anarchist parent, and attempted to hold a middle line thereafter between the SL and SDF. Their independence was at least facilitated by a healthy culture on the left of the 1890s where it was not unusual for socialists of whatever tradition (Fabian, SDF, ILP, ex-SL) to speak wherever they were invited, irrespective of the national politics of the group that was now providing their platform.

As for the Engels faction, after 10 years of independence they largely returned to the SDF,  with little enthusiasm, with no belief that Hyndman would ever change, but from a conviction that the only real alternative (the ILP) was headed in a direction which was even further from the revolutionary politics which they espoused. In this way the SDF ultimately reasserted itself and eventually passed on to its eventual child (the Communist Party of Great Britain) the old patterns of sectarianism and top-down leadership against which Morris, Engels and others had once raged. They would have done better, in 1895, to have retained their independence. And between 1884 and 1895 Morris, Maguire and all the others who had a vision of the League as a principled and democratic party of revolutionaries would have done better to have carried on working with them.

Avoiding Apocalypse



It is not easy to review a book written by a comrade; John Cowsill was a member of RS21 (as I am) from our foundation and has been a member of the North London branch whose meetings I have previously posted. Earlier this year, he published Safe Planet, an attempt to bring together two potentially disparate elements of Marxist theory – first, an explanation of the mechanics of how it might be possible to power the world by the use of renewable electricity, and second, an argument that the people most likely to make this transition happen were the world’s workers. “Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, Lenin wrote in 1920Safe Planet updates this message.

The first half of John’s book explains that the world already has a problem with generating sufficient energy, and that this problem will get worse in successive generations as (for example) hundreds of millions of people in East Asia enjoy the more affluent lifestyles which are likely to follow the massive expansion of industry in China. Our economy is still based on the assumption that this electricity can and will be generated principally by the extraction of fossil fuels, hence the adoption of technologies such as fracking which are intended to extend the lifetime of coal, oil and gas. A problem with the continued use of fossil fuels is that they are enormous polluters, principally by producing excess carbon dioxide which is causing the world’s temperature to rise. Our collective dependence on carboniferous capitalism is already causing droughts, famine and extreme weather conditions and every indication is that its destructive consequences will only get worse.

So, the world needs to move to alternative forms of energy production, including greater use of renewable energy. But a principal problem with the greater use of wind, solar and tidal power is that the energy they produce surges, and is not generated continuously (there is no solar energy production in the middle of the night; while it is easy to site wind farms far out to sea such farms are relatively less productive than land-based turbines…) and any electricity can only be stored with difficulty. John argues for the adoption of a system of energy storage based on a model proposed nearly twenty years ago by Willett Kempton and Steven Letendre – in effect, that we should replace the engines of every oil-burning motor car with electrical motors which can double-up at night-time as a series of millions of batteries holding all the unused electricity. I find this model intriguing even though it does raise further questions. What would the carbon costs be of tens of millions of adapted car batteries in Britain or billions of them worldwide? And who be the advocates of the movement that would be required to make this change happen?

The most impressive parts of Safe Planet involve the critique of other writers who you might term “pale green” (my phrase, not John’s), in that they call for greater use of renewable electricity but portray themselves as moderate and make unnecessary concessions to the fossil fuel lobby by stating that renewable energy cannot be the majority source of electrical generation for many years to come. In particular John criticises David Mackay and George Monbiot who, John argues, have been unnecessarily pessimistic about how quickly the transition to renewables could be made. Mackay has argued that no more than 15% of UK energy production could ever come from renewables; and John argues that this assessment is based on a series of wrong assumptions – about the generating capacity of wind power in particular. I have no independent knowledge of climate science, neither of the mathematics of transport use (a key factor in John’s equations) nor of the efficiency of wind farms, but I found John’s arguments persuasive.  Since his book was published, life itself seems to have born out their accuracy: for example, in one day in October 2014, 24% of UK electrical generation was from wind power. While this was an exceptional day, bringing together outages in the nuclear sector, unusual meterological conditions, etc, this happened, and was far beyond the outer reaches of Mackay’s model. Even if it is treated as a relative anomaly, the direction in which we are all (too slowly) heading is clearly towards the greater use of renewables and (seemingly) the eventual disproof of the pessimists.

The second half of John’s book is an argument that the transition to a system of renewable electricity will only happen, at the necessary speed, if it is accompanied by a successful social revolution in which the world’s workers take over the means of production.

I agree, but it is easier to persuade readers that the major oil producers are an obstacle to a necessary change than it is to persuade them that the world’s workers in particular have an overwhelming reason to make this revolutionary transformation. In the first half of the book, John’s focus is on a single group of capitalists, those involved in the production of fossil fuels, whereas in the second half of his books he pits all capitalists against all workers. More work needs to be done to show that reformist solutions to ecological catastrophe are utopian. At least at the level of hypothetical possibility, it is conceivable that capital in general could recognise that its collective survival rests on the defeat of a particular capitalist layer and therefore that fossil fuel capitalism should be subordinated. In the last 150 years, many things which were previously thought to be essential to capitalism have been wilfully diminished – the airborne polluting technologies that horrified the civil society of nineteenth century Manchester, the big tobacco companies which were so important to postwar America, the CFC technologies that caused the hole in the ozone layer. None of these technologies were entirely defeated, none of these pollutants have altogether gone away. And yet none of them are as dominant within the world’s economy as they once were. If, as John seems to believe, that there is a different relationship at stake, a deeper relationship between oil production and capital itself so that only a revolutionary alternative could enable the shift to renewables then this needs to be directly argued.

The final sections of Safe Planet set out with clarity and in an accessible way, a series of ideas which will be familiar to longstanding readers of this blog, ie the tendency of capitalism to go into periodic cycles, the role of workers as revolutionary agents, the limits of the trade union bureaucracy, the necessity of an independent rank and file and of a revolutionary party. These are good arguments rooted in a vision of collective emancipation and John is to be congratulated for putting them in a different format so that they will be read by people by a new audience probably motivated more by ecological concerns than with the nuance of the socialist tradition. But my honest reaction to reading – in a new place – arguments that I myself have made often enough in other places was to feel a strong need for their updating.

The analysis of socialist transformation rests far too much on analyses generated in the heroic period of the postwar working class. In contrast to the world in which I was born, unions are weak, and we are all told repeatedly that education rather than collective struggle will maximise an individual’s life chances. The price of labour has become implicated with the price of the social wage, which capital has waged a 50-year struggle to reduce, manipulating scares around immigrants. Bureaucracy is no longer a problem experienced only by unions but by a large number of other social movements. In an epoch where technologies tend to separate people rather than binding us together, struggle still takes places but class consciousness is falling not rising. There is no longer a clear majority of people employed in full-time permanent jobs, in which any individual worker can maximise their economic worth by being part of social movements to increase the price of their labour, so that a revolution can be portrayed as simply the inevitable final product of a series of militant workplace struggles. The link between protest and class consciousness needs to be remade.

It is unfair to expect a short book on the very specific topic of global warming to contain the answers to everything. But I am not singling out John’s book; all of us who come from an IS tradition need to be aware that the metaphors we employ risks becoming drained with repetition. And if they seem tired to us, it is likely that others will feel their exhaustion with even greater conviction.

Karl Marx: activist and improviser



Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx (Liverlight, £9.91) has received a critical pasting from the revolutionary left. One American journal accused its author of “short-changing” Marx, while among the British Marxists one newspaper criticised Seperber for failing to appreciate the liberating potential of “revolutionary socialist leadership”. A socialist monthly (on whose editorial board I once sat) urged its readers to ignore Sperber without reading him: “There are many bad books on Marx – this one in particular sets out to prove that he was out of date even in the era in which he was working.”

As it happens, there are problems with Sperber’s book, starting with its style which is drier than its material deserves. The author is a serious academic historian and has a talent for finding neglected sources, but the Marx with which he is most comfortable is a writer in the company of his peers. The result is like a history of the Gospels in which the reader is reminded of Jesus’ debt to the millenarian sects of Second Temple Judaism, and it is shown that the ideas that we associate with early Christianity could also be found elsewhere. This indebtedness was also true of Marx but it the combination of ideas although with the skill of their expression that makes Marx better read even now than his contemporaries. Sperber’s organising approach to Marx it to place him firmly in his nineteenth-century setting, which – here I agree with his critics – does reduces him. But if you care about who Marx was and what he stood for, then surely the appropriate response is not just to criticise a biographer’s general approach but also to try to learn from him, as from anyone (whether Sperber, Lars Lih…) who has found documents of which the left has been ignorant.

In that spirit, it is more useful to highlight a few aspects of Marx which Sperber explains better than anyone else I have read.

Marx grew up in a family setting which was receptive to his early ideas. This is a surprising discovery; Marx’s father Heinrich appears in most previous biographies as a champion of absolutist rule, a “Prussian patriot” (Mehring, 1936 edn, pg 2), or a “monarchist” (Wheen, 1999, pg 18) baffled by his son’s politics and fortunate to die on his son’s 20th birthday before the two men ended up in total conflict. But Sperber, who has access to the MEGA (ie the full, German-language version of Marx’s Collected Works, including the letters of Marx’s correspondents) shows that Heinrich had read Voltaire to his son while the latter was at school and written to Karl when he was a student encouraging him to read the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Leibnitz, Locke and Newton. Heinrich’s libraries included a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (Sperber, pg 19). Heinrich, Sperber argues, expressed his lifelong commitment to rationalism by converting not from Judaism to Catholicism (the almost universal choice of his successful Jewish contemporaries) but to Protestantism. In 1834, when his son was 16, he was one of a group of 15 Prussian state officials who – scandalously – celebrated the New Year by getting drunk and singing the Marseillaise and waving a small revolutionary tricolour flag (pg 29). This sounds suspiciously like the Karl Marx of the 1850s with his pubcrawls and drunken discourses to friends on the merits of revolutionary anthems.

When you think that Marx is polemicising against other writers, Sperber insists, he is really (if tacitly) also criticising himself. Hence the assaults in Communist Manifesto on Fourier, Owen, Grun, and the lengthy destruction by the Young Marx of the theories of Proudhon and Feuerbach. Generations of readers trying to find their way in to Marx through his most accessible short books have been baffled by their multiple references to these contemporaries who (from the view of the present) seem even harder and more obscure than Marx himself. If the ideas of these writers are really so puny and ridiculous, a sensitive reader may ask, why does Marx waste so much time on them? Yet all of these writers had been a mentor at one time or another in Marx’s (very lengthy) journey of self-discovery. Repeatedly, Sperber shows, Marx expresses the deepest scorn in relation to views which Marx himself had held just a year or two before. So in The Eighteenth Brumaire, when Marx criticises those who had expected the revolution of 1848 to replay the revolutionary dynamic of 1789, Marx’s bitter rejection of this approach only makes sense if you understand that for much of 1842-1852 Marx had promoted that very revolutionary alliance between socialists and liberals which he was now rejecting.

Between his mid-20s and mid-30s, in the favourable context of the prelude to the 1848 revolution and then during the revolution itself, Marx built for himself a career as a newspaper editor which was surprisingly conventional (when set against the well-known history of Marx’s later penury in London) and – in the same terms – successful. Wheen speeds through this period as quickly as he can, preferring to concentrate on the development of Marx’s ideas and the human of his early marriage. Mehring knew Marx’s success but insisted that it was the unstable product of continuous conflict between Marx himself and the “extremely moderate” Rhineland bourgeoisie (Mehring, pg 35). Sperber takes the revolutionary desires of the Rhenish liberals more seriously. He shows that Marx’s 1842-3 editorship of the Rhineland News was marked by the young writer’s willingness to polemicise on behalf of the historic causes of the German liberals (ie free trade, an elected assembly, an end to censorship by the Prussian bureaucracy), and that his journalism was popular with a moderate, middle-class audience. Under his editorship, the paper’s subscription trebled. On the paper’s closure by the Berlin government, the stockholders petitioned the Prussian Emperor himself asking him to change his mind, and a list of wealthy patrons collected together a total of 1,000 talers as a pension to thank Marx for his efforts for the democratic cause.

Sperber’s Marx is an improviser. Mehring’s Marx was a prophet and philosopher who had emerged from the womb fully-formed and the role of history was to provide no more than a canvas for the inevitable working out of the vision he had already crafted. It is more persuasive to see Marx’s ideas as emerging negatively, as a series of potential plans for political advance, which were then defeated by other factors which Marx then recognised as having greater weight than he had originally envisaged. So, after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx came to the view that the European middle-classes had a greater fear of social revolution (by the workers) which might emerge within political revolution (for democracy) than they had of their old, authoritarian rulers. Accordingly, in any future revolution, it should be expected that they would side with the counter-revolution (as they did indeed in 1871). This was Marx’s consistent analysis thereafter. But it is most clearly not the view that Marx championed before those revolutions had gone down to defeat, and he reached it only because of his great let-down as the revolution was slaughtered.

Finally, Sperber’s Marx is an activist. He formulates plans and then refines them. He takes to the streets; he encounters the hostility of the repressive apparatus of the state, both in Germany and later in exile. He is a political animal trying to shape his immediate present. He is not infinitely wise, he is not principally a writer concerned with the limits of political economy (although he became that writer during the long period of the revolution’s defeat). Sperber’s Marx is in fact the very same person that his best friend Frederick Engels once described in the funeral speech he gave to just a dozen of Marx’s friends: “Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.” To see Marx in these terms is not in the least to dismiss him. Nor, at a time when activism is widespread, should it provide a barrier to championing Marx among a new generation of fighters.

Auden explaining neoliberalism to Byron’s ghost


I try not to share things on this blog which are widely available already on the internet, but I make an exception for this poem. I first read it in 2008 and, although I have not read it again until today, since I first found it I have always know it was there. I have played back repeatedly in my conscious mind the message of the second, third and fourth stanzas: that there is always a reactionary force in politics, that it constantly finds new ways of expression, and (my addition) that unless we watch ourselves even those of us who think we are immune to it can fall under its spell.

You never were an Isolationist;
Injustice you had always hatred for,
And we can hardly blame you, if you missed
Injustice just outside your lordship’s door:
Nearer than Greece were cotton and the poor.
Today you might have seen them, might indeed
Have walked in the United Front with Gide,

Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and today he still
Swinges the horror of his scaly tail.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

Milton beheld him on the English throne,
And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;
The hermits fought him in their caves alone,
At the first Empire he was also there,
Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:
He comes in dreams at puberty to man,
To scare him back to childhood if he can.

Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,
Whenever he’s lost faith in choice and thought,
When a man sees the future without hope,
Whenever he endorses Hobbes’ report
‘The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,’
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.