Or why we must start again


June 22, 2020

Socialist ideology demands strict self-criticism, a re-examination of theories, whilst allowing for the scientific learning of the last 50 years and of historic experience. ‘Marxism is a method and not a dogma.’ These intellectual tasks should be begun as soon as possible, and systematically pursued and encouraged by the existing organisations. Socialist conscience has been obscured by the struggles and defeats of the last quarter of a century; theory has been left behind by the knowledge of the last few years in economy, sociology, psychology; propaganda, founded on doctrinal vulgarisation, has got weaker. The fight for the intellectual renewal of socialism should be in the foreground of our considerations.
- Victor Serge (1944)1

It has become almost commonplace - but not less accurate or important - on the left to point out that the current pandemic is shining a light on the long-term systemic contradictions and injustices of global capitalism.2 Sacrificing workers, the poor, racialized communities and populations in the global south to the needs of capital, collapsing healthcare services, and unequal exposure to infection are nothing else than the current – if inflated – expressions of the general nature of the system. Forty years of defeat of progressive and working-class movements, and the subsequent disorganisation of labour, dismantling of welfare states in the global north, and roll back of postcolonial settlements in the global south, have laid the groundwork for the current rapid growth of deaths, unemployment numbers, and structural failures.

Yet, what is true of the enemy facing us, is true of us also. The COVID-19 outbreak is the most striking recent illustration (amongst many others, unfortunately) of the ongoing weakness of the socialist left and our continued inability to influence the development of political explosions of mass struggle, let alone force significant structural changes to current ruling class strategies.3 Recent examples abound, from the isolation of the Corbyn leadership and the assaults on the Palestine Solidarity movement to the left’s inability to shape the debate over Britain leaving the EU nor the terms of departure and the growing repressive policies targeted at Muslims, migrants, and other communities of colour. The socialist left has been conspicuous by its absence in the public arena for at least a decade.4

What is more, a lack of opportunities is certainly not to blame for this state of affairs. As the brief list above shows, there have been continuous avenues for struggle that a socialist, rank and file, non-parliamentary left could have intervened in, and worked to transform. In the labour movement, while workplace militancy is at a historical low, cleaners, teachers, postal and platform workers, lecturers, and others have nonetheless struck, entered official disputes or taken unofficial action. The current period is one of systemic crisis, mass disillusionment with ruling class representatives and institutions, and regular as well as rapid popular (often, if not always, class based) explosions of discontent. The current Black Lives Matter international revolt against police violence and structural racism underlines this starkly once again.

The socialist left, despite the energetic attempts by small and isolated groups and individuals, has made little to no difference to the development of this simmering mass anger and dissatisfaction – with the consequence we know: the growth of an increasingly aggressive, racist, and confident right in both parliament and the streets, and the repeated failure on our side to transform momentary explosions of anger into long-term, effective, structural challenges to the status-quo.

The social democratic and parliamentary left has not fared much better, despite important institutional breakthroughs in a number of unions and – most strikingly – at the head of the Labour Party. It has not been able to face down the onslaught of the ruling class, through its newspapers, political networks, and think tanks. It became isolated from its social base before ever really being able to mobilise it, before falling back on economistic demands in an attempt to avoid the numerous political assaults it faced. While fighting for better funding for the NHS, education, and social housing is incredibly important, the LP’s attempt to sidestep the right’s onslaught, which focussed on imperialism, xenophobia, and racism, was both strategically mistaken and an inexcusable abdication of responsibility.5

The situation today is therefore highly contradictory: both full of opportunity and repeated major political set-backs. This state of affairs is especially dangerous for a political tradition that bases its liberatory project on the mass action, and ultimate self-emancipation, of the working class. It leads activists all around us to pessimisms, demobilisation, and/or – much worse – a moralistic sense of superiority that dismisses the very people on which the success of our struggles depends, as inherently reactionary, backwards, or unorganisable. Both Brexit and the 2019 elections brought these kinds of approaches very much to the fore of political discourse in the UK.

This article is an attempt at intervening in the current moment – as many activists either leave or prepare for the long internal winter in the Labour Party – and to raise the issue of organisation as a crucial and urgent aspect (amongst others, not least of which are political analysis and grass roots organising, to which section 5 will return) of the socialist left’s way out of our current predicament. It is not meant to be a definite article on the question. I hope instead to contribute to current debates on the socialist left and to encourage others to put ‘pen to paper’ in response. I will argue that both the organisational forms adopted by the vanguardist and social democratic left no longer correspond to the structural realities we face. I will then touch upon the fact that the continued reliance on these organisational models both emerges from, and is sustained by, a set of historical references that are no longer adequate for our immediate tasks. Finally, I will propose the beginning of an outline of how socialists should proceed in the period ahead to rebuild working class organisation and socialist cadre. The hope is that this article will contribute to current debates amongst like-minded socialists, out of which new practical directions can emerge.

1. Organisational Crisis

Central to our collective failure to shape the repeated political crisis of the last decade lies the lack of effective organisations that could cohere different groups’ and activists’ efforts (more on which in section 3), allow them to share experiences and develop collective strategic goals, and test these out in practice. The lack of organisation also creates an inability to retain activists from one political moment to the next, which leads to the inability to develop long term collective analyses based on collective experiences, successes, and – crucially – defeats, as well as to the loss of potential political cadre. This state of affairs also gives an overblown influence to commentators and public figures, themselves disconnected from the social base they claim to represent – not necessarily through any fault of their own, but because of the lack of an organic connection with the labour movement from which they can learn and through which they can be held accountable.

The question then, is how to make sense of this state of affairs. Unfortunately, many activists have tended to give near exclusive attention to specific tactical issues or to forces outside of our control. Party leaders were not up to the task, specific bad decisions were taken, the media treated us unfairly. While much of this is undoubtedly true, it fails to account for why the organisational crisis runs throughout the socialist and social democratic left or why in the past equally biased media, political, or state institutions could be taken on.

Even more strikingly, these approaches do not account for how the Labour Party could recruit hundreds of thousands of working-class members over a period of five years without ever turning these into active members, organisers in communities, social movement activists, or engaged trade union members across the country. Neither does this account for the socialist left’s failure in building a radical network that transcended Labour Party membership, building connections inside and outside the party. This was a momentous failing on all of our parts.

What is more, the two main political traditions that are available to socialists today, the vanguardist and social demoncratic parties, are failing to deliver effective organisational networks, political victories, or even a basic collective ability to shape key political developments. A longer term and structural explanation of this state of affairs is necessary. It seems to me that this must be found in the fact that our current organisational traditions emerge from a historical moment – the post-WWII years – and from social relations, which do no longer match up to the reality we face. Let us take each tradition in turn.

2. The Failed Wager of the Vanguardist Party

Vanguardist parties6 in the UK – and across the Western world – went through a rapid period of crisis and decline in the early 2010s. Strikingly most of these were triggered by their failure to address sexual violence or racism. While these issues were bad enough, the ensuing internal confrontations revealed repeatedly, across different groups and parties, a wide gap between younger recruits and the historical leadership. This further brought to light ossified structures and an inability to acknowledge mistakes and wrong doing. Much of importance and quality has already been written about the specific reasons for each of these crises, which will not be repeated here.7

Instead, I will focus here on the fact that the repeated nature of these disputes across the spectrum of the socialist left points to a broader structural issue, which can be summarised in a few points.

  1. The long defeat of the neoliberal period, starting in the late 1970s left these groups increasingly isolated from the broader working class, making their survival dependent on internal ideological and organisational homogeneity.
  2. While this behaviour allowed groups to survive, it did so in a much-diminished way and increasingly distanced from the political experiences and political ideas of the people in whose name they claimed to speak.
  3. The uptake in political confrontations from the late 1990s onwards allowed these groups, with differing levels of success to attract new members, often considerably younger than their existing cadre, and offer them an important socialist education.
  4. As these new members developed politically they increasingly came into confrontation with the older leadership on a variety of issues, including bureaucratic and undemocratic behaviour, and an over reliance on leadership figures. This both facilitated and unravelled around internal questions of abuse and oppression.

However, while this account points to the failure of these organisations to politically survive the long downturn in working class struggle, which in term stopped them from engaging with new waves of working class militancy, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility of reconstituting new organisations on similar organisational basis. Yet, this too would be a mistake.

The formation of small, ideologically uniform, vanguardist parties emerged not with the Bolsheviks, as is often claimed, but with the formation of the Fourth International (FI) under the Leadership of Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. The political gamble of the FI was that the process of Stalinisation of the USSR and the mass Communist Parties (CPs) around the world would lead, in the long run, to important splits and revolts against growing authoritarianism. Especially, so the theory went, when struggle intensified, workers and political cadre would break from the CPs and/or the mass social democratic organisations and be captured by an authentic revolutionary leadership: the FI. It was therefore necessary for its organisations to remain ideologically firm and ready to act when the crisis came.8

While this logic made sense in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, especially under the leadership of one of its most important leaders, strategists and theoreticians, the gamble never paid off. International revolutionary crises came and went – in 1945 and 1968 for example – without ever leading to the mass transfer of workers to any of the myriad vanguardist organisations that had been built for that purpose. Instead, as they broke with Stalinism, they drifted out of progressive politics altogether or turned to the social democratic parties. The strategy based on tightly knit groups of highly disciplined activists had failed. The process of making sense of this failure has corresponded with the longer-term defeat of the working class as a whole under neoliberalism. Ironically, this shielded many of these groups from needing to come to terms with the fundamental failure of their project, and the political reckoning took a few more decades to run its course.

The crisis of the vanguardist model over the last decade or so is therefore not simply an issue of the specific period, nor solely the outcome of their failure to address oppression and abuse seriously. It is also the more fundamental failure of its political expectations, perspectives, and assumptions.

What then of the social democratic parties?

3. No Reform without Class Power

At first glance, these traditions have certainly fared better in both their Euro-Communist (Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain) and their Labour/Socialist party forms (Corbyn in the UK and Melanchon in France). Indeed, as the vanguardist left collapsed, across the West new left-wing electoral projects emerged and captured both the imagination and political energy of hundreds of thousands. These electoral victories and/or movements of mass recruitment led many socialists to believe that it was necessary to join these organisations in order to pull their membership to the left and rebuild working class institutions, from local party branches to trade unions and community groups.

In the UK, this energy was overwhelming. It attracted hundreds of serious and experienced organisers and activists into the ranks of the LP. Yet the outcome – both electorally and politically has been more than disappointing. Despite the best efforts of many, electoral success has remained out of reach, while virtually no effective activist base has been developed over the last five years – nor have any serious efforts been undertaken to do so since the creation of Momentum.9 The agenda remained set by electoral ultimatums, which repeatedly handed the initiative to the right of the party in setting the limits of what was acceptable or realistic. This is not, however, because of individual shortcomings of the many socialists that fought internally, but an outcome of the structural limitations of any primarily electoral project, as well as the very limited political space for social democratic reform within the current balance of class forces.

The Labour Party’s (and other social democratic organisations’) golden age emerged in the aftermath of WWII under the dual pressure of an insurgent working class, radicalised by its sacrifices on both the military and home front on the one hand, and the rapid economic expansion of global capitalism fuelled by post-war rebuilding in the global north and post-colonial development in the global south. Under pressure from powerful working class militancy (captured in the Baron of Hailsham of St Marylebone’s famous quip: ‘If you do not give the people reform they are going to give you social revolution’) and comforted by historically unprecedented economic growth, the ruling class conceded to the formation of the welfare state as well as to a number of corporatist structures that included organised labour into aspects of capitalist management. The irony is, of course, that it was the golden age of capitalist expansion that made the golden age of social democratic redistribution possible.

The LP was therefore able to rule thanks to a militant and well organised working-class movement and the preparedness of capital to concede greater redistribution of wealth downwards in exchange for the smooth running of production. The party’s role as a mediator between the ruling class and the labour movement was dependent on the leniency of the former and the militancy of the latter. Both elements of the social democratic recipe collapsed throughout the 1970s, as the world economy entered a new crisis of overproduction and the ruling class launched a ruthless assault on the working class – a period known today as neoliberalism, which shows no sign of abating.10

The response of the Labour Party in this period of defeat was a desperate attempt to conserve its role as a mediator between labour and capital. This meant, as the balance of forces swung increasingly dramatically to the advantage of the latter, a sharp turn rightwards in an attempt to remain ‘relevant’ and ‘credible’. The defeats inflicted on unions, working class communities, and social movements further weakened the ability of the party’s rank and file and the wider labour movement to put pressure on the party leadership in the opposite direction. This led to the latter’s accomodation to a sort of ‘neoliberalism with a human face’ of the so-called Third Way. Given that face was Blair’s, one would be forgiven to question its humanity.

The current renewal of a basic set of social democratic demands for reform – as captured in the Corbyn project or the movement surrounding Bernie Sanders in the US – represents therefore all the excitement and the limitations of the current moment. On the one hand, the return of struggle – however limited – and the temporary revolts against the status quo point to growing discontent with the state, the ruling class, and their dominant ideological approaches for the last four decades. At the same time, however, there has not been a rebuilding of working-class power from below. Unions remain weak, their rank and file broadly unconfident and disorganised, while huge swathes of the labour movement – particularly amongst young workers and across the private sector – are not unionised at all. Community self-organisation is largely non-existent as are the collective forms of solidarity that emerge from it.11

Social democratic surges can therefore emerge but are unable to leverage enough power to achieve victory – either in elections (as British and US readers will only know too well) or in power (as the Syriza government has demonstrated in Greece). This has real consequences for the internal workings of these organisations also, as activists in the Labour Party have discovered. On the one hand, they spent most of the last five years fighting internal battles against the Labour right, which although rattled by an insurgent demand for reform could not be dislodged by a rank and file that remained too weak and disorganised to force a final reckoning. On the other, the vast majority of their energies were diverted to running electoral campaigns and limiting their demands to maintain party unity and ‘appeal to the electorate’.

Without organic institutions of working-class life on which to rest and through which to mobilise, the left in the party was forced to fight a battle on the terrain of the bureaucracy: one that it could only lose. Corbyn’s attempt to federate in the face of the inability of his side to triumph led to the political mistakes we know and the failure to take decisive political decisions on any of the key political issues that he faced: from Brexit and the weaponization of anti-Semitism against him, to the growth of racism and state repression. Absent a mobilised and organised social base, social democracy is a dead end even for the achievement of (very)limited reform. Yet, the hope of many that this base can be rebuilt from the inside inverts the historical experience. It is the social struggle which formed the party and later propelled it into power. The electoral focus of the organisation, and the rhythm of electoral deadlines, make inverting the process impossible.

Both traditional organisational models of the socialist left are failing in the current period not (only) because of their leadership’s tactical and political failures but because the material conditions that led to their emergence have radically changed. Our own organisational responses to the current moment need to take these changes seriously. In the face of a historic low point in working class organisation and deep, cyclical, unresolved systemic crises, the hope of prising social democratic reforms out of the cold, vampire-like hands of capital is – at best – an illusion. Similarly, the continued reliance on organisational forms, which depend on radicalising existing mass working-class institutions to their right, when these institutions either no longer exist or have lost their mass character, ends up resembling a historical re-enactment society rather than a serious political project.

4. Historical references and Organisational Tasks.

The current moment is then one of growing social polarisation and tension, marked by regular uprisings and revolts, in which the crisis of capital and of liberal legitimacy are unfortunately mirrored by the crisis in working class and socialist organisations. Yet, every new wave of struggle further points to the deep need for an organised and militant labour movement.

Social movements in the last two decades – from the anti-war and the student struggles to mass revolts against racism and state violence – have repeatedly been able to pull large amounts of people out on the street and express their discontent, but have remained unable to transform that popular anger into sufficient social weight to force the government back. This weight could only be delivered by protestors taking their anger back to their workplaces and shut down production, circulation, and consumption.

The current mass mobilisation against structural racism and police violence are carried by thousands of working-class people furious, fed up, ready to confront the state. While their struggle is laying bare the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the system, the labour movement is once again absent from the battlefield. Not only does this illustrate many of the limitations of the labour movement today, it also contributes to further weakening its strength and reach.

Even on a more ‘economic’ terrain, the absence of sustained labour struggles in Britain in response to nearly a decade of austerity, and its assaults on working conditions and welfare provision, is a devastating indictment of the current strength and (dis)organisation of the labour movement. While hundreds of thousands of workers were prepared to join labour under Corbyn and many more voted for his social democratic manifesto, it is not clear that this political excitement turned into any significant organisation in the workplace. The lack of social weight, industrial power, and grassroots militancy weighed heavily in the failure of the Corbyn project.

Ironically, the impact of the COVID-19 shut down should serve as a powerful reminder of the economic power workers collectively hold in capitalist society. The refusal of governments to allow key workers to stop working altogether should also indicate to the socialist left where organising efforts should urgently be directed to.

We are therefore currently stuck between repeated illustrations of the burning need to rebuild working class organisation and power, while simultaneously faced with the uselessness of our current political tools to carry out the necessary work. The socialist left urgently needs to address this situation and shift its focus towards the rebuilding of working-class organisation, leadership, and militancy.

An important aspect of this process needs to be a shift in our historical references when reflecting on what the history of the socialist movement can teach us today. Indeed, much like the socialist movement has continued to rely on the organisational models that structured the second half of the 20th century, so much of our political references continue to be focussed on that period.

Socialists’ reading lists are filled with books that discuss the tasks faced by socialists and social democrats in the period of post-WWII capitalist expansion and growing worker militancy. This is true both for the history of the British left and internationally – we think about our organisational challenges based on the militant strike waves and social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the mass parties of the period of decolonisation, the civil rights movement and the Black Power struggle, and dream of a return to those better days.

Of course, this is not a call to throw out the political writings, analyses, and reflections of socialist thinkers from these periods. In fact, we would do well to study and analyse them carefully in our political education. It is however an appeal to recognise that our tendency to hark back to the 1945-1975 period for our organisational models is a mistake. These parties and movements emerged out of fundamentally different balances of class forces and economic realities to those we face in the present. They also did not emerge out of thin air, but out of decades of organisation, trial and error, and cadre building. So, while their political thought continues to have much to teach us, most of their organisational practices do not apply to our current circumstances.

Recently, I have found it helpful to return to the period of formation of the working-class movement in the UK in the late 19th century and have been struck by its relevance to our present both structurally and organisationally.

Socialists and working-class militants faced a situation of capitalist ascendency. Working class revolutionaries had been repeatedly defeated throughout the century and the massacre of the Paris Commune weighted heavily on their collective imagination. The heyday of the Chartist movement was already a distant memory. In the global south Western Imperialism expanded its power rapidly after crushing and containing the uprisings that marked the first half of the century, from Haiti to India. The early organisations of the working class that had survived were ossified, crafts-based, and conservative. Anti-Irish racism was a powerful force of division amongst workers, soon to be joined by anti-Semitism. The challenges then that socialists faced at the time of what Eric Hobsbawm has called ‘labour’s turning point’, echo in many aspects our own.12

Faced with this reality, socialist activists – often without existing organisations and part of loose networks of similarly minded activists – focussed on four main areas of activity:

1) Developing organs of working-class self-organisation in the largely unorganised industries of the period and in oppressed communities (think of the new union movement in Britain for example but also of the Bund’s Workers’ self-defence committees against anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe);
2) Organising networks of political education in workplaces and working-class communities with an eye on encouraging the emergence of organic intellectuals and working-class cadre (Capital reading groups in factories were a staple of the period);
3) Producing socialist analysis and theory through the establishment of groups of like-minded individuals and publications;
4) Moving towards gathering socialists under a common organisational umbrella, despite sharp disagreements, which could unify the new cadre that emerged through these different aspects of their political activity.

The work of Eleanor Marx, amongst others, is here exemplary.13 She participated in the development of socialist theory and organisation, contributed to the development of a working class press, supported industrial action amongst non-unised workers (such as match-factories or the docks), opposed nationalism in the labour movement and organised international solidarity with the Irish struggle against British colonialism as well as with Irish workers in Britain. She supported the emergence of New Unionism, centred around unskilled workers and the development of general unions, in opposition to the deep conservatism of the craft unions.

These areas of work are today, once more, after a long period of defeat and disorganisation, the tasks that face socialists: rebuilding class power from below, developing organic leadership and analytical clarity, while working towards organisational unity. This, I hasten to add, is not the unity of the fragments in the way projects such as Socialist or Left Unity have been in the past. It is not an argument to bring together existing small groups and their former members, which have survived the long period of defeat. It is an argument in favour of developing unity between those groups and individuals working towards the reconstitution of working class self-organisation and socialist politics that respond to the challenges of the current period. The main fractures on the socialist left today have little bearing on contemporary realities.

Differences on the nature of the Soviet Union, the four (or was it five?) internationals, or the exact nature of the Cuban revolution are not immediately relevant to the tasks outlined above. I am the first to acknowledge that I worry about some of the theoretical underpinnings of anyone who continues to consider that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state, but I am much more concerned about their willingness to abandon previous organisational reflexes and work towards the development of a new socialist movement, that focuses on building working class power from below, and thinks seriously about the intertwined challenges of taking on employers’ offensives, structural oppression, and state violence.

Furthermore, there are already important initiatives led by socialists that are laying down the foundations for new networks to emerge alongside the four axes discussed above.

5. Where Next

Rank and file activists in different industries building either new unions (such as IWGB) or challenging the bureaucracy of the established ones, the housing and rent control networks (Acorn or Living Rent in Scotland to name but two), the anti-raids, police violence, and migrant workers support groups (Anti-Raids Network, Police Monitoring Groups, London Campaign against Police and State Violence, the Movement for Justice) to name but a few, alongside workerist initiatives, like the Angry Workers of the World, which focus on organising strategically placed logistics workers, all have key socialist and working class militants at their core. A move towards a formalisation of loose organisational networks between them would be a powerful move in the right direction.

Such a step could also serve as an appeal to the socialist left inside the Labour party, that is going to face growing attacks from its new leadership in the weeks and months ahead, to mobilise their membership towards these areas of activity, alongside groups outside of the organisation. These different groups, networks, and individuals could start laying down the basis for practical unity based on a shared strategic vision – a party ‘in the broad historical sense’, as conceived by Marx, ‘that is everywhere springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society’.14

Finally, such a project should acknowledge that rejecting the old divisions that have plagued the socialist left will not make important political differences disappear. We are living through volatile times which throw up regular and important questions to which socialists will respond differently. However, the aim should be to achieve practical unity wherever possible, while maintaining political tension and disagreement.

Hal Draper wrote in the early 1970s about the need to return to what he called ‘political centres’: publications in which groups of like-minded socialists could develop a shared analysis of the world and debate with others. He traced this approach back to Marx and Engels’ approach to party building. We have seen the early beginnings of such political centres, from a wide variety of political traditions within the socialist left – for example, Notes from Below, Conter, Tribune, Salvage. Although these represent very different socialist traditions and approaches, they have in common an attempt to develop collective Marxist political analysis. Our movement needs many more such initiatives.

While working towards unity in practice, we need broad diversity in political positions, emerging from Marxist collectives trying to make sense of the world as it is rather than demonstrate the superiority of a specific tradition’s approach. Out of the arguments and discussions between these collectives new positions and new affinities will grow. It is also crucial that these centres not be turned inwards alone but take seriously the task of providing political education and focus on building up independent, confident working-class cadre. In the words of Gigi Roggero, in discussing education and the need to build working class autonomy:

Educating for what? To rediscover the power of the wager. A materialist wager, a revolutionary wager. A wager on the possibility of transforming the capitalist crisis into a revolutionary crisis, and even before that, of transforming the crisis of political subjectivity into an urgently needed leap forward. To ape that which was there before would be grotesque. Instead we need to study it, to turn it towards our current problems. Autonomy is the continuous readiness to subvert what we are, with the aim of destroying and overturning the existent. It is the construction of a collective perspective of force and possibility beginning from the radical liberation and transformation of the elements that make up the present.15

The recent example of the political education group bringing together socialists from different ideological and organisational backgrounds to discuss Marxism and develop collective analyses in Manchester is an important practical step in this direction, which others can learn from and should emulate.

The fundamental shifts in balance of power – through long term defeat – in the last four decades have not only weakened working class and socialist organisations, they have also undone the political and economic relations on which past organisational traditions were built - and on which they aimed to act. The current attempts by militants to take over, revive, or relaunch organisations born in different periods to answer different challenges are therefore, so this note has attempted to argue, misguided. The (always limited) possibility for reform has been undermined by the long-term neoliberal defeat and the equally long term capitalist crisis of profitability. Similarly, political strategies based on encouraging and acting upon a breakdown of mass working class organisations make little to no sense in a world where these organisations no longer have a mass character.

Instead, the socialist left should focus on rebuilding through practice - more specifically, through encouraging and participating in the development of working-class self-organisation and political leadership. Alongside these efforts, special attention should be given to building practical connections between existing initiatives and groups, while encouraging the flourishing of popular education and political debate. Only by organising together, fighting side by side, and vigorously disagreeing in the process can we hope to rebuild a socialist movement, rooted in working class struggle, and focussed on tearing down the system that is killing us all.



  1. Victor Serge (1944) A New International 

  2. Some of the most insightful of these discussions in recent months have been Adam Hanieh’s interventions on the Verso site, as well as Paul Gilroy’s podcast series for the Sarah Parker Remond Centre 

  3. While it is my conviction that much of what is covered here will be relevant beyond the borders of the UK, the current article will focus on the British context and let others make connections with their own contexts where appropriate. 

  4. Perhaps the last time things were different was the anti-war movement and the student movement between 2001-2010, and slightly later in Scotland where the socialist left’s intervention in the independence campaign remains an impressive example of mass agitation by a small socialist minority. Even those examples where crowned by defeat. 

  5. While a few notable exceptions should be acknowledged - Corbyn’s attempts to take on British imperialism in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing or his solidarity with Morales against the coup in Bolivia - these were short lived and did not manage to change the general direction of travel. 

  6. Those socialist organisations that aim to develop ideologically homogeneous and strategically centralised groups of revolutionaries with an aim to lead future working class revolts. 

  7. The attempted cover up by the Socialist Workers’ Party’s central committee of cases of sexual assault and rape has been the most publicised of these. Similar cases have taken place in many other socialist organisations in the UK - from the Socialist Party to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. 

  8. While in the UK these traditions are largely trotskyist, in other European contexts similar logics can be identified in other political traditions, most notably Maoism. 

  9. At the time of writing a number of slates are running in the internal Momentum elections on platforms focussed on rebuilding the organisation from the bottom up and prioritising rank and file action. Given the circumstances of general defeat of the left in the party in which this is taking place, and the factionalism driving the confrontation between the different slates, it is difficult to be filled with much hope about its ability to reverse this tendency. 

  10. Contrary to the celebrations of those who saw mass government spending in response to COVID-19 as its end, neoliberalism – much as any other form of ruling class power – must be defeated or will continue to reproduce. 

  11. A more detailed analysis needs to be made of the current situation within trade unions and the clash between unsatisfied but weak rank and file members and inflated bureaucracies. Unfortunately, there is no space to add it in the current article. 

  12. I am not trying to argue that the periods are exact replicas or that important difference do not exist – of course they do. I am however pointing out the rich potential of a closer engagement with this period to think about our own challenges. 

  13. Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx and Louise Raw’s Striking a Light are great places to start reading about the period. 

  14. Marx-Engels Correspondence 1860 Marx To Ferdinand Freiligrath In London 

  15. Gigi Roggero and Davide Gallo Lassere (2020) “A Science of Destruction”: An Interview with Gigi Roggero on the Actuality of Operaismo, Viewpoint 


author

Sai Englert (@PerrierCommuni1)

Sai Englert is a researcher.