paul O'Connel

paul O'Connel

Building the Road

Reading Time: 7 minutes

As part of Conter’s ongoing series looking at the major political, theoretical and organisational challenges facing socialists, Paul O’Connell argues we can use the insights of Marta Harnecker and CLR James to understand our predicament and the way forward.

Traveller, your footprints

Are the path and nothing more;

Traveller, there is no path,

The path is made by walking.

By walking the path is made

And when you look back

You’ll see a road

Never to be trodden again.

– Antonio Machado

Our current impasse has been a long time coming. The defeats of Syriza, Podemos, Sanders and Corbyn are the immediate, proximate expressions of the left’s weakness and disorganisation, but the root causes run much deeper. We could, with Perry Anderson, start the clock with the defeat of the German Revolution, the bifurcation of Marxism East and West, with the emergence of dogma on the one side, and esoteric scholasticism on the other.i Or, we can look to a more recent jump off point, with the defeats of ‘68, overthrow of Allende, defeats of the air traffic controllers in the US and miners in Britain, and the consequent emergence of a politics, in new social movements, and theory, in various post-isms, which mirrored capitalist triumphalism with socialist quietism.ii

Whatever the starting point, the end point remains: a social democratic left that has failed in world historic terms, a plethora of left sects lacking an organic connection to the working class they purport to speak for,iii the collapse of trade union membership and militancy with the concomitant bureaucratisation and incorporation of most major trade unions. A loss of confidence, or even a loss of memory, in socialist and Marxist insights into the nature of capitalism, class struggle, state power and political organisation. The crystallisation of a field of politics that takes the isolated individual as both its starting and end points, substitutes moralism for concrete analysis, surrenders any genuine thought of bringing about fundamental social change, and reduces the most pressing struggles of the day to variants of an intractable ‘culture war’.

With the right ascendant around the world, and an impending global economic depression, the left now needs urgently to become adequate to the world historic challenge facing us. This will require all manner of reorganisation and recomposition on the left, as well as much needed critical reflection. As Marta Harnecker argued one of the first challenges facing the left is to ‘take a harsh look at the weaknesses, mistakes and deviations’ that have brought us to where we are now, to learn from them and ensure we do not repeat them.iv In that regard it is welcome that Conter has embarked upon this process of reflection,v while also working to rebuild an institutional focus for the socialist left.

As a preliminary contribution to this discussion, and with a focus on the British context, I want to build on Marta Harnecker’s understanding of the tripartite character of the crisis afflicting the left and sketch some key focus points for overcoming this, as we engage in the necessarily slow-fast recomposition of the British left. Harnecker identified three central elements of the crisis afflicting the twentieth century left: the crises of theory, of programme and an organic The first relates to the ossifying of Marxist/socialist ideas into stale, hollow dogmas, the second the absence of a coherent, feasible ‘political instrument’ (organisation or party, in old money), and the organic crisis relates both to the disconnect of the left from the working class, and the recomposition of the working class.

If we begin with the organic crisis, socialism, since Marx, has been about the self-emancipation of the working class. There are other varieties of ‘socialism’, or social democracy, which see it, instead, as the process of ameliorating the suffering of the poor and workers, or some other Fabian variation – but for the revolutionary left, socialism is first and foremost about those who bear the chains of capitalist exploitation breaking them for themselves. Today the centrality of class is still paid lip service by most any individual or group engaged in vaguely “leftist” politics, but in practical terms this often rings hollow.

A central priority, then, has to be grounding any socialist project in working class communities and workplaces, with working class activists taking the leading role as organisers, spokespeople and in leadership positions. This is not born of some romantic attachment to “the working class” in the abstract, but instead is rooted in the central Marxist insight that it is only the working class that can challenge and transcend the capitalist system. In the current climate part of this battle will entail a struggle over defining the working class – rejecting reactionary utopias about the “white working class” or some unattainable retreat into a post-war compromise. Instead, the challenge for socialists will be to reclaim the centrality of class, while stressing the rich complexity of the working class, both within countries and globally. This will also mean reclaiming liberation politics as class politics, rather than surrendering it to the culture wars of the left or right, or indeed surrendering class to the moralism of liberal identity politics.

Needless to say, there is nothing easy about this, but as a starting point, class has to be the lodestar of any socialist project that is to face the challenges of the barbarism of capitalism in decline. On Harnecker’s second point, the crisis of theory, if the last decade has demonstrated one thing, it is the complete absence of serious political education on the political left. In Britain, as the Corbyn moment showed the green shoots of a possible social-democratic government for the first time in decades, there was a rush into the Labour Party. This was entirely understandable, unfortunately this was too often accompanied by an uncritical embrace of Labourism and its misplaced understandings of the nature of the Labour Party (a “broad church”) of state power (neutral) and of politics (primarily about election cycles and internal party manoeuvring).

This completely ignored the lessons of the twentieth century, the prolonged debates and discussions amongst socialists, communists and Marxists on the nature and limits of reformism and social democracy, the nature of state power and the challenges of building socialist power. As such, the Corbyn moment, while paying lip-service to the radical working-class tradition, never moved beyond electoralism, and the politically engaged Labour-left failed to build any meaningful extra-parliamentary forces or organisations, whether in communities, unions and workplaces, or in the form of serious political education. With the defeat of Corbynism and the routing of the Labour left, some have learned this lesson, at least partially. There is much rhetoric now about the return to communities, trade union work, and political education – but the gravitational pull of Labourism is immense, and the best critiques of Labourism spelled this out decades ago.vii

The ideas for the struggle were inadequate, in part, because of decades of defeat, but also because the question of political education was not taken seriously in a context in which the imperative to be ready for the next election, next leadership challenge, next internal election places a premium on unreflective practice that it is hard to resist. The danger, now, is that in response to the recent defeats there will be a similar fetishising of practice. Whether that is “staying to fight” in Labour with no real reflection on the reasons for recent and past defeats and no ideas for how to move beyond narrow electoralism, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a romanticised deep dive into community and trade union activity.

It is absolutely crucial that socialists do engage in and help build community campaigns and organisations as well as developing rank and file, militant trade unionism. But as with reformist politics and Labourism, there are objective, material constraints and contradictions in any of these fields of action – engaging without also reflecting, doing the work without political education, will be a recipe for defeat and demoralisation. This is why political education is centrally important to any movement for rebuilding working class power, confidence and institutions and the socialist left. But developing this will also entail shaking off some of the muck of recent ages – breaking with the defeatist navel gazing of various post-isms, moving beyond the superficiality of ‘left media’, reclaiming and interrogating the Marxist tradition and, crucially, developing it in a way which practically and pedagogically is grounded in working class communities and on the principle of working class self-emancipation.viii

All of the above brings us, finally, to the question of the crisis of a programme, or the absence of a political instrument. This is the perennial spectre at the socialist banquet. The experiences of the twentieth century, both on a world historic scale and in terms of the more parochial travails of the British left, have created suspicion amongst many to the idea of political organisation, but this is, as ever, the central question. As C.L.R. James once put it, all discussions of Marxism ‘are for the most part meaningless if they do not concretely contribute to … party building’.ix The failures of Bolshevik and Trotskyist forms of political organisation should not be read as the failure of organisation, as such, but rather as lessons to be learned from in building new organisations going forward.x

Again, Harnecker is incisive on this point when she notes that ‘the Left’s strategic task is to unite the growing but scattered social opposition into one vast column, one torrent, and to transform it into a force able to deal a decisive blow to the ruling system’.xi Political education, community campaigns, trade union organising, and engagement with elections has to be conducted in a joined-up manner, by an instrument rooted in the social base of the working class. This is in response to the realities of power. Vying for ‘state power’,xii through elections, is simply one, partial aspect of this, and the obsession with it is a historic weakness of the left that every generation should not have to learn anew.

In reality, capitalism is, as István Mészáros put it, the extra-parliamentary force par excellence and the socialist alternative has to be just as extensive.xiii With a starting orientation rooted in the primacy of working class self-emancipation, and developing serious, sustained forums and institutions for political education, with organic links to community and trade union activities, it will be possible to develop new organisational forms, rooted in the social opposition to the extant social order, that can provide the basis for renewing socialism in the twenty first century. But as James put it, such revolutionary instruments are ‘built with hard thinking and hard work, and hard thinking comes first’.xiv Now is the time for us to reflect critically, ruthlessly, on the failures of our movement in the past, and to formulate, in line with emergent practices, new ideas to frame and construct socialism for the twenty-first century.

iPerry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso 1979).

iiEllen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (OUP 1995).

iiiAndrew Murray, ‘Left Unity or Class Unity: Working Class Politics in Britain’ (2014) Socialist Register 266.

ivMarta Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left (Zed Books 2007) 1-2.

vDavid Jamieson, ‘Strategy Returns in Earnest’; Sai Englert, ‘On Organisation: Why We Must Start Again’

viHarnecker, 39.

viiJohn Saville, ‘Labourism and the Labour Government’ (1967) Socialist Register 43; David Coates, ‘Labourism and the Transition to Socialism’ (1981) 129 New Left Review 3; Ralph Miliband, ‘Socialist Advance in Britain’ (1983) Socialist Register 103.

viiiPaul O’Connell, ‘Political Education and Socialist Renewal’

ixCL.R. James, ‘Education, Propaganda, Agitation’ in Glaberman (ed.), Marxism For Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organisation (University Press of Mississippi 1999) 3.

xAugust H. Nimtz, ‘Marx and Engels on the Revolutionary Party’ (2017) Socialist Register 247; Sai Englert, ‘On Organisation: Why We Must Start Again’.

xiHarnecker, 32.

xiiThere is a lot more to be said about this but understanding ‘state power’ simply as the formal institutions of the state, which can be won via elections, is a partial and politically dangerous perspective. This aspect of state power is, of course, important, but a richer conception of state power is essential to any project of socialist renewal that seeks to both understand the defeats of the recent past and pose a sustained challenge to capital.

xiiiIstván Mészáros, The Necessity of Social Control (Monthly Review Press 2014) 192.

xivJames, 24.

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