where are we and where do we want to be?

7 07 2012

Ian Roberts offers his thoughts on our communist network

I write neither as a theorist nor – compared with many communards – a consistent activist.  I’ve participated in the left intermittently since the mid-1960s.  Since I have never belonged to more than three of the myriad groups it includes, I have no specific criticisms other than to observe that the presence of two members of rival groups in the same telephone box would be more likely to result in a fight over holding the receiver, the number to dial and who should speak than a successful call.

I made contact with others in Bradford after being impressed by Commune and its aim of providing an open forum for a broad spectrum of leftist thought as a foundation for action. When we hosted the aggregate in Leeds, our targets were to get agreement on a platform and constitution. The meeting was well chaired, enjoyable and – with give and take – appeared to secure unity on the issues we had hoped to. Its aftermath, however, was dire. My inbox was inundated with theocratic dissent from – and proposed amendments to – what had been agreed.

What is the point of healing differences in a quorate democratic vote and then picking at the scar? If this is a reflection of where those in favour of an open forum are – with financial, political, police and media corruption and the consequences of the politics of capitalist selfishness never more starkly exposed – all that is left to do is sound the death knell for a reinvigorated, united left. It cannot be this difficult to agree on what unites us, trust each other to keep to what we agree and show enough solidarity to avoid endless arguments about the number of Marxists you can get on the head of a pin. Inevitably, those who genuinely seek openness and unity will bring different views to the table but the aim is to prepare a meal which will sustain a movement: nitpicking over the ingredients of the starter is the dialectics of diversion and defeatism.

In my lifetime the history of the real left in Britain, i.e that beyond, and what little remains in Labour, is dismal. Claims to internationalism are laughable: we are still failing to even engage with immigrant communities here, far less accept them as having their own voice in a struggle for progress; no less so with those dismissed as representative of an ‘underclass’ – shorthand for the view that they don’t deserve to count.

The crucial issue, whether in terms of debate or action, is surely communication. The vocabulary of Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism or Anarchism simply doesn’t cut it. Few, even on the real left, have read much of their writing, far less that of later theorists – and a lot of ‘commentary’ is no more than exclusivist jargon.  The left shouldn’t have icons, and if any were about now I doubt they would still be debating every last dot and comma of their thoughts then.  Marx and Engels could rightly claim the Manifesto still says it all but, given that discipline has its place, Trotsky and Lenin would struggle to claim democratic centralism was any less of a contradiction in terms than liberal democrat. All of them would undoubtedly be appalled at their words being pored over as if religious articles of faith. All that will achieve will be that left-wing thought will become no more than a scholarly exercise for political philosophers – with action regarded as a vulgar pursuit

‘Class analyses’ have little to say without resistance, nor to the uninitiated – and initiation is for the likes of the Bullingdon Club. It has no place in a left-wing movement. It provides neither support nor empowerment for the many. Leftists who claim the right to define the travails of people in struggle show them little respect. Rather, all of us should listen more and learn to contribute to a common vocabulary of dissent and resistance. In this respect – and from my admittedly limited familiarity with it, I feel some aspects of Commune’s coverage fall short. Its language, tone and content could still be inclusive, for instance including more about the politics of sport, the home, image, media and the arts, and invite writing from people who would normally not think of contributing to a political periodical – perhaps through branches.

I didn’t attend the aggregates in Sheffield and London that. There are too many repeats on television without taking up role playing in old and threadbare real life versions at my age. But I’m grateful to have been given this opportunity to explain my views.

I hope they aren’t seen as a counsel of despair:  currently, the left has the best opportunity to make itself relevant in many years – but has to address the fact that it will not do so without trust among those who support unity, less elitism, a greater willingness among its factions to swallow some pride and less insistence on engaging in time wasting navel gazing. If this can’t be done even within the framework of Commune, whose prospectus I would argue offer the greatest hope, progress is likely to be stillborn.

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20 responses

8 07 2012

Excellent comment, sums up my feelings as well. I think in part there is a fear of ‘actual’ change (unknown), and the revolutionary actions (also unknown, probably violent) necessary to bring it about.

8 07 2012
Terry Liddle

Comrade Roberts is right! If we can’t be flexible and trust each other and work together using our grasp of theory to inform our practice, we’re banjaxed!

8 07 2012
Ian Roberts

I’m more concerned that we listen to inform and develop theory that is practical, mate

8 07 2012
Ian Roberts

Sorry, that sounds a bit sniffy, but that’s the order and relationships between as I see it

8 07 2012

Asking where we are and where we want to be, is a clear question from Ian. But he has a less clear focus on the commune and its place within the left. He does raise the issue of the left in general without specifying which left he has in mind. Although he does declare his lack of familiarity with the commune,which is welcome humility, but does not take us very far.

To alter slightly Ian’s metaphor The commune has a small core of active committed members,and if there were more active committed members, the core members would not be in the telephone box to start with and would probably not be arguing about who to call or less likely to face the pressure of who was to make the call.

On the issue of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and articles of faith,there is much less of that today than say the 1970′s, speaking from practical experience. In the commune there is certainly less of that religious attitude than in other groups,say workers Power ,Socialist party and so on. Its even a point in our programme. Marx and Engels did criticise the communist manifesto on the state following the Paris commune. Trotsky’s views on the party or organisation changed dramatically pre 1917 and after. Lenin’s views on the state differed pre 1917,during 1917 and after. There is a lot of awareness of this in the commune. So I think Ian’s arrow misses its mark for the commune.

On the very Specific point of the Leeds aggregate,while the chairing was efficient,the debate on the programme was curtailed, drastically when an attempt should have been made to ask the meeting and the bar staff for more time. In the event the room was used for discussion for more than twenty mins following the end of the meeting. On reflection this was a mistake because when there is no full discussion,people want to have their say and so further debate ensued.

Ian talks about not going to meetings and puts that kind of attendance at meetings, as rather like watching repeats on TV. This does seem rather cynical, but lack of attendance at meetings might translate into the commune falling short on the arts media and other areas. And if people do not attend meetings regularly, it is difficult to set up branches and encourage practical activity. The Commune has a scattered membership and local meetings are difficult. So we do not aim to be a Paper and Website only

9 07 2012
Ian Roberts

It’s clear that Barry’s familiarity with communist writing is more extensive than mine – and probably most.His comments have more than a hint of a teacher pupil exchange. But, exctending the metaphor to incorporate people who are in struggle, good ‘teachers’ start from where the ‘pupils’ are – which is one of my central points. Those who inisis on starting from where they themselves are tend to lecture or dictate, rather than learn from what their pupils do know and shape their approach by listening to, engaging with and responding to it, Surely, this is how the dialogue becomes truly effective.

When I described the left I tried to make it clear that I regard it as the whole spectrum of political views from the leftwing rump of the old Labour Party to
those of non-parliamentary socialist, communist and anarchist groups. It seems to me that the people involved in all of them have more in common, politically, than dividing them – and an open forum should seek to embrace as many of them as possible in order to build its strength. Any telephone box issues – whether in a spirit of humour or taken literally- wouldn’t arise.

Although my stock in trade is writing stories I make up I tried to ensure the article’s reporting and observations were accurate. At the Leeds Aggregate the platform was discussed at length, amendments were tabled and it was agreed by a clear majority, with nobody present arguing that there had been insufficient debate – yet proposed amendments that followed applied not just to the constitution, where discussion was limited, but also to the platform, and it was this that I was comparing to picking at a scar.

As for ‘theology’ and theory, I simply do not accept that this is much less evident now than forty years ago – nor that this is particularly so in Commune. The email traffic and some of the behaviour I described after the aggregate gives the lie to this. Without trust and the shedding of these old shibboleths it becomes virtually impossible for a project like Commune to develop as it might. It seems far more important that we act as comrades and behave accordingly than that we hang on to calling each other comrades for old times’ and places’ sake.

If this lacks clarity as a vision, it is because that is the nature of revolutionary political debate and action: neither develop in line with prepared blueprints. That is their challenge. A step in a new direction, such as Commune, is a step into the unknown for all involved – hence the importance of trust and triviality of much of the nit-picking about whose interpretation of this or that theory makes them king or queen of the castle.

Finally, I take Barry’s point about attendance and meetings. After Leeds I looked into going to Sheffield in spite of misgivings I expressed at the time but at that point I received no further contact from Commune until it suggested I write the article – although I had been a subscribing member. I accept that not attending further meetings is my responsibility, but it does take two to tango.

I also apprecitate the difficulty of setting up branches and developing action with people attending – in fact, I think that was at the heart of what I was trying to get at.

10 07 2012

Ian, I take your point that that you have only been contacted and invited to generalise about the commune following one meeting. The obvious question is why there was no attempt to involve you in a more positive engagement with the commune . Why no meetings for you to attend in Bradford. Why no joint political work in the area? There does seem to be opportunities in Bradford/Leeds Area and from the evidence of the Aggregate in Leeds a number of comrades available to make collective work possible. Your views on the left would be useful to the position that we do not engage with the left. But your view that the left should get together,expressing the workers wish for unity does not fit into the view that the left represents nothing why bother with them. Certainly the commune seems to have failed you, rather than any failing on your part.

Obviously from your comments you are not a pupil. And how could you be a pupil of a school following one lesson! But seriously, your point about shibboleths does echo a recent debate in the commune. The programme does reject “state socialism” This is not an old shibboleth, but is about the nature and meaning of socialism/communism. Why change this programme for Mao and Chinese nationalism. What possible meaning could liberating the Chinese peasantry in the 1930′s from rival nationalists,Japanese occupation and unpatriotic landlords and setting up the state exploitation of the Chinese working class have for the unemployed of Bradford? Marx or Mao? I think we know the answer. The programme of the commune is not a new shibboleth either. We have changed it a number of time’s. I voted against the current version, which was cobbled together shortly before the Leeds aggregate, so its not a shibboleth for me.

10 07 2012
Ian Roberts

When I referred to a teacher pupil relationship, Barry, I was referring to your comments and, by extension, to the problem of how people of the left relate to those in struggle. Whatever we – in whatever terms – have been doing for the last forty years has, to be blunt, resulted in failure and, currently, apparent impotence. We have to relate to others differently – staring with where they are – and learn from them in order to become more successful.

I don’t feel let down by Commune locally. I made my misgivings about the email traffic after the Leeds Aggregate clear the following month and others may quite reasonably have taken that to indicate I had no time for Commune in the future. It also coincided with me starting a new writing project of my own – and probably with other local acquaintances having their own priorities at the time. The Bradford Branch and its members still have my complete respect and I wasn’t trying to point a finger at them. I didn’t hear anything from Commune at any level.

I’m afraid your second paragraph is beyond me and, I have to say, couched in terms that I think exemplify some of my misgivings. I doubt if the unemployed of Bradford – or anywhere else – see their situation in terms of either Marx or Mao. The key issue is to learn how they do feel about it and work with them from there.

10 07 2012
Ian Roberts

I also think it offensively patronising and uncomradely of you to describe the current ‘shibboleth’ as having been ‘cobbled together shortly before Leeds’.
I was involved in planning Leeds and I can assure you that it was nothing of the kind.

10 07 2012

Ian, the current programme/platform was cobbled together out of comments made by three comrades(including myself) from an earlier discussion some time before you joined the commune. There have been a number of attempts to reformulate the programme, again before you joined. I made this point to the comrade (not from Bradford) who submitted the platform,which was considered at the Leeds aggregate. This resulted in some weaknesses in the platform, in my view. I do not understand why you jump to the conclusion that this well used phrase is some kind of slur on your self and other Bradford comrades. Nor do I know what planning the meeting entailed. It did not involve submitting a platform or constitution, since three comrades(including myself) who were not from Bradford/Leeds, put different constitutions and platforms. I assume that all the submissions were considered at your planning meetings.As for my comment about Mao. You used the word shibboleth in relation to the platform, a word used by another Bradford comrade in the same context and I assumed you had followed the e mail thread but obviously not.

11 07 2012
Ian Roberts

What was it Humpty Dumpty said? I think it was something along the lines that the issue wasn’t the words but the meaning he applied to them that made him master.

11 07 2012

Ian,you were supposed to be giving your thoughts on the commune not on me. You aim to teach the left how to relate to people differently. In this case you have fallen from your high standards. I think we should draw a line under the discussion which is beginning to resemble those e mail discussions you dislike. And we have got to the point where the discussion will have little interest for the general visitor to the site.

11 07 2012
Ian Roberts

I’m not in a position to teach the left anything and don’t presume to be, but I am interested in exploring at why we have failed so signally to engage with those in struggle over the last forty years and how to change that. Unlike the emails you refer to, this is a practical issue – but it you feel it will have little interest for others and don’t wish to pursue it then, obviously, it isn’t for me to try to gainsay you.

15 07 2012

Oh dear! I have read all of that and it was more depressing than edifying. It is not the first time and won’t be the last that an article of this nature has descended into a ‘conversation’ in which the participants ended up not listening to each other first before replying. I leave it to the psychologists and counsellors out there to unpick what went on.

In general terms, my sympathies lie mostly with Ian, though I am pretty sure that Barry also relates to Ian’s concerns and this got lost somewhere. I have wondered whether there is any benefit in trying to construct a ‘platform’ at all out of a small group of activists who are able to get together, intermittently, sometimes with different people involved. I have also wondered whether there is any point at all in trying to construct a national ‘organisation’ as opposed to a looser affinity network. I have wondered whether or not what Ian is looking for is better achieved by concentrating on your own doorstep and on rebuilding the movement around concrete issues and ways to deal with them. I still don’t have any answers to these questions, but my tendency is to look to the third option if only because it is more practicable to get involved in an effective and communicative way at the grassroots.

All ways of working have their problems, but fighting over abstract platforms is the least useful. Equally useless are splits, such as the latest one in the Anarchist Federation. I remember back in the early 70s trying to get the ‘left libertarian’ milieu to talk to each other for the same reason put forward by Ian. Sadly nothing much has changed, except that there are now movements who deliberately shy away from organisations that try to construct ‘the right way forward’. Don’t give up Ian!

16 07 2012
Ollie S

‘When I referred to a teacher pupil relationship, Barry, I was referring to your comments and, by extension, to the problem of how people of the left relate to those in struggle. Whatever we – in whatever terms – have been doing for the last forty years has, to be blunt, resulted in failure and, currently, apparent impotence. We have to relate to others differently – staring with where they are – and learn from them in order to become more successful.’

The failure of the Left is down to two things, neither of which are exemplified by the Commune.
The first is that the working class in this country have such a weak/non-existent tradition of struggle, that they are barely receptive to anti-capitalist ideas. Most of them just aren’t interested in the first place – no matter how much good stuff the Left does, we’re performing in front of a tough crowd. This isn’t our fault and should not be seen as *our* failure – rather extremely tough operating conditions imposed by neoliberalism and a working class with a conservative history (dating back to roughly 1848).
The second is that most of the Left still advocates the Labour Party to varying extents. The Labour Party is a nicer form of capitalism. It is not anti-capitalist and can in no way breed ideas of an alternative. Voting for it actually retards working class action (in the workplace or wherever) because it makes people feel they’ve achieved something politically. It’s a reliance on leadership to act for the working class – not the working class realising its agency and through that building ideas of an alternative, democratic society (as has been done in for example, Spain in the 30s). So, after advocating Labour for the last forty years, Left groups (Militant, SWP, AWL, CPGB, etc) fail to build any ideas of an alternative; the failure of the Left, and the working class politically understanding only Labour, is hence no surprise. It’s not a failure of groups like the Commune who are against Labour and the general denial of working class agency.

16 07 2012
Ian Roberts

Grateful for your comments, Martin – and you are right about Barry and my conversation. Apologies. I also think your third option makes sense.

17 07 2012

For your information Martin, the platform came first and the network not national organisation/group/party came next. Its a loose national network. people joined or supported the platform network on the politics which were anti state against the labour party, state socialism, against Stalinism, outside Trotskyism, for workers democracy at the grass roots,not ‘Democratic centralism,’ rank and file and independent organisation rather than reforming Trade union structures ,and so on. Without the Platform and the politics associated with it there would have been no commune.

I made the same point about the doorstep in Bradford. But inviting Ian to make comments on the commune, after one meeting, five months after the meeting does show the wrong priorities.

23 07 2012
Ian Roberts

Sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t resist apologising for being an inappropriate priority Baz – I’ll try to do better in future.

27 07 2012
Benoit Douchy

i just stumbled on this website wich i allready came upon several times through libcom…I share some concerns and am very sympathetic to the aim of commune, but i live in Belgium.

I don’t know if anyone’s of your network is familiar with the work of andy blunden? I find his work very claryfying in this matter and he has done great work on Hegel’s logic. I share the link here to his forms of radical subjectivity and project as an interdisciplinairy concept:


anyway, i’m not a forum-writer in any sense but i just thought i could give some food for thought if you guys don’t know him. I found it very helpfull to get things clearer about subjectivity and the situation wich exists today…

27 07 2012
Benoit Douchy

The project approach takes the company as the unit of analysis of capital, which it takes as a social relation, in particular, as a project. That is, a unit of capital is a kind of project whose aim is the expansion of a unit of capital by means of putting it into circulation and withdrawing it for a profit. But companies (in the broad sense) are far from being the only projects active in economic life and have an internal life of their own which is not based on the ethic of exchange. There are three basic forms of collaboration which constitute labour activity as projects.

Command: this is the dominant relationship existing within a company (or not-for-profit project), constituting its line management tree. The stream of command begins with a Board of Directors or CEO and flows along with funds down the tree to the ‘coal face’ employees. Command is a strong archetypal form of project collaboration which has characterised projects from nation-states to families down the centuries. It is a limiting case of collaboration: a non-collaborative form of collaboration.

Exchange: this is the dominant relationship in the marketplace, but is increasingly found within commercial projects with the use of one-line budgeting, out-sourcing, franchising and so on. This is the other limiting, non-collaborative form of collaboration in which each party retain their independence and formal equality through control of the relationship through payment. Command flows in one direction and money in the other, but the parties retain their freedom to leave the collaboration.

Collaboration: this is the relationship which predominates among the productive employees of a company as well as within the ‘directing mind’ of a company. In both case, ‘working together’, consultation, sharing work and attribution are the norms. Profit-making companies rely on the collaborative labour not only of their employees during working hours, but on working class communities who collaboratively produce the labour power made available for exploitation.

In the economy, command and collaboration are subsumed under exchange, while within companies, collaboration is subsumed under command. A complete picture of economic activity is possible only by recognising the mutual subsumption of these three modes of collaboration, including both normative collaboration and ‘non-collaborative’ forms of collaboration, which are normative within hierarchical organisations.


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