Eric Chester gives his view of the current situation of the left in England and Scotland.
In spite of an economic crisis that has lasted more than five years, and the constantly escalating attack on the public sector, the Left in England and Scotland remains in the doldrums. There is a pervasive sense of despair, a widespread belief that there is nothing that can be done other than to continuously readjust downward our expectations for the future.
Projects such as the People’s Assembly can not provide the organizational framework for a revitalized resistance. This is yet another top-down initiative controlled by the union bureaucracy, in particular UNITE. Furthermore, the social democratic perspective that underlies such projects have totally failed. These projects start with the belief that capitalism can be reformed, and that all that is required to reverse the corporate onslaught is the creation of a broad Left coalition to effectively exert pressure on the state. This broad Left coalition, it is claimed, will be able to exert its influence primarily through the electoral arena, either through the Labour Party or by forming a new progressive party, such as Left Unity.
There is an alternative model, one that starts with the belief that capitalism can not be reformed, but must be changed through a revolutionary transformation of society. From this perspective, fundamental social change does not occur through legislation, but rather as a result of militant, grass-roots movements engaging in non-violent direct action.
The current crisis has catalyzed the eruption of mass movements formed along these lines in several countries around the globe. In Latin America, a sustained mass movement has solidified in Chile. Starting with the demand for free higher education and a vast increase in funding for education, the movement has proceeded to develop a wide-ranging critique of capitalist society, including the demand for public ownership and social control of the copper mines, Chile’s most important industry. In Brazil, a mass movement was triggered in response to higher fares on the municipal buses, but it rapidly moved to a condemnation of the huge sums spent on football stadiums, and a demand for a substantial increase in public services.
In Europe, insurgencies have developed in the countries hardest hit by the crisis. The indignados have turned from occupations of the central plazas to the building of neighborhood organizations that counter the impact of austerity through locally based direct action. In Greece, there have been a wave after wave of strikes and occupations to resist the devastating austerity program imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
These social movements have followed the same general pattern. Protests sparked by a specific issue have galvanized a militant mass movement that has rapidly widened the scope of its demands. Although these social movements have projected a trenchant critique of capitalism, they have stopped short of the fundamental issue of state power. As long as the capitalist class controls the state, workers will continue to be exploited, social services will continue to deteriorate, and the environment will continue to be pillaged. There is no avoiding the question of state power. At the same time, there is no point in retaining the same state apparatus, while replacing those currently at the top with another set of leaders. Time and again, we have seen that such a transfer of power does not lead to a fundamental change.
The existing state must be dismantled, and replaced with an entirely different means of coordinating the economy and determining policy directions. Grass-roots social movements prefigure the future socialist society. To become a real threat to the system, these primarily community based movements have to be extended into the workplace as occupations take over and operate factories, schools and transportation. During the last days of the Allende regime in Chile in 1973, the working class barrios in the large cities were seized by the people, as rank and file union members joined with community activists in establishing liberated zones, cordons, in a genuine revolutionary upsurge that was only blocked by Pinochet’s military coup.
To return to the present situation in Scotland and England, the radical Left can not create a grass-roots movement. This can only occur when people have had enough and are ready to move. Still, two recent popular actions show the way forward. In the first instance, electricians in the construction industry formed a rank and file network that could organize militant protests at work sites in several different locations. These protests generated enough pressure to force contractors to rescind an array of cutbacks in wages and working conditions. The electricians organized around the newsletter Site Worker acted independently of the UNITE leadership, thus creating a parallel organization.
The second, more recent, protest involved mass mobilizations to block fracking in a small town in southern England. Local residents joined with environmental activists to block trucks from entering the exploratory site. Fracking has already been used to extract oil and natural gas from numerous areas in the United States, polluting groundwater in the production of a fuel that will further add to global warming as it is burned. Unless similar protests spread throughout Britain, the same pattern of ecological degradation will occur here.
In both of these cases, the issues raised were limited in scope. This greatly limited the extent to which these upsurges served to radicalize the participants, and thus create the basis for a social movement that could challenge the existing system. The jump in consciousness involved here is substantial, and will largely be driven by objective circumstances. As the crisis deepens, it will impel activists to take note of the underlying connections between seemingly disparate issues.
The radical Left can not create a popular insurgency, let alone propel a localized and limited protest campaign into a broader social movement for fundamental change.
Nevertheless, we can facilitate the formation of such a movement by pointing out the systemic interconnections between issues, and by constantly stressing the need for a revolutionary transformation of society. In addition, radicals can also emphasize the importance of international connections, and of the need to learn from the experiences of movements in other countries. Even in relatively quiet times, our participation in grass-roots protests can contribute to the revitalization of the revolutionary Left.