The shape of the New Left, new forms of resistance to cuts and austerity, and the need for a world built around need, not profit: these were just some of the themes at last weekend’s Counterforum conference.
In the year since its creation, Counterfire, the organiser of the event, has had impact that belies its newness and - relatively - small size. It has been a prime mover behind the Coalition of Resistance, produces a lively and stimulating website, and its members have been involved in struggles from the student protests to the Arab revolutions. It has also more than doubled its number of members.
Counterfire’s roots lie in the Socialist Workers Party. It might be thought, therefore, that Counterforum would have the feel of a streamlined Marxism festival and the organisation would create the impression of an SWP 2.0.
It was refreshing to find that this was not the case. This is not intended to be a sideswipe at the SWP. There is enough SWP bashing on the left and I do not propose to add to it. The SWP has a distinguished past and plays an important and valuable role.
The refreshing and inspiring quality of the day’s discussions lay in the willingness of participants to recognise the extent of the challenges facing the Marxist left if it is to rise to the challenges before it. Importantly, the debates recognised that the revolutionary left needs to change if it is to succeed in engaging with and ultimately lead the fight against neoliberalism and for socialism.
One of the strengths of Counterforum was its willingness to engage with other sections of the left and to make a serious attempt to enter into a dialogue with those from other traditions. Socialist Resistance had a stand at the event and speakers from the floor included members of Workers Power and Permanent Revolution, and one of the key speakers, Dot Gibson, was a longstanding member of the Workers Revolutionary Party.
There is a tendency on the left for dialogues to be those of the deaf. For once this was not the case. Paradoxically, the heavy-handed chairing and facilitating habits of left organisations – the use of speaker slip processes, verbally kneecapping those from other tendencies - tend to be shaped by a certain lacking of self-confidence on the part of organisations. This too was pleasantly absent (and long may it be so).
Members of the SWP selling papers outside were not allowed in to the event. Was this a mistake? At this stage I think not. Inclusion would have, I think, distorted the discussion and turned it into an autopsy of the split away from the SWP. Feelings are, I suspect, raw on both sides but more importantly, given the fact that many participants (including myself) come from other traditions, it would have been a distraction.
One of the best contributions of the day came from Chris Bambery, now a leading member of the International Socialist Group in Scotland and, until recently, organiser for Right to Work.
Bambery argued that the new groups on the left need to engage in positive ‘critical reflection’ and that includes going beyond what he referred to as a reliance upon syndicalist politics and ‘sterile party building.’
Like others in the audience he recognised that there was a desire for the left to move beyond sectarianism. It was good, he said, that not everyone in the new organisations came from an SWP background (indeed, the majority in Counterfire do not). Organisations like Counterfire and the ISG should recognise that not every good idea comes from their own organisations and socialists need to find new ways of getting to work with and getting to know others on the left. “It’s not enough to proclaim ourselves the revolutionary party and think that at some point the scales will just fall from people’s eyes and they will follow us,’ he said.
Counterfire, in my view, is correct at this point in time in stressing the primacy of politics and of the mass movements. This does not dismiss the importance of the unions but it does mean having a sober and honest appraisal of where the union movement is and the level of confidence that currently exists.
The left, Bambery continued, needs to address a number of key issues. This includes the shape and character of the working class today. I think he is right. The working class is not the same as it was in 1871, 1917, 1945 or 1968. In many respects it is larger (certainly at an international level). As another speaker pointed out, the working class of Indonesia is today is larger than it was globally in Marx’s day.
Thanks to the shift of the UK economy away from manufacturing and towards financial and other services the modern working class in the UK and US is very different. In thinking about our constituency, Bambery argued, we need to think not just of industrial workers but those in the casualised and precarious sectors, students (who often make ends meet by working in the same sort of jobs) call centre workers, pensioners and the unemployed.
Perhaps more controversially, Bambery also argued for a critical discussion of the Leninist inheritance.
I think he is right. This does not mean a wholesale rejection of Leninism (or others from the revolutionary Marxist tradition) but it does mean recognising that we are in very different conditions and times and that it is illusory to think that 1968 will come round again, and that history will repeat itself in the same way.
Such views were echoed from the floor. James Meadway of Counterfire and the New Economics Foundation said: “We need to have a little humility sometimes and recognise that other people have good ideas about the world too.”
To some ears this may sound a little too ‘touchy-feely’ and a prescription for endless talking shops.
I think this would be the wrong conclusion draw. First and foremost, the overwhelming focus of the day was the importance of connecting up with national and international struggles. But without addressing how to effectively work with others and broaden out the movement Counterfire would be condemning itself to repeating the same mistakes the sectarian left has made time and time again and I do not think that is its aim.
It has made great progress to date and this has been by being more open and trusting its members to create initiatives and run with them.
Some in the discussion stressed the importance of creating a broad based, inclusive party bringing together the Marxist left, in the UK and internationally.
That has to be the long-term goal but small steps first. Finding a way of building a culture of collaboration would be a huge step forward and is something that has been missing for too long. Sectarianism demoralises activists and alienates potential supporters and we have to move beyond it.
In discussions about the anti-cuts movement, the Arab spring, pensioners’ struggles and the fight against Islamophobia the Counterfire forum showed some of the practical ways in which it can be done.
Counterfire has the potential to create an umbrella for Marxists who may have slightly different perspectives on key issues or aspects of theory but can combine in united action. Such a worthy aim deserves a chance and that’s why after much consideration, I’ve decided to join Counterfire.