Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Differing philosophies on the left

The platform debate at the recent Left Unity conference addressed, in a way, a philosophical division which has been evident within the Left over many decades. It's not a specifically Left phenomenon; exactly the same split can be seen in churches, where it's been studied by the sociologists. I originally came across this when I studied theology way back. It seems to be something to do with human psychology, and the way we organise ourselves into groups. Unfortunately, it's affected the British Left in a particularly damaging way. It's a subject I approach with trepidation, as some  may take offence, but I think it's one that we need to take seriously.

Several of the platforms on offer - the Republican Socialist Platform,. Communist Platform, and Socialist Platform - are close to the old Hard Left, and resemble the ideas of smaller churches which are known to the sociologists as 'sects'. I have to be careful here as people don't like being told they're a sect! A consistent characteristic they're not good at coping with differences of opinion. So boundaries are clearly drawn. In a church context, everyone's expected to sign up to a list of 'essential' or 'fundamental' doctrines; in a political context, membership is only open to socialists, sometimes socialists of a particular ilk. The harder the boundaries are drawn, the smaller the group usually becomes. In an extreme case, we have something like the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems to hate everyone except itself, and consists of little more than a single family, or the Maoist slave cult which was discovered recently.

These, of course, are aberrations, and I'm not making a judgement on this style of organisation. One of its weaknesses, which is only too obvious on the British Left, is its fissiparity. Hard left parties, like sectarian churches, split easily, and often squabble over petty things. I remember someone I knew dismissing a left-wing bookshop with a shrug. 'They're old-fashioned Stalinists'. I wasn't interested in the owner's theology, rather in the fact that he sold a very useful range of books. It was on a level with the church where I was once told that Methodists 'don't worship God properly' because we don't insist that the ladies wear hats in church. They're not very adaptable either. This, of course, is a function of their difficulty coping with difference, and possibly of their weakness. I doubt whether a thriving movement would have such petty difficulties. The result has been the proliferation of Left parties, which has made its own contribution to the Left's weakness.

Then there were the Left Party Platform and the aims moved by the Internal Democracy Commission, which are designed to create a wider movement, and which received far more support on the day. These are closer to what the sociologists call a 'church'. This is better at handling differences, and, in a political context, attracts people who want to work within a wider movement. So we have something like the Labour Left, or the Anglican Church, which includes people with a very wide range of theologies and ways of being church. It has its own problems. This is where the Labour Party poses a difficulty; it has attracted people with this approach, and effectively ensured that the Left would remain divided and weak. It's where I'm coming from myself.

I remember being surprised by the resemblances I found way back between the hard left parties and 'sects', but it explained the way I reacted to the choices on offer. I had bad experiences of sectarian churches, and hard left parties weren't for me either. I can't live with being lectured about my theological 'errors'! At the same time, the Labour left had obvious problems. The move rightward was in its early stages, but it was already evident that we weren't going to change society from within an organisation where we had no power. I left shortly after Blair took over.

Sects - I'm using the term in its sociological sense - are characteristic of groups of people who feel threatened or marginalised. So sectarian churches often flourish in poor communities, while the broader 'churches' are more middle-class. Sometimes the threat is a psychological one, even an imagined one. So US fundamentalism, which is extremely sectarian, has roots in the reaction against the abolition of slavery, and in a reaction against the urbanisation and industrialisation of the 19th Century US. It flourishes on largely imagined threats; evolution, the 'war on Christmas', abortion, Obamacare, and so on. It's something of a cultural aberration, but, from several thousand miles away, it's an interesting one.

It's easy to see how this style of organisation can flourish in working class communities which are often marginalised and threatened. Groups of people draw hard boundaries around themselves out of a need to define themselves against the bosses, or against a more powerful class which is excluding them. Back in Victorian times, it wasn't unknown for wealthy Wesleyan Methodist businessmen to build churches, and then insist that their workforce attend them if they wanted to keep their jobs. There were cases where people got together and built a Primitive Methodist church; this was the working class form of Methodism. If all the potential workers were in their own church, the boss had to employ them, and see his own building remain empty. They were under the boss's eye all week, why should it be the same on a Sunday? In a political context, people organised in unions. It worked well until the 1970's.

 Nowadays, the threats people face are different, and so is the political scene. Labour has moved decisively right, and has undermined its democratic structures to the point where it probably can't be moved left from within. Whether an external threat form a Left party can force it to move remains to be seen. The Tories, whose vote has been declining steadily for half a century, have been unable to win an election outright for over twenty years. Threatened from the right by UKIP, they're looking more and more like a spent force. Meanwhile, there's a vacuum on the left.

Meanwhile, people are more marginalised than ever, but in different ways. Rather than depending on a wage packet alone, many people have their incomes topped up by benefits. This weakens the relationship with the employer, and creates one with the state which traditional modes of organisation are powerless to address. Power structures within workplaces may be more diffuse, and workers far less secure. Bosses may be too remote for workplace structures to influence; the recent Grangemouth debacle is an example of this. Meanwhile, people are threatened by privatised utilities, rack-renting landlords, rapacious banks, and all the panoply of neoliberalism. Many of them are only too well aware of the language of the 1% and the 99%, and stand well to the left of Labour on issues like nationalisation. the scene should be set for a Left revival, but we're failing to communicate.

We need new structures, new tactics, new strategies, and the field is open to the first party to develop them. My instinct is that we need to be a broad party, but not too broad. Labour is a reformist, social democratic party which found space for socialists; we need to be the other way round. If someone's walking down the same road as we are, they should be welcome to walk with us for as far as they want to go. They shouldn't, however, be able to take us down a different road altogether.

There some good ideas about how we might organise here. I have my own thoughts about community organising, but that's a subject for another post.

1 comment: