It's time to give left-wing democracy the deodorant treatment
Originally published in Workers News,
No.3, April 1976. 
If there is one statement that will receive general
assent among most gatherings of workers it is ‘politics stink’. When
this generalised point of view is directed to the parliamentary parties
most left-wing socialists would not dissent.
But similar epithets and ripe descriptive utterances are applied to
the Communist Party and to other left groups.
It is an unpalatable fact but a fact nonetheless that the
accelerating disenchantment with conventional British politics is not
accompanied by noticeable enthusiasm for any left alternative. On the
contrary, the left has declined both in influence and numbers in strict
time with the growing crisis of parliamentary politics and capitalist
Now this is strange. It has always been assumed in the left movement
that a decline in capitalism and the consequent difficulties of
capitalist politics would be the opportunity for a major advance of the
Of course, it is possible to point to a number of difficulties.
Increasing unemployment reduces the combativity of the workers: the
complete abdication of their defensive role by the trade union
leadership: and the small forces of the revolutionary left – all can be
brought forward as reasons for lack of growth. While these arguments are
true, in general, they still beg more questions than they answer.
Why is it, for example, that the left, which in the years up to 1974
had an unparalleled – in their terms – growth, has not been able to
exert much greater pressure within the unions against the collaboration
of the leadership with anti-working class policies. Why has it been
unable to retain all of the workers who joined in the heady days of the
The answers to these and other pointed questions will trip lightly
and with great facility off the tongues of the spokesmen for any of the
left groups. If there is one thing they have perfected it is the
production of excuses. Some of them might even be true.
That last sentence was not written in any spirit of cynicism but it
was written deliberately. Too often the statements of various
revolutionary groups are produced to obscure rather than to reveal the
This is done in several ways, the most common being the resort to a
form of ‘marxese’ that only the initiated can understand. Meaning and
reality are drowned in a clotted form that cannot be dignified by the
More seriously, and in a way that is both deceptive and
self-deceiving, each of the groups develops a theory of the world that
sets its own organisation at the centre of the universe and then
proceeds to rearrange the geography to take account of the shift.
Most frequently this is accompanied by a species of hysterical party
loyalty that would have been welcomed by the medieval Catholic church.
Such a spectacle is both distasteful and incomprehensible to workers
unfamiliar with the phenomenon.
Even more distressing is the fact that many workers who are aware of
the revolutionary left have a shrewd suspicion that the groups are
manipulative, untruthful and undemocratic. All too frequently such
critics are right. Militant workers may despise Labour’s truckling to
capitalism, they may dislike the Communist Party’s reformist politics
but they also distrust the revolutionary left.
It would be pleasant to say that such fears are groundless but they
are not. It is not true that the left never packed a meeting, nor is it
true that the left never pushed through their resolutions at the fag-end
of a small, unrepresentative trade union branch meeting.
It is true that there is all too frequently a double standard applied
by the left. What the left does is all right because it is in the
interests of class struggle but what anyone else does is by definition
reactionary because it does not accord with some preconceived notion of
Nowhere does this double standard become more apparent than in the
attitude to democracy within their own organisations. Basing themselves
generally on some largely imagined organisational principles laid down
by Lenin under conditions of Tsarist autocracy, they would deny their
own minorities the rights they loudly demand in the wider movement.
The argument that capitalism is nasty and we have to be hard and
ultra-disciplined in fighting it leaves out of account the difficulty
that potential recruits, radicalised by capitalist unpleasantness, are
more likely to be repelled than attracted by similar characteristics in
The truth is that the left has contributed mightily to its own
difficulties. It has lived for too long in a wilderness without
influence and membership. In the closed, over-heated revolutionary
circles, a form of historical play-acting has replaced any connection
with the real movement of the working class. When at last the
opportunity was provided to break out of this isolation was largely
The time is long overdue to break the old outmoded mould. The left
leaderships should stop pretending they are some reincarnation of Lenin
in October 1917 and the membership should be educated in the traditions
and the reality of the British working class.
The old way has failed. A moment’s reflection will indicate that it
was bound to fail. It is time that some fundamental rethinking was done.
It is true, both in theory and practice in times of capitalist crisis
the revolutionary left has its greatest opportunity. But it must be a
left radically different from one we have today.
1. First appeared
under the pseudonym Robert James in Workers News, No.3,
April 1976, the paper of the short-lived Workers League.