The Socialist Unity Network

It's time to give left-wing democracy the deodorant treatment

Jim Higgins

Originally published in Workers News, No.3, April 1976. [1]

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 economy.

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 extra-parliamentary left.

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 Heath administration?

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 truth.

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 word prose.

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 socialist advance.

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 revolutionary groups.

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 fluffed.

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.



August 2004


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