By Derek Wall
01 September 2011
Nobody can say that the left suffers from too much agreement. Divisions run deep within political parties and the bitterness between different organisations on the British left leaves an intense taste.
Sectarianism of various kinds is a major barrier to presenting an alternative or alternatives to the decaying neoliberal consensus. How can we move forward and cooperate overcoming such divisions to achieve positive goals?
The neoliberal consensus is bankrupt but like the cartoon character who runs over the cliff and continues into space unaware that the ground has disappeared, neoliberalism continues to stride into the dark abyss of empty space.
Sometimes it seems that on the left we are too busy shouting at each other to warn of the real catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. We know that the banking system is largely dysfunctional, that an economy based on speculation sits on sand, that the operation of institutions from the IMF, WTO to the European Union overrides democracy and pushes down wages and working conditions. The market economy inevitably challenges basic ecological cycles.
For these and a dozen more reasons, the construction of a different social system is imperative. However, divisions on the left are as significant as advances by the right in preventing change.
It is important to understand the reasons for such divisions. They cannot be simply dismissed but require examination so where possible they can be transcended.
There are, of course, reasons that cannot be challenged as irrational. For example, we live in a society that has a particular logic which shapes our thoughts profoundly and to a large extent unconsciously. We need to engage with theory or we will be swept away by the logic of an essentially illogical system.
This is the lesson we derive from new Labour - it would be banal to simply condemn their failures to fundamentally challenge capitalist society. It would be wrong to purely point to the failures of leaders and shout betrayal. I may view Tony Blair as a serial killer but I still use the word "comrade" when talking of Labour MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Dennis Skinner. In fact like many of us I would like to see Dennis become first president of a British republic.
The logic of the system propels the bad stuff. The weight of repression from a vicious right-wing media, the secret police revealed to be operating within protest groups, the conservatism of Parliament and the pressure of market economics profoundly shape our society including the left.
A degree of caution is therefore appropriate - movements for human liberation are always susceptible to being turned inside out and transformed into tools of repression and incorporation.
Thus to some extent trust is inappropriate - disobedience is a virtue. Left parties have been incorporated into the capitalist system and anarchists transformed into suit-wearing bureaucrats, etc.
A sharp opposition and suspicion of the likely trajectory of any political organisation is necessary if one is to have any chance of surviving the pressures of a top-down society.
This of course does not tend towards cosy politics and easy friendship but it cannot be any other way.
Marcuse somewhere argued that capitalism shapes even our dreams. When we desire a different society we still face the fact that our desires are shaped by the present oppressive society.
We must dream differently. We must maintain a certain sharpness, a suspicion of political organisations, a scepticism towards even our own thoughts let alone the manifestos and programmes of others.
There are also other reasons why political disagreements on the left can be bitter.
We all know of minuscule political organisations separated from one another by differences that from the outside appear to be vanishingly small.
The defence of tiny difference, the urge to be correct can be part of the desire to be a medium-sized fish in a tiny tank. The alternative of uniting the sea creatures and taking on the sharks is less easy and less attractive.
Violent disagreements within political organisations can derive from many sources - the myopia of leaders scared by immediate circumstances, ill-advised officials or the need to disrupt for the sheer chaotic joy of it are just some that come to mind.
Time after time the internal battle so aggressively fought one minute is easily forgotten the next.
Because change is difficult to achieve we can indulge in compensatory activity. Winning the ultimately minor internal battle can make us feel better about our inability to engage in more profound change externally.
Perhaps the most significant and worst motive for sectarianism is boundary maintenance. It is endemic on the left but of course also found in all kinds of organisations from Protestant churches to bowling clubs, yoga classes to origami networks.
Boundaries between one's own organisation and other groups with similar motivations and activities can absorb much energy. To build a political organisation of any kind means recruiting members, raising money and gathering resources - organisations with similar ends may be seen as rivals rather than potential allies. Difference is used to build a fence, isolate and to reject co-operation with others.
There are numerous complex questions that make unity difficult to achieve. However co-operation across the left is essential. Political pluralism is a revolutionary virtue. No organisation has a blueprint for social transformation - a degree of experimentation is vital to discover what works.
Likewise tolerance is necessary. Views as to the significance of the Labour Party, the nature of the Soviet Union, the victories of the Latin American left, the role of religion, etc, etc, etc, should not be used to justify petty hatreds.
Socialism is about co-operation and generally there is more that unites us than divides us.
The need to resist the corrosive effects of a social system which has a near total hold on our thoughts must of course justify strong and critical thinking. However if we don't work towards practical unity to achieve solid goals we will be sunk and unless we transform society the alternative is a future of environmental degradation, violence, sharpened inequality and insecurity.
Marx and Engels drew heavily on the work of the anthropologist Lewis H Morgan, who was fascinated by the Iroquois constitution.
Ironically the indigenous rules for governance could have been written as an instruction manual for British left organisations today: "The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans - which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground - the unborn of the future Nation."
I am not a Leninist. There are times when I disagree with anarchists and Labour Party member. I dislike those on the left who are hostile to animal rights. I believe that liberation theology be it Catholic, Protestant or Islamic is a political orthodoxy, but while I am active as a member of the Green Party, I know that for the sake of my children and future generations, I have to work with those who are anarchists, Leninists, Labour Party members, etc.
Equally I am committed to working with other greens and environmentalists even if I have differences of opinion on a range of issues.
Division is a luxury that cannot be indulged if we are serious about the vital necessity of political change. What is the point of talking to those who you agree with about everything? Even if I could find one person I agreed with the conversations would be far from entertaining.
Acceptance of necessary difference is a step toward mature and focused political action.