Thursday, April 13, 2006

Why I won't be signing the Euston Manifesto

I won’t be signing the Euston Manifesto – subtitled ‘for a renewal of progressive politics’ – which is being heavily touted all over the centre-left blogosphere today. And those behind the statement presumably won’t be too worried about that.

But given that many of these people once kept a straight face when they referred to me as ‘comrade’, perhaps they’ll do me the courtesy of listening to my point of view on this one, without simply descending into vulgar abuse.

The authors seem to be fully aware of the precedents for what they are doing. Perhaps they seek consciously to emulate the May Day Manifesto of 1967, a pivotal document in the development of the New Left.

Yet the signatories don’t really say what they expect to come of their efforts. Maybe they are ambitious enough to hope that it will result in some sort of movement. In the current climate, I suspect the odds are against that outcome. But of course, that has never been a good reason not to do what one believes is politically right.

Some of those involved in this initiative I’d still classify as friends. Others share my background in the world of 1980s small-group far left politics. Some were in the same outfits. Others were bitter factional opponents in internecine disputes that in reality mattered little, even at the time.

In more recent years, the writings of these men and women have influenced my own ideas. On occasions, their articles have made me reconsider some of my own adherence to far left orthodoxy. Sometimes I’ve changed my mind as a result of what they wrote.

More often perhaps, they have helped me to clarify my positions by putting forward arguments that needed to be considered, even if I ultimately rejected them.

I agree with a lot of what the manifesto says, possibly even most of it. Some of the rejoinders to the idiocies of anti-imperialist reductionism are unanswerable. And yet I won’t be appending my name to it.

Perhaps the central issue for me is agency. Surely the key question for anybody producing political statements of this type is the matter of who will carry their manifesto out. Which social forces are capable of its implementation?

I’ve always interpreted Marxism in a libertarian way, trying to base myself centrally on the principle that the working class is the sole force capable of bringing about progressive social change.

In the past, the strictures of ‘democratic centralism’ meant that I often argued positions that offended against this yardstick. But as I’ve gained more and more political experience and confidence in my own opinions, I have realised its universal applicability.

The concept of the self-emancipation of the working class is a vision that today’s far left has almost entirely lost. The dominant trend – the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, aided and abetted by a substantial minority of the Communist Party of Britain – now looks to other forces to win the class war for them.

That abandonment of socialist basics has already brought them into the embrace of various stripes of Middle Eastern dictator and political Islamists. While I hope the logic of the process can still be arrested, things are not looking good.

But the Euston Manifesto crowd have equally lost sight of what makes socialism different from liberalism with knobs on. So they style themselves ‘democrats and progressives’ seeking to ‘reach out beyond the socialist left to egalitarian liberals’ and even to the democratic right.

There are plenty of historical examples of others who have tried similar tactics, and the outcomes haven't been good ones, either. This is not the place to rehearse the standard Trotskyist critique of popular frontism. The authors will anyway know it off by heart.

In short, what I'm arguing is that their choice of agency appears to be the armed forces of capitalist states, imposing democracy at gunpoint. There are obviously parallels with an earlier generation of far leftists, which came to the reluctant conclusion after world war two that the Red Army was spreading some form of distorted socialism, and was therefore worthy of critical support.

The road the neoconverts have chosen will sooner or later lead them to fully-fledged neoconservatism. I'd have hoped for better from at least some of them.

Of course the Islamists are reactionary theocrats that should be opposed implacably by the thinking left. But so are the US imperialist ruling class. Both sides in this dispute are wrong.

In the current period of defeats, it is only too easy for socialists to give up on the socialist project. I guess about 98% of the British left have already done so. But without that, we really do have nothing.


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