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Strategy and tactics of the Counterfire group; a critique

The global capitalist crisis has shaken up existing outlooks on the radical left. A new climate of discussion is opening up with a preparedness to reconsider received wisdoms and think creatively about the enormous challenges and opportunities we face. How in particular do we link the fight against austerity to the renewal of a revolutionary Marxist project? In a contribution to this debate, Simon Hardy looks at the strategy and tactics of the Counterfire group.

What is Counterfire’s distinctive message?
What kind of slogans and when
Uniting theory and practice?
Counterfire and the Gramsci enigma
Getting the united front wrong
A problem we have seen before

 

Counterfire started in 2010 as a split from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and have quickly carved out a place on the British left. They have spearheaded the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) – one of the leading anti-cuts umbrella groups, the founding conference of which brought together 1,200 people. Although they were small in number, Counterfire brought together several former leaders of the SWP, in particular those with experience of leading the anti-war movement, and who consequently had accumulated links and a degree of influence amongst the left wing union leaders and Labour Left. This means that despite being only a tiny fraction of the size of the SWP they have been able to compete with them in the manoeuvring over which left group would come to the head of the fight against austerity.

Counterfire’s approach also make them appear novel in relation to the wider left.

They are the first socialist group to have abandoned a pay-for printed publication, focusing on their website and producing the occasional glossy free sheet for big demonstrations. They do not have a party–like structure, with no elected leadership beyond their editorial board and working groups, and, though they retain a formal commitment to democratic centralism, their notion of what it means is much looser than the rest of the left. And they have also carved out a relatively distinctive political message too, emphasising the long-term decline of the British labour movement and the role of social movements as the main hope to stimulate a wider-resistance to the cuts.

This is probably how Counterfire would describe their own politics and outlook: they see themselves as the activists who identify with the ‘new left’, who see the main task of socialists being to be at the centre of new social movements and not to limit their purview to the workplace organising of the traditional labour movement.

It’s not surprising this message has found a hearing amongst unaligned activists. We do live in a time of youth radicalisation and mass social movements where the march of neoliberalism has weakened the unions, particularly in Britain. Indeed, any socialist organisation that wants to rise to the challenges posed by these times does need to embrace new ways of organising, we do need to make socialist ideas modern, fit for the age in which we are working, and we do need to be at the centre of the social movements.

But as well as this, socialists also have to develop a strategy for victory. And it’s the absence of this strategy, and often hostility towards putting forward something that comes close to it, that is Counterfire’s big problem.

 

What is Counterfire’s distinctive message?

Although when they emerged as an opposition current in the SWP they called themselves the Left Platform, in reality Counterfire were to the right of the majority of their party and their life outside of the SWP has confirmed this. They started out as the grouping that were most associated with the formation of Respect and the unprincipled political concessions to populism it involved in order to keep on board the community leaders who were seen as key to electoral success. The SWP have never critically accounted for the unprincipled errors they made; but they did ‘sack’ the leader most closely associated with the project, John Rees, and this inspired the faction fight of the Left Platform.

The left platform’s principle claim at the time, which they struggled to really substantiate, is that the SWP leadership was drifting towards sectarianism and away from building ‘united fronts’, i.e. alliances around immediate issues with wider political and social forces. It was leaders of Counterfire, particularly John Rees and Lindsey German, who, along with Alex Callinicos, had developed the SWP’s new understand of a united front policy in the late 1990s.

What made the SWP’s policy distinctive in relation to the classical Marxist tradition is that they theorised the idea that socialists should not criticise their allies in the united fronts and movements. They rejected the fundamental dynamic of the united action was not only an opportunity to win immediate working class demands, but also show in practice the political differences between reform and revolution in the methods of struggle we put forward. Both the SWP and Counterfire still remain committed to this method.

Counterfire’s politics since leaving the SWP however, have made them distinctive in comparison to their former party. They moved away from the focus on labour movement organising, justifying this in an argument framed very consciously within a perspective that focuses on the long-term, unprecedented defeats the working class has been through in the last 30 years, with resulting low levels of class consciousness, organisation and militancy.

They also not the positive dimension to the current period; that we live in an age of social movements, the mass demonstrations are more popular than the mass strikes. From this they conclude that we need to build the movement in order to give the working class confidence to take more militant action.

Here they share the approach of the SWP tradition, who argue self-confidence is crucial to generating spontaneous militancy. This is radically different to the Trotskyist view that creating a new leadership in the workplaces and the unions, with the courage and the politics to initiate action, is critical.

This view holds the low level of class consciousness to be a political problem that can only be confronted and resolved politically. The bureaucratic inertia of the unions, the passivity, conservatism, and pro-bosses ‘realism’ of the union leaders, reinforce and compound poor levels of workplace organisation and the belief – which is socially mediated through bourgeois institutions and workers’ organisations alike – that there is no fundamental alternative to the neoliberal offensive of capital.

The problem we confront is therefore not a crisis of confidence, but a crisis of working class politics and leadership. The only way to tackle this nexus of problems is to rebuild the fighting strength of the unions from the bottom up and in the process insist without hesitation that union leaders deliver the action necessary to win. The response of electricians on the building sites today is proof that the appetite is there amongst key sections of the class for rank and file initiatives that take this kind of bold and combative approach to the official leaderships of the unions.

Counterfire’s argument has resonance because it points to real aspects of the situation we are working in; it combines a sense of realism about the problems in the working class movement – weaker, smaller unions, less-well organised, lower-levels of industrial militancy – with the optimism that this situation can be changed through developing a social movement. But the problem is that Counterfire miss the point of where the weakness actually comes from and in so doing ultimately contribute to the problem.

The working class in Britain is today faced with an historic offensive against the welfare system and this means that the resistance cannot be limited to the forms of struggle we associate with ‘the social movement’ – the mass demonstration; direct action, etc – due to the sheer determination of this government to carry through these attacks.

It is fine to note the weakness in trade union organisation and militancy so long as this is attached to a perspective of how we can transform the unions from top to bottom so that they can rise to the task of defeating the Coalition government’s attacks. The problem however is that the trade union leaders, who will often happily be allies in a ‘social movement’, don’t want to lead a campaign of industrial action against the cuts for political reasons.

If socialists derive their strategy on the basis of what’s necessary to win, then this leads on to a critique of the kind of strategies that won’t result in our victory, but, quite on the contrary, deliver a defeat for working people.

Unfortunately, Counterfire does not see its role in these terms and their arguments are consequently laced with a heavy dose of opportunism. They tend to gloss over the differences about perspectives and strategy that exist on different sides of the movement and this means they are de facto dragged into the strategy of the reformist leaders of the labour movement.

In effect what Counterfire have is a one step schema – first a social movement that builds workers’ confidence and then… but Counterfire has no answer. Of course, if a worker goes on a mass trade union demonstration like 26 March they could feel more confident to fight the cuts, but going back to your workplace on Monday feeling confident is not enough.

The question they will then confront is what kind of organisation, campaigns and arguments do they need to put forward in their workplace, or across the country, to beat the cuts?

 

What kind of slogans and when

Today, there is a real debate in the movement over how to beat the cuts.

One side argues, correctly, that, facing an historic offensive against the working class, demonstrations will not be enough: we need a campaign of industrial action culminating in a general strike to bring down the government.

This should be a clearly stated aim of the movement around which we organise our auxiliary tactics for the simple reason that we know now this kind of campaign of resistance will be necessary to win decisively. But Counterfire has an entirely different view. Starting from weak levels of confidence in the class to fight, they extrapolate from this that a general strike is not possible and end up putting considerable energy into arguing against a general strike.

Socialists, however, should start from the objective situation and what’s necessary to win, then work backwards through how we can make difficult arguments resonate with the workers’ mood and develop tactics to realise our goals.

Arguing against a general strike when other socialists raise it is acting to prevent the crystallisation of that idea in the minds of the most advanced layers of workers and actually reinforces the feeling of pessimism and sense that defeat is inevitable. It starts not from what slogans we should be discussing and fighting around, in order to win, but from accepting that the existing malaise can’t be radically changed.

In short, it is tailism – tailing behind the working class, and fitting your slogans and politics around whatever moods or feelings are prevalent at that time, not deriving them from what’s objectively necessary to win.

This method was perfectly expressed in an article by Counterfire supporter Alex Snowdon “Can trade unions stop the cuts?”. Snowden writes

“the ‘general strike’ slogan fails to hit the mark. It isn’t a call that has resonance in workplaces the length and breadth of this country. Until there is widespread grassroots pressure for a general strike, it really is just sloganeering: a way of distinguishing yourself as militant, without advancing anything practical (indeed it serves as an evasion of the challenge to establish next steps for our movement).”

Snowdon thus puts forward two arguments.

The first is that there isn’t widespread pressure for a general strike and the second is that if you are arguing for one, then you can’t advance practical steps at the same time. If this is correct, then socialists should only raise a slogan if there is already widespread grassroots pressure in support of it. Rather than providing a lead we should wait for the working class vanguard to spontaneously raise the slogan before we raise it as well. This ignores the role socialists must play in consciously popularising ideas amongst the working class.

There is no shortage of examples from the revolutionary movement where the left has had to give a lead. In Russia in 1917 the slogan ‘all power to the soviets’ was initially unpopular even amongst the Bolsheviks, but Lenin and his supporters argued for it, won the party to it and then sought to patiently make the case to the working class. If Lenin had waited for a section of workers to shows widespread and grassroots support for the slogan beforehand then the October revolution would never had happened.

Snowdon’s argument is also attached to the demagogic idea that arguing for a general strike somehow makes impossible simultaneously advancing immediate, practical steps. There is no reason why this should be the case.

For example, in the construction sector, socialist construction workers have developed a grassroots-based initiative, Siteworker, to organise rank and file action and campaigning when the official unions aren’t fighting, and have done this alongside calling for strike action from the unions, and arguing for construction workers to join the strike on 30 November and transform it into a general strike.

This shows how you can combine working with the trade union rank and file in practical initiatives, take them with you step-by-step, as well as putting forward a broader, political argument about what’s necessary for victory.

Similarly, socialists calling for a general strike have also worked hard in pushing the unions into co-ordinated strike action on the 30 June and again on 30 November. There is no need to counter-pose more limited actions to the decisive forms of struggle we advocate, they should be used as stepping stones towards a general strike.

Workers Power’s argument for a general strike certainly does not exclude the necessary intermediate steps or struggles in the fight against the cuts. Clearly we need mass protests, strikes, occupations, local campaigns around every closure, and a concerted effort against the privatisation of the NHS. Our point is that these forms of resistance can win this or that struggle, but to stop the cuts as a whole means to bring down the government – and that must mean mass strike action.

Counterfire’s approach leaves Coalition of Resistance (CoR) without a clear, distinct strategy to beat the cuts. Calling demonstrations and supporting strikes when they happen is great. But this does not deal with any of the problems facing the building of an effective anti-cuts movement, primarily that there are leaders within the workers movement who do not have the same will or desire to fight.

We need a strategy which can mobilise the rank and file against the bureaucracy where necessary and agitate for the kind of action we need to win regardless if it’s popular in the first instance.

Often CoR’s only complaint against the bureaucrats and careerists at the top of the workers movement is that they are slow off the mark in organising demonstrations and do not call more protests. But these comments only scratch at the surface of the fundamental problems the resistance faces.

The unfortunate reality is that there is an inverse relationship between the weak state of the unions as fighting bodies – that strike less, that are poorly organised at the grassroots – and the strength that the trade union bureaucracy has at the top. The myriad of restrictions the anti-unions laws put in the way of effective strike action also help the trade union leaders maintain their hegemony; because the moderate forms of action they want are exactly the same as those that are legally allowed under Thatcher’s laws. This means developing independent organisations based upon the trade union rank and file – able to fight with union leaders where possible but without them where necessary – is a critical task of socialists today, and should be complimentary to the building of a social movement of resistance.

 

Uniting theory and practice?

In 2010 Counterfire produced a short pamphlet on strategy and tactics, written by Rees, which acts as a popular outline of their methodology. The book was clearly intended to provide political and methodological grounds for a new organisation. But it was also notable for its continuity with the SWP tradition. This could be particularly seen in the notion of party organisation it put forward.

Rees situates his argument within the tradition of Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks but, like the SWP has traditionally done, its notion of the party is largely organisational body that brings together workers and activists fighting on a number of fronts. There is no mention of the political ideas that the party should unite around; its ‘programmatic’ basis: what it stands for and fights for within the wider movement, i.e. its programme.

Lenin, the apparent inspiration for Counterfire and the SWP, was clear on this point as early as 1899 that “neither Marx nor any other theoretician or practical worker in the Social-Democratic movement has ever denied the tremendous importance of a programme for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party.” Link

Rees does cite various examples where the party can learn from struggles and apply their lessons today, including major episodes of class struggle from the 1926 general strike through to the Poll Tax campaign (pages 24-25).

We can really see, however, the inconsistent methodology of Counterfire at work when we examine the gap between the lessons that Rees cites and their practice today.

For instance there are two crucial lessons of the 1926 general strike.

First of these is the importance of rank and file organisation from below and independent action without the official leaderships where necessary.

The second is the danger of cosying up, uncritically to union bureaucrats. Between 1924 and 1926 the Communist party built the rank and file Minority Movement that organised hundreds of thousands of workers in the unions independently of the bureaucracy, leading strikes and protests where the bureaucracy would not as well as fighting to democratise and transform the unions. However during the 1926 General Strike the Communist Party prioritised maintaining the Anglo-Russia committee between the TUC and the Soviet Union over a clear radical break with the union leaders. They subordinated their principled criticism to the expediency of keeping the union leaders close around the question of solidarity with the Soviet Union.

Today, the current attitude on the left is that a strategic and uncritical alliance with the union leaders is necessary, which is a culture and outlook arguably most associated with the Counterfire group.

There is a also pertinent lesson of the Poll Tax campaign too. Namely, that a united campaign which co-ordinated all the local anti-Poll tax groups together was essential to beating the Tories.

Yet Counterfire have been at best agnostic about unity of the anti-cuts movement. It seems obvious that there should be one campaign, including the unions, Right to Work/SWP, the National Shop Stewards Network.

However Counterfire members in CoR have resisted positively approaching other forces to unite the campaigns in a single organisation, apart from the weak “Agreement on Protocol”,  which promised joint work, but explicitly ruled out unity.

Finally, the miners’ strike too holds lessons too. That sectional struggles cannot beat a concerted attack by the capitalist class, no matter how supported they are through solidarity work. A class wide attack requires a class wide response; a general strike.

Lenin once explained how centrism ‘occupied the space between revolutionary theory and reformist practice’. It finds its expression in the disjuncture that exists when revolutionary socialists apply their politics in an opportunist manner, always with one eye on public opinion or what their allies will say.

One of the most telling examples of this centrism was their position on the recent Unite general secretary election. Neil Faulkner in his longer analysis on The workers, the unions, and the crisis writes that the “primary contradiction is between the union leaders and the rank and file” not between the left and the right bureaucrats.

This is absolutely correct; it is the privileged position of the bureaucracy, both materially in term of their pay packets and in their role as negotiators between the rank and file and the bosses, which is the fundamental problem with the unions. But when it came to the Unite election Counterfire backed Len McCluskey, a left bureaucrat who had been handpicked by the old T&G leader Tony Woodley, against the rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks.

 Counterfire rejected supporting Jerry Hicks, who was the only rank and file candidate and promised to stand on the average wage of the workers he represented. They used the argument that Hicks would split the vote and let the right wing in, which was exactly the argument that the left bureaucrats used to back their man McCluskey.

Counterfire’s other argument was that “Unfortunately Hicks and his supporters walked out of the Unite broad left meeting in Manchester that voted to back McCluskey.” What they fail to mention was the meeting in Manchester was ‘packed’ with McCluskey people, and Jerry Hicks and his supporters were barred from speaking.

In addition, they do not mention that the Unite Left includes the great bulk of the huge Unite bureaucracy. It’s no wonder Hicks and his supporters walked out in protest at this bureaucratic farce.

Counterfire finished their case against the rank and file left candidate Hicks by calling for a rank and file movement which McCluskey clearly did not want, let alone was planning to deliver.

This smacked of crossing themselves with a Hail Mary before committing a cardinal sin.

Counterfire’s analysis that backing Hicks risked letting the right wing in proved to be completely wrong. Hicks got 52,000 votes to McCluskeys 100,000 with the right wing candidate Les Baylis trailing at third on 46,000 votes. Now the struggle is on to bring the rank and file who voted for Hicks together into a movement, which will inevitably be met with hostility from the powerful Unite bureaucracy, headed by McCluskey.

It was a powerful anti-cuts vote and immediately following his election, McCluskey talked left, calling for unions to follow the students and step up their resistance in a campaign of co-ordinated industrial action. But he has yet to follow through on these fine words. That’s exactly why we need to keep the Hicks campaign together as a rank and file initiative in the union, so we can maximise the pressure on the leadership to fight, and provide an alternative leadership if they don’t.

Now, since the failure of the Baylis campaign, the right wing of the union has actually joined Unite Left making it a monolithic political vehicle within the union which completely hegemonises the apparatus.

This blindness to the importance of a critical position on the bureaucracy was clear when Counterfire published an article about the TUC call for strike action on 30 November where they wrote “Moreover the TUC was under no industrial pressure to move. The union leaders were under virtually no pressure from strike action, official or unofficial. Neither is there any strong rank and file organisation in any union putting pressure on the officials.”

It is true there are no strong rank and file organisations – but no pressure from below? What about the five trade union conferences in 2011 which passed policy supporting a public sector general strike?

Even the New Statesman seems to have their finger on the pulse, citing one union ‘insider’ who said “Even if we wanted to hold back the members, we couldn’t… This isn’t a case of officials sending people over the top. We’re having to do everything we can to keep from being left behind.”

Instead, Counterfire place the victory at the TUC squarely at the feet of the social movements. Of course the demonstrations and recent protest movements helped contribute, but ignoring the work that is being done in the unions and locating the political centre of gravity and momentum outside them is one sided at best.

In their 2011 draft conference documents, Counterfire actually go even further away from the policy of building independent rank and file organisation that are capable of fighting without the bureaucracy where necessary. They write in their resolution on the Revolutionaries, trade unions, and the working class that:

“In certain historical periods, when there is both strong workplace organisation and a high level of struggle, the conflict between bureaucracy and rank and file can take on an organised, semi-permanent form, with networks of workplace-based activists able to lead frequent and sometimes large-scale unofficial action. This was the case for much of the period 1910-1926 and again during the period centred on 1968-1975. In these circumstances, revolutionaries should be rooted in workplace-based rank and file organisation, not in the union bureaucracy.”

They go onto write:

“The present period is not of this kind. The priority for revolutionaries is to build strong united fronts, primarily against the war and the cuts. This means working with the widest possible forces, including left-officials in the unions, in order to a) build the unions, the Coalition of Resistance, and Stop the War, b) strengthen the relationship between the unions and the movements, and c) involve workplace and union activists in general campaigns. “

[Of course their conference may have  amended these documents, but this is the text which was proposed from the counterfire.org editorial board]

The problem with the “widest possible forces” formula is that it is short hand for refusing to properly understand or explain the antagonism between the bureaucracies and the movement.

To Counterfire, building strong united fronts in this instance simply means alliances with the already existing leaders of the movements – not building the kind of organisation which can act independently of them should they refuse to fight.

Is it really plausible that in a period when there are increasingly important strikes looming, and some union leaders are hungry to sell them out at the first whiff of compromise from the bosses, that we don’t need to build, or rather should choose not to build, such grass roots organisations?

The documents went so far as to say:

“We should not seek to build either union ‘fractions’ or Coalition of Resistance union-based activist groups. It is essential that we cut against syndicalism and sectionalism. An internal union focus will reinforce, not undermine, the lack of confidence and combativity in the workplaces [our emphasis].”

This is a clear commitment to not organising the rank and file. As well as blaming an internal union focus for the lack of combativity of the working-class it seeks to conflate rank and file organizing with syndicalism and sectionalism, the very tendencies that rank and file organizing seeks to overcome. It is also a nod and a wink to the bureaucracy that Counterfire will not intervene in internal union matters, and so will make a trustworthy partner in any social movement campaigns.

In fact, this is a totally passive attitude; one which fails to see the pioneering role that revolutionaries play and have always played in creating the networks of activists who become well-placed to lead mass action.

In the early 1900s it was the young revolutionary syndicalist militants (who as Trotsky correctly observed were a political current not simply a trade union one) who laid the organised basis for the Great Unrest and then on Clydeside in the Great War.

In the 1920s it was the young CPGB militants that rebuilt the rank and file organisation which underpinned the Minority Movement. Between the 1950s and 1970s it was Stalinist and Trotskyist militants of various hues that built the politicised shop stewards movement that delivered the action that defeated the Tories in 1972 and drove them from office in 1974.

If all these cadres when they started had said  “the present period is not one of large scale unofficial action“ it would never have come about. Since we live in times with just as much potential as the above examples and since today’s left leaders are no better than Man and Cook Scanlon, Jones or Scargill we have little time to lose. Building such movement will raise the confidence and the political horizons of huge numbers


Counterfire and the Gramsci enigma

Often Counterfire invoke the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s idea of a counter-hegemonic alliance to underpin the notion of the social movement as key to victory.

Certainly such an alliance is necessary to challenge the dominant ‘hegemony’ around the cuts, but within this context, it is still vital to develop a clear, revolutionary and anticapitalist pole.

 A key part of the criticisms we are putting forward here is that socialists need to advocate what’s necessary to win in any given struggle. This must of course require an assessment of the objective situation, part of which involves the consciousness of the masses, the configuration of forces inside the working class movement and the balance of class forces. But in the end our tactics are derived on the simple premise of what is necessary to win a given struggle.

Counterfire will often defer on advocating radical action in the here and now to win if they don’t think it’s realistic. They often derive justification for this approach from the Gramscian distinction between the war of position (the slow and careful marshalling of forces) and the war of manoeuvre (the short sharp attack on enemy positions).

The term war of position originally comes from the SPD leader Karl Kautsky in the 1900s who argued that socialists needed two alternating speeds of struggle, a war of attrition and a strategy of overthrow. Both these notions have their uses – but they need to be used with care and not counter-posed to one another (as Gramsci did in his Prison Notebooks).

The mass work of the second international was a good example of the war of position in practice; through mass working class parties, trade union and women’s organisations, forces were rallied around the ideology of socialist transformation, thereby challenging existing hegemonic ideas. The war of manoeuvre is the phase of open conflict and struggle – moving, if you like, from the ideological to the practical.

The danger in this choice of terms is the dichotomy it risks creating between limiting ones arguments to reformist slogans until the time is right for the moment of revolutionary conflict. The collapse of the Second International into reformism (because for them the revolutionary conflict, war of manoeuvre, never came) provides a pertinent historical warning in this regard. Trotsky’s transitional method of raising slogans which connect with the struggles of today but point to the struggle for power in the future goes some way towards transcending these positions.

Utilising military concepts in politics is not without its uses, but the point is that they are not mutually exclusive, they can exist at the same time, in different fields of struggle and operating at different speeds.

If socialists use an overly schematic framework then they can end up either openly promoting reformist positions or, in contrast, ultra left adventurism should they focus only on the war of manoeuvre.

Counterfire’s leadership are most associated with the anti-war movement, and this illustrates the problem with their understanding of Gramsci’s distinction. On the one hand, at the height of the movement they weren’t prepared to call on the union leaders to lead strike action against the cuts. Even if they did say they supported strikes, they weren’t prepared to put them on the spot and demand action from them. If they had done so, they could have simultaneously called a conference of rank and file trade unionists to fight for such action without the union leaders if necessary. This war of manouevre (strikes, blockades and workers action), would have complimented the war of position (the rallies, protests and mass demonstrations).

Counterfire see the anti-war movement as an example of the ‘war of position’ par excellence. But this actually is very debateable, because it failed to engender a wider anticapitalist radicalisation across a series of issues; indeed, the Stop the War leadership did not, for example, use the opportunity presented by the mass movement to get local stop the war groups to take up campaigning against privatisation, for workers’ rights, international solidarity issues – this all could have given the movement a more lasting and anticapitalist impact on wider social consciousness.

The Stop the War movement also stuck dogmatically to a single tactic, the a to b march, which once the period of the occupation set in became highly routinised, when more imaginative forms of social protest and direct action could have helped foster a wider and more socialistic political radicalisation. In both these forms the war of position would have meant a conflict with the official trade union leaderships, who didn’t want to generalise the movement, who weren’t prepared to take strike action, and it would have meant orientating resolutely to the rank and file.

If we want to use Gramsci’s metaphor in a revolutionary way today then, we have to show how we can fight both a war of position – the struggle for ideological hegemony and the marshalling of forces for battle – and a war of manoeuvre simultaneously.

But we also have to recognise that the Coalition government is most certainly fighting a war of manoeuvre. The speed and force with which the Tories are pushing through their cuts is quite breathtaking. Within the space of a term they plan on fundamentally restructuring the British economy with more austerity and greater neo-liberalisation. They want to break up and sell off the NHS and Royal Mail and to privatise our schools too. This is truly the end of the ‘post war consensus’, if it is allowed to happen. In the face of such an offensive limiting ourselves to a ‘war of position’ would be a disaster.

In the face of such attacks it is simply irresponsible for socialists to be concentrating almost solely on advocating protests, demonstrations and limited strikes – only by mobilising and unleashing the full strength and power of the working class as a class can we hope to win and topple this government.

Getting the united front wrong

In his book, Rees later highlights some of the historical lessons of the united front, especially the 1930s explaining that “Any mass united front may well attract individuals and currents from within the middle class – but the policy, action, and direction cannot be set by, or subordinated to, these elements.” (pg 46, Strategy and Tactics)

This is true, but it is not just the middle classes that hold back working class initiatives and struggle – reformist leaders in the workers’ movement do as well. Of course it would be the height of sectarianism to argue that there should be no joint work with Labour Party or trade union leaders. But for Trotsky and the Bolsheviks the united front was only episodic by its very nature, an agreement to strike or organise a demonstration.

Today a problem on the contemporary British left is the existence of semi-permanent campaigning bodies, which are somewhere between a campaign, united front and political bloc, with everyone agreeing not to tread on each others toes, and the big name speakers get a right of veto over anything too radical (and necessary) that might upset the apple cart.

And often they do not really bring together sizeable forces in a practical, action-orientated way, even though they have a wide range of formal support across the labour movement.

What we actually need to work towards are mass democratic forums of resistance – linked up locally and nationally in a single anti-cuts federation – with a culture of open debate over political differences. It’s only through such arguments after all, that we can be sure to come to the right conclusions about the strategy we put forward.

Rees and the SWP leadership theorised the united front method that predominates on the British left as the ‘united front of a special type’, precisely in order to distinguish itself against the tactic of the united front as it was developed in the classical revolutionary tradition. The latter was an agreement between working class forces over specific goals and campaigns, to bring together communist and reformist workers in a joint struggle.

Within that struggle there was an open competition between the strategy of the reformist leaders and the revolutionary party. This was not intended to split the united front, but it meant there was no blurring of political differences and still clear agreement to take action together.

The British left instead prefers to work in organisations with their own (sometimes unelected) leaderships, websites and policies which are not episodic, but permanent political blocs which by their very nature must downplay the differences over strategy and tactics “for the sake of unity”.

Ironically, this can often undermine developing a broader and more encompassing unity if, as in the case of the dispute between Right to Work and CoR, each ‘campaign’ zealously defends its own organisational advantages over others.

Much greater fluidity is needed in how the British left organises; a greater focus on policy-making in mass, democratic assemblies at the local and national level, something that was pioneered with a degree of success in the student movement, would be a breath of fresh air when compared to the format of the ‘old’ British left where rallies with big names predominate, rather than action-orientated policy making and political discussion.

A mass movement often involves a wide range of broad forces at the beginning, but it is not just inevitable it is essential that the political differences emerge at some point and the working class establishes a clear hegemony over the movement if it is to win. Counterfire would agree with this in the abstract, but their agreement is not operative if their members are educated and organised in such a way to bend over backwards for broadness rather than fighting for what is necessary to win, thereby drawing out the difference in practice between revolutionary and reformist politics, and fostering a socialist hegemony over the mass movement. In practice, they cannot conceive of the moment when revolutionary forces need to assertively distinguish their strategy from the reformists, and even “go it alone” by organising action without them if they refuse to fight.

 

A problem we have seen before

Counterfire is an attractive organisation for many people, an apparent breath of fresh air on the British left characterised by tired old obsessions and dogmas. But while Counterfire definitely laces its politics in the language of the new and the modern, its vision of the left it wants to build and its strategic line of march is actually very reminiscent of the old British left, with the same old timidities and opportunist practice.

The argument that the British working class is historically weak and that we must limit our calls for action appropriately, rather than developing new ways through which the working class can build new organisations in struggle, is reminiscent of the SWP’s perspective from the 1980s. The SWP then argued that the British working class was in a “downturn” which meant that offensive actions were off the agenda and that all workers could hope to do was fight defensive actions against the Tory onslaught. This perspective led them to not only reject the slogan of a general strike in the Great Miners Strike of 1984/85, but to actively argue against it in NUM meetings and the miners support group.

The SWP played the role then that Counterfire are playing today, of not just being pessimistic about the chances of a general strike, but actively fighting against it when it is raised. They were not alone, most of the far left at the time agreed with them; it represented complacency that the miners could win alone; complacency about what was at stake in the struggle; and a timidity in the face of the official union leaderships.A similar problem exists today, because even though the class struggle resistance in the workplace is nothing like as a strong as the 1980s, the class struggle from above is just as vicious – and just as much is at stake. The task then is to build on the positives in our situation – the huge TUC demonstration and the militancy of the student movement – to bring the working class out en masse.

It is not surprising that Counterfire have adopted the same method as the SWP in the 1980s. Although the SWP proclaimed the end of the downturn in 1992 (which actually turned out to be the beginning of a historic decline in strikes and trade union militancy) it is possible that Counterfire leaders privately imagine that in reality the downturn never ended for the working class, it was only punctured by sudden mass social movements, the anti-capitalist movement 1999-2001 and the anti war movement after 2003. In this way, ‘the downturn’ becomes a permanent feature of the post Thatcher reality with the accompanying idea that we must limit ourselves to defensive slogans which are uncontroversial in the movement (‘save the NHS’, ‘No to cuts’) with new forms of working class organisation like rank and file movements and the forming of ‘new leaderships’ that they involve, off the agenda.

The reality is that both wings of the SWP tradition (sometimes referred to as the Cliff tradition, after its founder Tony Cliff) express very similar political problems.

The narrative from some SWP members following the split with Counterfire, is that a right wing tendency had emerged in the leadership which almost led the party to ruin with its opportunism, but, now, a new left turn has been instigated and the SWP had turned over a new leaf.  But the truth is that the SWP has not honestly come to accounts with its past or drawn up an honest lesson of why the failures occurred in the first place.

At its annual Marxism event in 2010 they wrote off Respect with a dismissive “we all make mistakes” before heaping most of the blame onto George Galloway and then later the “Rees faction”. But Respect was completely in alignment with the SWP’s trajectory over the past ten or so years. In Germany, the IST section Linksruck dissolved itself into a left Keynesian network in Die Linke and proceeded to take up jobs working for reformist MPs before eventually being voted into the Bunedestag on a social democratic programme.

In France, the SWP opposed the formation of the New Anticapitalist Party, because they proposed instead something less radical, similar to Linksruck in Germany. The SWP leader most associated with these positions is actually Alex Callinicos – still in the SWP – as the was the main advocate of these positions on the international left.

All of these positions have their origins in the SWP’s notion of the party itself; as a generaliser of the working classes spontaneous struggles, not as the organisational form through which revolutionaries actively argue and fight for a coherent programme for power within the wider working class movement.

The lack of clear accounting for the collapse of Respect and its shallow dismissal as a ‘mistake’ is indicative of a wider opportunist error, one the SWP are terrified to face up to. This means when the contradictions lodged in a particular opportunist course begin to compound on each other and an explosion happens the results of the opportunism are simply called a “mistake”, but the methodological root of the problem itself is largely glossed over.  A new turn is made and the old cadre stuck in the old turn get left behind.

There is a tendency across the far left to focus in on the problem of ‘confidence’ as a key obstacle in the current situation. That workers don’t feel the confidence to fight and certainly don’t feel the confidence without their official leaders.

Undoubtedly there is some truth in this, but in the end it gives us only a partial picture of the problems we confront. It ignores the political problems: the working class is dominated by strong bureaucracies at the top, be that of the unions or the Labour Party, whose leadership encourages passivity, and whose political answers are incredibly ‘moderate’ posed with the challenges we face.

It is precisely these leaders who engender and reinforce a lack of confidence at the base. But when workers have organised independently, like the electricians around the Siteworker and Grassroots left networks, then they have carried out very militant direct action campaign to build momentum for a strike.

That means we have to confront the problem of reformism in the working class movement and work to radicalise workers and youth around an anticapitalist answer to the crisis.

Ultimately Counterfire are in a strong position on the British left to use CoR as a way of pressuring the union leaders to take more radical, meaningful action and to build a united anti cuts movement.

But for all their talk of unity they have not used the CoR to campaign vigorously across the movement for unity – for instance they could have actively proposed a common conference of the anti-cuts movement to Right to Work, to the NSSN, and the unions, to build an organisationally united movement.

This fragmentation and lack of unity in the anti-cuts movement, reflects a wider complacency on the British left in the face of the crisis of capitalism. The predominant ethos amongst the left is to go on “in the same old way”, without exploring new avenues for unity, new forms of organisation, and building new relationships that can deliver victory.

Instead, the SWP with Right to Work, Counterfire with CoR, and the Socialist Party with the NSSN, have each engaged in a series of organisation manoeuvres against one another to seize advantage and initiative, rather than unite their forces in a single campaign of resistance.

It is difficult to overstate the negative implications of this – it means that the radical wing of the movement is disunited and consequently in a weaker position to pressure the TUC and big unions to lead the militant action that is vitally needed.

Not only does Counterfire not put forward a strategy that can actually stop the cuts, but they also de facto oppose the building of a united anti-cuts movement, instead they put their short term, organisational interests first.

In essence, then, despite the claims of the newness there is deep-rooted sectarian-opportunism at the heart of the Counterfire project, one that the left will have to overcome to build fighting anticapitalist organisations.

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