“Left unity” is an idea that’s been discussed many times before, not least on this very blog, but it seems to keep on cropping up again and again. It’s hard to work out what actual content there is to the latest left unity appeal beyond a vague desire for an Old Labour-style social democratic party, but some people seem to be getting quite excited about it. I would probably just leave them to get on with it, but this article on why anarchists should be included annoyed me enough that I felt the need to write a reply.
The most obvious problem with the article is this genuinely terrible passage: “We are seen as masked, dangerous and armed with firebombs. I do not deny that there is an element of truth in this and that there are some among us who believe violence is justified to bring about change. However, we cannot forget the hundreds, maybe even thousands of pacifist anarchists whose aims are not so different to those of socialists.” This plays right into the old myth of “good peaceful protesters vs. bad violent anarchists” that’s been used to divide and undermine any social movement that threatens to get out of control, as can be seen in Sussex University management’s response to the recent student protest; anyone who repeats this narrative is essentially going along with the agenda of people like Eoin Clarke, Aaron Porter, Chris Hedges, Tommy Sheridan, and all the other professional managers of struggle who want to isolate and demonise militants, so it’s quite shocking to see a self-described anarchist doing so.
But, even ignoring that particularly objectionable statement, there’s a wider problem with the idea of bringing anarchists into “left unity” projects. Discussions of “left unity” rarely seem to include much in the way of practical content about what actual activity would be useful, but there’s a heavy electoral subtext to the current round of articles, summed up by all the references to “the Spirit of 45”. This immediately brings up one of the major problems with left unity: people have different ideas about what counts as useful activity, and if you actually intend to do anything, it’s not really possible to gloss over those differences. This means that, with the best intentions in the world, it’s not really possible to include anarchists, who have a structural critique of parliamentary politics focused on the way that, as members of the ruling class, politicians have different material interests to the rest of us, in a project that aims to elect nicer politicians based on the fairly idealist hope that, if we can just get the right people into the role, they’ll then be able to benevolently run the economy in our interests, as if a new left party would be able to avoid the structural forces that have shaped the history of not just the Labour Party, but pretty much every one of its sister social democratic parties across the world. Similarly, we have no desire to be included in futile lobbying campaigns asking union leaders to do things that they can’t and won’t do, or many of the other activities that leftists are keen on.
Being hostile to the idea of “left unity” doesn’t mean I’ll never co-operate with anyone who isn’t an anarchist: I’ll happily work with anyone when it comes to practical class struggle activity. Visiting the PCS picket lines last week meant standing alongside, and chatting to, a number of union militants who subscribe to various stripes of lefty ideology, and the ongoing fight against blacklisting and the victimisation of workplace activists means it’s important to show solidarity to our fellow workers even if they’re supporters of creepy Leninist sects. Similarly, being involved in local struggles against the bedroom tax has meant leafleting estates with Trotskyists; we may, and almost certainly will, argue about all kinds of things once the campaign starts to take off, but at the moment the important thing is to just get people affected by the tax who live in the same area together in a room so they can start working out some kind of a collective response, and that’s an aim basic enough that a lot of people from different backgrounds can agree on it. If people want to call this sort of thing “left unity”, then it’s not a term I’d use myself, since I see these things as being more about class solidarity, but I don’t have any particular desire to argue about it. Either way, this kind of low-level grassroots co-operation is a long way away from the broader “left unity” ideal of a new mass left parliamentary party.
The upcoming “People’s Assembly” is another example of why it’s not possible for anarchists to be unproblematically “included” in left unity projects in their current state. Most anarchists I know have no intention of going to it. A well-meaning advocate of left unity might try and change this by suggesting that a few anarchists, perhaps Noam Chomsky, David Graeber, Stuart Christie or Ian Bone, could be added to the list of speakers, but this would do absolutely nothing to fix the essential problems with this top-down attempt to call a movement into existence by gathering a few well-known figures to lecture a crowd about the need to fight austerity. Anarchists would only be attracted to this event if it was a genuine assembly, an open participatory event like the gatherings that organised Occupy and similar social movements – and that, I suspect, is a long way off from what John Rees and his mates at Counterfire/Coalition of Resistance have planned.
Feminism and class unity
Thinking about the relationship between anarchists and the socialist left, and in particular the promise that “hey, anarchists are just as welcome as anyone else to get involved in building our top-down, hierarchical, electorally focused campaign!”, a number of other parallels suggest themselves. One is with the situation of claimants and workers in non-unionised, usually private sector, workplaces: the left have got a bit better about talking about claimants lately thanks to the prominence of the bedroom tax, but there’s still an overwhelming focus on the TUC – and, within that, the unions, like the PCS, UCU and NUT, that have the most visible contingents of lefties. If anarchists are unexcited by the idea of uniting to build a new social democratic electoral vehicle, it’s equally understandable for claimants, or the majority of the working class who are in unorganised workplaces, to be skeptical of a left whose strategy revolves around lobbying the TUC to call a general strike.
But unionised public sector workers certainly aren’t the only group to be over-represented on the left. It’s quite uncomfortable to admit, but a lot of the time revolutionary groups – and I don’t think there’s any particular tendency that’s immune from this – have nothing more to offer women than “hey, join our male-dominated, patriarchal, and potentially unsafe movement!” In all three cases, “unity” is impossible, and not even that desirable, if it only takes place on terms dictated by one side. When talking about the disparity between unionised workers and claimants/workers in non-unionised jobs, and the left’s tendency to focus exclusively on the former, the answer is not to give up on the idea of solidarity, or to tell claimants and unorganised workers to just act purely as a support group for union struggles; unity between all three sectors is vital, but it has to be real unity between equals, which means that it can only come about once claimants and workers in workplaces that’re currently unorganised have built their own autonomous organisations, and so are able to talk to organised workers on their own terms. I think the same is true of women and male-dominated revolutionary organisations: I don’t think that any gender is capable of making the revolution on their own, but I also don’t think the answer to male domination of revolutionary groups is just for individual women to join, which feels a bit too much like inviting anarchists to listen to Tony Benn or telling claimants that their main role in the class struggle is padding out a PCS picket line.
Instead of trying to build unity on the basis of those who currently hold the most power telling everyone else to sign up to their agenda, unity has to be the product of different sections of the class, particularly those who are currently most oppressed – and I apologise if I’m getting repetitive now, but I think this is an important point, and one that’s not made often enough – talking to each other on equal terms. The practical conclusion I draw from this is that autonomous women’s organisations are necessary, and that advocating them doesn’t make you a separatist any more than those who concentrate on building rank-and-file organisation among cleaners are “cleaner separatists” who oppose any joint action between cleaners and other workers. We all need to learn how to work together, but we also need to fight our own battles, and those struggles need to be led by those most directly affected.
In case I haven’t spelled it out clearly enough, this means that feminism isn’t divisive, it’s a prerequisite for the class unity that would be needed for the emergence of a real communist movement. Those on the left who implicitly defend male privilege and patriarchy by opposing feminism – even those who put forward in its place a mealy-mouthed commitment to “women’s liberation” that in practice boils down to making a lot of noise around those issues, like equal pay and abortion rights, that can be blamed on nasty external enemies like bosses and politicians, while remaining resolutely silent around our own complicity in fucked-up patriarchal behaviour* – are opposing the forces that could help to make class unity possible. However good their politics might be in other areas, those who oppose feminism are essentially defenders of this society, and should be seen as such.
I have no desire for “unity” with the left wing of the ruling class, or the most progressive administrators of austerity. I want class unity, and I can’t see any other way to get there than through autonomous organisations of every section of the working class that feel the need for them.
* “patriarchal behaviour” is a bit of a mouthful, but I think it’s a term that’s worth using; to me, at least, “sexism” and “misogyny” sound like they’re describing a conscious ideology, and tend to make people very defensive, whereas in reality you don’t need to believe in male superiority to display patriarchal behaviour any more than you need to be a supporter of capitalism to reproduce capital by engaging in wage labour. The man who talks more than anyone else in the room may not be a sexist, and the woman who sits at the back not saying anything may not be either, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not both acting out patriarchal standards of behaviour. These problems are structural, and we need a language that talks about them as such; structural analysis is supposed to be one of the things that Marxists are good at, so it’s a shame that so many of them duck the question entirely.