More radical than reality: A letter to a comrade of an earlier era

Jonas Liston writes about becoming a young revolutionary in the 21st century.

Dear comrade, You asked me to talk you through how my generation of militants was radicalised, through what routes we came into struggle and why we found ourselves amongst that minuscule section of society that believed in what were, supposed to be, outdated ideas. It’s not an easy question to answer. How did we find ourselves attracted to a marginal far-left whose principal obsession was the power and transformative capacity of a class which had no idea it existed, let alone any interest in listening to it?

It was never any small coterie of militants, like yourself and me now, that energised me, at least not to begin with. When I came into political activity, those militants seemed distant and remote, unable to articulate the needs and desires of a class in such desperate need of asserting its own opposition to its oppression. I didn’t recognise that, at the time, that apparent distance was because of their very isolation from that class. It was only the experience of that class moving into action that would move me beyond the realm of ideas and onto the terrain of activity. For me, passively sitting by, that began whilst youth in this country, schoolmates, mates from my area and people I had just met starting university, responded to both a betrayal and an attack. The betrayal was the broken promise of a middle-class liberalism that said they would make university education free. The attack, sustained by them, but led by the Tories, was to treble the price of university tuition. The response was proletarian student youth protesting in their tens of thousands, occupying their universities, briefly occupying Tory headquarters and tearing it up with the police on the streets of central London.

A black banner reading: "The bricks we throw at police today will be the schools of revolution tomorrow"

A black banner reading: “The bricks we throw at police today will be the schools of revolution tomorrow”

This didn’t catalyse me into political action. In some ways I wish it would have, to save myself from sitting silent and jealous amongst comrades at later dates as they reminisced about occupying Millbank, their small moments of victory over university managements, pigs and the like. What eventually catalysed me was both novel and familiar. Sitting in an Enfield pool club one Saturday night in August, getting absolutely mangled out of my face, one of the bar staff switched whatever sports was on, over to an image of a burning bus on the middle of Tottenham High Road. It was ten months after the students had first moved into struggle and even though the sharp end of that struggle had receded and we had lost, the context was crucial. In the background were the murmurs of Spanish indignation and a growing hostility to the 99%. And more inspiring than any of that, it was eight months into the Arab revolutions, the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali and the massive explosion of popular democracy, self-organisation and the sense of possibilities that came with them. It would take a new level of personal revisionism that would apply any of these sentiments in a coherent way as reasons to explain why I left that Enfield pool club, spent an hour on a delayed bus and walked another thirty minutes, just to get to Tottenham. Yet it would also be the hatchet job of liberal historians, reactionary parliamentarians and neoliberal ideologues that would separate and draw sharp lines of demarcation between what erupted on the streets of Tottenham on the 6th August 2011 from the Indignados movement, the Occupy movement, Tahrir and most obviously, the student movement.

The uprising that started in Tottenham on that night and spread across England was, in its immediacy, a response to the consistent, age-old police racism and violence epitomised by the brutal murder of Mark Duggan. It chimed with the black and working-class youth of Tottenham and beyond, precisely because it epitomised the anti-proletarian and racialised way in which the state vilifies, subjugates and harasses black and working-class youth. It expressed discontent at the slicing of EMA, libraries, youth clubs and spat in the face of two decades of Labourite abandonment and demonisation.

It was short-lived, but in the space of a night, I witnessed, as did so many others, a tiny slice of proletarian power and fight. We felt confident and pissed off. For once we had no compunction about chucking pint glasses at coppers, building makeshift barricades or nicking from retail stores that had either never hired us or that we could rarely afford to shop in. I know you know this, but that memory was erased real quickly for a lot of my generation. Many of us bought the indifference, pessimism and fear they imposed. How could we do anything else? We never had a social, political and economic alternative. Despite the sheer emancipatory feeling of fighting back against the state, we didn’t exercise a fraction of the leverage our class has. They did though. The sharp attacks and scapegoating of their press; the racist spitefulness of ideologues like Starkey; the reactionary opportunism of parliamentarians like Lammy; and the brutal, uncompromising state repression of an even sharper-than-usual authoritarian character.

Writing this I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. You made similar assessments. You had riots in 1981 akin to those we had in 2011. You had physical confrontations with the fascists just like we had in Walthamstow and Tower Hamlets. You drew conclusions about class power, the state and ideology, similar to those conclusions we drew. In the process of radicalising to the anti-capitalist left, I bet much of our impulses were the same. We thought, much like you did, that we were on the cusp of great things; the difference is, unlike you, we weren’t. This isn’t to say you won. You didn’t, you lost and you lost badly. But this is to say we waged and continue to wage a war defined by the impositions of your defeats and their victories.

In describing to someone how you were radicalised you realise that what Trotsky called ‘successive approximations’ ain’t limited to the general conclusions drawn by a social class in the process of revolution, but are assessments made by activists and militants at all points in the struggle as well. I went through the riots, asked why it didn’t succeed, why it didn’t last any longer than a week. I argued with new activist-socialist friends I had made at my university about why the student struggle had dissipated and failed. They had their political organisation. It was a revolutionary socialist organisation. It provided them with the answers, analyses and resources they needed to advance the struggles they were involved in, and they provided the organisation with talented and skilled militants that could propagate its ideas and push its strategy within variable struggles. The answer for them, laid in the weaknesses of student struggle and street clashes, as opposed to the struggle at the point of the production and challenging state power. This didn’t mean abstaining on the former two, it just meant redefining their priorities. For them, as it became for me, this was part and parcel of winning an argument among student militants about what we did when the student struggle, as a mass confrontational struggle, had receded. The answer went two ways. Look at the trade union movement, which was moving into action, and look at the deepening Arab revolutions. The biggest problem with both is that there wasn’t a deeply-rooted, big enough, revolutionary socialist party that can rival the official forces of reform in its attempt to contain the struggle and prop up the current order, lead the two to victory and in the first instance, bring down a weak coalition and in the second instance, create alternative forms of democracy from below, rivalling the existing state apparatus. So join us, and let’s build one.

I don’t want to sound like I’m caricaturing the argument. I made the argument often enough once I joined that organisation, only months after the riots. I bet, in a much more sophisticated way, you did too. I think the version of the argument I heard (and repeated), from enthusiastic, far-too-optimistic students, was a much more voluntaristic and ill-informed one than most comrades made, but it was always made in a context, and that was a context where the possibilities, assessed by our organisation, were over-estimated, and the limitations underestimated.

None of this is to say, like so many of my generation and so many of yours, that I don’t want an organisation. A tool that can bring militants together, assess our various and overlapping struggles and pool our numerous experiences and battles into a totalising strategy that can challenge our opponents. If such a vehicle existed today, geared toward the overthrow of capitalism, I would be a happy comrade. Except one doesn’t. And when you ask me how I became a communist, I don’t think I can genuinely answer that question by stopping short at the defusing of the public sector strikes over pensions, or the removal of the Occupy camp from the steps of St. Pauls. For many, it was easy to be a militant, to be a Marxist then. Many of us, however wrongly, thought we were on the brink of something. The difficulty is always coming to terms with what we were really involved in. The reality is, we had the wrong analysis at the time. We thought we were going to witness a ‘hot autumn’, but instead the only tiny parallel to be made with the ‘hot autumn’ of Italian workers in the sixties and seventies was the cataclysmic aftermath: a testament to the redundancy of historical analogy given the scale of power, mobilisation, and then defeat, in the Italian working-class at this time, and the relative timidity to which the British far-left witnessed the containment of struggle and its own subsequent self-destruction.

In our assessment of the way capitalism had recovered and stabilised after the revolts of your generation, we underestimated the decline of working-class organisation and power, not to mention the re-assertion of the other side’s strength. We took for granted, despite our best efforts, that the calling of a one-day public sector general strike could generalise into something much more, and because we took it for granted: we underestimated our class’ weaknesses, ideologically, organisationally and materially. We overestimated not just our ability to transcend the trade union bureaucracy and their economistic cowardice, but also the potential emergence of a broader class confrontation and movement that could encompass and contribute both toward the building of workers’ organisations that could extend into the private sector, among the poorly unionised and insecure, and inflict serious blows onto the Tory-Liberal coalition. In hindsight, such optimism seems ridiculous.

I don’t want to speculate too much on why we lost. You and a ton of other trade union militants could school me on the ins and outs. But you asked me to tell you about my radicalisation, and since the radicalisation of so many was so short-lived, I can’t stop short on the initial defeat that led to the slow disappearance of many a comrade and friend. We have to be able to explain why some stayed and others didn’t. And by ‘stayed’, I don’t mean in a particular organisational form, I mean stayed true to the project of socialism-from-below.

I’m not sure what you think, but it’s clear to me that the overestimation of what was possible demoralised a whole layer of comrades when it didn’t materialise. I honestly think that was the start of what we see now. We had a short time where militancy was insurgent and new layers of people, like me, were being radicalised. It was a moment, I bet, like many you’ve seen, where the scope of what was possible was opened up to so many more. I know you saw it in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements of the early noughties, I know you saw it in the poll tax struggle, and I bet you saw it many a time before that.

But it’s clear to me now that the defeat of 2010-12 caused much of the pessimism we see on the radical left today. So many of us felt proud to be revolutionaries committed to mass working-class revolution. I can’t say the same now. Many distanced themselves from the anti-capitalist left because they were a part of an organisation that fucked up on the principles of women’s liberation. For some this led to the conclusion that the far-left was undemocratic, outdated and irrelevant. For others this just accentuated a conclusion they were in the process of drawing anyway. Different assessments led to different paths. Some dropped out. Some chose organisations and strategies inspired by the electoral hopes of the left abroad. Some distanced themselves from the organised left, but not from campaigning and struggle. When you see the way the left went for a couple of years after 2012, I suppose you can’t blame ‘em. I know many of us have said as much over the last couple years. We didn’t say that with any hint of the crude realism you might find amongst the renegades of your generation. You know, right? The ones that distanced themselves from the left because they couldn’t deal with swimming against the current. We say it with the understanding of why people take different routes and in the hope that when the opportunity arises, many will shake off their fatigue and return to the struggle.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘What fucking relevance does any of this have to how you became a communist?’

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that being a revolutionary Marxist is far from easy. A lot of us attempt ourselves to learn and apply that set of politics when we feel like we’re on the up, however low that up really is. So when the possibilities that seem so obvious to us at one point are subject to doubt and denunciation, amongst friends and enemies, the project gets thrown in doubt. Now I know we say we can only be ‘as radical as reality itself’, but often communists have to be more radical than reality, and maintain traditions of radicalism against the tide. This isn’t to justify the crude and tiresome politics much of your generation fell into. Nor is it an attempt to impose politics on situations that don’t fit. However it is to maintain a red thread of communist radicalism, consisting of a wide assemblage of theories, strategies and memories that can not only survive the defeats of our class and movement, but also that can transcend those defeats and seek to develop and renew those same theories and strategies in order to advance new struggles that emerge. This can only be done in the most radically democratic political and organisational cultures predicated on militant intellectuality, the breakdown between manual and mental labour, and self-activity. And if it isn’t, well, we know what we get, and it ain’t new, necessary, or useful.

Whilst the two years of riots, mass bureaucratic strikes, occupied spaces and aggressive protest that shaped my radicalisation ended and resulted in demoralisation and fragmentation amongst the anti-capitalist left, crises continue to expose volatilities, and much more sharply. A deepening economic crisis; the enveloping crisis of the British state; under the insurgent leadership of Corbyn, the much-enlarged Labour party are posing as an opposition much more coherently and effectively than ever before in my lifetime; the Tories are ripping each other to shreds over the European Union, the Panama papers and the underlying contest for leadership; and struggles from below, like the Junior Doctors’ strike and refugee and migrant solidarity, continue to rage. A shopping list like the one I’m laying out to you is no place for the development of a left strategy (and could never substitute for one), but it does point to some of the current volatilities a radical left should be in the business of taking advantage of. None of which is to slide past the dangers and weaknesses prevalent, some of which were indicative of the limitations of the 2010-12 period of struggle.

Despite mass anti-austerity demonstrations every year and strikes in health and education, we don’t have an insurgent workers’ movement in this country, but a workers’ movement in desperate need of rebuilding and revitalisation. Now and then we have a spate of radical, minority youth street protests, which almost always fail to generalise, grow and advance. And of course, not only is Corbyn under threat from the parliamentarians and trade union bureaucrats, but we have a far-left still in desperate crisis where even the very idea of an independent, extra-parliamentary anti-capitalist left is being thrown into question by both its former and current cadre.

At the beginning of this letter I speculated upon whether that small coterie of militants that gave primacy to the class struggle energised me or not. The truth is I don’t think they do. I think our class and every act geared toward its own liberation energises me. Those militants do something different. Partisan, in perspective, and to much sacrifice, they fight even when their class, as a class, doesn’t. That takes something else completely.

In the struggle, comrade.

Jonas

There are 4 comments

  1. Tony Cox

    As a ‘comrade from an earlier era’, I sympathise with many of the sentiments that you have so eloquently expressed. I would, however, point out that few of us are able to choose the time and terrain on which we fight. History chooses us, not the other way around. And, history has come for your generation, which is caught in the rapids of history, fueled by an accelerating crisis of capitalism. If you’re generation does not fight, then it will be fundamentally pulverised. We have no choice between struggle and abasement. Comradely, from the Red YES city.

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  2. RayB

    I joined the SWP in the mid eighties. I wasn’t a Labour member and had no experience of organised politics but knew I wanted to fight the Tory cuts to my local hospital and attacks on LGBT’s that were happening at the time. When I met my first SWP comrade she seemed very knowledgeable about these campaigns and invited me to the local branch meeting. It wasn’t an overnight conversion but through long 121 and branch debates I gradually began to understand that socialism might be possible and how it might be achieved.

    This was during a downturn in struggle, a period of competing revolutionary organisations, strong reformist Labour currents and growing LGBT activism. Yet, I was also acutely aware as a revolutionary that workers and the left were on the defensive. Despite some wonderful successes such as the Poll Tax campaign and the fight against the BNP it was very clear that, after the miners strike, the labour movement was weakened under the onslaught of what became known as neoliberalism. So I disagree with the generalising claim made by the author that, “…it’s clear to me that the overestimation of what was possible demoralised a whole layer of comrades when it didn’t materialise.” This isn’t the conclusion I would reach about debates about the organised working class among the revolutionary left in the last decade. If anything revolutionaries in our tradition have urged cautious optimism while becoming fully engaged in the struggles that have emerged.

    Being a revolutionary is not an easy path to take as it’s a lifetime commitment. We are a minority and often completely invisible to most workers as I can testify from my own experience of transition into political activism. The narrative that the failure of revolutionary organisations to grow in a period when the labour movement has shrunk under the onslaught of neoliberalism is unsurprising because it’s through the self-activity of workers that revolutionary ideas take hold. This isn’t automatic and we need a vanguard of revolutionaries to preserve and promote those ideas. What can lead to demoralisation is the unrealistic expectation that a revolutionary party can substitute for this self-activity. There is an organic connection between the combativeness of workers and the relevance of revolutionary ideas. The dichotomy between old and new comrades is unhelpful because revolutionary consciousness is contingent on circumstances rather than simply a product of alleged ossified thinking due to age or past successes. The political development of Lukacs is a good example of this process of ongoing transition. ‘Marxism and the Proletariat’, by Stephen Perkins (among other books about this subject) is a useful read.

    It would be wonderful if, during an upturn in struggle, this might translate into an evolutionary path towards socialism. Such is the province of reformist idealism. But the outcome of an upturn is dependent on the balance of class forces that includes the struggle on the left between reformist and revolutionary ideas. During my time as a revolutionary, who joined during a downturn in struggle, I’ve never been under the illusion that socialism is round the corner or that an upturn is necessarily the start of that process. For sure, I’ve been demoralised because being a revolutionary is not an easy path and hope is a fragile emotion that needs nurturing especially when, for various objective and subjective reasons, it feels lost. But we have a wealth of historical experience and revolutionary theoretical tradition to draw upon to sustain us especially during these difficult periods. Not to mention the ongoing practical and theoretical support of fellow revolutionaries and others who fight against austerity and oppression.

    In concrete terms the Tories have recently had a succession of political defeats that weaken them and recent strikes and anti-austerity campaigns have assisted this. There’s a lot to be hopeful for especially now in comparison to a decade ago. Whether these struggles lead to the growth of revolutionary ideas is partly down to us but is also dependent on the combativeness of organised workers. There is an organic relationship between these things but what revolutionaries can’t do is substitute for that struggle.

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