A synthesis struggling to be born: leftist organising in the 21st century

by Ali Khan

Even though I voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum, my political awakening began in the aftermath of the 2015 general election. The shock success of the Tories spurred me to join the Labour Party, despite their electoral collapse in Scotland.

This was not out of admiration for then-leader Ed Miliband, but rather a dislike of the SNP as neo-Blairite, single-issue party that was too insular with regards to the world stage. I caught wind of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy through a post by Owen Jones, thought he had some answers, and I got in on the act of sending a flurry of emails urging Labour MPs to put Corbyn on the ballot for “balanced representation”. I was confident from the outset he would win when I heard him in debates with the other sordid ghouls running for leadership.

Since that awakening, I have learned a lot about ‘The Left’ and leftism, though my participation has never been like that of dedicated activists that make the news these days with increasing frequency. Furthermore, my involvement in groups like Germany’s Die Linke internationals and the Progressive International in Berlin, and a long-standing interest in Norwegian politics, has added an element of international comparison albeit hopelessly Eurocentric.

All this is to establish some trust before I present my analysis of what The Left needs to address to progress in the intensifying struggle against reaction underway. What I want to present are the thoughts of someone who is not yet an insider of The Left and no longer just a keyboard warrior outsider. I present views from the interstice.

When Extinction Rebellion was emerging, it was often criticised for its bourgeois character and hopeless blindness about race and class especially in relation to the strategy of being arrested by the police to make political points. Green New Deal Rising, a much younger and multiracial organisation, has overcome many of these blind spots, linking racial justice to climate justice in addition to an enthusiastic engagement with the Labour movement. Young leaders are emerging from among these groups and it has been remarkable to see people I personally met at Edinburgh University be recognised on the national stage. All this happened within a period of three years, essentially between the defeat of 2019 to the present.

The state of play

Currently in Britain, a nascent movement is emerging against the acutely worsening conditions of life alongside an energetic climate movement constituted heavily by Gen Z. Strike action is finally picking up, with Sharon Graham, herself a surprise victor in the Unite General Secretary election, and Mick Lynch of the RMT Union leading the thrust. In many ways, this is a moment of hope after the disastrous defeat of Corbyn in 2019 and the Starmerite counter-revolution within the Labour Party, though it may be argued the decline of the electoral front has created space for the extra-parliamentary one. Herein lies the first major problem.

Socialist organising in the 20th century was dominated by the idea of a ‘vanguard party’ that acts as a disciplined strategic centre for the movement. Without romanticising or even uncritically supporting vanguardism, it is hard not to feel the conspicuous absence of a comparative structure that can give coherent direction to the disparate forces rising in resistance to the current state of affairs. There is a refreshing consciousness across these groups of the need to link disparate issues from colonialism, sexism, racism and police violence, to climate change and explicitly anti-capitalist class politics. Yet there is a lack of a party structure or a unified programme constituted through democratic participation.

Though many necessary ingredients for a revolutionary struggle are present, the word ‘revolution’ itself is nowhere to be seen. Other words such as socialism or communism are also absent. In itself, this is not strictly necessary. Woe betide any communist who believes that we must reconstitute the Leninist vanguard of 20th century Russia in 21st century Britain. But then, absent Marxism or socialism or communism or any term from the grand glossary of 20th century revolutionary political philosophy, what is the new alternative on offer? We need a synthesis in the Marxist sense between the old and the new models of political activism and organisation, a fraught and abortive process but one that is evidently progressing.

As it stands however, the lack of a party or integrative project for these movements is vulnerable to division, dissipation, and co-option. Division in the sense that the class antagonisms within the constituents can become unmanageable and irreconcilable. Many if not most people protesting against rising mortgage rates, energy bills, and the price of food are not natural leftists and indeed are outraged at becoming the victims of a regime of economic terror that they supported under Cameron, May, and Johnson. They do not view attacks against symbols of the state such as the monarchy, the armed forces, or the police as kindly as the younger, ecologically conscious constituents of these protests. Reconciling these antagonisms requires explicit politicisation in a democratic, mass organisation. Yet the hallmark of societies in advanced economies is political demobilisation.

Co-option of the labour movement is an under appreciated threat. By far the weakest link in this coalition that can be placated by a conservative Labour government. A few, choice pay rises to public sector employees by such a government, a loosening of the public purse to facilitate others in the public-private sector, and unions like the RMT will become islands of radicalism in the morass of bureaucracy that are British trade unions.

And then lastly, dissipation. Given enough time, protest movements run out of energy. Their organising leadership gets emotionally and physically burned out. They too have lives, families, and obligations. Protest movements are a besieging force that can be demoralised when facing an implacable, fortified foe during an extended winter with meagre rations. The Iraq War precipitated the largest protests in British history and yet failed to stop British participation in the invasion. How many multi-city coordinated marches will it be before turnouts start to dwindle and the passions of the speakers become flat?

The Labour Party, if it were so inclined, could try to consolidate these forces, bring them into the fold and co-ordinate both a political programme and extra-parliamentary strategy. It could swell its ranks and perhaps attempt to reconstitute the class composition of British society around a new vision of a just ecological transition. The same applies to the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP, in theory. Paradoxically these movements are forming in great part due to the failures of these very parties, each buried under their respective myopias and interests.

The impediments

The material factors for this revolutionary movement as yet unborn, though perhaps in gestation, are rooted in the historical dissolution of The Left in the period of the neoliberal counter-revolution and the consequences of the reconstitution of work itself within advanced economies. I have come to notice a pattern in left-wing groups and spaces that seems to replicate across countries. Participation in the radical left appears to be a hobby occupation for a group of dedicated adherents, drawn almost exclusively from undergraduates within the humanities and social sciences. It is akin to a monastic life.

At once, left-wing groups or organisations are horizontal and hierarchical. Time spent within the monastery is a tacit marker of seniority in addition to the degree of internal networking between existing members. New members, whenever they enter, are seen through a lens of fatalism and suspicion. Fatalism because it is a way to ward off the expected disappointment when the entrants leave through disinterest or lack of adequate commitment — something that impedes their integration in the first place — and suspicion because they may hold the potential to disrupt the existing hierarchy within the group. All this indicates to the collective trauma of defeats inflicted by the ruling class in near continuous succession for 40 years.

Wandering political souls looking for an outlet of political agency who come from an unconventional background into radical left groups ought to be swiftly mentored. They must be made to feel included both in terms of the work of the organisation to promote their sense of commitment, as well as the fostering of a sense of comradeship. Too often, I have felt culturally alien within an organisation and been left to simmer in the corner of rooms as other members socialise with long-standing participants. The cost in terms of lost ideas, lost organisational labour, and lost organisational growth in this manner can never be known. The root cause being that inclusion comes with time and commitment, something that an uninitiated person is most reticent to offer.

Leftists need to recalibrate their relationship to the organisations they participate in so that they do not transfigure themselves into closed social clubs. Institution-building is difficult, serious work and in the absence of both money and free time, constantly under encroachment in the neoliberal world of work, it is vital for those on the left to incorporate an organisational structure and practice that is self-perpetuating after an initial foundation by a core group of founders. But I have long felt that political organisations become fiefdoms governed by impenetrable cliques.

Lastly, in the industrialised world, the composition of work and life has been transformed and we have yet to discover an organisational form capable of responding to this. Global economic contestation has never been more intense with “emerging” market workforces now creating pressure on advanced market workforces. There is no settled and secure industrial working class. The services sector is where the majority of the working class now resides but it is a sector defined by its precarity and distributed nature.

Whereas, in much of the 19th and 20th century, workers were concentrated in factories and centres of production, now they are distributed often in cellular level networks in chains and franchises. Technologically facilitated piecework labour is exponentially growing and is racially segmented. Where workforces do exist in concentration such as warehouses or call centres the combination of precarity, rigorous policing, high turnover, and now increasingly dystopian surveillance silo workers even when they are numerous and proximate.

Parallel to this is the growth of the proletarianised university graduate, concentrated most sharply within the humanities and social sciences. In light of the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that radical left groups come to resemble the form taken by university political societies with all the attendant consequences. Unlike an Amazon warehouse, university campuses are useful incubators of political thought and organisation. Indeed, the academy has become a bastion of intellectual leadership for left politics alongside a nascent independent media ecosystem nurturing leftist currents.

But in the current set of conditions, the entirety of the organised radical left is to be drawn from the academia-media nexus. This furnishes the reactionary, red-brownist attacks from class reductionist commentators who make jibes about falafels, lattes, and avocados on toast. The kernel of truth underpinning these attacks is the absence of organisational synthesis between downwardly mobile, cosmopolitan middle-class milieus and the left-behind, culturally invisible milieus of deindustrialised towns and cities. Bridging this gap of communication and organisation will require a new model of organisation that is able to draw in participation outside of urban centres.

There are parallels here between the classic rural-urban divide. Political activity is most intense in urban centres but the ruling class often finds itself able to whip up a reactionary mass in its favour by exploiting the rural-urban antagonism. Successful political movements find a way to bridge this gap, often through the promise of land reform to empower the peasantry. Of course, the material conditions are quite different today in advanced economies but the residues of the old divides persist and demand solutions. Indeed, in Britain they take a sharper significance due to the nature of the electoral system. Far-right parties have filled the space which the left has struggled to occupy in its urban migration. Organisationally, these parties are active in smaller cities, towns, and villages, their feebleness in urban centres contrasting with their growing confidence in the geographical periphery.

The current upswing in activist energy and labour agitation are most welcome signs of life for the left. But signs of life are not signs of dynamism or power. Momentary optimism can quickly dissipate into a dazed despair. At the highest level, I contend that we need a new party that can at least fulfil some of the functions of the vanguard. This vanguard role itself is impeded by norms and practices within the radical left that are the result of four decades of political defeats and a total reconstitution of the labour market in the period of defeat. The social and demographic composition of the radical left has similarly been altered.

For the modern current of ecologically-focused, youth-driven, multi-racial protest movements to succeed it will be necessary to cohere them into a larger organisational framework that is democratic, explicit in its political ideology, and able to extend its activities beyond urban centres. Radical left political groups, social democratic parties, trade unions — any of them can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by facilitating this graduation. But this will require a sharpening of organisational and internal cultures that can channel the energies of new members that these movements might supply, helping them graduate into being the cadres of a vanguard party.



Ali Khan is a chemical engineering PhD student in Saxony, Germany. He has previously lived in Glasgow and studied at the University of Edinburgh, and strongly supports independence for Scotland.

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