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Richard Seymour: The problem of left unity

By Richard Seymour

August 28, 2012 -- Lenin's Tomb, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Richard Seymour's permission -- Dan Hind, enlivened by the Hellenic tumult, calls for a Coalition of the Radical Left in Britain. I love it. Of course I do. But isn’t it, to any rational observer, a perfectly silly idea?

Anyone who has spent much time listening to the British radical left these days would no more expect them to coalesce than they would expect grace, humility and talent from Gary Barlow. The latest rumble has been over Julian Assange, Wikileaks, US imperialism and the rape allegations, which has produced more mutual distrust and resentment on the left than I have seen for at least weeks. The disagreement seems to be between those who think the rape accusations against Assange have been politicised in order to facilitate his forward extradition to the US, and those who think Assange’s supporters have greatly exaggerated this risk in order to justify his refusal to go and face these allegations in Sweden.

This epic combat between imperialist stooges and rape apologists has made the disagreements over Syria look like frightfully civilised by comparison, and for sheer libidinised apoplectics almost approaches the clash of "very principled positions" over Tommy Sheridan. So, we’re going to have a Coalition of the Radical Left? Are we not, to the contrary, fucked? Have we not demonstrated that we are as weak and stalemated as the ruling class we oppose?

There is, however, a potentially comforting straw in the wind. After all, the Greek left is itself bitterly divided. Although unity has often been achieved in concrete struggles among networks of activists, the political forces are far from unified. This is a real handicap, but it has not prevented the emergence of Europe’s most promising radical left for more than three decades. Part of the reason that Syriza, despite its limited social basis, has been able to project such strong support electorally is its ecumenical approach to the left. Although it has never succeeded in winning over the support of rivals such as the Greek Communist Party, it has sought to position itself as a "canopy" for those forces to the left of social democracy. And in the elections, it proposed a united government of the left, with a resulting poll leap that astonished its leadership.

This suggests that if sections of the radical left can pull together and strike the right balance between heterogeneity and unity in action, the recalcitrance of other forces need not be a retardant to success. In a situation where, across Europe, the traditional parties of reform and social democracy are breaking down, there will be unusual opportunities for those radical leftists who come correct. They will be judged less by their proven social weight (in which terrain they can’t possibly hope to compete with social democracy), than by the seriousness of their intent and the ostensible practicality of their immediate proposals. (Notice how I’m tactfully leaving aside the jarring differences in the level of organisation and militancy, the persistent, near-insurgent level industrial and social struggles in Greece versus the staggered, uncertain, numerically impressive but tactically cautious responses of the British trade union movement? I’m just trying to protect you.)

But who on the British left would be up for this? And how would it be possible for us to overcome the accretions of suspicion and disdain from past disputes? Even granting that I might be exaggerating these a bit, they do exist and they are an obstacle. Perhaps part of the answer is to think anew about how we handle our differences. Here I'm talking just about the level of political culture, not institutions. Having been through several acrimonious moments, including the car crash that was the break-up of the Respect coalition, I think I have participated in enough sectarian bullshit and petty denunciations to know the dimensions of the problem we have here.

I think we have three related issues. First, regardless of protestations to the contrary, we sometimes do treat difference as betrayal. Second, we occasionally forget to subordinate divisions among ourselves to those in the wider society. Third, for all that we are practical types, we often forget that our arguments should be oriented toward political action in some way.

Let me take each of these in turn.

First, it’s clear that differences over concrete questions such as the Assange issue or Syria don’t necessarily reflect a logic of betrayal. One’s interlocutor may not, in fact, be an imperialist stooge or a rape apologist. There are plenty of both about, and posing the question of left unity always raises the sub-question: on what basis? Surely not on the basis of keeping schtum when another leftist does or says something destructive? Naturally, no. There is no question of politeness in the face of attack. But where there’s any doubt, it would be helpful to assume good faith. Nor are the differences between leftists merely capricious. Serious political differences reflect judgement calls based on specific historical experiences. At a certain level, these questions are not resolved by logic or empirical data, but by what is commonly called "gut instinct". This just refers to the way in which people from different political traditions reflecting different experiences tend to solve questions whose answer is indeterminate.

The most interesting writing on both of the subjects I mentioned has been that which has tried, with different emphases, to transcend these specific experiences and point to the underlying unity of apparently counterposed priorities: democratic revolution vs anti-imperialism; feminism vs anti-imperialism. The least interesting interventions have simply reproduced the polarising tendencies that are amplified through social media like Twitter, where snark and self-righteous sentiment-mongering is the currency of interaction. (Imagine being stuck in a room with a bunch of intelligent people who nonetheless constantly trademark their mundane thoughts with a hash tag, or over-value expressions such as "roflcopter", "lmfao", "wtaf", "zomg" and "step away from the internet". Then imagine they won’t shut up, ever. Then imagine you’re one of those people.)

Second, it seems to me that the most destructive invective flying about on the left has always been incredibly insular, insensible of how these arguments relate to the discussions taking place beyond the left. We should by no means be wary of giving the impression that we have substantial disagreements and lively debates. Nor should we scruple to criticise our allies if need be. But we should certainly avoid giving the impression that we’re paying no attention to what is going on around us, or that the outcome of internecine feuds actually matters more than the outcome of social and political struggles.

Finally, such venom is all too often not oriented toward doing or achieving anything concrete, but rather has to do with posturing, spectacle-positioning: we who are virtuous say "down with this sort of thing (careful now)". One way of testing for this is to ask what, concretely, mutual denunciations are supposed to achieve apart from mutual dissipation and disorganisation? Or, which of the contending "very principled positions" are actually being advanced? If the answer is, "actually none", then there's possibly a problem.

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