Momentum halted?

WARNING: This was written when tired, and is probably confused as hell.

Momentum. Technically a member, though mostly this is in the hope of finding people who overlap with Open Labour and maybe a bit for the debate. I got scared off organisationally by the removal of an innocuous non-violence clause at the start, and dipped my toe personally about a year or so ago. There are plenty of well motivated and clever people and much potential for good in the organisation. There are also some real shits. And where the good and bad are in operation, they are often followed by the ugly, so it’s said.

I do find that one really frustrating aspect of Momentum is a kind of smiley optimism that pretends there are no internal contradictions and no challenges even though that’s the whole joke, and everybody knows. Socialism will win, Jeremy is more popular than ever, we are strong and beloved, yadda yadda. Please keep the curtains closed, comrade.

Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose…
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Open Labour 2020 – my manifesto

It’s extremely difficult to get across political points in a couple of hundred words, and more difficult to do it with any finesse, so this is clunky – my apologies for that.

My manifesto is as below:

In 2019-20 we have become more sustainable, recruited exciting new members, and set the terms. Since becoming co-chair in 2015 and working with all of you since, we have risen from 59 supporters to over 1000 strong. Our platform – left economics and internationalism, an open and cooperative way of doing democracy, and political realism – came to dominate the leadership elections.

Political priorities

  • Support the leadership where we can but criticise where we must; press for Keir’s “10 pledges”
  • Become a bridge to take liberation politics into the mainstream of national opinion
  • Labour’s political culture: boost internal debate, democracy & collaboration
  • Fight for a Brexit policy that ensures green jobs, migrant & human rights; press for global democratic alternatives to globalised capitalism.
  • Ally ourselves with friendly voices in the labour movement & radical left
  • Champion greater clarity and simplicity in our comms, & move on from the framing of ‘soft left’.

Organising priorities 

  • Expand national/regional groups, louder and more organised in CLPs. Build visibility & consistency with a paid organiser.
  • Boost participation from under-represented groups, work with other organisations to develop & profile OL activists
  • Formalise relationships with trade unions
  • Become a debate platform, support the summer school and public discussion groups

Vote Tom Miller #1!

Something to be proud of

All things being fair, today is the day that Open Labour should pass 1000 members. To mark that I’m allowing myself a self-indulgent post.

When people says you don’t exist or don’t matter, you show them that you do, even if this is the hard route. When you can’t rely on financial backing etc, if you have good people that you can rely on, then you come together and build it yourselves.

I’m missing a lot of people who were there from the start of it, and there is still a lot of work to do, to clarify the politics and adapt it to post-2020, and to get more organised in CLPs and trade unions. I hope everyone running for the internal elections gets how those things need to go big, at this point.

But I’m very proud of what OL has become and where it is going.

I’m proud of how it has stuck to its guns.

OL has kept fighting for democratic reform as part of socialist reform. It has stood by left pluralism and the fact that vibrant democracy means diversity and a right to be inclusion and respect. It hasn’t conceded to constant demands to dump its own independence, it hasn’t yielded to centralised top-down leftism and the call to dump open politics, or to demands to shift to Labour right and dump transformative ideas. It has fought for international responses to global capital. It has become nobody’s hobby horse or personal platform, and it follows its membership consistently.

To me, refusal to bend on these things makes us less ‘soft’ or ‘wet’ than most of the other factions, where the arguments change with the winds.

In a lot of ways, our politics has come to heavily influence some of the other traditions. I hope we can make our basic principles inescapable ones.

Most of all with OL, I am proud of some of the excellent people who have joined it on its way! They are all we have – and how fortunate that is for us.

Why is Becky losing, and how can she win?

Many people choose to approach leadership elections by setting down their own preferences and prejudices. I’m as vulnerable to that as anybody else, but I’m lucky to be in a contest where everyone remaining in the race now has some level of overlap with my politics.

I am probably voting for Lisa Nandy but I certainly haven’t made my mind up yet. Whoever I back personally, I’m trying to look at the contest dispassionately, give people a chance, and see objectively what campaigns are doing right or wrong.

Most interesting of all of them is the RLB campaign. It has of course been a very tough few weeks for the Corbynite left, which seems split on how to react to the election defeat (take some of the blame, or try to hand it all over to pro-Europeans who make up most of Labour and Corbyn’s membership base).

This splitting, and the non-viability of the latter position, have not helped Long-Bailey, who wants to make a far more positive proposition for herself than blaming a load of other people for Labour losing. A wise stance.

However, the RLB campaign is weird and seems to not know what has shifted opinion wise, or what it needs to offer members.

People are tired of the aggression in factionalism pretty much foremost, and feel this has contributed heavily towards us losing. This key change in mood seems to be getting completely missed, and there are a few examples.

Firstly online supporters seem to have reflexively gone straight into attack mode against everyone else. This worked in 2016 because there were two candidates and because people hadn’t seen what it would lead to if it became standard. But it’s not working now – RLB needs to win transfers, but some of her supporters are campaigning as if the priority is to push people away. Nobody from top to bottom seems to clock this as a problem, but people are now in much more of a mood to explore where we overlap and what we have in common.

Secondly, the open selections bit seems to be another manifestation of putting factional stuff before how we appear to the country – and I say that as someone who believes it is both good and necessary. It also seems like more of a debate for members than leaders and potentially drags down the candidate again.

It definitely doesn’t look good when tonnes of our seats at the last election were effectively stitched up by Momentum backed parts of the party bureaucracy and many CLPs were deliberately denied a vote.

To many, it doesn’t look like this part of the party is consistently democratic at all. This is the opposite of how people felt in 2015.

It certainly does not look like the traditional left is concerned any longer wish offering a level playing field to all. Even to many Momentum members, it looks like the trad left is only interested in democracy as its own instrument.

Thirdly, the concentration on democratic reform of the Lords is good, but it’s a bit partial and again it’s hard to see how this addresses the question of how we win (though all campaigns are a bit guilty of this).

Last and perhaps more importantly, many members have continued to have a traumatic and torrid experience in the party over recent years, as was also true under the right. Large amounts of this have been due to a highly factionalised admin arrangement which has also been perceived to lack perspective and professionalism, and not just by those outside it, as John McDonnell and Andrew Fisher may agree.

People are very keen to see a break with this. It is assumed that any sensible candidate would do, but as the candidate backed by the establishment faction, Long-Bailey is the only person who can gain voters by agreeing with the need for this and showing how it will work. It hasn’t been addressed at all.

All of the issues I’ve mentioned above have been key points that my part of the party, Open Labour and the broader ‘soft left’, have been diagnosing for some years, usually with a completely ‘deaf ears’ reaction from the traditional left. We have built a small but punchy movement around these ideas, which remains far far smaller than Momentum, which came from Corbyn’s 2015 supporter list and rests on a massive logistical advantage from that time.

The analyses offered by the party right have not really gripped members imagination, by the problem faced but the RLB campaign is that the soft left critique is widely seen by members to be thoroughly evidenced, and to identify the key issues which need to change – even though our actual formation is fairly small.

Starmer, Nandy and Thornberry are all speaking to these concerns and getting heavy feedback from members about them.

On the face of it, given who joined Labour in 2015 and 2016, and the respective levels of organisation, it is puzzling that the RLB campaign is not smashing this election.

It has huge logistical and financial advantages because of the mountain of contact details and general election fundraising cash which Momentum is sitting on. The rules have also been designed around Momentum slate members on the NEC, who managed to out-maneuvre some trade union and elected rep delegates on issues such as timetabling and rules.

But so far the campaign has used these advantages as inefficiently as possible by failing to understand how to get the politics right, and what conclusions our members have drawn about he last few years.

As the general election has shown, sending out armies of thousands of activists and spending loads on adverts does not particularly help if they are all armed with blanks, duds and bad detonators. You just deliver more of the wrong arguments.

The political content of elections matters vastly, and the arrogance of thinking you can simply mobilise your way out of political dead ends (especially without political flexibility or segmentation) is a big part of what got us in a leadership contest in the first place.

This leaves the questions very clear for the RLB campaign, which needs more votes and in particular a greater rate of transfers from other candidates. if they are asked, Becky can still win.

Is the campaign addressing why Labour lost, and is it really credible or popular to try to pin it all on Europe?

What can we do to win, and who has a place in making that happen? What is our potential majority coalition?

What is it that Labour members see as needing to change?

Does this differ between current RLB supporters and those she wants to bring on board, or to transfer to her?

What has been bad for the experience of being a member, or bad for public perception in the last few years?

What do people currently see as the downsides of her candidacy and can she show leadership in neutralising these, as for example Lisa Nandy has over free movement?

RLBs big challenge should be how to make socialism a majority project – answering the tough question that Corbynism lacked the self confidence to take on.

But it could only win an argument for this with considerably more of Labour’s own membership comfortably on board. So far the camapaign is behind on this, with neither grassroots or coordinating supporters showing that they ‘get it’.

A good campaign should always employ the advice of a few critics. from the outside, it seems to me that all of the contenders have been serious about doing this so far, apart from the one with the greatest starting advantage. The campaign seems tone deaf and unwilling to make offers outside of its core. Plus ca change! We will see if that turns around.

I bear no ill will and I’m not really writing this to slate anyone. I may be left eating my own words. Christ, I’m used to them being discarded over the last few years anyway.

I hope that some of the above is useful for those supporting Becky in thinking about what they need to do to win trust or admiration from sceptical members, the vast bulk of whom remain some way left of New Labour. You should be looking for support from people like me.

A win for RLB is still very much possible, but it means thinking a lot more deeply and honestly than has been done so far.

Latin America – the need for an open left

On reading a recent Guardian article I was struck by the admission of the former President of Brazil, Lula da Silva, that his friend and ally Evo Morales had been wrong to run for a third term in office, something which stretches the norm in Bolivia.

Lula da Silva

I disagree in principle with term limits for elected people – voters should get who they want to vote for, is how I see it. But that does also rather depend on healthy environments inside political parties, which I suppose is part of the logic for Latin America. There has also been much talk of polling irregularities in Bolivia, hinging on an OAS report. The report itself seems to rest on analysis which points to suspicious outcomes for framework reasons, but is light on actual evidence. At the very least however, the state has failed to provide for the transparency of process necessary to free itself of such allegations.

Together these have provided the pretext to a right wing military coup, which must be condemned without reservation and opposed by anyone with any interest in political activists not being suppressed and murdered.

But this does not mean the left hasn’t fallen into a trap. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Latin American left approaches since the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua has been the willingness of movements to abide by multi-party democratic elections, which now seems to be a stated policy for the left continent wide, except perhaps in Cuba. This was also a fundamental tenant of Chavismo, and has been a condition to making social reform possible on a massive scale across the whole continent. The issue here is seeing that principle relegated in importance.

It’s healthy to see a pink tide leader, unfairly imprisoned and his own movement deposed undemocratically, still feeling able to articulate himself with a bit of nuance about his own friends. If he is able to do this in the face of the crypto-fascist/evangelical alliance running his country, so can those of us more distant from Latin America’s situation.

There is a big conference about the Latin American left in London today. It will be interesting to see how much talk there is about how the left there can be better at avoiding screwing up. The fascist enemies of the left are still powerful in Latin America and are morally responsible for their own acts, but it still doesn’t help the left to step into traps.

Uncritical support is often the most useless kind, and is simply laughed at by most of the people who aren’t already on your side. We need to support socialists worldwide in a way which offers perspective from our own position, and can help to plot a way forward. In short, we have to have a conversation about what makes the left still vulnerable to open social conflict and stops its development as a hegemon in democracies which are overwhelmingly working class and less well off. But sometimes it seems that as an international left we do make this as hard for ourselves as possible.

For me the obvious barrier is an inability to take stock and re-assess. This has had particular negative implications in parts of Latin America for both the constitutional and economic policy of the state, knocking on to real people’s lives and choices.

Like in much of the world, the Latin American left is often affected by a closed style of political culture that’s all about blankly support this or oppose that. There is too scant attention paid to the debates that actually need to be had on policy or strategy, and minimal confidence in activists and voters to lead and participate from below.

There is a need for ‘socialist democracy’ within any serious left movement globally. I guess the point I am trying to make is that this quickly degrades unless structures and cultures are aligned to encourage ‘open politics’ as a part of this; otherwise we are all cogs but no oil.

Populism is not necessarily bad, but the particular problems of centralism, bureaucracy and ‘big personality’ are now a worldwide issue in socialist political culture. They stop our movements adapting before they break, limit participation, and make us narrow. They have got to be challenged and overcome, and to do that, we need to recognise them as political in nature. There will be no renewal for the Latin left without this – something the rest of us can also learn from.

We need to be clear that normal people are as capable of being able ‘intellectuals’ and leaders as power brokers or academics or politicians. That’s what the left needs to be about.

On the hitting of children

I’m not a parent, but I was once a child, as I understand quite a lot of us are at some point. Some parents will have a different point of view on this, which I respect. But I’m entitled to mine.

The banning of smacking is something I can’t help but support. People think a lot about kids as being ‘theirs’, but the truth is that kids, like the rest of us, are people who belong to themselves. sure, often they don’t understand the world they are in or the consequences of their actions. But in my view, hitting them teaches fear of the parent, and still does not educate them.

Pretty much the only reasonable excuse for even controlled violence is the defence of yourself, or another person.

There’s no clear legal line between what kinds of violence are ‘reasonable’ or not, and what seems reasonable to a parent often ends up completely crossing the line. Sometimes again and again. And who can a child speak to about that? How can they deal with it themselves? Can you really move beyond it, even in adulthood?

Abuse rarely starts with abuse and this is the gateway drug for people who can’t control themselves. Parents need to be able to use other methods to control their kids, and sometimes, to come to peace with the idea that kids can’t be controlled.

That’s better than letting the law be set up in a way that allows children to be hurt – physically or psychologically. Let’s end the acceptability of corporal punishment in our homes.

After the party

I’ve seen quite a few friends (and opponents) leaving the party over the last day or so, generally people who have a more anti-Corbyn or party right perspective than me. On a personal level, it’s really sad to see.

Their legit complaints about anti-Semitism, majoritarian bullying and so forth should have been listened to long ago.

I don’t want anyone to leave, and I think us having developed a traditionalist left which can’t tolerate any level of success for any other part of the Party, but which also effectively has a power monopoly going forward, has made that very difficult.

But why be selective? I also want people from a broadly ‘Blairite’ perspective to have a clear understanding that they’ve also contributed to getting us here.

Their politics are a form of Labour and deserve some sort of future. However, the folks at Progress alongside their journo and PLP allies gambled very hard and lost. They lost because they mischaracterised the left as invalid, badly organised, and with some irony, as without any social weight. They also lost because they overrated their own public appeal and lacked humbleness.

They had gambled over allowing random members of the public to vote for our leaders, and over the 2016 leadership election – a terrible play which dragged other parts of the party in even if they thought it was a crap idea. And it was.

If ‘third way politics’ had its day again in public opinion, they still couldn’t get it through the Labour Party firstly because it is now effectively locked, and secondly because there is no bridge between their politics and the rest of social democracy. I can understand why they feel there’s not really any hope here for what they believe. It’s like when they lost, all avenues to ever winning again were shut down.

I don’t want the same sort of party that Blairites do, straight up. I identify more with the policies of the left, and I am more happy with a member and union led party even when I disagree with fellow members.

But it’s sad to see many of these people leaving, because these people have dedicated big parts of their lives to the party and lost any connection to it, because some bits of sense they have talked have been ignored, and because we do need Nuneaton et al to vote for any type of Labour Party, whoever leads it.

Most powerful of all the factors from my point of view is the knowledge that people like me have absolutely no power or influence to fix this. Unless you are an insider who comes from a Momentum or trad left perspective, you’re in a minority that can’t nudge anyone to listen to you. Like Progress, I also can’t make it politically necessary for anyone to give a shit what I think as a member, because I don’t have 70,000 people on a factional mailing list.

Given that much of the Momentum left is emotionally motivated by blindly returning the trauma and caprice all of us from the broad left felt in the Blair years, and that nobody *has* to listen to people from different factions any more, all I can really do is hope that some of those members who do still matter are big enough to rise above the cycle, and listen just for a moment to what I’m saying here. Your voice still counts as a member where mine does not, so please pause for a second. So I guess this feels pathetic as well as sad. How uplifting for us all.

Brexit: voters deserve honesty

The worst line on the Brexit negotiating strategy is one shared by most Tories (including their front bench) and many lexiters.

This is the idea that we can have everything we want whilst accepting nothing our negotiating partners want.

We are in a process with at least two points of view involved, in which we have fewer cards to play because of our smaller economy and its level of dependency on trade and selling services.

1) Like us, the EU will act in their material interests rather than to give us a hand for no reason.

2) This means only mutually acceptable solutions or situations which come close can avoid us (or potentially both parties) ending up worse off.

3) The main difference is the power imbalance, as the EU economy is far larger and more diverse than ours, so we are down on leverage. It is in our interest therefore to lead the negotiation with constructive suggestions. Which means we need a model they may accept. Which probably means the four freedoms, in one form or another. This doesn’t have to mean losing all political influence, as it would potentially mean a new treaty.

If you want to honour the vote and this is not the strategy you prefer, it is better to just say you want out in all ways and will accept the costs imposed to industry as supply lines are broken, or trade becomes uncertain, and employment gaps begin to emerge.

If you want to honour the vote but aren’t happy with big costs and competitive disadvantage to British industry, it is much more honest to say you want out of the EU but will take a realistic economic solution than it is to make one up yourself which we all know is unlikely to succeed.

It’s high time people in Labour were more honest about this. The public get that we face a choice if we go ahead.

Show me an honest man, and I’ll show you a fool...
Show me an honest man, and I’ll show you a fool…

Enough voters are persuadable over soft Brexit models, especially with working examples, and it’s by far more likely to be better for Britain and industrial workers in particular. Like Labour’s struggle with the Thatcherite consensus, we also know that it will be impossible to win people over without making the argument. And if we were being more honest about what’s acceptable to both parties, it’s the argument we would have to make.

If leaving the EU, the ballot paper question, means Turkey or Norway are out as examples, those countries should by all rights be sending MEPs to Brussels. They are self-evidently not EU members and have a purely economic and cultural relationship. The fact this simple point is not made is also because of a vacuum left where Labour should be – at the front.

On a side note, the approach Labour are taking of mandating a government negotiating strategy by statute is a very strange one. It reminds me of the Brown years and the push at the time to simply make climate change and child poverty illegal. Again, we all know that this is not how negotiations work. As a party we are at risk of being seen to piss people about. In my mind at least, always better to just tell a difficult truth.

Right now looking at all of the major political parties I’m reminded of a story about the Cynic philosopher Diogenes. When asked why he was stalking Athens in an agitated fashion, never putting down his lamp despite the abundant sunlight, he replied that he was looking for something perhaps impossible to find: an honest man. Read anyone of note discussing Brexit strategy, and awareness sets in; the disillusion washes over. Soon, the lamp will run out of oil.

The Labour right and how it got here

I’ve recently read this Jacobin article about the Labour right and its history, which is a good left critique, though it doesn’t dip too much into some of the bigger differences on issues of policy. That’s actually a welcome departure, as much material assessing the various splits of opinion between Labour’s traditions of thought and organisation seem to concentrate exclusively on that. As important as policy can be, it’s more important in my view that we talk about politics in terms of social and political forces, and in terms of schools of thought.

The reason I say this is that most of Labour’s membership is new, and in my experience a tremendous amount of it is very opinionated about Labour and its history, whilst simultaneously unengaged with it and thus very badly educated. I think in terms of bringing together the Labour Party of 2025, it is vital that this situation turns around, and that new members in particular have a better understanding of (and greater respect for) what they have joined.

Another key thing of interest for ten years hence will be the right of the party and where it goes. God knows, those of us coming from an Open Labour perspective have plenty of problems of our own, mostly to do with a lack of finance and organisation impeding our ability to speak out and organise. But I can write about that another time.

I have a lot of respect for the Labour right, and particularly the older social democratic right, very much along the lines of the Jacobin article. Even the Blairites are responsible for some big gains for working class people, and I prefer their lines on constitutional reform and Europe to those of the old right. In other words, both have had things to offer, and as a stronger socialist myself, as long as I am not denied mine, both have a place in my party. But they are difficult neighbours, and my god, they are bad at taking care of themselves.

A lot of the Labour right can be highly invested in anti-intellectual ‘get on the doorstep’ ‘practical’ type culture (what Marxists loosely term ‘workerism‘, in a social democratic sense). In my view this is based on a stereotyping of working people as not engaged in debate and as uneducated, which is bollocks, but that’s also an argument for another day. What it means is that only some strands of thought on Labour’s right flank are into thinking, mostly around Progress and the Fabians. Even then, it seems that introspection is particularly steered around.

Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s good to learn and develop, good to know yourself. But I think that’s particularly true when you are in the shit.

The party right often make it very difficult to have any sympathy with them, basically because both of its wings seem very set on not evolving. Labour first has made big strands in making a jump from being a semi-secret organisation into the open light, and started organising, which is commendable. They are ahead of us in the soft left and have raised money for it well. But it’s a bit cosmetic, and the numbers are very simple, and if we are to have a Labour party which represents a broad spectrum of democratic left opinion rather than two separate poles, then it’s the right which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on trust building, and the left which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on tolerance and inclusion. For the right in particular, there is no other way forward.

The problem is, they don’t see it this way at all. The solution is always to escalate conflict and never to evolve, coexist or compromise. When the numbers aren’t there, change the rules, boot someone, administrate the problem away. I say when you are outnumbered, escalating big open conflicts is exactly what you want to avoid – it’s a trap. And don’t bother thinking you will rescue everything with some NEC vote, because you’re still ignoring the numbers problem and your dying roots as it gets worse for you.

What holds both parts of the party right back is about both attitudes and policies. Their approach to both of these issues has built a long and slow burning anger which has massively helped the left to organise. As someone who experienced this for a long time as a party left, for over a decade pre-Corbyn, I have to say I think attitudes has been by far the biggest thing. One of Open Labour’s members, Charlie Mansell, has identified some very clear points about some massive historic own goals racked up by the Labour right whilst in office, which have effectively destroyed any trust in them.

– “Intensely comfortable”
– “You have nowhere else to go, you must back us”
– “You have to support everything that you feel is totally contrary to you values”

These are all messages those of us in the left or centre of Labour had to soak up for years. If you’re not one of the people on the recieving end, perhaps ponder for a moment how that feels?

I’ll add in some of my own:
– “Outvote us and we’ll ignore  you, or abolish this”
– “Unions. Vested interests.”
– “Politics is about MPs and media, not you or your life”
– “Party members should deliver our leaflets but don’t actually matter”

Most of these are a bourgeois way of saying ‘fuck you’. To even bother implying them in a magazine or from a platform is an insult to intelligence.

This is was sometimes done to deliberately provoke a reaction, which not only tells us that nurses and checkout staff are to be used as pawns in stupid speeches, but more importantly what the emotional climate has been like between people who identify with factions or schools of thought inside Labour.

Taken together, the attitudes above and their replication in GCs across the country gives a picture of a wider macho political culture, and a right in power which acted a bit like an abusive partner. If you were outside them, they still wanted rights to what your labours and affections, but the condition was that they wanted total control over you, would never acknowledge your concerns or motivations, and wouldn’t under any circumstances give back what you put in.

These outlooks and behaviours on the Labour right were (and continue to be) the most potent mobiliser of people on both the soft left and the hard left of the party. If you’ve bought into them before, bury them now. For years such interventions have bound a lot of people from the dead centre of the party spectrum to the same critique as the broad left – they are unifying points, because simply put, nobody likes a bastard.

Miliband voters came from the centre right through to the hard left, and were able to organise behind the same change of direction. This radicalised significantly in 2015 as austerity tightened, and despite the bleatings of some of the right that Ed was to blame, I can say with confidence that 9/10ths of Corbyn’s success in internal politics was actually caused indirectly by them. Even a substantial number of people who voted for David Miliband then voted for Corbyn. But two years on, I have seen incredibly few attempts to actually deal with this – it seems to only happen at Labour Vision.

The Labour right is in a dodgy state politically. There are obviously strategic and policy goals to work out. You need to get organised, but what for? What do you want the country to look like? What do you expect from the Labour Party? What do you positively offer to either of them? How will you win enough people over, and who the hell are they?

But it’s about behaviours more than beliefs.

It’s simply a mathematical and historic fact to say that you have no alternative to a total rethink regarding attitudes and political culture. Personally speaking, I think policy can wait. It starts with respecting people who differ from you – remembering that they also need to trust, and that they are also politically diverse. How you get to that position will be everything.

I was a teenage communist

The 100 year anniversary of the October revolution is a strange one for someone who developed their political opinions as a Communist. I remember learning about the revolution in school and, unlike almost all of my classmates, being totally inspired. Though I never joined any Communist party, by late teenage years I was fully signed up on the revolution and the great historical movement I felt it represented. Though I suppose at that age, and particularly as someone who was very much into the punk scene, I was never going to pledge my loyalty to someone else’s views. Which is funny – I routinely have to do this as a Labour Councillor. Which feels a lot safer.

At 32 now, I am just about old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse. But to someone ten years older than me, the idea that ‘any system which had to wall people in must be a bit fucked’ would have been a lot more obvious. Instead my only concentration was really on the failures of various types of conservative thinking. At 16 I was not formed, but I grew up in the North East, a proud but badly hit part of the world. With my family had I moved to Woking at a couple of years beforehand, and I had said goodbye to that part of the world.

As well as disliking aristocracy and hating Fascist-like-stuff, I disliked how unequally people had been treated between and within parts of my own country, and I was decidedly anti-capitalist.

I couldn’t get my head around how people in a single lifetime could accumulate thousands of times more stuff, thousands of times more power over others, or such a greater opportunity to do well in life than someone else. I also couldn’t get why it was ever right for those things to be inherited if it was about working for it. I couldn’t justify how ancient traditions or polite legalities justified any of it. Whether times were good or bad, it couldn’t be meritocratic and it didn’t give people a chance. It certainly hadn’t in 90s Newcastle, and that was pretty clear all round.

So I knew what I was against. The gaps filled quickly.

To me at 16, the October revolution represented the death of a system which literally starved millions in order to preserve class privilege – a system which had to be dragged kicking and screaming even to abandon serfdom, the practice of tying peasants to land as a form of indentured servitude.

It also represented the birth in the largest country in the world of a new social and economic class that most of us now simply recognise as ‘normal people’ – people who work for a living. For most of the revolutionary process, these people had been joined with middle-class liberal business owners and professionals in a struggle to overthrow a regime which hadn’t even allowed free speech or elections.

When the ‘progressive middle classes’ used this platform to continue to force starvation wages and conscription for a murderous and needless world war, it was clear that only a different type of democracy could triumph – these people too had become oppressors and defenders of something profoundly backwards.

But the new democracy never really came to be – again, the people who captured the state put their own protection first.

Realising this critique of the early soviet years and the direction it led to under Stalin gave me an interest in Trotskyism, but again the sects behind this line of thinking seemed even weirder and more out of touch than the official Communists, who themselves were totally out of touch with working class people’s lives and opinions – and modern history.

Despite the value in some of the left press’s reporting, you couldn’t even make arguments from the Morning Star in most pubs without getting the piss ripped out of you, let alone something from Socialist Appeal or Solidarity. Turns out loads of the publishing sects have covered up rape or sexual abuse too, which is obviously down to vile individuals, but facilitated by the secretive political cultures and power structures which would not have been alien to the Russian emigre exiles of the 1910s.

The revolution did lead to some clear historical victories, to the benefit of liberal democracies as well as for Communists. It is no coincidence that voters in liberal countries strongly favoured Communism over fascism before WWII, nor that this trend continues in modern Britain, even expressing itself among Tory voters.

It’s worth wondering, without the Bolsheviks, whether the revolution could have survived – would any of the other parties have managed to protect it against the well organised and financed White Russians, or their international allies including Britain, 14 of whom invaded the country?

Consequently, would Hitler would have been defeated with no USSR, no partisans? Would Fascism have taken over Europe before then with no Spanish volunteers? Would social democracy would have succeeded in the post-war West? Would China would have remained a feudal society, and would the imperial subjects of the world now be free from colonial rule? All of these look unlikely.

We can wonder whether we would have gone to space. Remembering in particular that long before Stalin banned homosexuality, it had been legalised under Lenin… that the Male pale and stale USSR financed anti-racist and anti-colonial projects around the world, and mandated workplace equality for women… we also have to wonder whether feminists, black activists and LGBT people would have had a tougher struggle without being able to point to these examples.


Most fundamentally of all, the USSR collapsed, and for good reasons, some of which took decades to play out. The truth became fiction in what passed for political debate. Famines, judicial murder and mass killings spent a couple of decades becoming normalised, before being buried by the secret state, backed up by waves of surveillance and censorship. The country along with its vassals and allies fell victim to the economic and cultural stagnation inherent to statist centralism. People overall felt they had no control over the system or stake in it. And on all levels, it eventually collapsed in.

In doing so, it destroyed Soviet countries societies and economies, and discredited the whole left internationally for at least 3 decades – something which had sold itself as the biggest step forward left us only with the biggest step back. A true believer will always blame the wolves of the West for post-Soviet hardship and the drubbing of the wider left – and then politely rub their hands when you point out it was their system which collapsed, or which mutated before, yes – collapsing.

This is something I’m glad to have recognised by the time I turn 20 – I know quite a few for whom this didn’t really register.

So many of the drawbacks and costs of the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik legacy were totally unnecessary, even in the conditions of its under-developed civil society and economy, and some powerful external threats. Basic civil rights, aspects of multi-party democracy, and some level of economic autonomy were all things which could have been afforded without placing the gains of the October revolution in danger. It was not external threats which brought down the Soviet Union, but its own internal contradictions and the fact that so few people ended up left with much to support about it continuing. After all, they had been shut out from governing or steering it for decades.

At the end of the day, it’s better when anyone in power has to have majority opinion on side, even if it means limits and compromises. For the left it is an essential.

By this time I realised this I’d also had a near miss in a workplace safety incident and I joined a union not long after. I started to think about politics in terms of mainstream beliefs and every day life. The Iraq war was now raging without much justification, and thousands of civilians were needlessly dying. Real world shit.

My increasing distance from Communism and ‘abstract academic politics’ generally was settled by my second year of uni, and unlike many who left over Iraq, the war meant that I felt a burning need to get into Labour and turn it around.

I see nothing wrong with political intellectuals, but ‘adult me’ only really sees a point in that when it is realistic and applied. People need reasons but ultimately what you do matters more than what you think or say. As the years went, I stopped even caring about foreign policy as much, compared to what I know I can affect closer to home.

But, 1917 swirls around us. There are those in politics who are unable to imagine a left not based in some kind of past experiences, especially in an era which has been a bit uncontested and boring, in which our opponents have dominated even our own movement. But unless checked with an ear for real lived experiences, this outlook can make it difficult to tell past failures failures from successes, or to engage with how political and economic forces have changed or re-aligned.

Ironically, this kind of ‘trad left’ disposition was part of what drove the latter years of Soviet failure. Whilst ‘horseshoe theory’ is bollocks (and an aid to both the alt-right and Holocaust revisionists), there is no need to base any modern political outlook on Soviet templates, nor to deny Soviet crimes, or try to find prestige in its widely discredited name. Outside of the far left, there isn’t any.

The democratic left allying with Communists has been important to past campaigns, from the Bevanites supporting the Spanish Republican war drive through to anti-Apartheid and the Poll Tax. But whilst it’s useful to strike together, there is only cost without benefit when it comes to sharing a marching banner. As memory of the Soviet Union fades with its shit cars, bans on rock music and its elderly male wardens, nostalgia or apologetics are no more useful, but they are asserted with growing confidence.

And sure, the soviet system had progressive achievements, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this (as I have above). But so did Victorian capitalism. Who cares? The point is that it is not a useful blueprint.

Some of the USSR’s problems and flaws were only fully apparent by the late 1960s or mid 70s, but all of them had common roots in 1917, which removed the need for participation or popular consent, both of which were actively suppressed by the mid-1920s. For socialists living in modern western-style democracies the long-burn lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse (and how some of us reacted) should seem obvious.

  • There’s no point in a left which isn’t about winning or majority support, or which depends on shutting down basic freedoms.
  • Mainstream class politics with wide backing trumps small sects and cults – rarely indeed do the two meet.
  • Debates within the left should be honest, open and transparent. Internal politics should be seriously contested.
  • The broad left itself is a coalition of different voices and class forces. Usually they can coexist, and when politically diverse parts of the left and centre-left have reason to throw their lot together with organised workers, the common project is stronger.
  • Not everything in politics is about the economic base even for many Marxists. We’ve evolved a complex and political culture as well as a very politically and economically diverse class system. People expect outreach and participation.
  • Groups are oppressed in capitalism for reasons not directly about class.
  • The right dominates culture, and we must challenge this to win any control.
  • We can’t run an economy without international trade or demand-led production, or people have no stake in economic success. It will rely on inflation, and then shut down as quick as a Cuban railway system. Nor can we capitulate to the right as many 90s centre-lefts did, outsourcing politics to market competition, when private interests also don’t give people a stake in success, especially when private productivity stalls, we lack national leadership and we have weak unions . This is really the key point behind the modern left’s existence, but tensions with the need for global trade define our challenges.
  • Public good trumps private good. But political systems need reasons to act accordingly. Public ownership needs to have tangible benefits for control and reward to workers and customers, as well as having a strategic role for the state. Without these, we might as well let someone else take financial risks, private or mutual, and mitigate resulting social risks. Likewise, one of the early successes of the USSR was the NEP. Makes sense. Centralist production in the USSR often failed to meet basic need and fell over completely when consumer goods were needed. Does anyone really need nationalised rationing of telephone handsets?
  • Art, science, journalism, politics. Let people express themselves.
  • Modernity and fluidity fights stagnation and has intrinsic value, not least in the era of global warming, ageing societies, and mass migration. Stagnant politics which resists change is bad news for humans. Ease up and don’t create brittle political systems. If they are popular enough to defend, and can also adapt, they will survive.
  • Our international alliances should encourage peace as a primary goal, but let’s demand policies of economic and social liberation from our allies instead of ‘uncritical support’ type ‘anti-imperialism’. The Cold War set low standards for everyone involved and meant that internationalism for the Svoiet state was not always about greater autonomy for working people. Why continue?
  • We need to organise ourselves, find allies, and be rooted in the present.

These opinions are as compatible with much of Marxism as they are with social democracy and the centre left. There is no reason not to share a basic platform, when it comes to learning from Soviet shortcomings. But admittedly, they have less to say to the developing world generally, and especially in formally Communist states. What people like me say cannot matter there.

100 years on, the legacy of 1917 is a long way from clear, particularly with the international rise of China and similar states such as Vietnam, as well as the stagnation and isolation of post-Soviet Russia. The revolution trickles down as finance in huge engineering projects, private investments in capitalist markets across the globe, and military geopolitics between great powers – a hilarious historical irony.

Despite the failure of the soviets and of western Communist Parties, parts of Marxism still inspire me. Marx took economics, relationships between ‘things’, and made clear that it is really about relationships between people. His work made clear that this can be expressed in formal politics, latent ideologies, or simply going to work. In doing so, he showed us the poverty of high-minded moral philosophy or epistemology when it ignores the importance everyday experience, overlooks power and society, and does not produce social change.

And it is not just about economics, because everyday life and political being is about culture too. Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm or Stuart Hall, both of the Gramscian tradition, are invaluable to helping leftists understand the realism of a world which jarrs with our outlooks, and also the advanced strategies of our well financed modern opponents in liberal democracies – the so called ‘war of position’. But despite the Leninist origins of their thought, it is precisely the steps which they take beyond Leninism which release their value.

The Russian revolution and the society it gave birth to fundamentally gives shape to the context of post-Soviet Marxism, but vastly more importantly shapes politics in every aspect of the modern world. As a result of its ignominious conclusion in Russia and the Eastern bloc, the workers movement which was rising before 1917 all over the world has long been in need of adaption and recovery.

The above bullet points should be clear enough to people on the left in Europe and the Americas. In the world as it is now, if we are to have a transformative left, it must be an open one.