Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Liverpool Marxist Book Fair (2020)

Party News from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Saturday 23 November the first ever Marxist Book Fair was held in Liverpool, with various denizens of what the press likes to call the ‘ultra-left’ in attendance, by invite only. The venue was a largish back room in a fairly up-scale pub close to the University, and members of our Lancaster and Manchester branches turned up in the morning to crew a stall for the day. We were rather lucky to be given a large table in a good position in front of the band stage, which meant we were able to mount an SPGB banner on two speaker stands on the stage behind us. This formed an impressive backdrop to our display of literature, t-shirts, badges, and a laptop running the Party whiteboard video on permanent loop. Pretty groovy, we thought, except that the banner rather dominated the room while other stall displays were somewhat more modest, contrary to our expectations. What we also didn’t realise was that when the scheduled talks began, people would be using the stage area, so every speaker had to deliver their talk in front of our SPGB banner. Oops, our bad. It looked uncomfortably like something the SWP would do. They are notorious for trying to hijack events, which may have been why they hadn’t been invited.

There was a curiously eclectic mix of groups there, including the Merseyside Socialist Theory Study Group, Socialist Appeal, the CPGB, Liverpool’s ‘News from Nowhere’ radical bookshop, the CWO, and ex-Militant (nowadays calling themselves Socialist Party of England and Wales – SPEW – with a kind of self-hating disregard for the power of acronyms). We had a nice long chat with the people on the IWW stall next to us. We couldn’t really figure out the logic by which some groups were invited or not invited, but anyway it was a pleasant day and everyone was very civil and polite, which makes a nice change considering how left groups have been known to treat each other in the past.

The talks said much about the politics of the groups involved. Instead of giving a lecture we chose a bit of audience participation, and we were grilled on our parliamentary politics (left communists, like anarchists, tend to be very against using parliament as part of the revolutionary process, while the IWW – aka Wobblies – are syndicalists who are also sceptical). Quite why this is such a big issue for left groups is a bit of a mystery to us. Our Material World column this month (page 9), writing on Hong Kong, makes a very good point about whether or not people in revolutionary situations would use the ballot box – just you try and stop them!

Some of the other speakers talked in impassioned tones about the urgent need to ‘get the Tories out’. We’ve been hearing this same rallying cry for decades and it’s amazing that such groups have got the energy to keep banging that drum. Leaving aside the politics of favouring one capitalist party over another, there’s something hugely dispiriting about such calls. It’s bad enough when you can’t get workers to consider the idea of taking the whole world into common ownership, without governments, frontiers, the rich, money, banks or bosses. But at least that’s an ambitious goal. How much worse must it be when you can’t get recruits for your group when the only thing you are asking them to agree with is ‘get the Tories out?’

One or two other speakers talked about the need for socialist ‘leadership’, which made us feel slightly uncomfortable and reminded us we were in the presence of a lot of Leninists. The thing about people on the left who believe in this is that they’re not necessarily in love with the idea of having bosses and having to take orders, it’s just that they can’t imagine a group getting anywhere without leadership. The fact that we have no leaders and are also the second oldest political party in Britain may prove that it is possible to have a sustainable and long-lived leaderless group, but that’s not the point as far as they’re concerned. What is the point is that we haven’t achieved our aim of world socialist revolution, so in their minds this proves that leaderless groups don’t get anywhere. But in a classic case of confirmation bias, they tend to overlook the fact that they haven’t got anywhere either! As we pointed out in our contribution to the gathering, we’re all in the same back room of an obscure Liverpool boozer, not hosting rallies in football stadiums.

The only group which chose not to give a talk was SPEW. In fact they didn’t look like they enjoyed being there at all. They didn’t seem to talk to anyone at other stalls, pointedly carried on conversations between themselves when other people were giving talks, and then packed up abruptly and noisily in the middle of one of the talks. We wondered if they’d been getting bad hex vibes from the other stallholders. We tend to forget that, while we’re not keen on Leninist ideas in general and we do have an enshrined commitment in our Declaration of Principles to be ‘hostile to all other parties’, in practice we’re fairly easy-going and tolerant compared to Leninist groups themselves, who frequently hate each other with a vengeance.

There were a fair number of visitors, and quite a good crowd for the talks, considering that advertising for the event had probably been modest (there was no poster on the railings outside the pub, which seemed like an unfortunate oversight, or it may have been a pub prohibition). We sold a bit of stuff and made a few contacts. The general idea is to hold this Book Fair every November, and we’ll be happy to go along again if asked. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years, and whether groups who are historically so divided over their revolutionary approaches will remain enthusiastic about the idea of sharing an annual space, especially if the SWP get involved. Dislike of the SWP is probably the only thing all left groups have in common.

How to keep the event sustainable in the long term is a particularly relevant question given what’s happened lately to the long-established London Anarchist Book Fair, which seems to have (perhaps temporarily) died a death. This event managed quite successfully for the most part and over many years to accommodate a variety of perspectives within the general anarchist movement. But then a catastrophic Trans-Terf confrontation in 2017 caused it to go into melt-down. The organisers, facing a barrage of unjust criticism and abuse (being called ‘fascists’, etc), understandably lost the will to organise a further event so there hasn’t been one since, although some regional bookfairs have gone ahead. Let’s hope the organisers of the Marxist event don’t end up in a similar situation. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished . . .
Paddy Shannon

50 Years Ago: The Socialist Party and the Common Market (2020)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is neither for nor against Britain’s entry into Europe. We stand for world Socialism and regard the Common Market issue as irrelevant from a working class point of view.

Britain’s joining the Common Market would amount to little more than a re-arrangement of tariff barriers. Which is a matter of no concern to workers, but of great concern to capitalists since it could affect their profits.

Most of Britain’s biggest firms have long been convinced that joining the Common Market would allow them to make more profits. This is why the parties that most directly serve their interests, the Labour Party and the Tory Party are also in favour of entry. It is the task of these parties to work out policies that benefit capitalist industry in Britain and then to trick workers into backing these policies. Thus we are about to be subjected yet again to intense pro-Market propaganda in the press and on the radio and television.

Some British capitalists, with investments mainly in farming and what used to be the British Empire, are opposed to entry as they reckon it would threaten their profits. Their direct political expression is through sections of the Tory Party but their anti-Market campaign is helped, no doubt inadvertently, by a section of the Labour Party, the National Front and the so-called Communist Party.

It is because we know that the Common Market debate involves only the interests of these two sections of the British capitalist class and that, as we say in our declaration of principles, “the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class”, that we refuse to take sides and warn workers not to be taken in by the political spokesmen of either section.

We repeat now what we said when this red herring first appeared in 1961:
  “Whether the British government goes in or not, British workers should be looking to promote their own Socialist working class unity with workers everywhere, not just in Western Europe” (Socialist Standard, January 1962).
[From the January 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard.]

Brexit done, back to capitalism as usual (2020)

Editorial from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Forget climate change, forget the NHS, the general election turned out to be a proxy second Brexit referendum. Despite Labour’s (and indeed our) efforts to highlight the social problems generated by capitalism and how to solve them, the result reflected the 2016 referendum. Leave-voting areas in the North, the Midlands and North Wales returned a majority of pro-Brexit, Tories – giving the Tory party a comfortable majority in the House of Commons – while Remain-voting London, Scotland and Northern Ireland returned a majority of pro-Remain MPs.

We saw previously solid Labour seats, even in ex-mining areas, return Tory MPs. In fact, the first result – and the first Tory gain – was in Blyth where the Northumberland NUM used to have its offices. It is true that, in quite a few of these seats, the Tories won because the Brexit Party took votes from Labour. The reason for this change can’t be that those who switched really thought that Brexit would make any difference to their lives, but will more have been resentment that, having been asked a question and given an answer, that answer was being ignored.

What people vote for is of course routinely ignored, but this is due to the fact that the workings of the capitalist economy, which require that priority be given to profit-making, prevent the improvements in health care, housing, education, transport and the rest that people vote for from being implemented. Brexit is different. It might not make sense from a capitalist point of view but it is something that could be delivered. However, it was being thwarted, with a view to not implementing it, by opposition MPs. Insofar as the Labour Party was seen as part of this they were punished for, in effect, not respecting a democratically-made decision.

So, Brexit will now happen. The United Kingdom will formally leave the European Union on the 31st of this month. That will satisfy most Leave-voters. Of course that will not be the end of the story – negotiations over trade and tariffs will go on for years – but, a democratic vote having been satisfied, the resentment of those who voted for this can be expected to die down, as the particular trading arrangements British capitalism makes with the rest of the capitalist world is not their concern anyway.

Economic reality and capitalist interests might compel Johnson and his government to negotiate a ‘softer’ Brexit than their rhetoric has been suggesting but that’s unlikely to get people jumping up and down. Given the nationalist vote in Scotland and even in Northern Ireland (for the first time there have been more Nationalists than Unionists elected there), there could be big problems ahead for those in charge of the British state.

Those who voted for Brexit via the Tory party are going to be more interested in the Tory promises to end austerity and to improve health care and education. And that is no more likely to happen than it would have if the Labour Party had won. Capitalism is an economic system driven by the imperative to make and accumulate profits and it is this that has to come first, not improving the conditions of the wage-working majority.

Knowing this, we confidently predict that the Johnson government will fail to honour its promises here. Not because they necessarily don’t want to – though they are still the nasty party – but because they cannot. No government can.

Popular Posts in 2019

First post of 2020 on the blog should be a brief look back at 2019 on the blog.

The following are the ten most popular posts on the blog in the previous 12 months. Of course there's a couple of anomalies in the mix that I shouldn't have to point out to the reader but I do think it's interesting that, overall, the most popular posts in the past year are articles that deal with matters relating to history and/or socialist theory.

It could be argued that those are the type of articles that I am more inclined to push on various social media sites, etc, and there is some truth in that, but people still have to click on those links at the other end so maybe, just maybe, in these uncertain times it's the sort of material that people want to read. Writers and Editors for the Socialist Standard, please take note.

A special note on the IWW article. That particular piece's place on the blog dates from a time when I was a bit more eclectic in my choices of what I posted on the blog. (Go back to 2006/07 on the blog, and you'll see what I mean.) That an article on the meaning of the term 'Abolition of the Wages System' posted 13 years ago was still gets multiple hits in 2019 is heartening.