Sunday, 24 April 2016

Paul Mason v Peter Taaffe

Last week Paul Mason appeared on the BBC's Daily Politics, who also brought in SPEW's Peter Taaffe, and the Blairite John Rentoul.

The Full clip is on BBC iplayer.

Over the last few years, its been interesting to see the reaction of sections of the Left to some of the ideas that Paul has come out with.  In many cases, it shows the problem with that left, and why it has found it so difficult to move forward.  The reactions are often akin to those you might in previous times have found coming from a religious establishment to one of its members that came up with some new idea that was automatically branded as heresy.

One example, was over Paul's book on post-capitalism.  There seems a problem within sections of the Left of simply accepting that some people may come up with new ideas, and those ideas may or may not be valid, but putting them forward for discussion and further consideration is not a crime, but a way of moving forward.  Simply branding people heretic or clubbing them over the head for daring to put them forward is not likely to encourage people into the movement, or to stimulate the new ideas we need.  Of course, part of the problem, is that large sections of the Left do not want new ideas, because they do treat the writings of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky as Holy Writ, set down in stone, rather than as texts to be studied about how to analyse the world around us, and provide us with the tools for developing those new ideas.

In their "Notes for Activists" the CPGB write of Paul and Peter's encounter,

"Despite the brevity of the item on the programme, Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party in England and Wales was able to give Paul Mason (“left-wing activist turned TV journalist and writer”, as he was billed) a bit of a mauling on April 19 edition of the ‘Daily Politics’. Taaffe’s defence of Leninism, the class struggle and the need for parties stood up reasonably well against Mason’s sadly desperate counsel of despair.  Low points of his observations included the notion that you can have “your own personal revolution: you can do quite a lot on your own”; that “instead of spending your entire life trying to force the Labour to do things, or force Unite or the RMT to do things, just do it yourself”; that what we should content ourselves with is “an area of control within capitalism, within the system”; and this particular gem - “with a cell phone you can do more than you can with a party.”

This guff was “childish” comrade Taaffe correctly observed, and about as challenging as clubbing a baby seal for a seasoned operator like him."

As it happens, there are a number of ideas that Paul has put forward over the last few years that I disagree with too.  Some I've set out here, and elsewhere, some I discussed with him several years ago in e-mail discussions.  The fact that we disagree doesn't mean we have to consider the other an apostate, or seek to club the other as though they were a baby seal or any other unfortunate creature!

Several years ago, I wrote about why I thought Paul was wrong in considering that the situation of global imbalances would not be resolved.  Even so, I began by saying, "He may be right."

Some time ago, I also dealt with the ideas about networked protests against capitalism, and the question of the need for a revolutionary party, discussed by Paul in his books and articles.  More recently, I've discussed some of the issues he raises in "Post- Capitalism", in my series of Marx and Machines.

In terms of the issue discussed in the Daily Politics interview, I think its hard to criticise Paul on the basis that he's saying rely on mobile phones and social media rather than on building a party, when he is currently going round doing speaking tours for Corbyn's Labour, and in the interview argued for Taaffe and SPEW to join the party.  If its being suggested that people should forget about the need for a party and simply rely on cosy social media discussions and flash mobs, then that would be wrong, but who actually is saying that?

Moreover, it seems to me that the interpretation of "do it yourself" that is being given is wrong.  After all, Marx and Engels argued for workers self-activity, and self-government too.  Workers in a threatened library in Lambeth or steel workers currently in Port Talbot, cannot wait until a Labour Government is elected, still less for the revolution to solve their problems.  They need a practical solution now.  Even waiting for the bureaucratic mechanisms of LP democracy and trades union bureaucracy to grind their way to a series of resolutions is too slow.  

And that was what workers found in the 1950's, 60's and 70's.  I remember as a Branch Secretary 20 years ago talking to some of my stewards about a particular problem we were facing, and saying to them, "In the 1970's, when I was a shop steward, we wouldn't have had this problem, because by now, we would be just walking out." 

That kind of real rank and file organisation, spontaneity and "doing it for yourself", has been lost in the last thirty years, but as the flying picket was resurrected in the 1970's, as a tactic and method of organisation, after decades of neglect, so too today, as the working-class always does, it finds its way to develop new tactics, or to rediscover old ones, which it adapts and uses in different ways.

The idea of "just do it for yourself", is in fact the same idea I have put forward here many times in the past.  You do not need a LP conference decision, or even the official backing of the local LP for LP members from a branch or a number of branches to go out, and help workers on strike, to support tenants fighting rogue landlords, or any number of other local campaigns, the solution to which can be found in collective organisation, and co-operative, community solutions, including the takeover of facilities and their conversion to co-operatives and so on.  Indeed, such action is a powerful way to draw in those new forces required for transforming moribund, sclerotic LP machines, and creating a party more fit for the purpose.

And, that kind of activity was also undertaken by the Bolsheviks.  Moreover, the idea of "Just Do It Yourself" was adopted by the Bolsheviks in other ways.  For example, the idea of building Factory Committees, arose for several reasons.  Firstly, they understood that not all workers were members of trades unions, so a factory committee could pull in non-union workers too.  Secondly, in factories, workers were divided into several trades unions, according to trades and history.  There were often craft and other divisions and rivalries between these unions, which spilled over into divisions between the workers themselves.  A Factory Committee was a way of undermining those divisions, especially where they were exploited by the bosses and/or union bureaucrats.  Thirdly, a factory committee could respond immediately to situations without going through all the formal procedures of submitting resolutions through branch committees and so on.

During the revolution, Lenin also saw the issue of doing it yourself in a different light in relation to the Factory Committees.  As it happened the Bolsheviks were able to win a majority in all the major soviets, but Lenin argued that if they could not, they should simply by pass the soviet, and base themselves on the Factory Committees, where they did have majorities.  The Factory Committee also played another important role during the revolution, because when factories were occupied and taken over, the factory committee was the ready made organ for doing it yourself in another way, as it formed the obvious body for organising the occupation and running the factory, under workers control.

And, of course, using mobile phones to organise a flash mob to bring together large numbers of people quickly to support an occupation, a strike, a demonstration and so on, is just a use of new technology to more effectively achieve such aims.  The use of social media as a means of discussion, is a modern equivalent of the Marxist discussion groups that Lenin and his comrades participated in during the 1890's, as a means of organising the forces to actually set up the RSDLP.

The experience of the failure of the Egyptian revolution, as I had predicted showed that you cannot carry out even a political revolution that has deep social roots, simply by an amorphous middle class movement.  Taaffe is right that existing ruling classes, and castes are brutal and ruthless in seeking to hold on to power by any means.  Overcoming their resistance requires a revolutionary party, and disciplined organisation, as well as the sufficient social forces, and material conditions to secure the revolution.  Yet, Taffe's organisation has always misled workers, both as Militant and now as the Socialist Party into the belief that even the social revolution can be achieved through Parliament, and the state nationalising the commanding heights of the economy!

The truth is we need both.  Here and now, we need workers to find solutions by "doing it ourselves", through community organisation, through co-operative enterprises, and new forms of participatory democracy built up from them.  The Labour Party and trades unions movements should support such activities with their resources and organisation, and should internalise the lessons from those struggles and developments.  And out of that process we can forge the kind of party that we will need to resist the actions of the capitalist class, and to secure the political power we require ourselves to extend and develop the economic and social bases of the new society.

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