Which way is up? by William Bowles

3 December 2007

A major blight of the ‘Left’, at least in my experience, is that it spends more time in-fighting than out. Why this should be so I’ll leave up to the psychoanalysts (or perhaps anthropologists?) to explain but it is surely a legacy we could well do without. My feeling is that is has a lot to with the ‘messianic’ nature of the Left, which has more in common with religion than with political economy.

And of course it’s a trait that’s well exploited by capital and its mouthpieces, witness for example the furoré the MSM has had with el presidente Chavez and his attempts (and no doubt others around him) to alter the Venezuelan constitution, giving the president some pretty awesome powers (for a democratic socialist) including sweeping emergency powers and extending his term of office (indefinitely?).

Now on one level I sympathise with Chavez, the country’s Bolivarian Revolution is under constant threat from the gringos up North (witness Operation Pliers for example) and all the previous, failed attempts to unseat the fellow, so no doubt he’s somewhat paranoid but even so, and his grassroots supporters told him so in no uncertain terms with their no vote, three million of ’em!

‘Chavez reflected upon the fact that the opposition had gained about 400,000 votes over the last presidential election results … but especially focused on the loss of approximately 3 million votes from his own side in this election.’ (See ‘The big winner in Sunday’s vote was Venezuelan democracy … alive and well!’)

I hope comrade Chavez is not another ‘do as I say, don’t do as I do’ type, with which we are all too familiar and it’s good to see democracy actually working the way it’s theoretically meant to. Hopefully this has taught com Chavez a lesson; ignore the grassroots that you’ve helped empower and they’ll turn on you, no sweat; and stay modest comrade, trust in the people.[1]

“I thank you and I congratulate you,” said Hugo Chavez to his opponents. “I recognize the decision a people have made.”

Not so further north and eastwards and on a more, how should I put it, modest scale, to this sceptic isle to be precise, where once again, the lessons of the past, are just not being learnt.

Now I rarely bad-mouth my ‘fellow’ lefties, at least not in print but I have to make an exception for the goings on in (and out of) the Respect Party, not the least because no matter how things change, they end up being the same and it’s important to try and find out why the afflictions of the past keep coming back to haunt us.

Back in 2003, I attended the founding conference of the Respect Party and not being au fait with the ‘personalities’ on the Left in the UK at the time, I really didn’t know who was who until it was pointed out to me that the driving force behind Respect (aside from George Galloway) was the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which is, for want of a better description, a Trotskyist formation (okay, to translate, it’s an opportunist and very sectarian party of the ‘left’).

It was also clear from the way the platform engineered the ‘debate’ about Respect’s programme that no policies which might have “lost it votes†for example, principled positions on abortion and immigration, were to be permitted. In other words, it was ‘business as usual’, that is to say, the way the ‘left has operated for the past fifty years or so, at which point I tuned out.

Respect’s opportunist position is revealed most clearly in the way it has pursued the Asian vote to the exclusion of almost everyone else, the end result being as we have seen with the in-fighting taking place in Hackney and elsewhere (see ‘A Coup d’etat in Respect?’), totally predictable: power plays between various factions over who is in charge and what the programme should be but carried out in the usual manner by the usual suspects.

Such sectarian tactics simply don’t work in the long run, not if you’re serious about trying to make social change. Instead, it’s all about personal power acquisition (and not much else) on the part of the principal actors and ultimately self-defeating.

By targetting the Asian community almost exclusively, it has not only alienated great swathes of working people in comparable circumstances and/or mindset, both white and black to sections of the Asian community, it also creates a false sense of success but one which quickly burns out, as it becomes obvious that a political party of the socialist persuasion (purportedly) cannot achieve any kind of success by exclusively targetting such a narrow base. But worse, it ultimately works against the very community it supposedly represents by further alienating them from what is an issue we should be confronting collectively.

And by making the War in Iraq a central plank of its programme, Respect has also harmed the anti-war movement by linking it so closely to the Asian Muslim community. This is an issue that affects all of us and surely it should be part of a more holistic analysis of the relationship between war and capital, or is that too difficult for them?

And once again, the entire shebang was driven by the presence of one person, George Galloway, without which it’s doubtful Respect would have even achieved the success that it has done. Now Galloway is a smart fellow with the gift of the gab but just how much sway he has over the inner workings of Respect and how much is in the hands of the SWP, is anybody’s guess, but what’s the betting it’s one of Lenin’s ‘many a strange bed-fellow’ relationships, the question being, who is using whom?

The link between Respect and Chavez should be obvious for in both cases, they rose to prominence, Respect initially because of grassroots, community-based organising, focused largely where Blair’s ‘anti-terror’ laws were having the biggest impact, the Asian community, helped along by the groundswell of opposition to the invasion of Iraq (without which it’s doubtful Respect would have even come into existence). In Venezuela, Chavez tapped directly into the communities of the poorest who put him in power to represent thier interests at the state level.

But in Venezuela you ignore them at your peril if they think you’re going to pull a fast one, there’s an awful lot of people, running into the millions who put their trust in him. Now Chavez may have sincerely believed that the best way to counter counter-revolution was by acquiring such draconian powers but it betrays at the very least, a lack of trust in the forces that put him in power and at the worst, being el presidente has gone to his head and thinks he could be omnipotent (there is also the issue of those around him, his closest associates and advisors).

The thing is, ‘we’ve been there, done that and even got a draw-full of faded tee shirts to prove it’, so many times before and it points to the absolute necessity of total accountability between rulers and ruled, whether at the state level or within a political party, especially one which wants to replace the existing social order with something better.

As if to prove the point, it has been suggested that Chavez’s Constitutional Referendum bid failed precisely because the people didn’t know what the hell it was supposed to achieve. Either way, it’s a failure on the part of the ruling party to involve people in the political process, which is what it’s all about.


1. Vheadline are running a ‘Have your voice heard on the Constitutional Referendum issue’ via radio and the Web so go and tell ’em what you think about it if you’ve a mind to.

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