The Left in 2016: Tough Challenges And Great Opportunities
PART - I       PART - III       PART - IV

Part - II

LIKE in Venezuela, the left movement in Greece too now finds itself at a crossroads – but of a very different kind. Let us pick up the thread where we left it in our October 2015 number (Greece: Betraying People’s Referendum, Syriza Capitulates to Troika’s Memorandum).

In the Aftermath of the Syriza Somersault

January 2015 saw Syriza gatecrash into power riding on the crest of a powerful mass movement; in January 2016 it finds itself as the target of the very same movement against the atrocious debt slavery imposed by the imperialist troika and administered by an elected government.

The outrageous capitulation of the Syriza leadership before lenders’ blackmailing in July 2015 naturally led to a sense of frustration and cynicism replacing the combative mood of the people. This was reflected in reduction of voter participation from 63% in January to 55% in the September elections, the lowest in memory. Syriza got 145 seats (four fewer than in January) while neo-fascist Golden Dawn improved its score from 6.8% in January to 7.9%. The Syriza-ANEL coalition was returned to the seat of power.

From late October, disgruntlement started assuming the shape of organised protests. A nationwide general strike took place on November 12 and the second one rocked the country on December 15. Since January this year, hundreds of trade unions rallied by the All-workers’ Militant Front (PAME, founded on the initiative of Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in 1999) have been carrying out mobilizations in various forms like pickets, strikes, demonstrations and symbolic occupations of public buildings. On the 26th, demonstrators in Athens reached Parliament and urged the government to abandon the austerity measures. Apart from PAME, the “All-farmers’ Militant Rally” (PASY), the “Nationwide Anti-monopoly Rally” (PASEVE), the Students’ Struggle Front (MAS) and the Federation of Greek Women (OGE) are playing important roles in Athens and other cities. Farmers with tractors blocked the country’s borders and main motorways on February 2.

The third general strike on February 4 was marked by one of the largest mobilization in recent years. Thousands of workers, farmers, self-employed persons and students filled the streets of all major cities. The central demand was withdrawal of the “law-guillotine” -- the draft law seeking reductions in retirement age as well as pensions and state spending on public healthcare and welfare on one hand and increased social security contributions of workers on the other.

The current spate of militant protests represents the fourth landmark in the people’s stubborn struggles during this past one year – the fourth consecutive demonstration of their political wisdom and activism. First, they -- including women and men from the traditional support base of PASOK and KKE -- unhesitatingly handed over the reins of governance to a new-born party that promised, and put forward a detailed programme for, liberation from debt slavery and the austerity noose. But they did not stop there. Massive mobilisations took place under the slogan “Not One Step Back”, thus extending support to, and also exerting pressure on, the government to walk the talk. The active vigilance continued in the shape of pre-referendum rallies in July and laid the basis of the next, i.e., third move: the emphatic ‘Oxi’ (NO) vote in utter contempt of the rightists’ doomsday predictions in the event of refusing the Troika proposals. And then, even after Syriza went against the mandates of the July referendum and the January elections, citizens of Greece gave it one last chance to prove itself rather than swinging back to the confirmed yes-men of the Troika. Finally, after they waited and watched for a month or so, they said enough is enough and began to hit the street in ever-growing numbers, as summarised above.

A Long Difficult Road Ahead

Adding pressure on Tsipras, a report released by the European Commission in early February warned, “Further measures will be needed in 2016 and 2017 in order to reach the program’s primary [budget] surplus targets”, predicting that Greece will slip back into mild recession this year and that the national debt will climb to 185 percent of gross domestic product. This means more austerity, more hardships leading to more intense class struggle, predominantly in its political expression of a broad movement demanding immediate rollback of the “law-guillotine” and other anti-people measures. Ahead lies a long, difficult and uncharted path. At the same time, a couple of favourable factors are to be noted.

For one, with the trade unions constituting the organised core of the strikes and other kinds of resistance, leadership in the movement clearly belongs to the working class. As always, the youth is the most energetic combatants, giving the movement the character of a worker-youth upsurge with active participation of others like pensioners, agrarian labourers and farmers.

Secondly, political initiative lies mainly with the communist party and other left and democratic forces (such as the erstwhile Left Platform faction within Syriza, which came out and reconstituted itself as Popular Unity after the third Memorandum was signed) and the objective situation is pressuring them to come closer together.

From Greece, a troubled country in the economic and political periphery of Europe, let us move on to one situated in the centre -- the United Kingdom. Last year the latter came into limelight over the astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and Liberation covered it in the October 2015 number. In this part we try to understand the social forces at work and the wider implications of this encouraging development.

Flashback: Peak Protest in UK

The Corbyn phenomenon cannot be just an individual achievement, nor did it drop from the sky. It sprouted from the multiple tensions, conflicts and movements in British (and not only British) society. Among these, we have briefly mentioned the persistent world economic crisis at the start of this article (Part I) and here is the other, political side of the same coin -- the popular masses fighting back against the austerity onslaughts of capital in crisis. With young persons from different social backgrounds comprising the most energetic section of protesters, there is also a generational dimension to it – we will come to that in Part III.

A very good summary and analysis of mass struggles in UK in 2015 has been made available to us by David J. Bailey in “Hard Evidence: this is the Age of Dissent – and there’s much more to come” (The Conversation January 11, 2016).

The author shows, on the basis of “a catalogue of UK-based protest events reported in major British national newspapers, spanning back to the late 1970s”, that “2015 actually had the highest level of visible dissent in the UK since before the 1980s. … the frequency of protests peaked in 2010-2011 and subsided slightly in 2012 – perhaps as a result of despondency after some of the big anti-austerity movements, such as the tuition fee protests, were ignored and/or heavily repressed. But from 2013 onwards dissent has returned to levels witnessed during earlier stages of the anti-austerity movement, and continued to rise through to a new high in 2015.”

As for the social composition of struggling forces, Bailey finds that “… the protests during the heyday of the anti-austerity protests in 2010-11 were conducted predominantly by three main groups: workers, students, and those anti-cuts activists identifying explicitly with the anti-austerity movement, such as UK Uncut.”

He takes note of the “more pluralist nature” of movements in 2015 and observes, “While workers and environmentalists conducted around one-third of all protest events in 2015, another five groups – housing activists, students, pro-minority groups (including those supporting refugees and asylum seekers), anti-cuts activists and right-wing groups – each contributed between 6% and 10% of the total protest activity for the year.” However, his data shows that at 20%, workers still constitute the largest single group. Moreover, we should remember that within other groups too – such as housing activists -- a large section are workers.

“Some of the biggest demonstrations of the year continued to focus on the government’s austerity measures, including the 100,000 attendees at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in June and 50,000 people protesting outside the Conservative Party Conference in October. …”

Do these struggles really achieve something? “While some commentators have begun (again) to proclaim the futility of protest, some important concessions were also won as a result of the 2015 protests, confirming recent research which suggests that only direct action protest consistently produces desired results in times of stagnant economic growth.”

The author demonstrates this with a number of specific examples:

“The tube workers’ strike resulted in the apparently indefinite delay of the implementation of all-night opening.

After more than 60,000 people signed a petition in February against what was perceived to be an attempt to charge for the right to protest, the Metropolitan police backed down in its attempt to make two organisations – Campaign Against Climate Change and the Million Women Rise campaign – pay the policing costs necessary for them to be able to hold demonstrations.

Direct action protests by milk farmers also resulted in a number of concessions from supermarkets …. And the students staging a rent strike at UCL won nearly £100,000 in compensation – or £1,368 per head – following a successful campaign against the university which also led to it backing down over its threat to prevent students from graduating unless they ended the strike.”

In conclusion Bailey says, citing specific issues and ongoing stirs,

“While the frequency of reported protest events in the UK rose in 2015 to its highest level since the end of the 1970s, 2016 looks set to bring still more discord.”

Corbyn Campaign as Voice of the 99 percent

Large sections of these protesters, though not at one with everything Corbyn stands for, have found in his campaign the most powerful voice they could hope for in mainstream UK politics. And there lies the main source of its growing stature, as Comrade Kalpana Wilson reiterates in this update on her Corbyn’s Agenda Galvanizes a Seismic Leftward Shift from Below published in Liberation, October 2015):

“The last few months have seen support for Jeremy Corbyn continue to grow – Labour membership has more than doubled since its general election defeat last May and grassroots campaigns against austerity, attacks on workers’ rights, racism and Islamophobia and imperialist warmongering have been further strengthened -while he continues to field continuous attacks by the British mainstream media (which a study recently found to be ‘the most right-wing in Europe’) and the Blairite right within his own party. In the first bye-election after Corbyn became leader, in the northern working class constituency of Oldham West and Royton, Labour won a resounding victory, increasing its majority and again giving the lie to the claims of the right that Corbyn’s supporters are mainly students, middle class people and concentrated in the more affluent South.

Under Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, the parliamentary Labour Party has been providing a much more genuine opposition to austerity and imperialist neoliberalism – notably for example forcing the Government to execute a u-turn on proposed tax credit cuts which would have hit low-income households, and forcing Cameron to cancel a contract for the UK to provide ‘training’ to prisons in Saudi Arabia, in face of the relentless human rights violations by Britain’s close ally.

The parliamentary debate and vote on the government’s proposal that Britain should bomb Syria at the beginning of December however exposed that Corbyn still faces an uphill battle within the Labour Party in which the right remains deeply entrenched. Corbyn eventually took a decision not to impose a whip – which would have compelled Labour MPs to vote with their party leadership against the bombing - disappointing many. Hilary Benn, a committed Blairite whom Corbyn had kept on as Shadow Foreign Secretary[1] in an attempt to build party unity, spoke in favour of the bombing, shamelessly comparing air strikes in Syria to the activities of the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War! Arguably however, since (despite strong public opposition to bombing Syria) in terms of MP numbers a victory for the government was inevitable even had Labour imposed the whip, the free vote meant that pro-war Labour MPs exposed themselves to the wrath of the now overwhelmingly anti-war party membership, and may face deselection[2] in future. Corbyn also subsequently announced a cabinet reshuffle which has strengthened his position, particularly on his key policy of scrapping Trident nuclear missiles, which has widespread public support.

Upcoming local elections, elections to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly and elections for London Mayor, all to be held in May, are being openly anticipated by the Labour right as a pretext to ‘get rid’ of Corbyn if Labour does badly, but equally they will be an opportunity for growing left forces in and outside the Labour Party to counter their influence, and deepen and widen their potential support base by further engagement on the real issues.”

Notes :

[1] In UK British parliamentary practice, senior members of the main opposition party are appointed by its elected leader (Jeremy Corbyn in the present case) as “shadow” secretaries who scrutinise their corresponding ministers in the Government, develop alternative policies, and hold the Government to account for its actions and responses.

[2] For every General Election, an MP has to reapply to their local party unit for selection as a candidate and the party can refuse to reselect them. This is called deselection. Anti-war activists have called for the deselection of 66 Labour MPs who voted to allow air strikes in Syria.

The Corbyn wave is advancing and growing more powerful in the face of well-coordinated two-pronged attacks – from Conservatives outside and rightists headquartered in the Parliamentary Labour Party (BLP) inside – just as a mountain brook grows stronger from collision with rocks on its path. With ferocious attacks from the Tories proving to be a dismal failure, the ruling class seems to be relying more on the internal opposition to the veteran leftist leader. See how The Economist in a recent piecebats for a split in Labour:

“…its leader [is] getting stronger. More centrist members are leaving as lefties sign up (over half the party has joined since the election in May). The prospect of a candidate with the infrastructure to beat Mr. Corbyn is more remote than ever. Swathes of centrist MPs could lose their seats [by deselection – Ed.]…”

How to tackle the unprecedented internal crisis? The authentic mouthpiece of imperialist finance capital examines three different strategies adopted by three anti-Corbyn groups in the party (outright confrontation, arriving at some sort of compromise through persuasion, silent preparations and bidding time for an opportune moment) and then endorses “a fourth, better option” proposed by Joe Haines (Harold Wilson’s press secretary during 1969-76 –Ed.). The latter, the Economist notes, “urges moderate MPs to declare independence from Mr Corbyn and sit as a separate group in the Commons …. The new party would forfeit Labour’s infrastructure, but would not struggle to attract donations. Some members may defect with their MPs. If larger than Mr Corbyn’s parliamentary caucus, this new social democratic party would be designated the official opposition.” (Don Corbote’s dodgy sally, 16 January 2016)

The Haines-Economist proposal is straight-forward and pro-active: conventional remedies will not solve the unprecedented internal crisis and no time should be lost in trying to neutralise, or arrive at a compromise with, or oust Corbyn while keeping the party intact. ‘Moderates’ must assert their independence and start a process that leads to an eventual split.

The anxiety and desperation are understandable. The British bourgeoisie frantically needs a captive ‘labour’ party so as to maintain the Tweedledum-Tweedledee system of class rule, as much as labour without quote marks – the manual and mental workers of all variants -- need a workers’ party to fight for their basic interests in the face of austerity onslaughts. In 2016 and after, both these contradictory social forces will grow stronger in the context of the economic crisis heading towards a new world slump. So the larger question beyond the Corbyn phenomenon is: whither BLP?

Can Labour Reinvent Itself?

As Joe Haines grudgingly but correctly points out in his article referred by The Economist, “despite the common belief, Corbyn did not win a majority among the full members who voted. From them, he received 121,751 out of 245,520. The bulk of his vote came from “registered supporters” (the “ragbag” of those recruited by trade unions, the Green Party and others, including “the odds and sods of hard-left Trotskyist, Maoist and Leninist groups who were expelled from the party or who left in disgust”) “and the “affiliated supporters” – trade unions and a host of socialist societies”. (The Micawber Syndrome, New Statesman, 6 January 2016)

It is the thousands of people who joined the Labour Party as supporters specifically to vote for Corbyn and his own support developed in course of long engagement in struggles and movements outside -- and often in opposition to -- the BLP which made the ascent of Corbyn to the leadership position possible in the first place, and which powers the radicalization of Labour today. Advanced sections of the bourgeoisie intelligentsia are keeping a close watch on how, to what extent and with what likely ramifications this is actually taking place on the ground. Writes Ewen MacAskill in The Guardian on 13 January 2016:

“Revealed: how Jeremy Corbyn has reshaped the Labour party”


“The Guardian has interviewed Labour secretaries, chairs, other office holders and members from more than 100 of the 632 constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales. Almost every constituency party across the country we contacted reported doubling, trebling, quadrupling or even quintupling membership, and a revival of branches that had been moribund for years and close to folding.

Reflecting increased interest among the young, university cities and towns recorded some of the biggest rises, with Bath jumping from 300 to 1,322 members (911 full members, 120 affiliated supporters and 291 registered supporters) …

The survey findings are borne out by Labour’s national figures, released to the Guardian in a break with party tradition of keeping them secret. Membership jumped from 201,293 on 6 May last year, the day before the general election, to 388,407 on 10 January.”

The report offers interesting insights into the inner-party struggle. “…some constituencies”, we are told, are “reporting potential rifts between long-term members used to rule-bound discussions and the younger ones seeking more zest and passion in their politics.”

The ideological battle actually extended to certain basic questions:“Asked whether remaking the party to reflect leftwing values was more important to them than winning the 2020 general election, Parvin [Garry Parvin, High Peak constituency secretary] said: ‘Frankly, yes. There are a lot of ideologically driven people who feel that we’re going to lose anyway so we may as well lose on principle.’

That view is not universal. Brynmor Hollywell, constituency party secretary for Caerphilly, south Wales, said: ‘A lot of us are disturbed about Corbyn. He’s a wonderful individual but not a potential prime minister.’”

The struggle goes on; how far the new youthful members can overcome the passivity/resistance of the bureaucratic party hierarchy and infuse into the old party a new content remains to be seen. That is not easy, of course, but the political setting is quite conducive. For the process of transformation, inchoate and lacking a programmatic vision though, is advancing in fruitful symbiosis with (a) various other progressive movements in the UK (some mentioned by Bailey and newer ones like Another Europe Is Possible) and (b) the new leftist current in European – in fact international -- politics which is advancing from the peripheral parts to the Centre of the imperialist world order. In the months and years ahead, we will be watching all these developments with high hopes.

[To be concluded]

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