Actions and Factions

This post was written by Jacob on October 31, 2010
Posted Under: Protest

The factionalisation of the left has been a problem since the first triceratops got upset because he was less pretty than a stegosaurus, and since these prehistoric times the expression of differences has regressed to things that are generally even more petty. Yet sometimes I think the way organizations behave is worth discussing, albeit briefly. In the course of the last week I have twice found myself frustrated by the actions of the SWP’s Right to Work campaign.

Twice I have been involved in actions (one of which I helped organize) that Right to Work have attended. The first was an intervention in a debate in which Universities Minister David Willetts was speaking. The SWP did not (officially at least, and I suspect not unofficially either) attend any of the planning meetings for this action, in which it was decided that we were to meet and discuss with everyone based on numbers and feelings in the group how we should proceed. Instead, in the full knowledge that an action was planned, they called their own action, and did not consult with the rest of the group in how to go ahead. Their priority was just to get a Right to Work banner up in the room in which the debate was being held. There was no discussion about whether “Right to Work” is an appropriate slogan for a protest fighting for free education.

Yesterday, on the actions that shut down Vodafone stores around the country, the Right to Work came out again, but in Oxford Street they made sure they held their banner right at the front of everyone whenever anyone with a camera or a press card came up. Of course, no-one minds the banner being there, but I (and I imagine others) do mind non-Right to Work actions being made to look like these guys are in control. No-one, particularly those people who spend many hours organizing, particularly appreciate opportunist usurpation of actions for the sake of a few photos.

Part of the problem is that there’s a total obsession with leadership and control within certain sectors of the left, and in this the Coalition of Resistance/Counterfire have been equally loud and boring in the playing out of degenerate penis-politics of the last few months. If you care about being in charge of an organization then you’re probably in left politics for all of the wrong reasons.

The point is that over everyone is absolutely happy for the SWP/Right to Work to be at whatever action is going on, but the priority must always be the state of the action as a whole. When engaging in direct action it is frankly dangerous and irresponsible to go and do your own thing without consulting the whole group (this is one of the reasons, for all it’s flaws, consensus decision-making has often been used.) The point of the action is not to get Right to Work banners up in the most prominent position possible to get good media shots, rather most people engaging in direct action are actually trying to change things somewhere more concrete than the hyperreal realm of the media (otherwise we wouldn’t risk arrest, rather we’d stay at home and tweet.)  So I plea that if the SWP/Right to Work want to get involved they have a good think about how their current behaviour is not only exploitative and dangerous to other activists, but actually alienating for people who want to be involved in a quickly-growing movement.

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Reader Comments

I found this a peculiar article. There’s potential for it to be insightful and useful, but this is completely undermined by 2 very important defects. One is the way it is completely ahistorical and apolitical; the other is the resorting to psychologising political issues.

I know the ‘prehistoric’ jibe is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still a problem. There’s nothing to be gained from an ahistorical ‘oh, the left is always so factional and controlling’ line without paying any attention to the specific circumstances involved. The article slips between specific observations and very sweeping, generalised dismissive comments without identifying any links between the two.

The other problem is the psychological approach, instead of trying to explain behaviour politically. It is a sterile way to approach the issues, and (like the problem of being ahistorical) universalises things so they become meaningless. Is it really useful, accurate or plausible to simply talk about people being obsessed with control? Why might this happen? It needs a political basis.

Written By Alex Snowdon on October 31st, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

Completely spot on. I was bloody annoyed with the SWP banners as well.

Not only that – they always bring their own, even if we had lots of good Vodafone banners. It’s as if they *have to* brand the event with SWP placards even if they didn’t organise it.

Written By Sunny Hundal on November 1st, 2010 @ 12:49 am

I second what Sunny says. And it will happen more and more since they still have that chip on their shoulder that the LibDems stole the show during the anti-war protests. I defy any swappie not to protest when you ask them about the press coverage at the time.

You did get a date slightly wrong though; the first speculated bout of left wing factionalism came right after the big bang, the mercury workers’ party opposed the mercury workers’ league’s expansionist model.

Written By Carl on November 1st, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

Alex – it’s not ahistorical, it’s about Saturday. And it’s not apolitical, it’s a criticism of the inability of some political groups to express solidarity without control. Not everything needs to quote a russian army general to count as political.

Written By Richard on November 1st, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

The SWP – astroturfers extraordoinaires

Written By rwillmsen on November 7th, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

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