Last Saturday and the limits of left pluralism

This post was written by Owen on March 29, 2011
Posted Under: Protest

One of the most encouraging political developments of recent years has been the growth of pluralism on the left; different parties and groups slowly learning to collaborate with one another without merging or losing their identity. This is the ‘campsite’ model beloved of Neal Lawson and Compass, consciously modelling itself as a more open, less top-down alternative to the ‘big tent’ of the Blair years, where any voices dissenting from the party line were swiftly stifled or marginalised by the New Labour ringmasters. This process didn’t begin with Labour’s election loss last May, but it’s pretty clear it’s been a catalyst – there’s very little which helps foment an alliance as fast as shared adversity and a common enemy, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s pledge of support to the student movement and the Coalition of Resistance in December being perhaps the clearest illustration of this trend. It wasn’t a state of total unity – the old disagreements and tensions didn’t go away, and every now and then bubbled to the surface – but for the most part there seemed to be a tacit understanding that there were more important things to focus on than factionalism.

This Saturday, however, marked the point at which the strain finally became too much for this uneasy alliance. Despite universal agreement from everyone from yoghurt-weaving Guardianistas to dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyites on the importance of attending the March for the Alternative, there’s been a noticeable spike in backbiting and recrimination between various stripes of lefty in the aftermath. Even if you don’t bother to click on either of those two links, you could probably hazard a pretty good guess as to the epithets being flung around: the Black Blocers who caused property damage in the West End are ‘louts’ who undermined the actions of the peaceful majority and only care about making a scene, while commentators who supported the main march and criticised the window-smashing are bourgeois milquetoast dilettantes who find anything more militant than the much-maligned ‘march from A to B’ too scary and radical to get involved with. Added to that, of course, there’s the extra complication of UKUncut, whose Fortnum and Mason’s occupation has caused further splits in lefty opinion, as some who opposed the Black Bloc’s vandalism supported UKUncut’s non-violent action.

If you’ve read much political commentary before, you’re probably expecting this to be the point where I make an impassioned plea for us all to stop this terrible infighting and remember who the real enemy is. But to do so in this instance would be a mistake. The disagreements about the events on Saturday aren’t just about tactics; they’re also about objectives. That being the case, and contrary to what some have argued, a broad united front actually isn’t desirable for anyone here. Labour and the TUC are trying to win over mainstream opinion, and if they don’t condemn kicking in the windows of Santander and paint-bombing The Ritz, the rightwing press will demonise and marginalise them as crazy radicals. Since they’re trying to build support among large swathes of people who aren’t particularly politically engaged and who could easily be driven away by footage like this, that’s clearly something they want to avoid. Equally, though, there’s not much reason why anyone sympathetic to the Black Bloc would want support for their actions from the assorted soft lefties in Hyde Park – given that the hammers-and-paint-bombs brigade are presumably revolutionary anarchists, why would they want the endorsement of a bunch of reformist social democrats? Surely Ed Miliband, Brendan Barber et al are all complicit in upholding the capitalist status quo, as far as they’re concerned? Assuming they have at least some vague awareness of the likely media and popular reaction to TV footage of smashing stuff up and letting off fireworks, they’re pretty clearly not trying to win over wavering moderates to their cause, so why the shock and outrage when some of those moderates take to the airwaves or the web to criticise them?

If it were possible for the movement to remain cohesive and appeal to mainstream public opinion without losing its radical edge, then there wouldn’t be a problem, but the simple fact is that it’s not. UKUncut have probably been better than anyone at walking this tightrope in recent months, but in trying not to disagree with anyone, all their spokesperson achieved was to come across as evasive and unconvincing on Newsnight last night (see 6:04 onwards in this video):

Of course, in many ways it would be lovely if we could all agree on what the anti-cuts/anti-government protests are trying to achieve and all work together all the time, but given the existence of such massive differences of opinion, a faux-unity where everyone pretends these fundamental disagreements don’t exist is neither attainable nor desirable. I’m not arguing that hard and soft left can’t ever work together again; of course we can, and absolutely should; the fact that it’s not possible on this occasion doesn’t mean it can never be again. It’s just that pluralism can only go so far, and what happened on Saturday went beyond that.

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Reader Comments

Good points. Would it not then follow that the Black Bloc-ers should leave the Social Democrats to it, and organise their attempts at creating temporary autonomous zones or whatever on days the Social Democrats aren’t demonstrating?

They might even be taken more seriously, rather than being seen as a ‘thuggish offshoot of the main march’…

Written By Alasdair on March 29th, 2011 @ 9:24 am
solomon Hughes

the oppositions you have set up hear are completely wrong, and so are some of your fundamental assumptions. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of trade unionised workers on the streets of London and somehow their demonstration is “bourgeois” and “dilettante” and “mainstream”, whereas 600 “Black Bloc”-ers breaking a window are radical – this is nonsense. I don’t really think you understand what is going on. I travelled up from Southampton. So did a bunch of Hospital cleaners who are striking against their privatised employer. So did a load of council workers who occupied the civic centre in their campaign against the cuts. that’s plenty radical enough for me. I came up after manning the picketlines in my own strike in the week. What we got from the demonstration is a sense of solidarity , an encourgament for further action. A sense that working people can have an effect. The TUC and the constituent unions can be moderate, or they can be militant – they are membership organisations, and their membership can push them in whichever direction. If the “radical”s of the black block can’t relate to hundreds of thousands of politically active unionised workers (and I do not think they can), then they are not really radical after all. I think UK Uncut might slightly tend towards the publicity stunt, but they do certainly have a way of hitting a political note with a resonance in the Labour movement. But the “radicalism” of the Blakc Bloc is a bit phoney – self selected and self indulgent. And you are just confining yourself to a political ghetto if you think hundreds of thousands of marching workers are the “soft left” and that a few hundred window breakers are the “radical edge”

Written By solomon Hughes on March 29th, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

Solomon, I think you’ve misunderstood the point I was making in this article. I wasn’t expressing a view on the merits of the actions of either the black bloc or the peaceful majority – I was saying that’s how they portray each other. I’m also well aware of how trade unions work, being an active trade unionist myself. As it happens, my own views are probably close to yours – I think that the actions of the black bloc were damaging to the anti-cuts movement – but that isn’t relevant to what I was saying in this post.

Written By Owen on March 29th, 2011 @ 5:36 pm
Solomon Hughes

Oh sorry, I must be having a bit of an odd moment.

Written By Solomon Hughes on March 29th, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

No worries, no harm done.

Written By Owen on March 29th, 2011 @ 9:35 pm


So, I do agree that pluralism has its limits. The TUC is not a revolutionary body, and we both know plenty of revolutionaries that were on the demo and the break-away groups, so clearly there are different interests; and, both some of those revolutionaries and some of those social democrats would claim, conflicts of interests.

However, I think the main problem with your argument is that you portray those who went on the march and the organisers of the march as the same voice. I don’t know what the majority of the march thinks, only what various pundits and bloggers are saying. And generally that’s quite mixed, which is to be expected – though I’m hesitant to say that this could be perceived as representative.

The other point which I’m finding baffling is that the TUC (and labour, etc) are treating the really quite limited property damage of Saturday like the Weather Underground or the Angry Brigade. As a friend pointed out, this kind of rioting is an extension of the A-B march as a tactic: it’s saying ‘look at us, you can’t ignore us!’ but more forcefully.

As a revolutionary to a social democrat, I think we both believe that unity at all costs isn’t wise. However, I don’t think we’re at that point yet. Property damage and fending off violent police are not tactics which social democrats necessarily need to be horrified by.

Written By richard on March 29th, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

I wouldn’t claim the Labour and TUC leadership was the same as the ordinary marchers, but I would claim that for the most part neither was particularly enamoured of smashing stuff up. Of course neither of us has access to a weighted sample of all marchers, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t many in my union branch (for example) who are happy about what the black bloc did. One shop steward emailed me some photos he took of the march to put up on our website and his words were ‘over 400,000 marched and only 300 spoilt the day’. This, I should point out, is someone who’s a long way from being a Blairite careerist.
As to the objective terribleness of the property damage that was done, I doubt either the marchers or the organisers (for the most part) really care much about a bit of paint and broken glass in and of themselves – they care because (rightly or wrongly) they think it gave the rightwing press an excuse to dismiss the protest. I’m willing to bet that the angry denunciations by Ed Miliband, Brendan Barber et al which baffle you so much are a damage limitation exercise in response to that, not heartfelt and genuine expressions of shock.

Written By Owen on March 30th, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

Were there 300 in the Black Block? The police made 11 arrests of them (149 total arrests of which 138 were of the non-violent Fortnum and Mason’s occupiers). That’s a remarkably small number of arrests for the (over) reaction of the BBC and press.

I’m also wondering just how “violent” the Black Block were. It will be interesting to see if any of the 11 charges include assault, if there are, how much of this was in response to police tactics. In case, the “violence” of a few anarchists is minuscule in comparison to the injuries – or even damage to property – caused by just one cruise missile. We need to keep things in proportion. It’s getting things out of proportion that helps the right.

And remember: it wasn’t an anarchist who wrote “We got drunk, trashed the Ritz & then went down Piccadilly to loot a few items from Fortnums”, it was Boris Johnson in his Autobiography, writing about the Bullingdon Club in 1986. Anarchists may scandalise the bourgeoisie but they just don’t compare to it when it comes to real damage.

Written By JGW on March 30th, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

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