Nick Evans writes on a session at the rs21 political weekend that followed the format of the BBC’s Question Time.
Revolutionary socialists don’t get much of an airing on the BBC’s flagship programme Question Time. And questions about how to change the world don’t tend to make it past the BBC producers. However, this weekend, rs21 held its own Question Time, where panellists were invited to answer political questions on everything from the problems facing a small new revolutionary organisation in Britain, to those facing the world working class and the planet as a whole.
Crystal Palace and the limits of the possible
The evening began with some opening remarks by the panellists. Sara Bennett, a socialist trade unionist active in Unite, began with the difficulty we have even imagining the end of capitalism. Sara argued this creates a need for revolutionary organisation. Many left reformists hark back to an imagined post-war Golden Age, and while Owen Jones’s critique, for instance of the police, may be powerful, their solutions are far too limited. Meanwhile, hostility to mainstream political parties means that many reject the idea of organisation altogether. Sara argued that this is also a mistake, as far too many revolutionary situations suffered precisely for lack of independent revolutionary organisation.
We were also joined by the socialist comedian and activist Mark Steel. He began with an example of how the unimaginable can be possible: he had just arrived from watching Crystal Palace defeat Chelsea. Mark talked about how protest can have a power people don’t even realise, shifting the entire political terrain, so that, for example, even the Tory Party find themselves supporting gay marriage.
The problem revolutionaries are faced with is how to turn small victories from protest into a different way of running society altogether. Mark’s advice was to involve ourselves in all sorts of movements. One of the things he realised when he left the SWP, after 25 years as a member, was all the movements that the SWP had simply ignored. What we need is humility. We may be right about the limitations of left reformist projects, but if we can’t offer an alternative, then we should think carefully about how we make our critique.
Syria to Venezuela: Revolution and Counter-Revolution
The Syrian revolution, argued Rima Majed, has revealed very sharply the fault-lines within the Arab left. Rima charted how, following the 1950s, the Arab left either tended to be absorbed by nationalist regimes and to turn its focus exclusively to geopolitics, or to face repression and be driven underground. When the Arab revolutions began in 2011 many on the left were as surprised as the regimes that had incorporated them.
The revolution in Syria came out of anger at an especially brutal dictatorship and from the huge rise in inequality and poverty that neoliberalism has forced upon the Syrian people. A third of the population of Syria was living below the poverty line before the outbreak of the revolution.
The old left, with its geopolitical focus, argued that “Syria is not Egypt”. They pointed to its role in defending Palestine. But, Rima argued, why, then, have the Golan Heights been quiet for the last 30 years? What should we make of the massacre of Palestinians in the camp at Yarmouk? The Ba’athist regime has been committed to destroying workers’ self-organisation and to the destruction of all forms of political opposition. It is true that the opposition is divided: but what kind of a reason is that not to support them?
The Syrian revolution is a test not just for the Arab left, but for the wider left. There is a duty of international solidarity.
Mike Gonzalez talked about the explosion of reactionary violence in Venezuela. CNN, which condemned the Indignados movement in Spain, is now cynically making an analogy between the right-wing protests in Venezuela and such popular movements against neoliberalism.
The leaders of the opposition, Capriles, Machado and Lopez, come from the richest sections of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. They are motivated by profound class hatred. Bourgeois Venezuelans always used to describe Chavez as “ugly”, referring to his race and his class origins. Mike talked about the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, and the mass mobilisation that defeated the coup and effectively began the Bolivarian revolution.
Mike finished by talking about the tension that has developed since 2006 with the development of a Chavista bureaucracy, interested in defending its own privileges, and that will now be prepared to make peace with right-wing opposition in order to do so. The victory of a vision of the Bolivarian revolution based on popular power, rather than a strong state, is the only hope for its defence.
What should we do now?
The first questions concerned what rs21 as a group should be doing, and what can be done to change the wider state of the left, to involve more women, black and LGBT people. Sara answered that activists needed to get involved in the movements and campaigns that are already out there, such as Left Unity, housing campaigns, radical independence campaigns in Scotland.
Rima pointed to the link between international solidarity and reshaping our own organisations: revolutionaries need to be present on demonstrations in support of the Syrian revolution. Mike reminded us that revolutionaries don’t produce resistance; capitalism does. Our job is to participate and to learn. We need to win the right to express our ideas within the movement.
Small fish, big ponds
Next the panellists were asked about the relationship between reforms and revolutionary politics. Should we be a big fish in a small pond or vice versa? Mark argued we should aim to swim in bigger ponds, as bigger movements are more likely to be successful, and they expose us to a greater exchange of ideas. Sara reminded us we don’t always have the luxury of choice.
How do we pose the big picture?
Mike took issue with this question. The whole point about the self-emancipation of the working class is that it is the whole working class that does it. The big picture has to be posed by the movement as a whole, and not just as a blue-print by self-appointed revolutionaries. Rima argued that revolution is a long-term process, with setbacks, and multiple stages. We need to see the process in the Middle East in these terms, and our own project in such terms.
Where’s the revolution most likely to succeed?
Rima and Sara agreed that the possibility exists everywhere. Revolution is always unexpected whenever and wherever it happens. Mark developed this theme: in different ways, similar dynamics are unfolding all over the world. The neoliberals are in charge, the political parties that would have been expected to oppose them have capitulated, and people are pissed off. We need to find a way to articulate an alternative vision. Mike was the only one to name a region: Latin America. It is no coincidence that there, where resistance to neoliberalism has been especially powerful, we also see counter-revolution at its most vicious.
What is rs21?
Jonathan Neale, the evening’s presenter, concluded by talking about what rs21 is for. He argued that we are sure we stand for a vision of total equality, liberation, democracy, sisterhood and care for each other and for our whole planet, because we have learnt it from the hundreds of millions of people who have dedicated their lives to it: we have learnt it from the movements, and not from a single set of thinkers.
The difficulty, he argued, is that we are unsure what to do now. We know we’re wrong about some stuff, but we don’t know which stuff. This is why we need discussion such as those this weekend, but we will learn from being at the heart and soul of the real struggles of the people around us. All the revolutionary movements were built by people who listened. “Take it easy,” he concluded, “But take it.”