Strategies for the radical left: realistic, but visionary

‘Strategies for the radical left today’ is an excerpt from a talk given by Estelle Cooch at They Don’t Represent Us on 16 May 2015.

Photo: Steve Eason

Working as a teaching assistant in West London and seeing how the election played out in the eyes of 14 year olds was quite revealing. I had one student who asked totally genuinely, “if Labour wins the election will that lead to communism?”, leaving me to explain that whatever the Daily Mail said about Ed Miliband he didn’t actually want to institute a system of worker’s self management.

Then you had other students who right before they punched someone in the playground took to saying “Am I tough enough? Hell yes! I’m tough enough” and then whopping someone on the nose.

Lots of the students at my school truly believed that Ed Miliband, who went to speak to Russell Brand, who tripped when he came off the leaders debate, who was photographed with a hen party would be to quote them “the most banterous” prime minister Britain had ever known.

And so for those students, and indeed most teachers, things now look quite bleak. There was a recent report in the Guardian that said since 2012 300,000 more children have been pushed into poverty. With another £12bn of welfare cuts on the horizon the next five years of Tory rule look set to be even more austere than the last.

So with that in mind I wanted to focus on a characterisation of Marx that the writer Terry Eagleton uses. Eagleton says that Marx is simultaneously both the most astounding visionary, and the most sobre realist.

And if the radical left is to grow in the coming period, both in the UK and elsewhere, I think we have to embrace both sides of that. We have to accept that neoliberalism has in quite fundamental ways affected the working class. We also have to admit that struggles may well emerge in the most unexpected and untraditional places. But at the same time we have to put forward a vision for an alternative society that inspires people.

It is not anarchist or hippy claptrap to suggest ways we could live differently and I think some on the left have been wrongly quite dismissive of people trying to advance a vision. Many people denounce Marx for being utopian, but surely the utopian thing is actually to believe that capitalism can provide an answer to the crisis that we’re in?


This time ten years ago we were still immersed in a period of anti-capitalism after the Seattle protests in 1999.

In this period when it came to anti-capitalism (and I’m not including the anti-war movement in this) we often saw the symbolism of events giving them an importance that was way out of proportion with the numbers directly involved.

To take the Seattle protests of 1999 as an example, there were only about 30,000 demonstrators at the height of the protest, but it became a flashpoint and an inspiration for anti-capitalists everywhere.

Now compare that with the anti-capitalist movement after the crash.  It’s markedly different. This time anti-capitalism wasn’t emerging in a period of economic growth, but a period of total collapse in legitimacy for neoliberalism.

The Occupy protests that began in October 2011, involved over 1.5 million people across the globe. In Spain, where the biggest mobilisations were, the Indignados brought a million people onto the street and in New York we saw over 100,000.

But there’s another importance difference. Despite there being millions and millions involved in these protests across the globe, there was probably less international coordination than after Seattle where we saw the rise of the World and European Social Forums and international groups such as Attac acting as coordinating groups for the new movement.

Now an activist in Egypt or Spain can tweet us in London, or vice versa but neither of us might be part of a group that actually coordinates with them internationally.

And so this means that the tempo of struggle in each country at the moment is very different. You only need to get a train to Scotland to see how different it is. Defeats and victories, retreats and advances can’t be measured so easily, but it is certainly the case that victory or defeat elsewhere will be felt by us here.

But why does this matter? Why does what the anti-capitalist movement was doing 5 years ago or even 15 years ago matter for us now?

Symbolism and outbursts

Mainly because I think the features of both those periods, symbolism over numbers, and also unexpected often quite local outbursts will continue to be a feature of the next 5 years.

Take for example the explosion of anger over police violence in the US. The protests around the murder of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, didn’t actually include hundreds of thousands of people. At its peak the protests in New York reached only 3,000, but they became symbolic of an anger that hundreds of thousands felt. And so their impact goes far beyond those involved.

In other words often it’s not illusions about capitalism that stops people from organising against it, but it’s their disillusions that organising will change anything. And this makes what even small groups of people do even more important. We have to be the people who can prove that victories, however small, come from organising from below.

And that leads me on to the title of this meeting – about strategy, specifically what a Marxist or radical left strategy should look like today.

A strategy for today?

People are often, rightly, quite adverse to the idea of strategy. People know that if their boss comes into work on Monday and says there’s a new strategy, that it will inevitably involve doing more work and getting slightly less pay.

People also say why Marxism? Why do we need a Marxist strategy? Isn’t Marxism finished?

Of course the paradox of this is noone wishes Marxism was finished more than Marxists! On a day like today who wouldn’t rather be sitting outside in the sun. The great irony of Marxism is that it’s a theory purely devised to one day no longer be needed. It’s a theory that wants to be finished!

So when it comes to strategy what is it that Marx offers than no one else does? Is it the idea of class? Well,  that can be traced back centuries and indeed most of the bourgeois economists of the 19th century, Adam Smith, David Ricardo acknowledged it aswell.

Is it the idea of revolution? Obviously not – that clearly predates Marx. Marx believed in a non-exploitative cooperative society, but so do many anarchists and libertarians who would completely reject Marxism. And similarly his idea of alienation was mainly derived from Hegel.

In short I think that Marx offers us two things that are unique and both go back to this idea of being sobrely realistic, but also visionary.

Looking at the contradictions

First is that he offers us an analysis of capitalism that focuses on the contradictions that are at the heart of it.

Marx tells us we shouldn’t take things at face value. He emphasises the importance of looking beneath surface appearances. He argues that we can’t understand the system just by looking at economics (as important as that is) nor can we understand it by looking purely at politics. We have to confront the system by looking at it in its totality – working out how each bit connects to each other.

Second he offers us a way out of the problem by focusing on the agency that workers have to end their situation collectively. The working class, you, all of us here in this room are the ultimate contradiction within capitalism. We are its lifeblood, but we are also capable of bringing it to its knees.

Those two things locked together – an analysis of the system in its totality – and the necessity of practical organisation to change it is what makes Marxism quite unique.

Sophocles and Schwarzenegger

When we look around the world today it’s not difficult to see the contradictions, that Marx talks about. One third of the urban population now live in slums yet since the start of the recession in 2008 the number of billionaires in the world has doubled. On the surface those two things sound simply like two facts about the world – that’s how they’re taught if you do GCSE geography- but it is because there are billionaires that there are also slum dwellers.

In an essay criticising post-colonial characterisations of Europe Terry Eagleton sums up these contradictions quite nicely:

“Emancipatory traditions of thought mark the history of Europe, just as the practice of slavery does. Europe is the home of both democracy and death camps. If it includes genocide in the Congo it encompassed the Paris communards and the suffragettes. It signifies both socialism and fascism, Sophocles and Arnold Schwarzenegger, civil rights and cruise missiles, feminism and a heritage of famine.”

But how do we rid the world of all those horrible things – fascism, famine, and the worst one of all Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Marx famously said that “History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth. It wages no battles. It is man, real living man who does all that.”

And so it seems to me we need to be the people who ardently believe in the capacity for people to change. It would be easy to batten down the hatches, it would be easy to believe that Britain is stuffed at least for the next five years, but by doing that and believing that we make it a reality.

Radical morality vs. radical moralism

And this links to something that might quite controversial, but something Marx talks about a lot. It would be very easy in the next five years to replace a radical morality – that’s something we need (the idea that people shouldn’t starve, the idea that people should have decent housing, the idea that people shouldn’t suffer oppression) with a radical moralism. What is moralism? It is the idea of moral values taken out of all historical or social context and then laid down as a moral judgement.

To take one example, I know someone who had a big argument at their work recently over bullying in the canteen. They recruited several canteen workers to the union one of whom had some racist ideas. Of course they had three choices in that situation. Either they ignored her racism and let her join, knowing that it would put off other workers from joining.

Or they could stop her from joining at all until she had repented in some way and done the socialist version of ten hail marys. Or they could do what they did do which was to sit down and discuss her ideas with her until she eventually changed her mind, which ultimately led to other immigrant workers joining the union aswell.

I emphasise that radical morality, over radical moralism only because we can be as pure as we like in this room excluding people from the movement, but we can be certain that in the next five years other less savoury forces will embrace them with open arms.

Courage, consistency and conclusions

And so I wanted to end with a couple of things we can do. In 1848 during one particular conflict in Germany, Marx wrote in his newspaper “the side that has the greater courage and consistency will win”

And this focus on consistency is important. We need to continue rebuilding the unions in our workplaces. Workplace organisation is ultimately our lifeblood and we don’t do enough of it or take it seriously enough. That’s not to say it will be straightforward.

In the past we may have used “strikes” as the big stick with which to threaten management. Nowadays there might be a lot more of throwing rocks in the form of disciplinary cases, casework or employment tribunals. But winning those can be the victories that recruit people to the union.

Secondly we need to not underestimate the impact that victories in smaller unions or smaller workplaces can have nationally. This goes back to struggles becoming symbols of wider anger. They can leave behind what one theorist calls “sediments of struggle”, memories of fightbacks that can re-emerge in periods of crisis.

The strike at the Ritzy cinema over the living wage was an obvious example of this. The living wage was not the first strike they’d had, but it became the symbol of extortionate living costs in London.

Strikers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton in April 2014

Because the workers were not actually hardened union activists they didn’t have all the baggage and hang-ups about calling strike action. They’d learnt from previous movements and incorporated their lessons. The Russian Revolutionary Trotsky calls this the “privilege of backwardness” and it wouldn’t surprise me if we were to see much more of this in the next five years.

No-one could have predicted the earthquake in Scotland, nor the colossal rise of the Indignados in Spain or even the movement against sexual violence that has exploded across the world. We need to be awake to the fact that the traditional means in which struggles have manifested themselves may no longer dominate. But we also need to be sobrely realistic. The next few years will not be easy. It is not certain that there will be a mass resurgence of struggle anywhere.

Other people’s revolutions

I’ll end with this. There is a theory that I call the theory of “other people’s revolutions“.

It’s the idea that if you ask people if they support a revolution in their own country, the vast majority would say no, but if you ask them if they support a revolution somewhere else, they’ll be much more likely to say yes. Did you support the Egyptian revolution? Of course! Do you think the French revolution of 1789 was a good thing – of course, why wouldn’t I!

And so the final thing I think the left needs to start taking seriously is putting forwards a vision for the working class, a working class that is black, that is female, that is LGBT, and crucially, global.

It’s not good enough anymore to expect people to go along from protest to protest, or meeting to meeting and to carry on doing that for the next five years. People will get demoralised.

We need a strategy that doesn’t just say “what is the next campaign?” but instead says “how will this campaign link to the bigger project of transforming society?”. What are the campaigns that we need to prioritise because they will, if they succeed, cause capitalism the greatest amount of damage. That is what strategy means today.

Radical politics needs to be the link between the present and the future. It needs to expose the present reality for what it is, but it also needs to point to the group that can rid the world of that very reality.

Our job in the period to come is to find strategies that represent that bridge between where we are now and where we need to be. And so I think we need to be, like Marx, soberly realistic, but also incredibly visionary.


  1. “If you ask them if they support a revolution somewhere else, they’ll be much more likely to say yes.”
    If you ask most people who consider themselves revolutionary socialists whether they support the revolution against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, they’ll say that the revolution got sidetracked into a Western-backed proxy war, and we can’t tell one of these Muslim groups from another. That’s because none of them are in groups that coordinate with the Syrian solidarity movement internationally, and that’s why they are going to be irrelevant when the scale of the Syrian people’s suffering becomes clear, and the abandonment of their struggle against dictatorship by the world, and in particular the left, becomes obvious, and nobody wants to listen to the perhaps very good messages you have on other subjects, when the record on Syria has been so appalling.


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