British Marxist on anti-WTO protests

Paul.Benedek at Paul.Benedek at
Tue Dec 14 22:09:27 MST 1999

-----Original Message-----
From: David Welch [mailto:welch at]
Sent: Wednesday,15 December 1999 3:09
To: marxism at
Subject: Re: British Marxist on anti-WTO protests

[Weekly Worker in fact, the Workers' Weekly is the newspaper of the
RCPB(ML). Easy mistake to make]

Whoops! I'm sure there is a joke in there somewhere...

On Wed, Dec 15, 1999 at 10:42:52AM +1100, Paul.Benedek at wrote:
> I found the "Workers Weekly" article [posted recently, see below] pretty
> unimpressive in its analysis of the protests in Seattle. To me, it
> seemed like the all-too-familiar small Marxist group wagging its finger
> on the sideline, although it was careful not to directly disassociate.
> Still, instead of seeing the possibilities and exciting developments
> that could flow from Seattle (even with all its warts and limitations),
> it goes for the tried and true critique of the rest of the "tailist"
> Left for their apparently "uncritical" support.
But that's the problem, the left avoids any mention of possible 'warts' or
limitations in its public statements, even if it recognizes them in

This article raises 'warts' to the crucial issue to be discussed. I think the problem
is not that the Left doesn't mention the 'warts', but if the Left (a) doesn't see the
potential of the mass mobilisations and simply berates them from the sidelines; and/or
(b) fails to put forward direction and ideas for strengthening the movement/s - ie
fails to SHOW IN PRACTICE (as well as theory) the superiority of Marxism.
Perhaps many on the (Brit) Left DO avoid ANY mention of the possible 'warts' in public
statements on Seattle. But I think the WW (should fix the confusion!) bends the stick
too far in focussing solely on the limitations and not the possibilities.

> It started by saying that Seattle showed the weakness of working class
> politics - inspiring stuff for any young radicals wanting to read about
> the Seattle events.
Why should radicals, young or otherwise, be uninspired if they find out
that that the working class is weak? And why should we be afraid to tell

What they would be uninspired about (or probably more correctly dissillussioned with)
would be Marxists who's lead-in to a story on the biggest, most dynamic protests in
"the belly-of-the-beast" for some time, is........wait for it.....
.......that the protest showed the weakness of the working class.
Yes, as I wrote previously, we agree that the working class is weak, and we shouldn't
be afraid of saying so....but the WW flips to the other side by seeing possibly the
most inspiring event in the US in a while as the correct time to outline this.

By such rationale, every article in WW for the next X years will begin:
"Well, once again we are right - the XXXX rally showed (again) the weakness of the
working class."

And indeed, it could probably finish with:
"WHat is needed is a communist program to cut across the XXXX movement."

And it will be RIGHT every time.......but it won't be very useful (nor very engaging
for those interested in socialism). Just as the Sparticists are correct to call for a
socialist society - but hollow phrases don't get us far along the track.

> While the Seattle protests DID show a weak Left
> (with the already well covered analysis of the divergent political
> perspectives, some being quite questionable), we ALREADY KNEW THERE WAS
> A WEAK LEFT. The real lesson from Seattle, and an inspiring one at that,

Maybe, but how can the 'willingness to fight' be separated from the
political program of the demonstrators. Would you have said the same if
the demonstrations had been against immigrants? "Obviously we don't agree
with their political perspectives, but anti-Jewish violence shows the
ordinary brownshirt has a lot of raw anger against capitalism."

I would have thought that we had basic agreement that, although there was diversity
(and bizarrity) in the Seattle protests, the protests and protestors were generally
progressive and something that we would support (in fact the article, atleast, implies
this by polemicizing against those who gave UNCRITICAL support to the protests - thus
CRITICAL support would be OK, no?).
Now, I don't think you or I would give ANY support to anti-immigrant protests. So i
think you are comparing apples and oranges.

Yes, the willingness to fight is not totally separable from the political perspectives
of the the demonstrators - it is THROUGH the struggle that people's politics and
perspectives can develop, and indeed there may be greater openings for socialists.
That is why the impressive fight and enthusiasm of the Seattle demonstrators is

Far from the CPGB(PCC) underestimating the WTO protests, it is Paul
Benedek who patronizes the assembled demonstrators by assuming that
throwing a few rocks and chanting a few slogans will have transformed them
into hardened leftists. Environmentalism is not an unorganised, passive
movement, but possesses its own political program. Why pretend this isn't
the case? The CPGB(PCC) has no wish to become a sectarian irrelevance, but
it is naive to assume that one becomes relevant simply by agreeing. If the
left was to try and outflank the ecological movement, not only would it
remain irrelevant (after all why join the red-greens when you could just
as well be a plain green), but it will lose its distinctive critique.

Really? I hope David can point out where I "assumed that throwing a few rocks and
chanting a few slogans will transform the protestors into hardened leftists"? There is
so much wrong with this sentence:
a) It totally denigrates the MASS nature of the Seattle demonstrations, which WW
itself put at involving 100,000 people. It was being part of such a MASS event, having
a feeling of strength in unity, that would have radicalised many that were there [but
no-one talked of tranformation into hardened Leftists - that's our job ;-)].
b) It is anti-mass action. Usually the people I come across yelling about the
uselessness of "a few slogans" are liberals, either of the ultra-left (ISO) variety
"we've got to occupy, occupy", or the "a rally won't change anything, we need
something different" variety.
c) It's a total distortion of what was written in the post.

David is also wrong on the environment movement:
a) Environmentalism (in Asut at least) does not have its own (homogenous) political
program. It, like the workers movement, women's liberation, anti-racism, etc has
varying tendencies, some stronger than others. Indeed, we in the DSP consider
ourselves environmentalists, and we have played a key role in environment movements.
b) "its naive to think one becomes relevant simply by agreeing." Certainly, but where
we CAN agree (and possibly work together) why not?
c) I'm not sure what is meant by "outflank" the environment movement. But if he means
lead, then the Left MUST lead the environment movement - we must react to any
injustice, and show that we are the BEST leaders, the best fighters. Why join the
red-green, not just be green? Simple - BECAUSE IT IS THE ONLY THING THAT WILL SAVE THE
ENVIRONMENT. Want to stop global warming, deforestation, etc???? It's caused by
corporations insatiable drive for profits - ultimately we need to have production in
the hands of the majority of people.
d) The idea of the Left losing its "distinctive critique" if it touches the
environment movement is bizarre. If David means a distinctive lack of concern for the
environment, then its a loss that's well overdue.

> Then, after having a go at the rest of the Left, it says "it is vital that
> we sharply differentiate ourselves from the politics that informed these
> demonstrations." But let's think this through. Virtually no protest
> today in the US (or Australia, Britain, or most places) is going to
> have a predominantly Marxist character - unfortunately we're a tiny
> minority. So yes, as Marxists, we differentiate ourselves from such
> politics. But how do we do this? By writing that the Seattle protests
> show the weakness of the Left? Or by writing that the Seattle protests
> show the mass, predominantly unorganised anger against the capitalist
> system and its resulting crimes, and the need to build and strengthen
> the Left so that such anger can not be controlled by collaborationist union
> officials, or diverted into political dead-ends?
> We MUST ENGAGE such movements, lest we condemn ourselves to sectarian
> irrelevance.
I don't think the Seattle protests show "unorganised anger against the
capitalist system", all the anger in Seattle was organized, by the US
trade unions, by anarchists and by environmentalists.

No, I wrote the "Seattle protests SHOW the mass, predominantly unorganised anger
against the capitalist system". Not that THE SEATTLE protests were unorganised. Yes,
most of the anger in Seattle was organised, and yes, that was under the banner of the
unions, anarchists, environmentalists et al. BUT WHAT OF THE ANGER ELSEWHERE???
Outside of Seattle? Hell, outside of the US? The Seattle protests SHOW that there is
plenty of anger against this or that aspect of the capitalist system - but
predominantly this anger is not organised and is allowed to dissipate. At the worst,
it can and will be harnessed by right-wing forces. But it can and must instead be
harnessed and developed by us.

   But more importantly, you seem to have your priorities back to front,
the CPGB(PCC) has supported all sorts of popular struggles in Britain, but
it doesn't try and fool anyone with unjustifiably upbeat perspectives or
ignore real political problems and differences. "Optimism of the will,
pessimism of the intellect" as Marx said. Apparently for the DSP, it's
enough that the revolutionary left keeps its end up by writing uncritical
articles. The movement will handle the rest.

Well, we have different priorities. I don't think the DSP or myself try to fool with
unjustifiably upbeat perspectives, and I haven't argued for that here.
In a time of (as you say) weakness of the Left, your priority (and that of the WW) is
to continue to point that weakness out to people, just in case they forget.
I would have thought a better priority, in such conditions, would be to relate to
those movements which exist, and show in practice the problems with their political
perspectives, and the superiority of a Marxist perspective - ie to strengthen the
working class.
It's certainly not enough to write uncritical articles. But it's also not enough to
write critical articles ;-)

> The article condemned the Socialist Worker quote of a protester commenting
> "this feels like the 1960s", stating that "this is nothing like the 60s,
> socially or politically". Sure, but the protester wasn't saying it WAS
> like the 60's, but that they FELT like he/she was in the 60's...because they
> were part of a large protest for a change, and broke through the
> stereotype of apathetic/TV-addicted/whatevers.... because they felt the
> POWER of mass action, and saw and felt the fear of the capitalist state.
There are been all sorts of large protests throughout history, what
distinguished the 1960s was the possibility of an alternative to
capitalism. What distinguished the Seattle protests (and similar campaigns
in the 1990s) was the degree of accommodation to capitalism by radicals.

Moreover what the protestor may have meant is irrelevant, what the SWP(UK)
meant by quoting him was that we are on the verge of an upturn in class
consciousness. But does this follow? There have been many large protests
during the 1990s which have directed themselves against the capitalist
state (some even violently), the anti-Poll Tax campaign, the Pit
Closures campaign and the more recent anti-GM protests, to name three. But
the usual indicators of working class combativity like days lost to
strikes remain at record lows. This gap is the index of the retreat of
radical politics, and it illustrates the real work to be done by

If anything, I think the Seattle protests accomodated capitalism less than other
protests in recent times.
I understand the frustration at Left groups who predict class struggle upturns around
the corner - I certainly am not about to defend the SWP's position on upturns in class
struggle, which are ALWAYS just around the corner (at least with the ISO in
But I'm not sure that what the protestor meant (or at least what the collective
protestors meant) IS IRRELEVANT - it is probably more relevant than what the SWP means
by printing it. They WANT to return to the 60's where there WAS an alternative. We
also want to return to providing a real alternative.

The fact that Days lost to strikes is very low, combined with the Seattle protests,
shows CONTRADICTIONS heightening. Anger is there, it exists, and some want to take
action - but the traditional leaderships are lacking - that's the lesson. And yes,
there's plenty of work to be done

> The articles then outlines "the defeat and disintegration of working class
> politics since the 1970's" - but this is rather first-world centric.
> What of the revolutions and uprisings in Latin America? More
> contemporary - what of the current mass movements of students, young workers,
> urban poor and peasants in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous
> country, which has seen the overthrow of a 30-year dictator and is
> continuing its struggle against the military regime?....And what of the
> related independence struggle in East Timor, and the uprising in Aceh?...
> Hardly a defeat and disintegration...Indonesia has seen victories and
> rapid growth of working class politics.
Well it was for a British audience. But in general, the national
liberation movements have retreated.

> The general conclusions of the article - the need for a stronger Left,
> Marxist leadership, etc, are something we could probably all agree with.
> But the method (or lack of) for building the Left, strengthening Marxist
> leadership etc, other than slaganeering (and of course pointing out how
> every other Left group is wrong), does not seem to comntribute in any
> way to achieving this task.
I think you expect too much from a short article. The CPGB(PCC) does try
and build the left, but it doesn't believe that practical unity begins by
maintaining a diplomatic silence about our differences ("pointing out
how every other Left group is wrong") but by open and forthright debate.

> It reminded me of the Wharfies struggle here in Australia last year, with
> some of the biggest pickets in ages, where the Socialist Equality Party
> (SEP) brought a broadsheet to the pickets headlined - "Only one side is
> fighting" (ie the bosses). Now, it  was certainly true that the Labour
> Bureaucracy (ALP) were trying to control proceedings and limit the
> struggle, but it was a super way to engage with workers who were
> spending night after day on rainy picket lines - tell them they weren't
> fighting! Needless to say (and understandably), any socialist on the picket
> line from then on was looked upon sceptically.
How those workers must have suffered, being criticised by the SEP! It
makes you wonder whether such precious darlings could ever accomplish
anything at all.

Of course, the workers didn't suffer from the SEP's stunt (the SEP is tiny) but the
Left did. It was terrible sectarianism that made the workers very hostile to
socialists trying to engage them and win them away from the conservative ALP hegemony.
It echoed everything that the bureaucracy had warned them about the Left - that they
were anti-worker, loony, detached from reality. It totally played into the hands of
the ALP bureaucrats, and the bosses. Such sectarianism by precious socialists
certainly will not accomplish anything at all.

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