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Martin Sullivan, Livingstone and the Left

Andrew Robinson

MARTIN SULLIVAN’S uncritical tailing of Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign, even in its populist and anti-left dimensions ("A Reply to Neil Murray", What Next? No.17), leaves unanswered the important question: why should socialists support Livingstone’s, or anyone else’s, election campaign? I say this not because I think we shouldn’t support candidates, but because I think we should be careful to do so for the right reasons. And doing so for the right reasons also influences the tactics we should adopt.

Martin thinks Livingstone’s victory "had the potential to alter the course of the labour movement", so that "a lot was at stake politically". He provides no justification for this claim, produced out of thin air. Given that Livingstone has won, I would like to see where the evidence is of an altered course for any part of the labour movement. It seems to me that Martin is under the illusion that, just because Livingstone makes himself sound left wing occasionally, he somehow automatically represents ordinary workers, and supporting his victory at any cost suddenly becomes imperative. This is suggested, for instance, by Martin’s demand for a focus on "practicalities", to the exclusion of any kind of socialist principles and a socialist, or even democratic, agenda.

His attitude to Livingstone reminds me of nothing more than the trade union leaders who said "don’t rock the boat" to protect Labour right-wingers, and the Stalinists who urged solidarity with the USSR no matter what it did. Like them, he picks a side, assigns it "proletarian" status, and then proceeds to defend everything it does on the grounds of "practicalities". But instrumental reason and "practicality" can be used by any social force; they are not goods in themselves.

For me, being a socialist is about something entirely different: the struggle for a better world. The "practicalities" of bourgeois politics, the bourgeois media and so on are rigged against the emergence of radical alternatives, and towards the co-option of radicals into acting as a left cover for the bourgeoisie or pursuing paternalistic reforms to pacify the masses. This is one reason why the insurgents of 1968 were committed to "demanding the impossible". Most social power is removed from spheres occupied by elected officials and placed in the hands of capitalists – local and global – and of the unelected, repressive wing of the state. So a campaign which is going to change anything has eventually to confront the anti-democratic imperatives of capitalism and the bourgeois state.

This is incompatible with uncritically supporting career politicians whose very social being is based upon their "playing within the (bourgeois) rules". When we support candidates in elections, therefore, we have to push them to do more than merely talk in a left wing way – otherwise there is no point supporting them at all. Our interventions should be positive and make demands beyond those of left-reformist candidates. We should aim to relocate such political rhetoric away from the conformist strategies and towards a preparedness to take on the bourgeoisie and its allies in the spheres where it actually makes a difference. We should make sides, not take sides.

Martin’s opposition to grassroots campaign organisations is highly elitist. If nothing can be organised without "sects" coming along to "screw things up", any kind of grassroots democracy or freedom is impossible and we are left eternally in the grip of spin doctors and managers who, of course, know so much better how not to screw things up! (As in the case of the Dobson campaign, I assume.) If, on the other hand, we want to create a society based on grassroots self-activity and democracy, we might as well start building it now – by practising what we preach in organising our own campaigns. If it is possible to build such a society, we have to start somewhere – "sects" or no "sects". If it isn’t possible to increase democracy and freedom, I fail to see the point in supporting any political activity at all; one may as well submit to the status quo. Martin is here clearly elevating the conjunctural and specific above any possibility of a meaningful lasting socialist politics. This is probably because he is under the illusion that Livingstone will magically revive the labour movement.

Even more seriously, he seems to think socialists should passively submit to the propaganda antics of the bourgeois media. If Livingstone is accused of being supported by "left wing hooligans", and he responds by distancing himself from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), this merely serves to reinforce the media lie that the left are violent and bourgeois society is a haven of peace and freedom. Or perhaps Martin shares such prejudice? He does, after all, accuse the SWP of "mob-handed" action. The term "mob", invented by the feudal oligarchy to defame peasant uprisings, expresses elitist prejudices against popular action. We should always remember who is really committing violence in capitalist society: those who support a world system which kills hundreds of thousands every year, and the police, who viciously attack anti-capitalist demonstrators. This is not to say that the SWP or anyone else is entirely innocent, but they can never be guilty enough to justify tailing bourgeois discourse.

Contrary to Martin’s assertion, there was nothing dishonest about the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) declaring their support for Livingstone. Rather, it is despicable that people who claim to be in favour of democracy tried to prevent them from doing this. Democracy should mean being able to support who one wishes – not having to submit to one of several propaganda machines.

So Livingstone couldn’t have campaigned around issues like immigration because the Greater London Authority (GLA) has no influence over them? But his flagship policy was opposing Tube privatisation – which is also outside official GLA control. Besides: the point is not only what policies he supports, but how he poses these policies. Livingstone should have pointed out that the solutions to social problems cannot come from above, and encouraged Londoners to become involved in grassroots campaigns. Instead, much of his campaign focused on distancing himself from the LSA and also the May Day demonstration – two of the very few more-or-less grassroots campaigns going on at the time. Apparently, he is quite happy with the elitist, bourgeois nature of contemporary media-dominated politics – after all, it provided him with a political career. Socialists should take an entirely different stance.

This leads me to the most disturbing part of Martin’s case: his rantings on the subject of the May Day demonstration. Referring to people one dislikes as "brain-damaged" is a normalist and reactionary device. It is oppressive towards brain-damaged people who should be respected for who they are, and it is oppressive towards political opponents, who should be debated on what they believe and not simply denounced. Martin acts as if he is somehow the guardian of an absolute political morality, and as if he has a God-like access to political truth.

There is nothing "stupid" about such protests, which are a powerful symbolic negation of the evils of capitalism. These protests involve ordinary activists taking control of their own lives and creating decommodified spaces, albeit briefly – something socialists should certainly not condemn. The so-called "rioting" on May Day was legitimate self-defence by demonstrators caged in by a violent and oppressive police operation. Livingstone found time to condemn these demonstrators for defending themselves, but not to condemn the vicious and repressive acts perpetrated by the police on this and on previous demonstrations: packing people into enclosed spaces like at Hillsborough, clubbing whoever is nearest with truncheons, separating children and parents on opposite sides of police lines and refusing to let them through, taking hours of videotape – Orwellian-style – to victimise demonstrators, giving jail sentences for minor acts of graffiti, nearly killing someone by driving a van onto them at J18, and so on. Policing is most certainly within Livingstone’s remit, and even a decent liberal should be prepared to oppose such atrocities. But Livingstone is too worried about his media image.

The way to deal with popular misconceptions and media lies about May Day is not to endorse them. Livingstone contributed to a one-way propaganda campaign, doing more than anyone else to give it a left cover. This plays straight into the hands of the police, who are quite aware of General Kitson’s advice to splinter movements by co-opting pliant dissidents. Instead, we should be using what little voice we have in the media to expose police violence and media lies. Livingstone has more of a media voice than almost any other left-winger – yet he uses his voice only to regurgitate what the media already thinks.

Which brings us back to the point about what elections are for. Democracy and freedom are not won by voting for Livingstone. They are won on the streets, by preventing the police and other allies of the bourgeoisie (such as the Nazis) from imposing repressive policies. The right to peaceful protest has been de facto destroyed by a string of repressive laws (if you don’t believe me, look at how the Tibetans were treated). Democracy, freedom and the right to protest can only be won back by a radical mass movement. This is impeded if supposedly progressive politicians start condemning any protest which doesn’t quite look how they would like it to. About the only useful thing politicians can do "from above" is to support mass activity as and when it occurs. Representatives should be elected to act as an auxiliary arm of the actual struggle, which is and always has been on the streets, in the workplaces and in everyday life.

But Livingstone is not only attached to the bourgeois model of delivering reforms from above. He openly opposes popular action – in advance, in the most harmful way possible, supporting the police conspiracy to portray the so-called "violence" as inevitable to cover for their own pre-laid plans to attack the demonstration, not only offering the usual reformist’s call to keep it peaceful (which is all Ken’s supposed principles imply), but actually urging people to stay away. And he is hand-in-glove with the bourgeois media and refuses to criticise its lies. Even Martin admits that Ken’s official campaign had a "bureaucratic mind-set" – so how can it be worthy of uncritical support?

Just as importantly, can Livingstone be trusted over anything else? Suppose there is a big strike in a few years’ time, and the police, media and government spread propaganda against it. Can Ken even be trusted not to condemn the strikers and support scabbing, let alone to provide support? What if he finds himself in the middle of a Seattle-type mobilisation? May Day is not an isolated incident.

Livingstone also said that only American capitalists are exploitative, and he supported the bombing of Yugoslavia. (So much for his opposition to "stupid vandalism" – breaking a few windows is too much for Ken, but blowing up a whole TV station, slaughtering media workers in the process, is apparently OK!) In his campaign, he pledged to deal with police racism and corruption. So far he has done nothing.

Martin claims that Neil Murray "fails to come to grips with reality". This, of course, involves an arrogant claim to privileged ontological knowledge which Martin could not possibly possess. It also raises a tricky question: is the hyper-reality of media-dominated elections more "real" than the socially lived actuality of socialist and anti-capitalist activity? And just as importantly: should socialists passively submit and adapt to a "reality" dominated by the bourgeoisie, or is the point, rather, to change it? If the point is to change it, then does Livingstone’s election in and of itself achieve anything?

I think on balance that there was something of a case for supporting Livingstone, but not because I am under the illusion that his election alters anything important about the labour movement, and certainly not because I think he will do anything seriously worthwhile as mayor. We should have supported him, partly as a statement against Blairite bureaucratic stitch-ups, and partly in the hope of pushing him towards better politics. Though Livingstone cannot be trusted not to sell us out, we have more basis for minimising this risk if we supported his campaign. But a campaign advocating democracy must also operate democratically, and a campaign aiming to keep Livingstone under pressure can only support him critically.

Socialists should not simply support candidates who look left wing, but should demand that they make a positive difference in struggles in other spheres. This requires far more than a "pragmatics" directed at getting careerist individuals elected to well-paid positions at any cost. It requires a positive agenda of struggle. Whether or not one supports Livingstone is of far less lasting significance than whether or not one is prepared to oppose the remorseless advance of capitalism and state repression. This is appropriately summed up in the old Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory slogan: Vote Labour (or in this case Livingstone) and prepare to fight.