Leninist front-groups and the problems of “tail-ending” the Left

There are innumerable hurdles in trying to build and maintain the momentum of a strong, libertarian, workers movement. From the fact that the first signs of success (or even visibility) with such a movement bring instant state attention and repression to the fact that there will always be far more people willing to sympathise with anarchist views than are willing to do anything about them.

There are workable, battle-proven strategies for dealing with state repression. A lack of willing can be challenged through engagement, involvement in the collective decision making process, and building people’s’ confidence in the support structures at their backs if they put themselves “out there.” Other hurdles can be overcome as they arise, and solid arguments and collective strength goes a long way in that process.

But one thing that continues to stump the anarchist movement, however, is the authoritarian left’s tendency towards monopolising causes and movements, particularly through the use of front organisations. This leaves us either isolated, heckling from the sidelines, or tail-ending the left’s actions.

Left-wing front organisations, such as the Socialist Party's "Youth Fight for Jobs," are a way to monopolise movements and demobilising genuinely radical action in favour of recruitment and paper-selling

Both courses of action have their problems, and it seems as yet that the third alternative – that is, taking the initiative for ourselves – can only ever happen on a small scale. The authoritarian left’s monopolies make it extremely difficult to draw support beyond our own, small, bases. Thus we return to shouting from the back or tacking ourselves onto existing events, and anarchist politics become misrepresented and marginalised.

The Left and its many fronts

In the world of organised crime, mobsters have respectable businesses as fronts to disguise their illegal activities. In the world of political activism, parties and organisations form single-issue groups as fronts in order to lure people in on the basis of a single issue whilst hiding their broader ideology so that they can recruit people who may not agree with it. This is particularly prevalent on the Leninist / Trotskyite left.

A prime example of this is the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in Britain. Their front organisations include Right to Work, the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, Love Music Hate Racism, Campaign Against Climate Change, Globalise Resistance, and Defend Council Housing.

Whilst they have the most fronts, however, they are not the only Trot party to have them. The Socialist Party has the Youth Fight for Jobs Campaign, and has previously stood candidates in elections under the guise of “No2EU” and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has Education not for Sale, Feminist Fightback, Workers Climate Action and No Sweat.

So it goes on. The sects get tinier and more mental, and their fronts more obscure, but the formula remains the same. Take an issue people are concerned about, form a front group for it, mask any other politics you may have, and monopolise the movement by declaring anybody who cares about the subject but doesn’t side with yourselves to be “sectarian.” The likely result is that the most radical action you can muster is a liberal and entirely passive protest, whilst those who want to do something effective will be demobilised and disenfranchised from above. But hey, you’ll sell a lot of papers.

Admittedly, the extent to which this is true varies. AWL and SP fronts, for instance, are often less apolitical and more direct with their message than SWP ones; take Workers Climate Action declaring that “climate is a class issue,” say, compared to UAF’s unwillingness to address the class issues that surround antifascism. But the formula roughly holds true in all cases.

Though not successful in actually addressing the issue around which the group exists, said formula gets results when it comes to hogging the limelight. The media uses “UAF” or “UAF supporters” as a synonym for antifascists, as an example, to the extent that the Liverpool Echo described protesters from Liverpool Antifascists as members of “Liverpool Unite Against Fascism.”

This is more than just an issue of semantics and minor irritations. The inevitable result of such monopolisation is not only that all those who join said campaigns are led up a blind alley, but that those who wish to take a different road are at best marginalised and at worst hounded for their position.

Whilst most anarchists couldn’t care less what the Trots think of them, the fact is that such a turn of events is damaging to our efforts to grow as a movement. Whilst other groups and individuals may occasionally get on their wrong side, precisely because we reject such shallow politics we always end up on the outside, frowned upon by the sensible movement for being so crassly sectarian as wanting to do something more effective than simply sell papers.

Heckling and tail-ending

As mentioned above, one of the main results of this is that an awful lot of anarchist groups and individuals are reduced to either booing from the sidelines whilst engaging in self-marginalisation, or tail-ending the marches and demos of these same fronts as a way to try and get their message across.

In both cases, there is solid reasoning for the approach taken, and it is not plugged as either of those things. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are severe limitations to both approaches and that they are the – perhaps unintended – outcomes.

The argument for heckling is one for abstention. The Trotskyites will never come around to an anarchist or even vaguely libertarian viewpoint, and it is pointless to try and reach them. But more than that, the lessons of history tell us that at the first possible chance they will sell us down the river or shoot us in a ditch. We are better off leaving them to it, offering our criticisms of them to a wider audience, and trying to get active on our own terms.

Getting involved in mainstream left-wing actions, such as forming "Radical Workers' Blocs," can be good for engaging with other working class activists, but also runs the risk of simply tail-ending actions taken by others

The problem is that, to the wider audience, the critique is visible but the alternative action isn’t. Anarchists get a reputation for being naysayers in one respect because we’re not visibly doing anything else. It is an unfortunate fact that most activism takes place largely unremarked and under the radar, whilst even the most obscure piece of drivel on the internet (yes, such as this) can get several hundred or several thousand hits in a short space of time.

And unlike activism, it remains forever visible and accessible to anybody who may wish to see it.

The case for tagging on to other broad-left events is that such (perceived) marginalisation is harmful. Yes, the SWP et al are not for turning, and we need to be aware of their propensity for betrayal. But this doesn’t mean that everybody within said groups is a hardline Trotskyite who believes sincerely that they are the revolutionary leadership of the working class. Most have decent enough aims, are looking for an outlet, and end up used as paper-vendors because nobody else is talking to them. If we want to grow, we need to engage with them – and to stay engaged with those who are sympathetic to our standpoint.

I have made this argument myself, and I think it is a solid one. Navel gazing serves no useful purpose, and supposedly being part of the working class and advocates of revolutionary class struggle we ought to muck in with our target audience.

But I also recognise the potential pitfalls, one of which is that despite best intentions we do little more than simply stick ourselves at the end of whatever march happens to be going through our towns or cities. There can be a reluctance to sell our ideas, especially at the risk of appearing the same as the Trots, and we become little more than the token anarchists of the workers’ movement rather than putting forward the argument for others to take our position.

Then there is the question of whether over-familiarity breeds complacency. Whilst being afraid to sell our own ideas, will hanging around bureaucrats too much make us less wary of their intent and thus more vulnerable to it?

This is as true with the structures of the authoritarian left as it is with the framework of capitalism. You may hope to change the minds of ordinary individuals, but if you enter the dominant institutions with a view to changing them, even gradually, either you will change instead or your position won’t last all that long.

The solution

But if both abstension and involvement come with their pitfalls, what can we do?

Let me be clear. I am not disparaging either viewpoint as utterly without merit or saying it needs to be trashed. My point is that on their own they have limitations which in my view cannot be overcome. We need an approach which takes on board the effective points whilst getting rid of those problems.

We need to be willing to “heckle from the sidelines,” as it were. This may be dismissed as “sectarian” by people who brook no dissent, but the fact is that if there is a valid political criticism to be made of any group or tactic, we should not be prevented from doing so by politeness. Believing in an open and democratic movement, we should also seek an open and democratic debate where criticisms can be made publicly, rather than spin and hype.

But at the same time, we also need to be in the thick of the action. It is all well and good having and argument as to, say, why organised workers should reject the TUC, but if it is only going to get an airing when you are preaching to the converted, there really is no point.

The most apt saying I have ever heard, from a comrade in Brighton, is that “we should seek to be the anarchist wing of the workers’ movement, not the workerist wing of the anarchist movement.” This about sums it up. If we are about class struggle, then we should educate, agitate, and organise with that aim in mind, not simply sound off to each other and make ourselves irrelevant to the concerns of the working class.

At the same time, we need to keep a careful eye on such interactions in order to maintain our integrity. This is not about “revolutionary purism,” as some would have it, but about practicing the anarchist politics that we’re trying to sell to others.

If we are worried about becoming like the Trotskyites when involved in actions, the easiest way to dispel that is by not doing what we do. Our papers are largely free, so we can give people radical ideas to read without acting as a glorified paper vendor. We have no “petitions” to sign people up to a mailing list without them realising. We don’t recruit people just to bump up the numbers regardless of whether they agree with our basic aims and principles.

In short, we’re spreading information and ideas, not selling merchandise or building up a troupe of cannon fodder.

The FAU, in Germany, is one example of a radical, libertarian organisation which has challenged the authoritarian left's tendency to monopolise resistance and won

There is, of course, no solid blueprint for where the anarchist movement should go from here. This is only my opinion. But I believe that there is a line to be drawn between heckling and honest, open debate. Equally between being subsumed by the broad left and taking our arguments out to a wider audience. The trick is to ensure we are on the right side of that divide.

Once we’re walking on that narrow road between obscurity and fatal compromise, the next question is how to make that road wider and to make more people see what we have to offer as a genuine alternative. This is difficult, certainly, but not impossible.

Though not an explicitly or exclusively anarchist organisation, Liverpool Antifascists operates on the basis of principles common to anarchists and the broader libertarian left – consensus democracy, non-hierarchical organisation, direct action, and a rejection of the state as a means to fight fascism.

The same was true of Antifa England. But though they stated that “as well as confronting the BNP physically, we should aim to challenge the BNP’s fascist politics and replace them with our own anti-racist, anti-state, and pro working-class politics,” this was not the image that prevailed. Rightly or wrongly, they were branded as street-fighting hit squads and it became impossible to escape that image.

LiverAF, by comparison, has made a point of publicly offering a much more broad focus and, though not shying away from standing up to them on the streets, has made challenging the fascists ideologically and building community links central to its campaign. The model has been followed by other groups, notably Manchester AFA, the Scottish Anti-Fascist Alliance, and the Stop Racism and Fascism Network. As a result, there is now a significant libertarian, grassroots alternative to the SWP-front of UAF if you’re looking to fight fascism.

In Germany, the anarcho-syndicalist FAU put their ideas into action by actively organising workers and putting the principle of mass participation and collective decision making into action in workplace disputes. They present an effective and succesful enough model that the mainstream unions collaborated with the state to see them banned from operating.

But this particular pitfall of presenting a viable alternative model of resistance was overcome with massive international solidarity and local determination. Whilst anarcho-syndicalists around the world took action in solidarity, the FAU fought the ban in court. Ultimately, they won their fight and are now able to continue their efforts to organise workers on a libertarian basis.

There are countless other examples, but the point remains the same.

In challenging the monopolisation of the workers’ movement by the authoritarian left and its many front groups, simply criticising from the sidelines leaves us marginalised, and getting involved with their actions risks us either tail-ending or being consumed. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

It is vital to try and educate fellow workers and socialists about our ideas on how to fight the struggles we all face, and to agitate the authoritarians and self-appointed leaders of the left so that people know there is an alternative to them. But it all comes to nothing unless we actively organise and lead by example at the same time. In fact, it’s a rather good basis for a slogan

7 Responses to “Leninist front-groups and the problems of “tail-ending” the Left”
  1. Hi, enjoyed reading this article and it inspired me to write something similar on our blog. The Anarchists against the cuts campaign looked like it was going to end up being a front group itself (For Bristol AFed) but we are starting to communicate with other groups so hopefully that risk will diminish and it will become the umbrella campaign for many groups and individuals like it was intended to be.

    We are taking a relatively non-sectarian view-point as we feel it is important to work with other stalinist/trotskyite groups as we put the anti-cuts movement and working class struggle before our differences. This has proved problematic, for example we called an action recently and stated it was non-sectarian to try and keep the paper sellers at bay, it worked (for a while) but on the other hand it meant there was some overtly anarchist material that we had that we felt we could not give out without being hypocritical.

    We have also found working with hierarchical unions very hard work at times especially as what they refer to as consensus decision making appears to mean the chairmans mates agreeing and motions getting passed. They also fail to see that their individual members are autonomous and capable of making their own minds up about getting involved with actions and demos that are not officially sanctioned.

    Good Blog

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