Knowing your place: Protesting and problems for the Left

By Matteo Tiratelli

Recent images of the vigil held for Mark Duggan outside Tottenham Police Station illustrate a problem which has plagued the Left for many years. Apart from a few DIY banners, all of the placards on show bare the brazen logo of the Socialist Workers Party. The issue here is not the “instrumentalisation” of Mark Duggan’s death, or even the SWP itself, but rather the omnipresent, left-wing branding of almost all protests.

There is obviously nothing wrong with solidarity or showing your support for certain causes. And I don’t want to sound like Tottenham MP David Lammy (who refused to join the vigil because he wouldn’t “share a platform” with “violent” and “anarchistic” groups). People from many different groups with vastly different ideologies might suspect that the killing of Mark Duggan was immoral and solidarity is all about joining these disparate parts together. But, the fact that the vigil, like so many other protests, was completely dominated by the SWP creates a host of problems.

The first problem is the most controversial because it brings up the uncomfortable issue of ownership. However, this is not a new problem. In The Good Terrorist (1985), Dorris Lessing tells the story of a left-wing squat in turbulent 1980s London. The first point of tension occurs when some of the protagonists go to join striking workers outside a factory. There are two sides to the worker’s animosity to these serial protestors. Firstly there are divergent aims. As the workers repeatedly say, they have no interest in overthrowing the capitalist system and merely want the kind of middle class, material success and security that the squatters have rejected. Secondly (and more importantly) they don’t want to be joined by “militant, left-wing groups”, who have nothing in common with their working-class existence. This tension rears its head again later in the novel as two of the squatters, in the name of anti-imperialism, try to join the Provisional IRA. They are politely rejected. Again this is about more than their differing aims; it is about the idea of ownership, of this being our struggle not yours.

There is an unfortunate tendency for the Left to think that it has a right to claim every cause for itself, and for certain political groups to use every protest as a publicity platform for its own ideas. The problem is not that SWP members want to go to protests but that they try to dominate them. People seem to be unthinkingly adopting “left-wing” positions on a whole variety of political issues and then claiming them for themselves. Solidarity should be based on sympathy and genuine interest in others. It is not an excuse to jump on the band-wagon.

I recently went to a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest against the prospect of invading Syria. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by someone from some Marxist group (I forget the name) which he proudly told me was working within the Labour Party to change its direction back towards real Socialism. I expressed my support for his project but he became offended when I refused his placard, which was emblazoned with the logos of his group. I explained that I didn’t believe that this was an explicitly Marxist or Socialist issue and wanted to protest without also being a portable advertising banner for his group. His response was that of course this was a fundamentally Socialist issue; the war was being fought over religion with Sunnis fighting Shi’ite groups. The most worrying aspect of this is that it demonstrates a lack of knowledge (or even interest) in the situation on the ground1, but it also highlights some of the prejudices which allow people to so thoughtlessly stake a claim in every contentious political issue going.

I doubt many had even considered the fact that by covering the protest with left-wing slogans and placards they were laying claim to an issue which does not fit easily into a Left vs Right dichotomy. Intervention used to be a key tenet of left-wing politics, just think of Woody Guthrie and the anti-fascism campaign or the foreign legions fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Isolationism was the preserve of conservatives. Aside from this historical variation, I find it unsettling that many on the Left are so ready to carelessly claim a cause as their own. Their dominance of protests is just the public face this way of thinking.

One key prejudice which underlies this tendency is the idea that all the world’s political problems are connected and part of an overarching Capitalist system. As a methodology this can be extremely illuminating (although it assumes a homogeneity and simplicity which obviously limit its usefulness). Moreover, it reveals that political issues are not the exclusive preserve of one particular group (especially given the necessarily arbitrary demarcation of these groups) and that how far away a particular crisis is shouldn’t affect our interest in it. These are all important lessons. However, this doesn’t mean that all political causes have a fundamental left-wing aspect to them. To return to the example of Syria, the debate should be entirely pragmatic i.e. we should be asking whether an invasion would help to peacefully resolve the situation. Even if you believe that the operation is really about oil, this is largely irrelevant. For some on the Left to try to claim the issue for themselves is at best inconsiderate and at worst damaging.

It is damaging for exactly the same reason that people might say that “ownership” is damaging: because they undermine solidarity. This is the second big problem with the left-wing dominance of protests. Like it or not the prominence of the SWP and overtly left-wing discourse is divisive and undermines the solidarity that is so fundamental to the political process. As I’ve tried to make clear there’s nothing wrong with the same group of politically pro-active people turning up to every protest, but sometimes they need to respect that there are other people who are more intimately connected to that particular cause. And that just because they’ve turned up it doesn’t mean they have a right to claim the protest as their own.

I’ll leave you with Gil Scott Heron’s thoughts on the “Rainbow Conspiracy” of the late 1960s:

The irony of it all, of course
Is when a pale face SDS motherfucker dares
Look hurt when I tell him to go find his own revolution…
He is fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age
Less lip from his generation gap and fucking in the street.
Where is my parallel to that?
All I want is a good home and a wife and children
And some food to feed them every night…
I say you silly chipe motherfucker, your great grandfather
Tied a ball and chain to my balls
And bounced me through a cotton field
While I lived in an unflushable toilet bowl
And now you want me to help you overthrow what?

I’m all for solidarity but sometimes we need to know our place. Or at least consider our part within a larger struggle.

1 The civil war in Syria is not due to “sectarian hatred” – an outdated idea whereby people simply hate each other because they are of different religions, tribes or ethnicities. Nor is it true that it is a Sunni vs Shi’ite clash. Assad is part of the Alawite sect, which incorporates some elements of the Shi’ite tradition but is essentially a mystical school of Islam. And crucially the Assad family is secular (as you’d expect of Baathists). The reasons for the conflict are complex and might best be described in terms of unequal distributions of power between different groups. To claim that it is a religious conflict and, therefore, something that Marx has the answers to is nonsense.

3 Responses to “Knowing your place: Protesting and problems for the Left”
  1. efraim says:

    great article, i sympathise with the overbearing slogan boards of organisation, which, whilst you may agree with some (or most) of their aims or tactics, try and turn you into a walking advertising board. Personally this is how I feel about the BDS movement: whilst i agree with some (not all) of their aims and tactics, their monopolisation (implicit in the name) of any kind of boycott action within their ideology is suffocating, and in my mind stifles debate.

    on a separate note: you are right that the critique of conflict in syria as a sectarian-religious war is over-simplistic at best… but when you claim that it is better seen as being about ‘unequal distributions of power between different groups’, surely this a primary area in which marxism, or mayb more specifically an althusserian marxism, is concerned?

  2. Matteo says:

    Unequal distributions of power are an important part of Marxism but also of many different analytical standpoints from Realism in international relations to rational choice. And anyways the point i was trying to make clear was that even if Marxism (or any other “left-wing” theory) is useful analytically and as a way of understanding the issue, that doesn’t make the issue itself the preserve of the Left. Interestingly you said it is an area with which marxism is concerned. i completely agree that analytically marxism is concerned with power (along with class etc) but what it focusses on analytically is different from the sort of emotional concern that is important for solidarity etc. not sure if i made this any clearer but i want to say that the fact that a theory is useful to analyse a situation doesn’t make the issue fundamentally marxist, realist, economic or anything else. (similarly look at the way economists use neo-classical economic models to explain things which don’t seem at first glance economical (eg marriage) and then see to slide into saying that it is an economic issue)

  3. Aydin says:

    I don’t quite know how I feel about this…is it an attack on fringe left wing groups being at protests because they don’t have the right to be, or because they often dominate? I assume its the latter because you say that there is ‘nothing wrong with solidarity or showing your support for certain causes’ but instead with the fact that ‘like so many other protests, (it) was completely dominated by the SWP’. If thats the case then you can’t really blame a vanguardist revolutionary group for trying to recruit and publicise itself at such events, such groups aim to develop their base from people excluded by mainstream politics who are angry about a particular political injustice. If you feel swamped by the SWP at a rally it’s because they are the only kind of people that turn up and are organized about such events nowadays. The fact that taking to the streets and protesting is deemed as quite an extreme act by the majority simply means your likely to have more radicals at a protest. You can either say I don’t want you guys there cus you don’t know your place and your chatting shit or say there is ‘nothing wrong with solidarity or showing your support for certain causes’ but then you can’t get pissed if they bring more guys out surely? Isn’t the real problem the fact that there are not enough people willing to go out and protest against injustices anymore, so as not to be dominated by groups or the inevitable nutters that will come along (something you can’t really escape from!)?

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