Contemporary Trotskyism: the resilience of social movements

John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations at Birkbeck, discusses the social and political dynamics of Trotskyist organisations – the subject matter of his new book, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain.

Almost eighty years after Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International, there are now Trotskyist organisations in 57 countries, including most of Western Europe and Latin America. Yet no Trotskyist group has ever led a revolution, won a national election or built an enduring mass, political party. If the Trotskyist movement has been so unsuccessful, then how can we account for its remarkable resilience?

The book argues that to understand and explain the development, resilience and influence of Trotskyist groups, we need to analyse them as hybrid bodies that comprise elements of three different types of organisation: the political party, the sect and the social movement. It is the properties of these three facets of organisation and the interplay between them that give rise to the most characteristic features of the Trotskyist movement: frenetic activity, rampant divisions, inter-organisational hostility, authoritarian and charismatic leadership, high membership turnover and ideological rigidity.

As political parties, Trotskyist groups have always been small, never exceeding a membership of 10,000, and their vote shares in general and European elections have been derisory, rarely exceeding one percent. Yet Trotskyist groups are distinct from mainstream parties because in addition to their search for votes, office and policy implementation, they are also sects. This means they are powerfully wedded to the defence of Trotskyist doctrine, a core set of taken-for-granted beliefs that guide their actions and which are considered to provide the blueprint for ultimate political success. Trotskyist doctrine, like religious doctrine, appears in many different forms and struggles over the proper interpretation of Trotskyist and Leninist texts have splintered the movement into seven competing families.

Yet against this record of failure and division, Trotskyist groups have been assiduous in building a number of broad-based and successful social movements, to campaign on single issues. The Anti-Nazi League, created in the 1970s by the Socialist Workers Party, made a significant contribution to the electoral demise of the far right in that decade, whilst the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, created by the Militant Tendency in the late 1980s, helped destroy that Conservative government tax in the early 1990s.

These isolated success stories provide one element in the explanation of Trotskyist resilience, but an equally important factor is their astonishing efficiency in raising funds and building organisational capacity. The income per capita raised by Trotskyist groups from their members is around ten times greater than that of mainstream parties, an extraordinary achievement that allows them to employ large numbers of staff and to publish a wide range of newspapers, magazines and books. These organisational resources enable them to wield a public presence, on demonstrations and marches for example, out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. The same resources, coupled with their vigorous and uncompromising anti-capitalist message, allows them to recruit hundreds of young people each year, many of whom however quit after a short period.

Drawing on extensive archival research, as well as interviews with many of the leading protagonists and activists within the Trotskyist milieu, this is the first major study for thirty years of this small but vocal movement.

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain is available from Routledge.

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What will it take to stop extreme climate change?

Birkbeck graduate Leo Barasi discusses his new book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, which confronts the reality of climate change and the need for ordinary people to take action. 

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September

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Peace-making in Colombia beyond the ratification of the peace agreement: political or market solutions to peace-making?

This post was contributed by Dr Olivier Sibai, lecturer in marketing in Birkbeck’s Department of Management. Dr Sibai recently published a paper entitled ‘Marketing as a Means to Transformative Social Conflict Resolution: Lessons from Transitioning War Economies and the Colombian Coffee Marketing System‘ in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing

Colombian peace agreement: is it really the end of the longest civil war?

After four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the representatives of the FARC signed a historical peace deal this summer. The deal was ratified by the house of representative on the 30th November, officially ending 52 years of a civil war which has left up to 250 000 people dead and over 5 million people displaced. The peace deal was hailed by the international community as a major achievement. High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo described it as a miracle and the country’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role.

While the peace agreement is clearly a great achievement, voices are already raising concerns about the risks of ex-fighters joining criminal gangs. Clearly, the agreement is only the first step of a long peace-building process. As long standing civil war deeply changed Colombian society, peace-building will be a challenging process, necessitating the overcoming of many hurdles over many years.

Peace-making: a political challenge with a political solution?

Peace-making in Colombia is clearly a political challenge. Civil wars developed because, 50 years ago, the state was dysfunctional to the extent that it failed to provide certain public goods required for societal well-being. In particular, security manifested as physical safety, wealth, and welfare was limited to small segments of society – typically affiliated with the ruling party or class. In the wake of this situation, rebel parties emerged, fighting the state to implement a different political order.

Peace-making, therefore, typically involves achieving three objectives: restoring the ability of the state to provide public good,  undermining the ability of the rebel parties to challenge the state through war-making, and facilitating reintegration of the actors actively engaged in the war in a state-centered society. The peace agreement ratified in Colombia addresses those three political issues through political solutions. The Colombian state will redistribute land and invest in rural development, set up of a transitional justice system to judge and formally reintegrate the former rebels, and guarantee the FARC a place in democratic debates as a political party. International political organisations will also be involved, with, for example, the United Nations overlooking disarmament in the coming months. Civil society is already contributing to peace-making, facilitating community dialogue and communicating the benefits of citizenship and law-obedience within sensitive communities.

Peace-making: a market problem – with political or market-based solutions?

While political issues must undoubtedly lead the peace-making process, markets will also necessarily play a significant role in turning the peace-making initiative into a long-term success or a failure. As the civil war continued, the Colombian economy transformed into a war economy – an economic system adapted to the context of violent conflicts and functioning largely outside the rule of law. As the war economy itself continued, it stabilized itself as the new economic order, making it difficult to return to a peace economy. The markets of the war economy became institutionalized and business actors became dependent on the continuation of war to sustain their livelihood, producing short-term economic interest in perpetuating the war economy. The actors of the combat market accumulate their wealth from trade activities that directly fund the war (e.g. trade of money, arms, equipment, and fuel; taxation of licit and illicit economic activities). The actors of the shadow markets accumulate theirs from lucrative entrepreneurial activities on the margin of it (e.g. drug trafficking, smuggling, mass extraction of natural resources, currency exchange, and manipulation of aid resources). The actors of the coping markets (e.g. wage labor, petty trade) depend on the combat and shadow markets to eke out a living and reimburse their loans.

As business actors are embedded in the war economy, they are often viewed as a significant force working against peace-making. Typical approaches to fostering the transition from a war economy to a peace economy are therefore political, involving policies and interventions aimed at controlling market actors. The peace agreement for example foresees the states collaborating with the international community to crack down on narco-traffickers.

Yet, in the past 15 years, governmental institutions in countries afflicted by civil wars have been criticized as kleptocracies manipulated by elites embedded in the war economy to retain power and wealth. Markets, by contrast, have increasingly been recognized as including the potential to be the pro-social forces contributing to peace-making in such contexts, promoting cooperation, inclusion, security, social justice, and sustainable prosperity. Some have argued that business people have more interest in building a deeper peace than transitory international peacebuilding officials as they have a long-term personal investment in the country. Others have depicted business sites, such as plantations or large mines which remained “islands of civility” in times of war, as representing spaces in which trust and hope can redevelop in post-war periods.

Envisioning market-based solutions to peace-making

If market-based solutions can complement political solutions to peace-making in Colombia, we still need to understand how markets can contribute to stabilizing Colombia into peace rather than destabilize it back into war. And today, we still know very little about that.
My colleagues and I argue that, for markets to contribute to transforming the war economy into a peace economy, marketers need to shift their perspective. They need to view themselves not solely as economic agents guided by profit but as policy agents or corporate diplomats, equally interested in promoting social wellbeing through the market. From this perspective they must design peace-making markets rather than just design marketing tactics in existing war markets.

Now, what would a peace-making market look like? To get a first picture of this, we investigated the fair-trade coffee market system in the Colombian civil war. Overall our analysis shows that promoting individual empowerment, communication, community building, and regulation within markets represented useful anchors for marketers to design a peace-making markets, contributing altogether to legitimizing the government as a provider of public good, weakening rebel forces and helping market actors from the war economy to transition to a peace economy. Let us look at each anchor in turn.

  • First, the Colombian fair-trade coffee market system has empowered individual actors from the shadow markets engaged in illegal entrepreneurial activities on the margin of the war, providing them with the necessary resources and capabilities to reintegrate into the peace economy. For example, it has given farmers a viable “way out” of cocaine production.
  • Second, it has fostered the development of resourceful communities that incentivize actors from the coping markets, struggling to eke a living, to embrace the peace economy. For example, fair-trade coffee certification came along with training, increasing poor farming communities’ knowledge and expertise and the provision of education and health care for communities.
  • Third, the marketing system promoted communication between/among market actors and government bodies, enhancing the legitimacy of the state. For example, governmental methods to eradicate cocaine fields which damaged crops pitted the government against coffee farmers suffering from it, breaking ties between them. The democratic requirements of decision-making in fair trade coffee cooperatives motivated negotiations with the governments which successfully led to developing less destructive ways of eradicating cocaine plantations, relegitimizing governmental activities.
  • Finally, the fair trade coffee marketing system promoted the development of self-imposed market regulations that promote the view that prosperity can be attained through the peace economy. Governmental support of such regulations further legitimized the state as a provider of public good.

We do not contend that the anchors identified will necessary be the same in different contexts as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to peace-making. We do not contend either that market-based solutions to peace-making are alternatives to political solutions to peace-making. However, they represent a useful and necessary complementary approach. Markets will play an important role in the actual long-term pacification of Colombia and it seems unlikely that the war economy will transition in a peace economy without peace-making initiatives from market actors themselves. It is therefore essential that the Colombian government and the international communities consider carefully how they can promote and leverage market-based peace-making initiatives when working towards peace-making.

 

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Assimilation and the immigration debate

This article was written by Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the Fabian Society‘s blog.

Immigration has proven one of the hardest issues for Britain’s main parties to address, and UKIP has been the beneficiary. But, according to my YouGov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey data, many UKIP voters will change their views on immigration if politicians can reassure them by highlighting the impressive rate of assimilation already taking place in British society. This doesn’t obviate the need to control immigration, but it offers a partial solution for what is a cultural problem, not an economic one.

In a hard-hitting piece in a recent Fabians’ report by senior Labour figures,Facing the Unknown, pollster James Morris writes that Labour must engage with the genuine concerns many ordinary Britons have about immigration. However, Labour’s leaders continue to deflect concerns onto the comfortable terrain of public spending and local planning. On Andrew Marr’s programme, when asked about his views on free movement, Jeremy Corbyn talked up the idea of an immigration impact fund. Sadiq Khan, in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, spoke mainly about housing, planning and laws. Unfortunately, academic research suggests these policies will have little or no effect on the public’s view of immigration.

The consensus from scholarly research across the West is that cultural, not economic, motivations are central for those who want lower immigration. Immigration strips away the hazy illusion in the minds of many White Britons that their group is more or less the same thing as Britain. This ethnicises the majority, notably those who cherish their cultural traditions, myths and memories.

In response, politicians from Gordon Brown to David Cameron have articulated a centralised Britishness based on common values and institutions. But the  question politicians need to be asking is not, ‘What does it mean to be British,’ but rather ‘What does it mean to be WhiteBritish’ in an age of migration. This is not racist, but reflects the fact that all ethnic groups – including the majority – want their community to have a future.

One liberal way groups perpetuate themselves is by assimilating others who wish to join. And the fact is that majority groups have an in-built advantage due to their influence on the mainstream national culture. In view of this, it is astounding how little we hear about the fact many members of ethnic minority groups – especially Europeans and those of mixed race – intermarry or identify with the White British majority.

Having written about this following UKIP’s ascent in 2014, I was curious whether knowing these facts might change the way White British people think about immigration. To find out, I conducted a survey, but split it into three random groups. All answered questions about immigration, but two of the groups were assigned to read a short passage about national identity.

Nations are like rivers: on the one hand, you can never put your foot in the same water twice, but if you look at it from a distance, it is unchanging. My first passage took the first path, offering the conventional storyline about a rapidly changing Britain:

‘Britain is changing, becoming increasingly diverse. The 2011 census shows that White British people are already a minority in four British cities, including London. Over a quarter of births in England and Wales are to foreign-born mothers. Young Britons are also much more diverse than older Britons. Just 4.5 per cent of those older than 65 are nonwhite but more than 20 per cent of those under 25 are. Minorities’ younger average age, somewhat higher birth rate and continued immigration mean that late this century, according to Professor David Coleman of Oxford University, White British people will be in the minority nationwide. We should embrace our diversity, which gives Britain an advantage in the global economy. Together, we can build a stronger, more inclusive Britain.’

The second changed the tune to one of timeless continuity through assimilation:

‘Immigration has risen and fallen over time, but, like the English language, Britain’s culture is only superficially affected by foreign influence. According to Professor Eric Kaufmann of the University of London, a large share of the children of European immigrants have become White British. Historians tell us that French, Irish, Jews and pre-war black immigrants largely melted into the white majority. Those of mixed race, who share common ancestors with White British people, are growing faster than all minority groups and 8 in 10 of them marry whites. In the long run, today’s minorities will be absorbed into the majority and foreign identities will fade, as they have for public figures with immigrant ancestors like Boris Johnson or Peter Mandelson. Britain shapes its migrants, migration doesn’t shape Britain.’

It’s rare for stories such as these to shift people’s attitudes on contentious issues like immigration, yet this is precisely what happened. When White British respondents read a story about change and diversity, this made them slightly more worried about immigration than when they read no passage. But when they read about how immigrants are assimilating into their ethnic group, they became noticeably more relaxed. This is especially true for working-class, tabloid-reading or UKIP-voting whites, many of whom simply haven’t heard this argument. In figure 1, for instance, 61 per cent of white working-class (C2, DE) respondents who read the diversity passage wanted immigration reduced a lot compared to 47 per cent of those who read the assimilation passage. Those who read no passage were in the middle, at 56 per cent.

Figure 1

Source: Yougov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey, Aug. 20, 2016. Note: results significant at p<.05 level.

Respondents were also asked about the extent to which they were willing to pay for ‘hard Brexit’. In the event that Brexit causes financial hardship, this is a barometer of how much people would be willing to trade off access to the benefits of the single market in order to reduce European migration. Once again, what we see is that whites, especially working-class, tabloid-reading and UKIP voters, are reassured by the facts on assimilation. In Figure 2, for instance, the share of White British UKIP voters willing to pay 5 per cent of their income to cut European immigration to zero drops from 45 per cent after reading the diversity story to 16 per cent when reading the assimilation piece.

Figure 2

Source: Yougov/Birkbeck/Policy Exchange survey, Aug. 20, 2016. Note: results significant at p<.05 level.

If this is the case, why is it that politicians continue to hammer away at the diversity story? Probably because it’s the mainstream view and therefore all they know. In addition, they may be skittish about offending minorities who fear assimilation. But it’s not inconsistent to say, as Sadiq Khan did, that minorities can keep their culture, while pointing to evidence of voluntary assimilation. Dual identity is also common, with minorities pulled between their roots and the culture of the majority. For instance many British Jews identify with their ethnic group, yet most consider themselves – and are considered to be – White British.

It’s also the case that national identity is not monolithic but in the eye of the beholder: some members of minority groups may prefer to see Britain as ever-changing while conservative white Britons consider it a timeless river. It’s up to politicians to reach out to both with a different message, secure in the knowledge there is no single way of perceiving the nation.

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