In 1988 a leader in the Independent declared that if there was a party representing the left politics of those gathering at that October’s Socialist Conference in Chesterfield (the movement that was eventually to give birth to Red Pepper) it could gain up to 15 per cent of the vote, writes Hilary Wainwright. Some of us involved in the Socialist Conference, including Ralph Miliband, father of current cabinet members David and Ed, strongly believed in the need for such a party and for the electoral reform that would enable it to thrive.
But we also understood that its emergence was not a matter of political will: it depended on factors we could nether predict nor engineer. In the meantime it was important that like-minded socialists campaign, think and debate together across organisational boundaries. As Labour moved steadily to the right, however, seeking persistently to marginalise the left, we had a growing sense of the disenfranchisement of all those who resisted the Thatcherite consensus.
What was to be done? We needed a voice, independent of any political party, for the socialist, green, feminist politics shared by people from a wide range of political backgrounds – though interpreted in a variety of ways. From this need Red Pepper was born.
In this way Red Pepper has always been more than a magazine. However, being effective as a magazine – attractive, readable, provocative and truthful, using the best techniques of effective communication that we could afford – has always been necessary to our political goal of taking the left outside the ghetto in which our enemies try so hard to confine us.
Nearly two decades on from the Socialist Conferences and 13 years since the first Red Pepper, our political goals have developed and our means of communication have leapt ahead qualitatively (in the first years of Red Pepper, I was delivering my copy to Denise Searle, our founding editor, by hand or post). [Hilary now delivers it by email, which has slowed down the editorial process so much that the magazine has been forced to go bimonthly.]
Experiences of radical left parties in government, whether Brazil’s Workers Party, Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista or Germany’s Greens focused my thinking on something I knew but hadn’t thought through: that social movements (including labour movements) plus a political voice don’t of themselves bring about change. The constraining weight of state institutions with all their bonds with economic power – national and international – and the tendency of political parties, however historically radical, to tie their future to an unconditional presence in these institutions – directed my attention beyond questions of voice to those of how to strengthen a political sphere autonomous from the state.
An independent means of communication such as Red Pepper is one obvious, if modest, tool for such a purpose. After all, autonomy depends on there being the means of developing common values, understandings and organisational, creative and solidaristic bonds across the variety of movements and struggles against injustice.We are attempting to achieve this in circumstances in which the dominant political cultures suck all political energies upwards into the maelstrom of institutional and vertical politics. But Red Pepper itself needs a bit of retooling to be really useful in such a complex process.
So let me clarify this autonomy business a little. From the trade unions, through the women’s movement to the alter-globalisation networks, there has always been an insistence on autonomy. Autonomy from the state and from other ruling institutions is a condition for resistance and struggle. It is a condition, too, for imagining, illustrating and creating alternatives. In contexts such as our own in the UK, where the vote has been struggled for and won – however weakened and blunted its power – autonomy must also be the basis of engagement with the state as well as opposition: a source of deeper forms of democratic power and simultaneously a protection against institutional blandishments and repression. It must be a basis for being both ‘in and against the state’.
The difficulty and counter-conventional character of developing such horizontally bonded political life cannot be over emphasised.The effective destruction of the emerging movement that the left created in France around the European ‘no’ is but the latest example of the destructive weight of national, vertical politics.The history of the left in the UK is littered with the skeletons of movements or would-be movements drawn away from their potential base by the institutional pulling power of national parliamentary politics. (The democratic left pressure group Compass is in danger of being the latest victim.)
The new communication technologies provide us with hugely important tools for strengthening and deepening our criss-crossing forms of politics, though with many risks and ambiguities. But of course technological tools are never sufficient.
There are sometimes mind-sets that can hold back the potential for political innovation. One such has been the over-polarisation of the notions of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’: the source of many a political muddle. Since 1967 I’ve seen myself as a revolutionary in the sense of committing myself to work for the end of an iniquitous economic system in which the few profit from the labour and, on a global scale, the destitution of the many. But in the past 40 years I’ve also learnt that the way people struggle against this system and all its ramifications doesn’t easily fit into the dichotomy of reform versus revolution.
There is, as Paul Mason puts it, ‘a political space between reform and revolution – so pesky to the ideologists of social democracy and communism’. It involves the constant struggle for control ‘either in the workplace or the community or even in [people’s] own personal lives: less than revolution, more than top-down reform’. For me, Red Pepper is in that political space, supporting struggles for popular control, helping them interconnect and develop their own perspectives and their capacity to develop alternative social institutions and to be able to defend and advance these alternatives in the face of the vicious attacks they will face.An alternative to capitalism can only emerge from such a process.
What does that mean for the here and now?
This requires a quick take on whether Brown’s premiership creates more favourable conditions for this struggle for popular control. (Let us agree that he is not of his own accord going to offer anything significant by way of progressive change.) My take goes back to 1997.This was a moment that contained the potential for real change.
The majority of the people who voted that new government into office thought they were putting an end to nearly two decades of Thatcherism – we don’t need to rehearse what that meant. But New Labour was courting the centre and centre right with Blatcherism and was so focused on exorcising the left from the image and reality of the Labour Party that its proponents had no understanding of the strength of the desire for real change. We all know that story, spelt out in all its arrogant thuggery in the ubiquitous diaries of spin.
The hidden story, though, is of what happened to those expectations. They’ve never gone away. But their expression has been dispersed and uncertain. It includes the election of a series of left trade union leaders, in some cases completely unexpectedly, and now the emergence of entirely new forms of labour organising (see Jane Wills). The election of Ken Livingstone, which Tony Blair pulled out every stop to try to prevent, is another example. The many hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, who poured on to the streets in protest against war in Iraq is another. So too are the numerous refusals of council tenants to vote for the transfer of their houses.
There’s also the popularity of radical films, music and art; the beneath-the-radar struggles against privatisation of local government services, the health service and education that are also often linked to struggles for the democratisation of those services and local government; the growing support for radical constitutional reform; the bold actions inspired by the alter-globalisation movement on environmental issues and issues of direct international solidarity; the anti-corporate sentiment emerging around many aspects of daily consumption. And so on.
They do not add up to a coherent movement and it is not Red Pepper’s job to corral them to do so. But neither does all this indicate that people are inclined to knock meekly on the doors of the government. They have learnt mistrust the hard way.
The new Red Pepper as magazine aims to provide a space for sharing and debating the alternative strategies that are emerging from those unfulfilled hopes for change, and for drawing on international experience to nourish these debates. It will give a platform for campaigns that lack media outlets over which they have control, a gallery and a stage for artistic endeavours in all media that open up new questions and refresh our sense of possibility.
The new Red Pepper as a website will provide tools for activist networking and debate to help produce the powerful sense of common purpose that we need to keep our nerve, occupy any new spaces opened up by the uncertainty of the Brown government and above all build our autonomy to resist and to propose.