What a success; what a win. 70,000. 100,000. 250,000, say Counterfire’s curates of the power of positive thinking. There is no point in haggling; it was a huge demonstration by anyone’s standards, and it has helped shape the national conversation.
Let no one say that the atmosphere was other than joyous. Comrades couldn’t keep the grins off their faces. This is the sort of thing that makes the troops happy. All the sects and groupuscules were out, distributing printed material as they always do on a Saturday afternoon - but this time, there were tens of thousands of activists, confident and hopeful, to take it.
The familiar yet inspiring kaleidoscope of the Left was out in full technicolour. From brass bands parping out The Red Flag to the notorious neon ‘Fuck the Fucking Fuckers’ placard, from union banners to pointlessly large balloons. The relief was palpable.
It was, indeed, a joyous occasion. The people thronged into streets barely big enough to contain them, and chanted and sang in notes of cheerful defiance. Those who claim that such events are ‘boring’ are wrong in point of fact, and give the impression of political thrill-seeking. We all had a lovely time. And this was precisely the problem.
A minimum condition for sentience on the left is an awareness that this protest is itself evidence of at least five years of catastrophic failure. There is something powerfully and stunningly incongruous in the subjectivity of a left marching as if in recreation, when we know we are also mourning for the casualties and the dead. It suggests that we don’t really mean business. It suggests that, rather than wanting to shake the walls and pillars to the earth, we want to grab some ice cream and go home.
What is a demonstration of 70,000, 100,000 or - give delusion its due - 250,000 people actually for? What is it that we wish to demonstrate? Are we out to demonstrate worthiness and plausibility for the spectacle? Or are we out to demonstrate a threat?
Are we out to indulge the left’s peculiar and subcultural forms of entertainment? Sing our anthems, spot our left celebrities, and enjoy the festival atmosphere? To ‘send a message’ that ‘austerity isn’t necessary’, as one speaker said? Or are we out to say, as every serious and successful movement before us has said, that with these numbers we mean to turn the country upside down?
Because so much of this - the pleasant amble, the burned placards, the anarcho antics, the singing, the half-hearted fists, the pseudo-rock concert denouement - is gimmickry. This is the left buying the world a Coke. It is, at worst, a feel-good simulation of struggle. Unless it goes somewhere new.
There has been much sneering about A to B demonstrations, but when did we ever get to B? To go from A to B implies a step forward, and we show no sign of even knowing what step B would look like.
The point is not to criticise the march for happening, for even positioning ourselves at point A, against austerity, but to say that we have been here before, and we need to reflect critically on how we got back to the same spot as we enter the sixth year of Tory rule. We have sent enough messages. We have pleaded and proved our case for long enough. We have patiently waited. We have watched, demoralised, as the institutions of labourism tumbled headlong into their historical abyss. And we waited for Ed Miliband, of all people, to deliver us from the Tory nightmare; by, of all means, triangulating Nigel Farage.
Now, finally, we have endured enough. But it is no good to go from somnolent passivity back to the same pointless, upbeat-but-vacuous activism that led to the original demoralisation - unless we want to be defeated. It is no good waking up, only to become like a canary flapping in a cage, showing much motion but little progress. The counter-productive burn-out of soi-disant 'Leninist’ party-building is hardly improved upon by the burn-out of another cycle of marches.
This is life or death for the left. Our mode of struggle, and our militancy, has to be adequate to the challenge. If we have no justification for existing, no relevance to the workfared and socially cleansed, the race-baited and brutalised, the exploited and oppressed, then we may well not exist. We need to go out solemnly, furiously, with rage in our hearts and tears in our eyes, and fists clamped shut with death-dealing hatred, knowing that this is life or death and that the stalemate of the Big Day Out means death. We need to mean business.