Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maoism in Britain - Is this the End ?

It is nearly twenty years since there has been a Maoist political organisation in Britain. Even during the revival of interest in revolutionary politics back in the late sixties and early seventies there were never more than a few hundred Maoists in this country and their numbers rapidly diminished after the capitalist roader coup in China in 1976. During the late eighties there were a couple of short-lived Maoist groups but since then no explicitly Maoist political organisation has existed in Britain.

On a number of occasions since that time I have called meetings of some of the few remaining Maoists in Britain to propose that we form a Maoist political organisation with the eventual aim of forming a proper Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary party. On each occasion the response was negative with people giving no very definite reasons as to why we could not form an organisation other than vague assertions that the “objective conditions” were not favourable.

In the latter part of 2008 I was encouraged when three other Maoists invited me to join with them in convening a meeting to consider whether a MLM organisation could be formed in Britain. Since then there have been a number of meetings with a somewhat shifting range of people participating. At the last meeting I reluctantly reached the conclusion that practically all of these people had no real intention of trying to form a Maoist organisation. They don’t mind talking about the proposal in the abstract and discussing issues of the day such as the economic recession. But they are not going to take any effective political action about anything.

At first sight it seems strange that people who present themselves as Maoists - hardly a popular political affiliation - should hold back from getting organised and engaging in collective political action. An explanation of such perversity is required.


Most of the remaining Maoists in Britain live in London, a large cosmopolitan capital city. Indeed the Maoists themselves are of an international composition, some of them being political refugees from their countries of origin. In London there is a continuous round of leftist political meetings, demonstrations and pickets. If one wants to, it is easy to spend all of one’s available time attending such occasions and this is what some of the Maoists do. A lot, but not all, of this political activity is focussed on events abroad such as developments in Nepal, India and Iran. To a far lesser degree are these occasions directly concerned with what is happening within British society. Of course, communists are internationalists and should necessarily see and conduct the struggle against capitalism on an international basis rather than a narrow national one. Even so, many of these people seem far more concerned and knowledgeable about political struggles thousands of miles away rather than on their own doorstep. We should not forget that Lenin and Mao asserted that the best form of internationalism is to engage in and develop revolutionary struggle in whatever place one happens to be.

The effectiveness of many of these activities is questionable. For example, picketing the Indian High Commission or the Peruvian Embassy in support of imprisoned comrades in those countries almost certainly has no impact on their reactionary governments. Many of the “national demonstrations” which are held in London, to which the Maoists sometimes half-heartedly tag on, go unnoticed by the nation and the government. There is a large element of ritualism in this sort of behaviour. People do it simply because that is what they have always done. They do not reflect critically on whether these activities are achieving any worthwhile political objectives. (In this respect the Maoists are no different from most of the other leftists.)

This round of political activity in London is essentially inward-looking. On each occasion it is the same people from the same loose political network who are present. “You picket my embassy and I’ll picket yours.“ Usually there are few, if any, new faces present. Indeed, no serious efforts are made to reach out to and involve newcomers. The fact of the matter is that the great mass of the people, especially the working class, are oblivious of and untouched by such “political activity”. What is more, one gets the impression that most of the people who participate in these ritualised activities are quite content with this way of life. They like going along to a picket or “public meeting” (at which the public are not usually present). There is a large element of social activity here often involving having a chat and a drink with old friends and acquaintances. It passes the time.

Much of this political activity - if that is what it is - is poorly organised even in its most elementary aspects. It is quite typical to find that a room for a meeting has not been booked, that the event has not been properly publicised, that the speaker is late or does not turn up, that a leaflet has not been printed, that placards have not been made, etc. etc.. Most of the Maoists in Britain - with one or two notable exceptions - are organisationally incompetent even at the most basic level but they don’t seem to care..

In so far as any of the Maoists engage in any “mass work”, go out and try to reach the great mass of people, especially the working class, it takes the form of engaging in routine trade union work and participation in broad front campaigns such as the Stop the War Coalition. Obviously there are definite limitations from a Maoist point of view to these activities but most of the Maoists are not involved in them anyway. What they never do is to attempt their own initiatives in trying to stimulate class struggle. This is particularly obvious at present when the considerable weakening of bourgeois ideological presents good opportunities for interesting people in a revolutionary perspective on contemporary events.

There is one area in which the Maoists in Britain do get excited and exert a considerable amount of energy. This is in debating the correctness or otherwise of the political lines of Maoists engaged in class struggles in other countries. Much passion is aroused and much is spoken and written about the course of revolutionary struggle in Middle East countries such as Iran and in particular on the political trajectory of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Yes, it is correct for communists to assess and constructively criticise the actions of comrades in other countries. However the odd thing about the Maoists in Britain is that while they get very heated and split over these controversies they expend little energy on ideological-political struggle over how to handle the contradictions of capitalism in Britain. The reason for this is not difficult to discern. It is that the Maoists in Britain are not really interested in engaging in revolutionary struggle within the society in which they live.


So what is going on here? What is the explanation for this odd behaviour? I have come to realise that what is important for most of the Maoists in Britain is not what is happening within the objective social reality around them but rather it is the state of their subjective consciousness which is most important for them. Their strongest desire is not to transform a world in turmoil but to feel that the political perspective they hold on it is in some sense correct. In philosophical terms these people are not materialists. Rather they are idealists because for them the most important thing is inner certainty. What is going on in the external world is entirely secondary. For them an internal ideological purity is their primary aim. That is why I call it mind politics. Indeed there is a certain latent religiosity at work here. (In my talk ‘Against Religiosity in Politics’ I have discussed this quite widespread phenomenon whereby people use secular doctrines such as Marxism as substitute religions.) These people are going to do nothing except continue to pour forth a torrent of words on the internet.


The truth is that in Britain Marxism of any kind as a live political trend is in steady decline. The remaining revisionist and Trotskyist organisations are slowly dwindling away. People, especially young people, of radical inclinations are attracted towards anarchism and environmentalism (with all their obvious limitations) but not to Marxism. What is more, this is happening at a time when capitalism is embroiled in major economic difficulties and debilitating imperialist wars. The reason that Marxism in general, and Maoism in particular, is on the way out in Britain is because communists are failing to seriously address, both in theory and practice, the major issues of our time. These include the impact of new productive forces, changes in class structure, environmental degradation, the quality of life, etc.. (See my talk ‘The Death of Marxism?’ for more on these issues.)

I remain convinced of the essential correctness of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism but it is not a fixed formula set in tablets of stone. For MLM to be of any use in making the world a better place it needs to change and develop in intimate response to the contemporary world. In this part of the world this is not happening. My reluctant conclusion is that Maoism in Britain is finished.

Convince me that I am wrong.

Harry Powell
July 2009