I’ll return to Koštunica presently, but here’s a question: why does the Socialist Workers Party remind me of Yugoslavia in the early 1980s?
It’s all a problem, you see, of managing succession. This is especially hairy when you have the regime’s founder, who built the regime in his own image, still hanging around at an advanced age and with no heir apparent.
I was thinking about this in terms of the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, which was perhaps not Edvard Kardelj’s best idea. Under the ’74 dispensation, the centre was massively weakened to the benefit of the republics and (to a lesser though still considerable extent) the Socialist Autonomous Provinces. Evidence of this was that the more powerful bit of the federal legislature was the upper house, the Chamber of Republics and Provinces, where unanimity among the regional delegations was required and so nothing controversial could get passed. The lower house’s utter powerlessness was demonstrated by the fact that it was actually allowed to decide things by majority vote, because nothing it decided mattered. And as in the state structure, so too in the League of Communists, with the regional bureaucracies becoming basically self-standing.
This was only workable as long as Tito was still around to act as arbiter of last resort. But by the time Tito died in 1980, the grand old man was almost ninety and so all of his longstanding kitchen cabinet were either dead or dying. There was nobody left with the authority to fill the gap. And so the poor Yugoslavs were landed with a toothless “collective presidency” of eight anonymous regional pen-pushers with a rotating chair. And so anonymous were these pen-pushers that it became a staple of Yugoslav humour, when the collective presidency appeared on TV, to wonder aloud just who these numpties, the collective head of state, were.
Slobo put a bomb under that, of course. This is not because of Slobo’s unique malevolence – although he was a definite no goodnik, I’ve never bought the popular image of him as a Bond villain stroking a white cat – but simply because he was the first Yugoslav politician to act as if Tito was dead.
Now we come to the problems besetting the SWP. Cliff was always an awkward bugger of course, and I firmly believe he had lost touch with reality in later years. But the party at its best was much more than Cliff, and you have to ask yourself what happened to the extraordinarily talented leadership that IS had in the early to mid ’70s, when the group was at the peak of its influence. The answer is, of course, that most of those guys are now dead or expelled or both, and the few who remain in the SWP – with the sole exception of Renaissance Man Chris Harman – are long since departed from central leadership roles.
What you have instead is a leadership the core of which was formed in the 1980s, and has been remarkably stable since. They are a group of people with talent, I’m not denying that, but there are factors militating against them apart from just being too long in office. There is, for example, to my knowledge no member of the Central Committee who has ever been in the Labour Party. (Chris Harman might possibly have been in the LPYS forty years ago, but that doesn’t count.) That’s a big disability, especially in the electoral field and when it comes to dealing with rough-and-tumble local council politics. Secondly, although the party contains some fine trade union militants, these are not represented at the centre. I’m scratching around for someone with a solid union background on the CC, and can’t think of one. Certainly, industrial organiser Charlie Kimber has never been a union militant in his life – for all the insight Charlie brings to the subject, they may as well have appointed classic computer game Simon Says. Finally, there are far too many people on the CC who became party fulltimers straight out of college and who have never actually held down a real job. The problem is common in the British political class, but in a revolutionary group…
Anyway, that’s enough about composition. There’s another point here where the Yugoslav analogy is more appropriate. That is that the post-Cliff “collegiate leadership”, which some comrades hoped would be an improvement on one-man management, is better described as a federal leadership. The various party tops all have their own bailiwicks, and exercise feudal authority within them.
Renaissance Chris, for instance, runs the ISJ, where he has quietly surrounded himself with co-thinkers. Commander Begbie edits Socialist Worker. Martin “Bebop Tango” Smith has authority over the organisers, and moreover gets to
hector address the comrades every week via Party Notes. Martin’s partner, resident glamourpuss Judith Orr, edits Socialist Review as well as running Bookmarks, the party’s only really successful venture. My old friend Prof Callinicos, meanwhile, is charged with administering the colonies. This he does in fine old Rhodesian style, perhaps explaining why the SWP’s international empire is a lot smaller than it used to be.
This is what’s known as a balance of forces, where nobody has the strength to achieve real hegemony. But that doesn’t explain the pre-eminence in recent years of that cuckoo in the nest Kim Jong Rees, who actually has shown the initiative in realising that this is a post-Cliff era. Yes, John and Lindsey may have established themselves as the “power couple”, but their actual base is remarkably narrow. And narrowing by the day, with their credibility being so much bound up with Respect. Perhaps, to turn the problem on its head, it’s simply that none of the other CC barons has the strength to move against them unilaterally. It would really require a combination of forces.
This is, by the way, getting to be an urgent question for anyone in the SWP who thinks the group should be more than a shrivelled sub-Healyite sect. For myself, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Rees was a high-functioning sociopath. This explains why those who know him best tend to like him least. He can be utterly charming if he’s trying to cultivate you, then cut you dead in an instant if he thinks you’ve slighted him or his importance as Great Revolutionary Leader. This is why he’s proved good at putting coalitions together, and absolutely rotten at sustaining them. If you have a situation where the national secretary of Respect, whose job should involve maintaining effective relationships, won’t speak to George Galloway or Salma Yaqoob (which was the case for quite some time before George’s letter), then it’s obvious that something is very very wrong.
The trouble with the SWP CC, as I see it, is that they have been together so long that it’s second nature to them to act as a cosy clique. Even those who don’t like Rees will instinctively get his back against the outside world, and convince themselves they’re defending The Revolutionary Party. And yet, it surely must have occurred to one or two of them that the SWP is shrinking rapidly, its flagship paper’s circulation is in the doldrums, they have no allies, they have no money, the organisation’s reputation is rapidly disappearing down the dunny, and both events in Scotland and the dodgy Dubai cheque are likely to see things getting a lot worse. If Rees was working in an actual business, or even a relatively efficient part of the public sector, he would have been sacked long ago.
I am told, by the way, that Bookmarks is soon to publish a pamphlet on “Strategy and Tactics” by one J Rees. I refuse to believe that Bookmarks would court ridicule by doing such a thing. It would be as absurd as, say, Ireland invading Chad. Oh, hold on…