Summer reading: Mark Steel asks, “What’s going on?”

So I’ve just finished the left’s smash hit book of the summer, Mark Steel’s new tome What’s Going On? Regulars can rest assured that a wider selection of summer reading will be reviewed, but Mark is as good a place to start as any.

If you know Mark’s material, there is a fair amount here that will not be surprising. That is, we get lots of comedic ruminations about the state of the world. The antiwar movement is covered here, along with Mark’s thoughts on the changing composition of the working class, the British education system, the homogenisation of town centres, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture, and much more besides, all delivered in the patented Mark Steel style. Which, it’s true, can sometimes be a little annoying in that what works in performance doesn’t always translate to the written page. Mark can be a little shouty, and he’s still very much addicted to the “it’s as if…” or “I was expecting him to say…” clause. But, at his best, reading Mark is like listening to a mate tell you brilliant rambling stories, and often he is at his best here.

What lends this book a little piquancy is that Mark is forced to deal with being middle-aged. This must be doubly painful for someone who likes to be down with the kids – I know little of this “hip hop” of which Mark speaks, but I can well imagine that a fortysomething man might feel a little out of place in the mosh pit. Parenthood also looms large here, notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. There’s the issue of how advancing age makes you more sensible. And there’s also an underlying theme of mortality. Mark finally meets his idol Joe Strummer, then a few weeks later Joe dies. Mark strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bob Monkhouse, started surreally by Bob approaching Mark in the Television Centre car park and saying how much he loved Reasons to be Cheerful, which he’d got as a 75th birthday present from Jeremy Beadle. But by this point Bob has terminal cancer, and soon he dies. The seemingly indestructible Paul Foot dies. Hovering over this, unspoken, is the premature death of Mark’s close friend Linda Smith. Unspoken, I assume, because Mark must have been terribly upset. I know I was upset, and I’d never even met her.

The background to all this is Mark’s two divorces, first a painful split from his long-term partner, then the end of his thirty-year association with the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with the former, this is a shame. I always thought Mark was a good bloke, and Bindy was nice, and human. These are qualities you value on the left, instead of taking them for granted, which might tell you something about the actually existing left. After all, the reason Linda Smith inspired so much affection was that she wasn’t just extremely funny and on the right side, she was a real person.

But to get back to Mark’s situation, he does get genuinely poignant here. He’s self-critical and, I think, emotionally honest, which is all we can expect of him. After all, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Mark could mention his partner’s bursts of bad temper, or the trials of living with a comic, whose first instinct is to look for the punchline rather than the soothing word. But, really, what we’ve got here is the common phenomenon whereby two people fall out of love, and do it gradually, almost without noticing, before realising one day that they just don’t like each other very much. And even then you find that sentiment, or hope springing eternal, or concern for the kids, or sheer bloodymindedness, keeps you together much longer than is wise.

Then there is the settee phase. I have been there, and can absolutely vouch for Mark’s accuracy. Because the settee is bloody uncomfortable, and there is no way you can fit your body into it painlessly, you end up lying half-awake through the small hours, gazing in fascination-cum-bemusement at all those channels. The question of how shopping channel hosts can be so enthusiastic at selling shit; the jaw-dropping GOD Channel; weird esoterica on the Open University – this is the nightly fare of the settee-bound. Although I didn’t become addicted to Icelandic buggy racing as Mark did, preferring to watch repeats of Herman’s Head. And tied in to this is the horniness of the settee-bound, as you become more obsessed with sex the less you’re getting any. And, then there’s the fact that the 40-year-old libido is much less predictable than its 20-year-old oppo. In any case, it’s one thing to get aroused watching some soft-porn show, or a Nigella Lawson cookery show (a fine distinction I’ll grant you), where the whole point is to achieve arousal in the viewer. But you know you’re in a bad state when you’re watching Newsnight and you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by because your brain has been running scenarios of all the ways you’d like to bone Kirsty Wark.

And after all this, with your aching back and your head full of the 700 Club and Icelandic buggy racing, after all the times you’ve tried to get off the settee, it’s actually a bloody relief when it’s all over.

Then there’s Mark’s parting of the ways with the SWP, an organisation he joined at 18 and was remarkably loyal to for a very long time. On this I’ll give Mark two cheers and a rap over the knuckles, as will become clear. The background to this is the decline of the left’s traditional environment. The trade unions are not quite a hollow shell, but they aren’t far off. You’re more likely to find a supporter of the Iraq war in the Labour Party than in the population at large. There is a culture of protest among youth, but these youth are really cut off from older traditions and are apt to ask you, “Socialism, what’s that then?” in the manner of a teenager showing mild curiosity in his dad’s James Last albums. And, not surprisingly, the far left hasn’t a clue how to respond to all this. The left’s responses have veered between ignoring what the kids are doing, outright hostility and intervening in such a cack-handed way as to put the kids off the left for life. That’s why you meet so many kids on demos in Dublin who are vehemently “anti-Leninist” – it’s not that they’ve considered Lenin’s politics and decided to reject them, it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist. It doesn’t help, either, that much of the left is deeply incestuous, with cliquish habits and elaborate systems of etiquette that might almost be designed to put young people off.

So Mark becomes impressed by the disconnect between the shoots of resistance he sees, and the organisation he belongs to. You have here an organisation in obvious decline, but which goes on making grandiose proclamations about the fantastic opportunities ahead. There are two possible responses to this – denial or questioning. Unfortunately for Mark, while the SWP is a great place to get questions on abstruse doctrinal issues answered, it isn’t a very welcoming place if you want to ask open-ended questions, and especially not if the question you really want to ask is, “Have we just gone mad, or were we always like this?”

Since Mark is good enough to ask “Or is it me?”, I can set his mind at rest by informing him that some of the harebrained organisational wheezes he complains about have roots in a time prior to his membership. For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.) As if to prove this wasn’t an isolated lapse, Cliff followed this up with the Leading Areas plan, according to which an area that was doing well (say, Manchester) would be identified extra resources. Of course, the organisation’s limited resources meant that this penalised areas that were already struggling. Cliff gave us to understand that, such would be the shining example set by the Leading Areas, that struggling areas would be inspired to redouble their efforts and would therefore benefit from a kind of trickle-down process. And that worked as well as might be expected. Cliff had lots of good ideas, but he was also prone to daft brainstorms, and the trick lay in knowing just how seriously to take him at any given time.

Since Mark was one of Cliff’s golden boys, it may be too much to expect him to bring this stuff up. But, that aside, Mark is very good at skewering the pretensions of the post-Cliff regime, and particularly of Kim Jong Rees, whom he seems unable to mention by name. Which is fair enough, as since Cliff’s death the leadership cabal have staggered from one disaster to another. One example Mark deals with is the SWP’s claim to have 10,000 members, which was clearly an enormous exaggeration and one that only became more enormous as time went by. But considerations of face meant the CC couldn’t admit a declining membership, which they would need to on the basis of the old definition that a member was someone who paid subs, attended meetings and sold the paper. Instead, we got the immortal line that “We have to redefine the definition of membership.” Which meant, of course, membership lists packed full of names of people who weren’t members. At this point Mark writes:

It was as if the aim was to maintain a steady amount of enthusiasm, but because there was around one-fifth of the number there used to be, everyone had to be five times as enthusiastic to keep things even. Some people, unable to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, would drift away. And then the enthusiasm demanded of the remainder would become even greater. I had a vision that at the end of this process there’d be one person left, standing at the top of a mountain yelling, ‘IT’S MAGNIFICENT!!!’

Quite so, and Mark is good on how an organisation that used to pride itself on its realism and modesty, Cliff’s occasional brainstorms aside, became mired in denial and self-deception – or, to quote Duncan Hallas’s immortal description of the WRP, “bluff, bluster and bullshit.”

Mark reaches the end of the road with the SWP around the time of the Respect split. And on this he’s quite strong, because Mark is far from being an uncritical groupie of George Galloway. In fact, Mark’s position is similar to my own, that, while George has unique and probably indispensable strengths, he can also very often be a pain in the hole, and sometimes he’s an outright menace. But when George made his very measured criticisms of Rees – criticisms that would seem pretty commonplace to anyone who’s ever dealt with Rees – the reaction of the SWP leadership was simply crazy. To listen to these guys, grovelling in front of Saddam Hussein and making cat noises on Big Brother were things any of us might do in a moment of weakness, but criticising John Rees was the absolute frozen limit. At one meeting, Mark recounts, a speaker compared Galloway’s criticism of Rees with the 1973 coup in Chile. This completely bonkers analogy was supported by most of the people in the room, including one J Rees. And at this point Mark started to wonder whether he had any place in this crazy organisation.

Right, so far I am with Mark. But, and I have to make this point as a small criticism, Mark may be a good bloke but he’s also a little bit of an asshole. What I mean by that is, the history of the SWP, and other left organisations, is full of people in privileged positions who have known all about the organisational skulduggery that goes on, and haven’t said a word until they have been targeted themselves. I think there is a particular responsibility on people like Mark Steel or Paul Foot or Eamonn McCann, who function as a human face of their organisation and make people feel good about being in it, and who could function as a sort of conscience of the organisation. But normally they don’t. Paul Foot, who I miss a lot, was a lovely man, a brilliant journalist and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. But it must be said that, when confronted with the SWP leadership and with Cliff in particular, Paul could be the most awful creep. Eamonn has gone along with all sorts of hair-raising stuff, as long as he’s been allowed to plough his own furrow in Derry. And so on.

Now, Mark has to his credit that he did in fact discover a backbone. But there’s a whole lot of people who came before him and got it in the neck good. For example, on the issue of the inflated membership lists, I know that Mark knew about this years ago, because a mutual acquaintance of ours blew the whistle on the membership figures, and could have done with a little moral support. I suppose what I’m getting at is, it can be a little aggravating for Mark to be recounting stories of leftist craziness and tailing it with “I felt like saying…” No, but you didn’t, Mark. No doubt you had your reasons, but a little acknowledgement of this point wouldn’t go amiss.

This may seem like a bit of a negative note to end on, but it’s just a small point that needs to be made. Overwhelmingly, I really enjoyed What’s Going On?, finding it to be probably the best thing Mark has written. It’s funny, of course, poignant in parts, angry in others and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought for some years that Philip Roth’s bitter divorce was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Perhaps we can say the same of Mark.

57 Comments

  1. B'dum said,

    August 26, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Great post, I love his Lectures series but never knew much more about him.

  2. John Palmer said,

    August 26, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    I have not read Mark’s book – but I will certainly do so. However your account of his account of divorce from the SWP has a real echo of authenticity. As may be known by some I was involved in the first “mother and father” of splits within the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) in the mid 1970s. My old friend and comrade the late Jim Higgins has written the definite account in his “More Wasted Years for the Locust.” The story is all the more poignant because (with a few exceptions) it was not a split between good folk and evil folk. Roger Rosewall and some of the other Cliff acolytes were little shits of course (but I must confess responsibility with IS comrade Mick Teague – an engineering union shop steward at Vickers, Weybridge – to have recruited Rosewall when he was a sheet metal worker at Hawker Siddley, Kingston). Rather it was between well meaning socialists some of whom lost patience with the the inevitably slow slog of building a movement wqith real influence in the wider labour movement. The point is that in the mid 1970s the IS had a serious – if limited – working class base. In his fear of missing a “1917 moment” following the return of Labour in 1974, Cliff was willing to sacrifice much of this base (incl;uding literally dozens of senior shop stewards in engineering and other industries) in a suicidal attempt to turn an embryonic rank and file trade union movement into an IS controlled industrial faction. Perhaps more than a 1000 members were lost – most of whom did not follow the Opposition in forming the short lived Workers League. Duncan Hallas thought the way Cliff and his younger lieutenants were dirving the new “Leninism” in the IS was lunatic and drove he personally the formation of the IS Opposition with Jim Higgins, myself and many others – only to defect back to Cliff at the last moment. Duncan was a great man but could not (understandably) face the task of beginning all over again. This was the judgement at the time of Harry Wicks – who was a Lenin School graduate and one of Trotssky’s earliest supporters – and who was part of the IS Opposition at the time of the split. If the Opposition had succeeded I think the organisation would have preserved more of its genuine internal democracy and at least marginally been in a better condition to confront the massive wave of de-industrialisation and anti-TU laws which Thatcherism unleashed. But -to be honest – it could not have reversed the underlying historical developments which followed in the later 1970s and 1980s. We live in a very different world today. I for one do not believe the October 1917 model is any longer a source of real enlightenment for building a relevent socialist left today.

  3. anglonoel said,

    August 26, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    I’ve flicked through ‘What’s Going On?’ in a bookshop a few weeks back and the review makes me want to go out and buy it.

    Just one comment: you point out Mark Steel doesn’t mention John Rees by name. It reminds me of when I read the George Galloway document which caused The Big Respect Split aka The Chile 1973 Of Our Time, in which GG does not mention JR by name, just the ‘National Secretary’. I’ve tended to think that this lack of a proper name check, as opposed to anything more substantial in GG’s document, got JR’s back up and was possibly the main emotional force causing the split (which was almost averted by the possibility of Gordon Brown calling an Autumn 2007 General Election and the chance to channel Respect/SWP into a few weeks of serious campaigning. When that possibility evaporated, all Hell broke loose in Respect…).

    I digress. That was a good review!

  4. Madam Miaow said,

    August 26, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    “… notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. …”

    Again with a bullseye on the head of the nail. Ma and Pa, are you listening?!!!

    You sum up well the phenomenon of the white male honeytraps of the left who turn a blind eye as long as crap isn’t being dished out to them or their mates, and who then bleat about it when it happens to them. We are all equal but some, etc …

    An excellent review, Splinty. You are an ace writer.

  5. Tankie said,

    August 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    I thought Jenny Diski’s review was very good, and hit a lot of nails on the head:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/09/philosophy.society

    And I’m a bit pissed with your reference to “Kim Jong Rees”. Kim Jong Il is the Dear Leader of a nation of millions, and his father fought (and won) against Japanese and US imperialism. As far as I can see, John Rees would struggle to win a three-legged race. Whatever the faults of the two Koreans, they have actually achieved something…

    PS: As far as I remember, they SWP has always had “10000″ members? That’s the figure they had twenty odd years ago, surely they weren’t fibbing?

    PPS: the statement “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks” does conjure images of earnest individuals hopping about, as they try to pull their socks way to tight…

  6. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    August 26, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    I too saw it in a bookshop and am too thinking of buying it after the above review as well. Steel’s publishers should give you a commission!

  7. Jim Lowe said,

    August 26, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Excellent review I think. There is a shorter review from an SP member’s (me) perspective here: http://socialistpartydevon.blogspot.com

  8. d@\/e said,

    August 26, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    You should be blogging elsewhere to make a few pence for writing great reviews like this.

  9. ejh said,

    August 26, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    it could not have reversed the underlying historical developments which followed in the later 1970s and 1980s. We live in a very different world today. I for one do not believe the October 1917 model is any longer a source of real enlightenment for building a relevant socialist left today.

    This is essentially what I think too: but with the caveat that I don’t think any of us, far left or whatever, has any real idea what to do, except perhaps put our trust in the God of Small Things.

    you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by

    To be fair, can you imagine many circumstances in which you would follow any such discussion with any degree of closeness? Regardless of the proximity of Kirsty Wark or anybody else?

    it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist

    Partly. But there’s also, to a degree, a generataional difference, based on the fact that practically none of the presnt young radicals have any experience of the labour movement (and certainly not of any major strike) whereas twenty-five years ago, say, all of us would have had. So they do self-activity, small groups, horizontal and autonomous organisation: we did solidarity, picket lines, conference decisions. And this gives the two groups a very different set of priorities. I remember being very surprised by quite how strongly younger radicals felt about always wanting to organise things themselves and taken their own decisions: although I’m personally very poor at being told what to do, I’ve always taken it for granted that if you’re going to be effective on a mass scale, centralised organisation is a necessity. I’m not talking about Leninist parties, I’m talking about the labour movement generally. If you want to win, when it matters, then everything can’t be autonomous and spontaneous. But if you just want to protest….maybe it’s different.

    I think the business about people not speaking up – when they’re in parties that do things they shouldn’t – is of no small importance but it’s half-past-one here and of even greater importance that I get some sleep, so I’ll catch you all in the morning. Night all. Enjoy the Icelandic buggy racing.

  10. skidmarx said,

    August 27, 2008 at 9:21 am

    “weird esoterica on the Open University”

    They don’t actually show OU programmes on the BBC any more, just Learning Zone language programmes.

  11. ejh said,

    August 27, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Right, on not speaking up. As seasoned observers know, I have a certain distaste for the politics of conversion, by which people join organisations for millenarian reasons, then abruptly reverse direction and spend the rest of their lives denouncing their former comrades, organisations and politics in what is often quite an obsessive manner.

    One of my many objections to Nick Cohen, for instance, is that if The Left is quite so awful as he makes out, then it was just as awful when he was attached to it: so if he couldn’t or wouldn’t see this over a period of years, what does say about his powers of observation?

    I don’t find “I once was blind, but now can see” a particularly effective explanation: it just tends to reinforce the impression that rather than undergoing a process of genuine reflection, which ought to be the response to a realisation that one has made mistakes, one is still in the business of making dramatic statements, dividing the world into good guys and bad and picking fights with people whose views and experiences differ from your own. (The fact that people are often very obviously agonised by the feeling Oh My God I wasted years of my life on this does nothing to detract from that picture.) Me, I think that if you have held views for a number of years, for reasons that you felt were both intelligent and good, then you have an obligation to accept that other people, who still hold those views, likely do so for good reasons too.

    Now, all that said, it does contribute to the great process of Overreaction that people tend to break from far left organisations rather than leave them, that they do so quite dramatically, rather than slipping away: and that there’s little serious self-criticism undertaken while one remains in aforesaid organisation. Afterwards, of course one can see that there were all sorts of errors and stupidities, and perhaps above all that there wasn’t, after all, a clear line on everything, that there was perhaps as much merit in positions that were not taken as in positions that were. As we know, if we bottle something up too long, it comes out in a rush later on: and if the process of discussion and debate is so attenuated by the need to adopt (or change) a line and then to make sure that everybody accepts it, this is going to have consequences later on.

    When, as a result, disputes happen, and people find that the line that was accepted yesterday is the line that puts you outside the party today, this of necessity causes a great deal of personal bitterness, which will often expresses itself in the dramatic, score-settling way with which we’re over-familiar. People can talk all they like about the need for party discipline and accepting decisions once they’ve been made: psychologically it’s simply not so simple, and if by dint of your political practice you keep putting people in psychologically impossible situation, then there’s something wrong with the way in which you’re doing things.

    Of course the Right Line and Wrong Line demarcation means that disputes are seen in similarly Manichean terms, which is why yesterday’s international comrades, invited speakers, contributors to the journal and so on become today’s renegades, variously accused of being undemocratic, dishonest, and so on. But precisely because of this atmosphere, it becomes very hard to see any of this while one is inside the organisation. Of course Comrade X is your friend and you’ve worked with them for twenty years: but they’ve defied party discipline, they’ve criticised the party in hostile publications, and so on, so what are you supposed to think? And additionally, while this is going on, all sorts of stupid and unfair things no doubt are being said outside the party, by its political rivals and ex-members, few of whom have any more interest in fairness, objectivity and nuance than do the party members. It always becomes a bitter question of Them and Us almost from the off, and this is as much the fault of people outside the organisation as of those inside it. In an unhealthy political atmosphere, nobody gives any ground to the other side, nobody asks themselves “am I going too far?” and nobody has any sense of perspective.

    Which is one very good reason why, I think, people inside the party don’t speak up much, while they’re in it. It’s not the only reason, but it is an important one: they don’t because, due to the prevailing atmosphere during any dispute, that’s not how it appears to them at the time. Everything’s a Balkan conflict (if I may). Everything is seen from the perspective of the side you’re on.

    As I get older I sometimes think that what we decide is less important than they way in which we discuss what we decide. Obviously this isn’t really true, but there’s enough truth in it for it to be an observation worth making. We should try not to discuss things in a way that is dysfunctional or which serves to repel interested spectators – regardless of how right we are. This is a difficult thing to do, perhaps it can’t even be done to any degree, but it’s something we should try to achieve.

  12. Douglas Coker said,

    August 27, 2008 at 11:00 am

    I enjoyed that very much and laughed a lot. Thanks.

    Douglas Coker

  13. D_D said,

    August 27, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I continue to be mystified about who it is in or around Dublin who writes like this and knows so much about IS and the SWM/P of a certain vintage, and who generally identifies/did identify with the politics of the IS Opposition.

    It’s funny how people (MS) go through parallel things in the same setting thirty years after others (JP & Co) – and after 30 years!

    Interesting to see John Palmer’s intervention. I remember hearing him in Dublin in the 70s, and like all those Old ISers he made a big impression. It makes his stand on Lisbon all the sadder and more maddening. Don’t want to sound patronising towards a great brain, but I just can’t see how John and some like him can’t see how the Lisbon treaty is a neo-liberal, not a social democratic, Charter. But I don’t want to fight with him over his fair (a little too fair) contribution above.

    The buke seems a must read.

  14. August 27, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    [...] ‘funny’, ‘poignant’ and a little bit ‘angry’, can I recommend this post which starts out as a review of Mark Steel’s latest book but finishes up a lot more than [...]

  15. chris y said,

    August 27, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    As far as I remember, they SWP has always had “10000″ members?

    Nah, thirty years ago they informally claimed 3000, which was probably accurate to an order of magnitude. The inflation correlates with their losing touch with reality on many other issues, but I shall beware the Baptist preacher fallacy and not claim causation.

    Great review. I might even buy it, which I certainly wouldn’t have had I not read this.

  16. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    August 27, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    ‘I continue to be mystified about who it is in or around Dublin who writes like this and knows so much about IS and the SWM/P of a certain vintage, and who generally identifies/did identify with the politics of the IS Opposition.’
    Isn’t Splintered based in Belfast?

  17. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 27, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Most of the time, yes, although I do make it up to the capital from time to time. Hence the observation about kids on demos in Dublin. As for the vintage, that’s just a vintage thing.

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 27, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    I should say that I greatly appreciated and to a big extent agreed with ejh’s points above.

    Two things: firstly, I try to tell myself the US economy is actually important and I should take an interest in it. Secondly, in the normal run of things I don’t even like Kirsty Wark. Oh well…

  19. charliemarks said,

    August 27, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Great review, Splinty.

    I regret that Mark didn’t stick it out with the SWP – he could have helped the tendency to become more open to cooperation with other tendencies. We’re wasting our time if we’ve got separate anti-fascist organisations, separate campaigns for regroupment (Respect/Left Alternative along with the SP’s CNWP, etc.)

  20. charliemarks said,

    August 27, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Of all the Newsnight presenters… Well, I suppose it wasn’t going to be Gavin Essler… (I’ve just had the awful mental image of Essler boning Wark. Yuk.)

  21. charliemarks said,

    August 27, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    No I haven’t gone mad – that last comment was meant for somewhere else. I think…

  22. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 27, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    I suppose not… though Kirsty does have a tremendous arse… sorry alcohol speaking now….

  23. skidmarx said,

    August 28, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Twenty years ago the SWP was claiming 4000 members, which swiftly rose to 4500, and then beyond 5000 after the poll tax riot.
    I did wonder in the early nineties if those SWP members identified as knuckleheads were more likely to be still in the party twenty years on than those with enough wit and self-awareness to be more paltable to non-members; and so if the SWP’s general analysis were correct it was actually those knuckleheads who would have to build branches of a revolutionary party, and if the party was more their’s than belonging to anyone who was going to leave in the long run anyway.

    I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Gavin Esler didn’t know what “cacophony” meant. Nice to find someone here who actually know about Baptist preachers and public drunkenness.

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 28, 2008 at 8:51 am

    (having shaken off that alcoholic haze…)

    I reckon the 10,000 figure was always a puff job, but yes, in the late 80s and early 90s the membership did go shooting way up, and I think that encouraged delusions of grandeur in some parts. This prompts questions of its own of course, like on what basis people were being signed up, how long they stuck around and so on. These questions were rarely asked, and to raise them was seen as a bit of an impertinence.

    In any case, the days when a third of the IS membership were industrial workers seems a very long way off.

    Mark actually does mention in the book that there were good people who went along with all sorts of crazy stuff for the sake of a quiet life. We are meant to assume, I think, that he was one of them.

  25. Madam Miaow said,

    August 28, 2008 at 11:04 am

    “Mark actually does mention in the book that there were good people who went along with all sorts of crazy stuff for the sake of a quiet life.”

    How very revolutionary of them. Wish they’d let the rest of us grunts know that at the time.

  26. John Palmer said,

    August 28, 2008 at 11:11 am

    D_D – (Thanks for your kind remarks) is puzzled that I see the European Union as a “social democratic” rather than a “neo-liberal” project. But with respect this is not my position. Rather, I believe that the EU (that is to say system based on the pooling of sovereignty) is essential today for any progressive or social democratic project. The nature of modern economic, social, environmental and global challenges simply transcends the capacity of “national” states to act effectively alone. In the old IS days the IS journal editorials (written at different times by Mike Kidron, Alastair MacIntyre and myself – called for a “United Socialist States of Europe” which – by definition was far more supra-national and “federalist” than anything on offer today. To my shame I persuaded Cliff et al to jump aboard the anti-EU project in the 1970s believing that it would boost the anti-Tory left. I realised my mistake when I saw League of Empire Loyalists, CPers and Labour people marching behind the Union Jack. Everywhere the long term effect of opposition to closer European integration has been to boost the right – including the far right. Now the Lisbon Treaty is a modest text – but it does move the EU towards greater democracy, recognition of citizens’ rights and a greater committment to syustainable development. This is IN SPITE OF the fact that most EU national governments are right of centre. The balance of social forces across Europe can be moved in a leftward direction if the left sees action at the European Union level (on social, economic, foreign, climate policy etc) as a top priority. For Ireland there is another danger. The Tories are poised to take government in Britain in 2010. They plan to re-open the basis of Britain’s current relationship with the EU IF the Lisbon Treaty is not in place. That is why the hard right euro-sceptics want to canonise Declan Ganley. They believe they will be able to carry Ireland in their wake as they force the partial breakup of the European Union. Which is why the Tory right give such priority to killing the Lisbon Treaty. As I have said elsewhere this outcome would be ironic for Irish socialists and republicans: “We will be neat and clean and well advised. Oh won’t Mother England be suprised”…

  27. skidmarx said,

    August 28, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    “In any case, the days when a third of the IS membership were industrial workers seems a very long way off”

    A bit like the British workforce in general.

    Obviously inflation of the membership figures is less important when the organisation is growing (or at least is less of a breach with reality). There are people who join at one meeting and are never seen again and comrades who drop out for a while, so the higher figures that can be obtained with a generous interpretation of the contact lists isn’t all about fraud.

    “Wish they’d let the rest of us grunts know that at the time.”

    Maybe you could have been smart enough to figure it out for yourself.

  28. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 28, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Yeah, but the trouble was, those of us in the Granville position tended to take a while to figure things out. It goes with having a leadership that thinks keeping its members in the dark is a positive virtue.

    Yes, there is the issue of generously interpreting the lists. Which isn’t so much of a problem if you have say 30 active in a branch and the list says 40, but the period of decline has shown it up in a harsher light. Oddly enough, one of the issues in the American split was that the SWP condemned the ISO’s practice of regularly weeding its membership lists. At the same time, Lord Callinicos was confidently telling anyone who asked that the membership was still 10,000. It’s a nice little irony that the ISO is probably now bigger than the SWP…

  29. skidmarx said,

    August 28, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    What is the SWP leadership actually accused of keeping the membership in the dark about?

  30. Binh said,

    August 28, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Great post, but on the “good comrades not living up to their own moral standards when shady shit goes on inside the party” topic, it’s worth remembering that Trotsky went along with a lot of that garbage or kept mum and vacillated in the 1920s as the bureaucracy began to assert itself against the working class and the peasantry in Russia. Sure, we’re all human and have weaknesses, but there’s also the question about when do you really stand up and make a big fight about something? Every single time it happens, or you hear about it second and third hand, and when does an isolated case become a systematic problem?

    This sounds like a great book and I’d like to read it after I get through Higgins’ book.

  31. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 28, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    The main problem is that it’s assumed a well-informed membership is dangerous. So you get lots of little things. If your branch is in decline, you’ll be fed so many stories of other branches forging ahead that you’ll assume it’s a local problem. And the rules against “factionalism” make it hard to compare notes, although that’s much more common than it used to be.

    There’s also some use of smoke and mirrors. So the city centre sale in Manchester on Saturdays was always really big. As the organisation in Manchester went into decline, everything was ploughed into this one sale, for reasons of morale and face. So every week the Party Notes would have some tale of an enormous paper sale in Manchester city centre, but wouldn’t mention the dozen or so other sales that weren’t happening any more.

    Members aren’t given detailed reports on membership or paper circulation or finances, and haven’t been for many years. Which is what makes it easy for exaggerated claims to be got away with. Again, with some initiative and the right contacts you can find some things out, but it takes work.

    And if you’ve spent some time going to meetings of 30 that are then reported to have had 150 in attendance, that’s bound to skew your view on how seriously to take claims in Party Notes. And then you start to develop a kind of cognitive dissonance…

  32. ejh said,

    August 29, 2008 at 8:20 am

    So every week the Party Notes would have some tale of an enormous paper sale in Manchester city centre, but wouldn’t mention the dozen or so other sales that weren’t happening any more.

    This is going to be a a cheap gag, but did you ever read the book where Don Camillo goes to Russia?

  33. August 29, 2008 at 8:38 am

    “The main problem is that it’s assumed a well-informed membership is dangerous.”

    a former member of the German SWP-clone SAG/Linksruck told me, that he didn’t knew, who the members of the CC were and how they became elected

  34. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 29, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Don Camillo is funny, isn’t he?

  35. ejh said,

    August 29, 2008 at 9:26 am

    I imagine if I’d been brought up in Italy I’d probably have had him stuffed down my throat so much I’d hate the bastard, but as it is I enjoyed reading him thirty years ago. Anyway, he goes to Russia in disguise with Peppone and the gang, and there’s a running gag about how whenever they visit a collective farm it’s always one of the 17% without a telephone or the 9% without electricity or what you will.

  36. skidmarx said,

    August 29, 2008 at 10:12 am

    “a former member of the German SWP-clone SAG/Linksruck told me, that he didn’t knew, who the members of the CC were and how they became elected”

    I don’t think I knew for sure who was on the SWP CC at any time. When you’re in agreement with the general line of the party it doesn’t seem that significant.

  37. skidmarx said,

    August 29, 2008 at 10:47 am

    The Militant changed its membership defintion in the 80s to one of “supporters” who bought the paper, which provoked amusement in the SWP but not so much accusations of gross fraud.The point made was that lying to yourselves is never good.

    I’ve said elsewhere that although I don’t know the details of the ISO split (I think the SWP’s version involves the ISO failing to relate to anti-globalisation protests), it is clear that the ISO continues to believe the same things it did before the split, unlike those ex-comrades involved in the split in Respect in the UK. Perhaps the SWP sowed the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind.
    What Lee Sustar and Alex Callinicos have written on Georgia seems very similar and maybe it seems like one of those fights between teenagers where they insist they are very different. I did know a couple of American comrades last heard of in New Orleans after Katrina. so if Larry or Lori Beth ever read this I’d be glad to know what they think.

    I’ve always liked Callinicos. I found the first book of his I tried to read unreadable (I think it was Marxism and Philosophy and as I was studying philosophy at the time I thought it was probably his fault), but I thought The Revoultionary Ideas of Karl Marx was very good and have always enjoyed his meetings. I heard him pronounce “prescient” as PREE-scient at Marxism this year when I’d always thought it was PRESS-cient, but if you don’t think he can see into the present that may be totally irrelevant.

  38. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 29, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Which brings to mind one of the old comedy debates at Skegness, on whether there was life on other planets. John Molyneux, bless his cotton socks, proved that there was by holding aloft a copy of Marxism & Philosophy and declaring that no human being could read this book.

  39. ejh said,

    August 29, 2008 at 11:28 am

    I think the ISO split was the point where I lost interest in knowing what the details were.

  40. Neil said,

    August 29, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    “The Militant changed its membership definition in the 80s to one of “supporters” who bought the paper, which provoked amusement in the SWP but not so much accusations of gross fraud. The point made was that lying to yourselves is never good.”

    Wrong. The definition of an actual member of the Militant inside the party was always tightly defined as some one who payed subs. What you seem to be forgetting is officially militant in the 80′s was not a party given the fact it was a deep entryist Marxist group within the Labour party where the threat of expulsion for operating as ‘a party within a party’ was always present. So therefore Militant did not hold fringe meetings or caucuses at Labour Party conference it held ‘readers group meeting’ etc. Militant could hardly go round admitting openly it had members, never mind that they paid subs etc. Hence the whole ‘supporters’ thing.

    As usual the swoppo method of distorting a position to score points shows through. Mind you lots of things the Militant did in the 80′s seemed to amuse the SWP like winning concessions from Thatcher in Liverpool or the idea of building a mass non payment campaign against the Poll Tax.
    By the way in the Socialist Party regularly publishes sales figures for the Socialist once every quarter and membership figures at conference as well as a full auditors report on finance, as a genuinely democratic centralist organisation should do.

  41. Binh said,

    August 29, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    I’ve said elsewhere that although I don’t know the details of the ISO split (I think the SWP’s version involves the ISO failing to relate to anti-globalisation protests), it is clear that the ISO continues to believe the same things it did before the split, unlike those ex-comrades involved in the split in Respect in the UK. Perhaps the SWP sowed the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind.
    What Lee Sustar and Alex Callinicos have written on Georgia seems very similar and maybe it seems like one of those fights between teenagers where they insist they are very different.

    Only a handful of members agreed with the London line and they left the organization. Under Callinicos’ guidance, they founded Left Turn, which in turn left the IST. The difference between the Leninism and liquidationism is about as far as you can get from a fight between immature teenagers. Callinicos’ formal politics are those of the ISO’s, but there become huge, unbreachable chasms between the two when it comes to the question of what is to be done in the here and now, how do revolutionaries relate to movements, the importance of building a party, etc.

  42. August 29, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    as far as I know, one of the reason of the divorce between SWP-IST & ISO was, that they had a different opinion about the “meaning of Seattle 1999″, e.g. the SWP accusing the ISO not to have mobilized the whole organization to Seattle (which can be a bit difficult in a large country like the USA and for an organization, which has some of its biggest branches at the East Coast and in the Rust Belt), the ISO seems to be a bit more “workerist” and less “movementist” than the SWP

  43. ejh said,

    August 30, 2008 at 9:03 am

    Militant could hardly go round admitting openly it had members

    Mmmm, which was among the reasons the people they were working with sometimes had a problem with them, was it not? There was this obvious falsehood that everybody else was just supposed to accept and find untroubling.

  44. skidmarx said,

    August 30, 2008 at 9:09 am

    40. Neil – I’m really not trying to score points. If you really wanted to have an argument about the relative merits of the 1980s SWP and Militant I’ll try to hold up my end- although the SWP was more wrong than you on the polltax, it was more spontaneous non-payment rather than the Militant campaign that defeated it, and I don’t think the record in Liverpool is one of unparalleled success (perhaps Mark Steel might call it perpendicular).

    I realise you won’t see this source as at all reliable, but in the first International Socialism Journal I ever bought (IS 2:33) there is an article by Sheila MC Gregor on the history and politics of Militant:
    “An ex-supporter of 8 years with Militant explained:”There were only 3-4 of us, but we were down on paper as 7-8. All our targets were based on 7-8. This was true nationally. In the end the group just collapsed. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The leadership said we could build, so we had to, so noone was allowed to drop out.”

  45. ejh said,

    August 30, 2008 at 9:49 am

    None of it really matters in the final analysis, though, does it?

  46. NollaigO said,

    August 31, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I have just found a source for the book, referred to by John Palmer, “More Wasted(sic) Years for the Locust.”

    Link:
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/index.htm

  47. Mark P said,

    August 31, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Skidmarx, I think that you are right that nobody will take an unnamed alleged ex-member of Militant quoted by an SWP member in a polemic against Militant as a reliable source!

  48. skidmarx said,

    September 1, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    ” The difference between the Leninism and liquidationism is about as far as you can get from a fight between immature teenagers.”

    Well riddle me this, Binh: assuming the ISO are the Leninists in your formulation, why do they appear to support the comparative liquidationists in the Respect(UK) split if not out of continuing pique at the Callikanzaros?(Some speak of Alexander, and some of Hercules…)

    Mark P: you may be right. I think it’s sad that the SWP may not be seen in many places as a reliable source, you may see it as an opportunity. Congratulations to Spurs for no longer being as pointless as the average Anderlecht Champions League campaign.

    I’m hoping the Mark Steel book will turn up in my local library any day. I do wonder why if he has no desire to set up another party why he chose to do a benefit for Respect Renewal.I think it was Rob Hoveman, now of RR, who told me once that the proper way to write a book review was not to mention the book in question at all.

  49. ejh said,

    September 1, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    As I recall the advice comes from Stephen Hawking but actually involves mentioning it only in the final pargaraph.

  50. Phil said,

    September 1, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Coincidentally, I read this today:

    I’m getting increasingly sick of those newspaper book reviews which spend 3/4 of the review telling you how much the reviewer knows about a subject (usually gleaned with no acknowledgement from the book they are actually reviewing), leaving just about a para at the end for some dismissive evaluation of the work itself. I want to know whether the book is any cop or not, not how clever the reviewer thinks they are.

    Blame Hawking, eh?

  51. Andy Newman said,

    September 2, 2008 at 12:13 am

    “I know, one of the reason of the divorce between SWP-IST & ISO was, that they had a different opinion about the “meaning of Seattle 1999″, ”

    No – it was about money, a disputed life insurance payout.

  52. StreetM said,

    September 9, 2008 at 4:22 am

    undeniably…..

  53. Halshall said,

    September 12, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    So John P thinks that the Leninist model of 1917 no longer fits.
    Well I suppose in the most banal sense it doesn’t, ninety years on with all that’s happened since.
    But then who said it would fit exactly like a glove given the change in so many many material circumstances, not to mention the political ones ?!
    I won’t go into a list of endless differences, not all negative, we don’t have to fight a bloody world war for starters. Nor do we have to quibble over the changing composition of the class a la Hobsbawn and ‘new times’, workers can still (at least in theory), bring cap to a halt; the lack of class confidence or conciousness is another thing, and very hard to gauge or predict prior to heightened struggle. So we don’t have revolution on the horizan, nor does the SWP model as it has provenly degenerated provide much inspiration.
    However ‘those who fail to learn from their mistakes are bound to repeat them’.
    As I recall somebody in the know said that.

  54. friend of cliff said,

    September 13, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    in 1994 Cliff told me there was 4000 members in the party prior to the October 92 pit closure programme,it was after this that the membership figures claimed went mad.In feb 95 pat stack at aHackney district meeting claimed figures of 12500!

  55. December 15, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    [...] such as John proposes, wouldn’t be worth running if it just leads to more of the sort of thing I mentioned a while back: For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the [...]

  56. June 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    [...] Whether your patron saint be Trotsky or Thomas, Splintered Sunrise has a story to tell. Read his review of Mark Steel’s ‘What’s Going On?’ to get a taste of his [...]

  57. July 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    [...] Whether your patron saint be Trotsky or Thomas, Splintered Sunrise has a story to tell. Read his review of Mark Steel’s ‘What’s Going On?’ to get a taste of his [...]


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