These dudes are wack

Because we just can’t help ourselves, let’s take another brief look at the SWP coup. The Weekly Worker was of course gazumped at the time by the news coming out after it had gone to press, but this week the unmissable organ of the Conrad Party of Great Britain makes up some ground. As expected, chief Kremlinologist Peter Manson is on the case with a lengthy article. This is the Weekly Worker, of course, so all sorts of health warnings apply, but there are some little snippets worth commenting on.

Peter sets the context with:

Martin Smith had been increasingly worried, as the Respect project began to crumble last year.

If so, we are tempted to say that Martin is a disingenuous fucker. Who was it, at the outset of the Respect split, who flagged up the SWP’s intention to “go nuclear” if Galloway criticised Rees? That’s right, it was Martin Smith. Who was it who persuaded his good friend Mark Serwotka to come out publicly against the “witch hunt”? Right again. Martin, I’m afraid, has been playing the old Chris Harman game of publicly supporting Rees to the hilt while discreetly emitting smoke signals to those in the know. Peter continues:

Comrade Smith was supported by Alex Callinicos, secretary of the SWP’s ‘international’, the International Socialist Tendency, who, it seems, was moved to take a firmer position against Rees, following the intensity of IST opposition to the SWP line on broad parties. The Greek, French and German sections in particular were opposed to SWP attempts to locate the collapse of Respect as part of some general European trend.

I’m not sure about this. The French and German sections are currently involved in deep entry projects that have little in common with Respect, and although they might baulk at a turn back to the old ways, I’m sure they could find some way to finesse things. The Greeks are in a broad coalition with themselves, not unlike the Left Alternative. And of course ultra-loyalist sections like the Irish and the Canadians don’t need to be mentioned – one may assume they will follow whatever orders they receive. In any case, I know his lordship and I know how he runs the Colonial Office, and listening to the concerns of the franchises isn’t his strong point. Emailing them detailed instructions based on what he’s read in this morning’s Financial Times, yes. But I suppose he wouldn’t be above using some grumbling in the international tendency to score some domestic points.

I’m sorry, Peter, go on:

Smith was also supported in the move against comrade Rees by another senior leader, Chris Harman, and backed up strongly by Charlie Kimber, who now looks set to move up the SWP pecking order. Also voting against Rees were Colin Smith, Hannah Dee, Judith Orr, Michael Bradley, Viv Smith and Weyman Bennett.

For his part, comrade Rees was backed only by his partner and main collaborator, Lindsey German, along with long-time allies Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham – although it has to be said it is by no means certain that the latter two will not jump ship in the near future, now it is clear that the balance of forces is totally against Rees.

You read this and you wonder what happened to the extraordinarily talented leadership the party used to have. Then you remember that most of them are dead, retired or long since expelled. I for one have never seen the point of Chris Nineham.

The August 27 CC meeting was extremely heated, with comrade German at one point threatening to resign not just from the leadership, but from the SWP itself. Although she herself was not affected by the ‘cabinet reshuffle’ that accompanied Rees’s demotion, she announced that she too would resign from the Left Alternative NC in solidarity with him.

Aw, now that’s nice. Who says there’s no humanity at the top?

It goes without saying that the SWP rank and file has been kept completely in the dark as to the nature of the furious row that has engulfed the whole leadership.

You don’t say!

Think about it. Rees has been ditched because of his disastrous misleadership. The Left List London assembly debacle was too much even for the CC to stomach. In this context it is not just a ‘debate’ about the SWP’s future direction that needs to [be] had. A whole “argument” about the politics that led the organisation into Respect is essential.

Well, yes, this is the key point. And if the CC didn’t have this ingrained pas devant les enfants attitude, which can probably at the heel of the hunt be blamed on Cliff, they would have inaugurated one quite some time ago. You never know, it might be quite fruitful. Anyway, this year’s IBs will make for interesting reading.

Hundreds of SWPers opposed the Respect turn from the start, refusing to abide by the three-line whip to join the ‘unity coalition’. Most of them voted with their feet and drifted into inactivity – a form of passive rebellion. However, another minority were taken with Respect. They went ‘native’, seeing it as a principled and worthwhile formation in itself, a way out of the sectarian ghetto and into the big time – not just another ‘united front’, designed to win sympathisers and recruits for ‘the revolutionary party’.

This is true, and the institutionalised ambiguity is, I’m afraid, what did for John in the end, as he fell between two stools. The only way he could square the circle was if Respect really did help him get rich quick. The more long-term a project it was, the more untenable his position would be. It would almost make you feel sorry for the guy, if he wasn’t the author of his own misfortune.

There is also some stuff about the class contradictions in Respect, including the usual cpgb boilerplate about Asian businessmen. This is something I’ll return to separately. To the conclusion:

However, it is not just the SWP’s new contacts, made through Respect, that have now mostly gone. The organisation has lost a whole swathe of its own members as a result of the Respect disaster. Worse, the SWP has succeeded in alienating ally after ally – to the extent that no serious left figure or group will now contemplate joining forces with it in any new electoral alliance.

Well, fair enough. This won’t be a problem in the way Peter puts it, if the electoral front has effectively been wound down. But since the SWP has theorised (to the extent it ever formally theorises anything) the united front as its strategic orientation, and is operating on a sort of Venn diagram basis of lots and lots of “united fronts” (which, it must be said, bear little resemblance to the Comintern concept), then you do have a problem.

There’s a moral in this story – if you make a habit of fucking your allies over, then sooner or later you won’t have any allies left. Here endeth the lesson.

23 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    September 20, 2008 at 11:36 am

    to the extent that no serious left figure or group will now contemplate joining forces with it in any new electoral alliance.

    Ah – are there any? I know there’s the Talking Endlessly About The SWP* Party, which has many many members (indeed might could say activists) but beyond that, is there any sizeable organisation? Or common endeavour?

    [* in what I understand is a crucial process of Political Clarification, which in no way resembles the sky falling on Vitalstatistix's head]

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 20, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Ah come on now… Asterix was a serious and principled anti-imperialist.

    Yes, I suppose there are a few serious left figures, but groups? Then again, Peter Manson’s definition of “serious” may not necessarily be the same thing as “sizeable”. In fact they may be inversely proportionate.

  3. skidmarx said,

    September 20, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Shakespearean? Maybe it’s much ado about nothing. The most accurate phrase in the Weekly Worker seems to be:
    “If this is true, then the differences on this particular question must be very slight indeed”
    And the most self-unaware:
    “But will the SWP learn the lessons? If their organisation does not provide them with the means to do so, they need look no further than the Weekly Worker.”
    It can be fun to gossip, but when there is far more obsession outside an organisation about its organisational details…

    Asterix does collaborate with Caesar on a number of occasions, and his strategy in the Goth wars is opportunistic at best.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 20, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    All right, the Goth wars weren’t his finest hour…

    Perhaps the final sentence of the article should have been, “If you’re slightly pissed off, join the Weekly Worker!” I mean, their AWL stuff has been entertaining, but it seems to be wholly directed at trying to recruit Dave Broder. So far, Dave has been savvy enough not to give in.

  5. ejh said,

    September 20, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Thank God, at last a name I don’t actually recognise. The seclusion and deprogramming must be working.

  6. David Ellis said,

    September 20, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Great blog.

    I reckon the SWP cc should go and see the new Simon Pegg film when it comes out: `How to lose friends and alienate people.’

    Wasn’t it Beria who abstained when the politburo voted to send his wife to the gulag? At least German didn’t go that far.

    With the leadership split so fundamentally the factions are ultimately bound to take their dispute into the membership. But it will be like taking a heavy weight off a crush victim resulting in a rapid and catastrophic spread of poison throughout the body. The purpose of internal discussion is to educate both leaders and members and ultimately ensure that every body is singing from the same hymn sheet. Without that internal democracy people develop their own theories and outlooks to explain the world and their situation. I reckon there is a different outlook for every single member. Unleash that suddenlly when it’s too late and . . .

  7. Mike said,

    September 21, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    “I for one have never seen the point of Chris Nineham.”

    Chris Nineham is an illusion. The reality is that he is a representative of many lower middle class activists who have joined the SWP over the years and have been promoted to positions of leadership due to the feelings of class solidarity they evoke in members of the CC. In all fairness there have been precious few opportunities for working class cadre to shine in recent years.

    That said why I should be fair baffles even me!

  8. Darren said,

    September 22, 2008 at 3:54 am

    Mike,

    I understand that Chris Nineham is a Public School type*. Unless he is a scholarship boy, he is anything but lower middle class.

    *The old Guardian diarist, Matthew Norman, spotted him on the tv a few years ago and outed him as a contemporary from his time at Westminster School. As Chris Nineham was in his Globalise Resistance role, Norman mistook him for an anarchist. ;-)

    I like to think that this was Chris Nineham’s finest hour.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 22, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Yes, IIRC Chris was at Westminster. Even Alex Callinicos only went to Rugby.

  10. ejh said,

    September 22, 2008 at 9:26 am

    The practice of leftists commenting adversely on where other leftists went to school does strike me as, in most circumstances, asking for trouble. If for no other reason than that it involves throwing a missile than can rather too easily be thrown straight back.

  11. skidmarx said,

    September 22, 2008 at 9:27 am

    “Public School type” Like Paul Foot. Like the only SWP member at my college when I joined it in the eighties. Isn’t there a joy to hearing revolutionary socialsim explained in the poshest of accents as there is when someone with the squeakiest of American accents explains that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class? Oh sorry I get it: you don’t like Chris Nineham or the SWP.

  12. Darren said,

    September 22, 2008 at 9:40 am

    “If for no other reason than that it involves throwing a missile than can rather too easily be thrown straight back.”

    ejh,

    I admit it. I went to my local comp. Famous alumni include Chris Eagles and Julie Bolino (the guitarist from Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love video.)

    Skid,

    “Oh sorry I get it: you don’t like Chris Nineham or the SWP.”

    I don’t really care if someone on the left when to a posh school but I have issues with some of the same people types coming out with workerist bullshit.

    Paul Foot never disguised his accent, whereas Nineham got one of those ridiculous mockney accents. Oh, and the June Brides were shit too.

  13. September 22, 2008 at 10:25 am

    at least for the clone of the SWP in Germany – Marx21 (former SAG/Linksruck) – a new international general line would be suicidal due to the resources and post, they have received via Die LINKE (one state assembly member in Hessen, two out of 44 CC-members, several full time posts, strong influence in the party’s student association and in the Keynesian current Sozialistische Linke, etc.) while the organization itself is in decline

  14. Andy newman said,

    September 22, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    “Wasn’t it Beria who abstained when the politburo voted to send his wife to the gulag? ”

    This seems highly unlikely.

    Procedurally, since around October 1927 the GPU/NKVD had authority over internal party affairs, and as Nino Beria was not hersoelf on either the Politburo or the Centrak Cintrol Commission she could have been sent to a labour camp by the NKVD without a vote by the politburo.

    But more importnatly nine was not sent to a labour camp until 1953 after Beria was dead.

    Interestingly, while even the hardest of stalinists would not defend Beria, his brief time as ruler of the USSR was suprisingly liberal and reforming.

  15. Dr Paul said,

    September 22, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    ‘Wasn’t it Beria who abstained when the politburo voted to send his wife to the gulag?’

    No, it was Molotov.

    It is true, as Andy N states, that Beria was promoting after Stalin’s death a far-reaching programme of reforms, more extensive that anyone else was offering. Being in charge of the secret police, I imagine, allowed him a better view of the country and its needs than other leaders could have had. Many of Gorbachev’s reforms can be traced back to Andropov, also a former secret police chief, although the latter probably would have gone for a Chinese-style solution, rather than just let everything go to pieces.

    This is what my pal Arthur Trusscott wrote a few months back about the SWP:

    ‘The Socialist Workers Party is now the biggest group on the British left — indeed it’s now the only big group on the left — but its future as a going concern has been put into question by the death of its founder and leader Tony Cliff in 2002 and the attempts of its current leadership to proceed in his absence. Cliff was an almost chemically pure example of a political leader, a ganzer macher par excellence, as he more or less single-handedly elaborated the group’s theories, strategies and tactics, and kept it together through its various twists and turns and ups and downs.

    ‘The SWP’s biggest campaign since Cliff’s passing, the Respect Unity Coalition, does not augur well for the party’s future. This venture, an electoral alliance that assembled George Galloway, a few left-wing union leaders (personal capacity), some of the smaller left-wing groups and sundry Muslim organisations whose politics remain a mystery, a programme that a Green Party leader called a pale imitation of his own organisation’s platform, and where socialism was relegated to one letter of a tortured acronym, came as a shock even to seasoned left-wingers long accustomed to the vagaries of left-wing politics.

    ‘The prediction made by many that Respect was a disaster-in-waiting was borne out in full late last year when Galloway, the Muslim groups and the socialist small fry told the SWP that they were fed up with its incessant bossiness, and told it in no uncertain terms where to get off. (Such an accusation is singularly unjustified; considering that the SWP set up Respect in the first place, it surely had the right to run its subsidiary precisely as it wished.) They went off in a huff to form Respect Renewal, leaving the SWP on its own and without any perceptible gains for all its hard work. In the cold light of day and having become a laughing stock when a Respect councillor with an SWP party card defected directly to the Tories, a somewhat chastened SWP can now be found condemning Galloway as a shyster, and recognising that extending one’s hands to small businessmen claiming to represent communities leaves one’s doors open to dubious pork-barrellers with no commitment to working-class politics. However, this recognition is a bit reminiscent of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956: like him, the SWP lacks the good grace to acknowledge that its discovery was merely its catching up with what most of us were saying when Respect first arrived on the scene.

    ‘Has the SWP leadership done what Cliff would have done in similar circumstances; namely, sack a few scapegoats, and find a new wheeze to keep the troops busy? At first glance, yes. A handful of SWPers who ‘went native’ in Respect have been given the boot, and the party is standing Lindsey German in the London Mayoral election. Yet such is the scale of the disaster that, putting aside the fact that there’s nobody in the leadership with anything like the authority of Cliff to turn the ship properly around and announce a new direction, one might expect a thoroughgoing discussion of why such a disastrous course was adopted in the first place. But this could lead to a right royal barney within both the leadership and the rank-and-file; it just can’t be risked. There’s an unspoken consensus not to rock the boat, but this leaves unresolved various fundamental questions which could and probably will burst unexpectedly into the open at some future juncture.’

  16. David Ellis said,

    September 22, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    My bad. Yes, it was Molotov.

  17. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    September 22, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Mike Bradley on the SWP CC? Fuck me.

  18. Mike said,

    September 22, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    In reply to comments above like Darren it is of no concern to me as to the class origins of comrades. What does concern me is that there is an over concentration of middle class elements in the leadership of the SWP and that this is very clearly reflected in the retreat from class struggle politics and an orientation on the workplaces by that group. ‘FormerLabourite’ Martin Smith politically belongs to this political retreat every bit as much as former public school boys like Nineham.

  19. skidmarx said,

    September 23, 2008 at 9:21 am

    “Nineham got one of those ridiculous mockney accents.”

    When I left home I had the sort of Home Counties accent described by Jimmy Carr:”I don’t have an accent, this is how English is supposed to be pronounced”. After five years squatting in Hackney in the 90s I acquired a glottal stop and the other accroutrements of the local accent without trying to: maybe the same is true of Chris Nineham.

    “The prediction made by many that Respect was a disaster-in-waiting was borne out in full late last year ”
    Maybe it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. There seems to be a parallel between those who never liked Respect claiming vindication and the acolytes of Galloway who claimed the SWP was missing out on a huge (and generally unspecified) opportunity by not bowing down to his every wish.
    “‘FormerLabourite’ Martin Smith”
    You former child, you.

  20. Doug said,

    September 23, 2008 at 9:23 am

    The SWP is the only big group on the Left? Does comrade Trusscott suffer from selective amnesia? The Socialist Party? Duh.

  21. Dr Paul said,

    September 23, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Re point 31: I was told that Militant in its heyday used to claim something like 8000 members, although the former member who told me this figure says that it was exaggerated. After Ted Grant was booted out, I heard that the group, by now the Socialist Party, was down to a few hundred (I guess that comrade Trusscott was basing his estimation on that), although I’ve heard since that it has grown again.

    Just how many members it has these days, I don’t know. Maybe someone can tell us.

  22. Malky said,

    September 23, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Actually #35, over 2000 members and increasing (in contrast to the rest of the left). Outside London, noticeably more active members than the SWP.

  23. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 23, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Right, the necessary has been done. Sorry to ejh, and I would probably have been quicker off the mark if I hadn’t forgotten my email password.


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