Well, isn’t this a turn-up for the books? It’s all unofficial at this point, of course, but I will be fascinated to see the spin that’s put on it. The IBs should be more than usually interesting at any rate.
Actually, as I understand things, it’s not that Rees has been sacked as such. The situation is that, at the annual conference, the outgoing Central Committee puts forward a slate for the new CC. Usually there is only the one slate, although in theory anyone can put forward an alternative line-up, and usually it is passed unanimously or as near as makes no difference. The thing is that Rees has been left off the slate for the new CC. Which, bearing in mind the remarkable stability of the CC for the last 20 years or so, is significant in itself.
The question is, why and why now. I mean to say, a Central Committee that includes Mike Bradley is not so obviously awash with talent that someone like John Rees can be easily dropped, especially when (it seems) Lindsey remains within the big tent. Here’s my take on things. Firstly, you have to go back to the last major CC reshuffle of a few years ago, when John and Lindsey stepped down from having specific responsibilities within the SWP in favour of secondment to Stop the War and Respect. As long as both of those initiatives were flying high, this was the basis for their pre-eminence. But the decline of the antiwar movement – and nobody can seriously claim it’s operating on the level of 2003 – together with the split in Respect have left them seriously exposed. At the same time, the SWP’s own organisation has atrophied, which has bolstered the criticisms of the more purist wing who were never enthusiastic about Respect in the first place, and in many cases quietly boycotted it. It took a while, but the purists eventually found an echo in the apparat.
As I’ve said before, while it’s hard to avoid a little schadenfreude, there’s an element of tragedy involved. The old sell-the-paper-and-recruit method was well suited to holding together an organisation in the hard times of the downturn. In the 1990s, with most of the rest of the left having gone awol, an energetic application of the old methods could lead to serious gains in numerical terms. This led, I think, to delusions of grandeur, most damagingly from Cliff. (The old man was far from the worst, but he set the tone for others who lacked his abilities.) The problem in the longer term was that the old methods were sufficient for building a largish sect, but were a barrier to building anything beyond that.
So along came a number of opportunities, with the emergence of the global justice movement, the mass antiwar movement, and the electoral interventions via the Socialist Alliance and then Respect. You didn’t have to be a died-in-the-wool sectarian to have some concerns about these movements. Nonetheless, it was probably necessary to jump in to the first two, and have a constructive orientation to the others. But here’s where you found barriers popping up. There was a fetishisation of “doing stuff” that led to a perspective that was under-theorised to say the least, and often incoherent even in its own terms. I am convinced that there was a real fear in the SWP leadership of the unpredictable consequences of joining anything broader, particularly in terms of the membership going off message, competing with the fear of being passed by. And there were innumerable bad habits stemming from twenty years of not having worked with anybody.
So here you had a situation where the organisation was throwing itself into broad initiatives with a stress on pure activism, often effacing its own politics or importing politics of the reformist, anarchist or pacifist variety into its own ranks. At the same time, you still had a very broad streak of sectist control freakery that managed to piss off just about every potential ally. (But which, and this is important, was at least as much directed towards the rank and file of the SWP as towards the non-SWP component of the various “united fronts”.) Personal qualities also came into it, when you think of Rees’ inability to maintain working relationships in Respect. Or, to take another tack, think of Stop the War. If you think of individuals like George Galloway or Tariq Ali, I’ve never hidden my reservations about them, but they do have advantages as popular leaders. They bring to the party a certain flair, a certain class, a certain je ne sais quoi. Old IMG heads can tell you lots of stories about Tariq’s uselessness in various roles, but still acknowledge his attractiveness as a mass leader. There’s a certain amount of hubris involved in thinking that Lindsey, purely because of her position in the StW hierarchy, could be a readymade popular mass leader.
And so here we are, with a de facto (if untheorised) turn back towards the old practices by the SWP leadership. Partly, yes, it has to do with objective conditions, or rather the party’s inability to respond to changes in the objective conditions. There is also the issue, as one SU commenter put it, that
If they’ve kicked out the people who wanted to stay in Respect, and kicked out the guy who led the walkout from Respect, who the hell is left? The people who never wanted to be in Respect in the first place?
Step forward, Chris Harman. Actually, this is the tragic thing, in that those most closely identified with the push outwards – Rees, German, Nineham – are now distrusted by those who took the outward turn seriously (which is not just those SWPers who jumped ship in the Respect split, but also many more Respectophile comrades who stayed in through a sense of discipline) but also on the outs with the purist wing. Poor old John, having had the legs cut out from under him by the Respect split and Left List debacle, looks like being the people’s choice as fall guy. He’s been removed from the leadership of Left Alternative, the party’s moribund electoral front. He’s been sent on a speaking tour of the provinces, which says something in itself. (He might not mind the occasional trip to Liverpool, but having to spend night after night speaking to tiny meetings in the Midlands or Yorkshire is the CC’s equivalent of exile to Magnitogorsk. And more than a little galling for someone who not long ago fancied himself not merely a national but an international leader of our movement.) And now he’s being busted down to the ranks, although it’s likely he’ll be offered some kind of parachute.
All this, it’s worth pointing out, is taking place with a minimum of discussion, let alone self-criticism. Professor Portnoy, to take one example, is still touting about the Rees version of the SWP-Respect split, spiced up with stuff about “Muslim notables” taken off the shelf from the AWL. One assumes the line will be that John made a few errors (though these are very very small set alongside the machinations of Galloway) and had become a bit of a block to moving on. And moving on to what? Well, more concentration on SWSS, an attempt to revitalise anti-fascist work, a bit of agitprop around the financial crisis, whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The Pomintern is at sixes and sevens – although the Irish and Canadians are as ultra-loyal as ever, some others are distinctly out of step with London. And my old friend Charlie Kimber, whose industrial experience consists of being an NUJ member, doesn’t appear to know what an industrial strategy is.
You know what, I’m for open discussion and self-criticism all round. This applies equally to Respect – while I was impressed with the serious, modest and businesslike atmosphere at last month’s conference, there are still unresolved arguments, plus not a few people who used to be Rees’ little helpers and who could benefit from a period of reflection. But now, heading towards January’s conference, would be a good time for SWP comrades to think about where they’re going, and whether it’s a good idea to move from the John Rees regime to the Martin Smith regime without pausing to draw breath, let alone reflect. One of the biggest barriers to that has been the cult of CC infallibility, for which blame must be shared between Cliff’s organisational prescriptions and the CC’s practice of keeping discussion internal to itself. Ructions within the CC make that more difficult to sustain.
My view is, let a hundred flowers bloom. There will be people who come up with bad ideas or even completely daft ideas. There will be all sorts of deviations and unorthodoxies. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a period of open discussion, things would start to flow, surprising connections would be made and – who knows? – people on opposite sides of polarised debates might find areas of agreement. A mature Marxist leadership shouldn’t fear a discussion where the outcome isn’t pre-determined, it should welcome one.
Here endeth the lesson.