Nine for ’09…

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I’ve been tagged once, I’ve been tagged twice, so I suppose it’s worthwhile thinking up a few random wishes for the New Year. If only to set up a yardstick of disappointment I can work from later.

1. Celebrity Big Brother is coming up fast on the rails, and Phil wishes that Tommy Sheridan doesn’t go into the house. I must admit, though rationally I can see that Tommy’s participation would be damaging for the left, I sort of hope that he does, just so I have an excuse to use That Picture again. What concerns me more is the persistent rumour that top glamour girl and friend of this blog Lucy Pinder may be going into the house. If Tommy goes in, I’ll just shake my head, but if Lucy does – I’ll be very disappointed in you, my lass.

2. Hollywood to finally get around to filming The Stainless Steel Rat, after the rights being passed from studio to studio for decades. Of course, you would need the right actor to play Slippery Jim. I suggest that, though he may be expensive, Clooney in his charming rogue mode would be ideal.

3. Foreign troops to be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. And not to be sent anywhere else. I may as well add in that I’d like to see Irish troops brought back from Chad and Kosovo.

4. Mark Kermode to take over Film 2009. Yes, Jonathan Ross knows his movies and has real enthusiasm for the subject, but don’t say you haven’t noticed the lack of sharp criticism. And why be surprised – Ross may find it hard to pan Guy Ritchie if he’s hoping to get Ritchie on his Friday night chat show, his radio show or one of his many other projects. You really can’t go far wrong with a specialist critic, and Mark is as sharp a one as you’ll get.

5. Rambo Amadeus to announce tour dates that fit in with my travel schedule.

6. Battlestar Galactica to get as good an ending as it deserves.

7. A second defeat for the Lisbon Treaty in the repeat referendum. And, on a similar theme, Sergei Stanishev to grow a backbone and tell Barroso where to get off.

8. A revival of working-class struggle in Europe, with Greece in the forefront.

9. And, on a slightly less realistic note, Marvel to relaunch Power Man & Iron Fist. Hey, you gotta dream…

I’m not going to tag anybody, but if you have any wishes you expect to see disappointed in the coming year, feel free to join in. Auld Lang Syne and all that to all readers.

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph

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I know it’s supposed to be the festive season, but Christmas in Belfast can often be quite depressing. Usually the weather is foul, although it’s been quite nice this year. The throng of bargain-hunters means you can barely move in the town. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Prods continue their barbaric practice of buying their children the Broons annual…

Och, we do like it really. But by God, this is a shocking end to the year. Harold Pinter is dead, and I still find it hard to put into words what that means to me. Not only the loss to our literary world – much parodied he may be, but still essential – but, just as importantly, the loss of a voice of conscience and integrity, a determined foe of the Empire in an age when renegades are desperately trying to ditch anti-imperialism, someone who may have been wrong-headed on this or that issue but was always coming from the right place. Yes, Harold was one of us. Very sound on cricket, too – it’s probably that I’ll remember him best for, along with his agreeably dark sense of humour.

Then there’s the continuing assault on Gaza, which makes you wish Harold was still around. Really, the whole thing is disgusting. The inhabitants of Gaza, most of them refugees from what is now Israel, have had a pretty awful time of it for the past sixty years. Neglectful rule by the Nasserite Egyptians, an increasingly oppressive Israeli occupation, corruption and more oppression by Fatah… accompanied by living conditions steadily deteriorating into one of the worst slums in the world. And then, for the crime of making a democratic choice the great powers disapproved of, Gazans find themselves placed under siege and their territory turned into what’s little more than a giant concentration camp.

What now? Well, there is an election coming up in Israel in February, which probably means the IDF will continue to pound the shit out of Gaza until polling day, so as to prevent Bibi Netanyahu upbraiding the current “centre-left” government for softness on security. We also have talk of an IDF ground incursion, which will mean nothing more than an exponentially greater bloodbath. And in the meantime the butchers Olmert, Barak and Livni can rest easy in the knowledge that Uncle Sam will see them right. Nor need they be afraid of the incoming administration which, if anything, is even more rigidly Zionist than its predecessor.

It’s bad, very bad. And I can’t honestly see it getting better any time soon.

Rud eile: Please do whatever you can to support Hicham Yezza, the Nottingham student currently facing deportation under “War on Terror” legislation. This is a real scandal, and one where the British government may respond to some pressure.

Taking it easy

This blog will be on a brief hiatus for the holidays – only a brief one, we assure you, and the normal tomfoolery will be resumed before you know it. So put your feet up, enjoy the season of goodwill and whatever holidays you celebrate, and we will meet up again anon.

In the meantime, to put a smile on your faces, here’s a little slice of Viennese noir from way back in the 1980s, when we didn’t need to be all ironic and stuff.

More juice for the mango

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You know, the current debate in the SWP makes me feel a bit like Lisa Simpson.

Allow me to explain. You’ll probably recall the episode where Bart sells his soul to Millhouse for five dollars. It then falls to Lisa to convince Bart that he’s done something wrong, even though she’s not entirely certain that Bart has a soul. Well, I feel a bit like that.

So, in the spirit of goodwill to all men, let us turn to the latest offering from the party’s chief ju-ju man, Professor Callinicos. You will remember that, in his article, the renegade Rees levelled quite a fusillade against the good professor. Now, it be payback time, sucka!

I’ll try to stay on the high ground and concentrate on the main political questions, though I will, from time to time, have to correct various factual assertions and misrepresentations made by John… In the course of this I shall make some comments on Lindsey German’s document, though I think it adds little of substance to the debate.

Miaow! Actually, Alexander manages to stick to the high ground for maybe the first half of his article, where he talks about perspectives about the crisis, and attempts to place the current CC majority as the true inheritors of “Suck it and see!” and “Bend the stick!”, not perhaps Cliff’s most inspiring aphorisms. In the course of this he makes some good points, and a few where I actually agree with him – such as the diminished centrality of Stop the War.

There is a useful argument to be had also in terms of the united front, although I note that Alexander, like Chris Harman, appears to be mired in Dimitrov’s 1935 exposition of the UF. Some reflection on the UF method may be called for. But it is clear that both Callinicos and Harman conceive of “united fronts” primarily as single-issue campaigns initiated and run by the SWP. To this extent, there is a turn back towards the old propagandist methods, and many older party members will welcome that. What the post-Cliff levy, educated in the Rees-German method, will make of it is another question.

There’s also a rather useful discussion of the weakness of Marxism as a pole of attraction in the post-Seattle period, which seems to put a question mark over Alex’s more triumphalist pronouncements back in 2000. And, while Alex doesn’t really do self-criticism, this isn’t the only bit of rowing back in the document:

Then came the era of Seattle. The CC decided that the branches had become an obstacle to the necessary turn outwards and in effect scrapped them. The suspension of branch meetings in London during the GLA elections in 2000 symbolized this shift. I accept my share of this responsibility for this decision, which may indeed have been justified in order sharply to break with the past… Scrapping the branches removed one key agency in recruiting comrades. More important, it meant that if we recruited someone, they had nowhere to go. Unless they were firmly attached to one of the united fronts, the individuals would drift into a shapeless mass of semi-detached members and all too often disappear.

When I read this, the first thing I thought of was this:

The ISO increasingly viewed the world through its own sectarian prism. In an extraordinary speech at the ISO’s convention in December 2000, the group’s National Organizer, Sharon Smith, attacked the idea that the ISO could, by systematically focusing on [the global justice movement], “leapfrog” over the rest of the left, and insisted that methods of party-building forged in the downturn were necessary irrespective of the changing objective conditions. “Branches are now and will always be the measure of the size of the organization,” she said.

Smith here made precisely the mistake against which Trotsky warned – namely that of turning a specific method of building into a matter of principle. The SWP and its sister organizations (including the ISO) developed during the 1980s a routine based on large geographically based branches that met weekly mainly for general political discussion. This fitted a situation where the level of class struggle was low, and it was necessary to concentrate on developing individual members’ understanding of the Marxist tradition in order to survive in a hostile political environment. This structure, however, increasingly became an obstacle to party-building in the 1990s, when the generally slow revival of struggle and much more rapid political radicalization required much smaller, more activist branches that could begin to root themselves in working-class communities. The ISO’s failure to follow the example of, for example, the Socialist Workers Parties in Britain and Greece in making this shift may help to explain its increasingly sectarian trajectory. Sectarian organizational being began to assert itself over Marxist political consciousness.

Physician, heal thyself, etc. I will sidestep Alexander’s tendentious version of the ISO’s politics – I’m sure the ISO have plenty of faults, but they certainly aren’t the sectarian crazies they were made out to be. What is perhaps more to the point is that Prof Callinicos, in his long stewardship of the international tendency, has made rather a habit of exporting organisational shibbolethim from Britain across the world. The regular abolition and resurrection of branch committees, which were alternately a school for cadre or a conservative block depending on which side of the bed Cliff got out of, springs to mind. There was the drive in the 1990s towards tiny branches, which even by Alex’s account brought the Danish group to the point of collapse, and which the Americans (to their credit) resisted. And now, we have the admission that the closing down of the branches by the CC in 2000, Bambery’s Maoist tour of the nation implementing this turn, and the consequent disorganisation of the cadre, was a disaster. Could it be that those crazy Yanks had a point after all?

But the fulcrum of the Callinicos document is an extraordinary character assassination on John Rees. I hasten to add that the fact of a character assassination on this scale is par for the course when someone falls from grace in the SWP, what’s extraordinary is it being put into print. And Alex, while he’s more than a little shifty about his own track record, does manage to put together a fairly devastating charge sheet against John.

There are, however, a couple of problems here. One is that Alex’s account of the defects in John’s personality, his elitism, his arrogance, his irresponsibility etc, would be all too familiar to anyone who’s worked alongside John for even a matter of weeks. And yet, the bugger has been on the Central Committee for fourteen years. For most of that time, the talents that he brought to the party, opaque as they may be to me, were held to outweigh the defects. No, John is being penalised for his recent actions, for the split in Respect and the subsequent Left List debacle – sure, there’s also the dodgy cheque, but that can’t be separated out.

And here’s the problem, because the CC put a huge premium on saving face, and because last year they backed him all the way. As a result, the CC can’t go very far beyond the Mr Tony Blair line of “Let’s draw a line under this and move on.” In fact, all contributors have rehashed the line about how it was correct to “resist Galloway”. Thus Alex:

But that document [the CC’s balance sheet on Respect] makes absolutely clear that political responsibility for the destruction of Respect lies with George Galloway and his allies.

Therefore Lindsey’s claim that John is being made a scapegoat for this disaster is nonsense. The problem was rather that the crisis in Respect exposed certain systematic weaknesses in John’s methods of working – in particular a failure to respect the collective decision-making of the party and, in large part as a result, to make serious mistakes that caused him to lose the confidence of the majority, not just of the leadership, but of the party cadre as well…

Most members of the CC thought it would be unwise to prejudge the results of this meeting [with Galloway on 4 September 2007]. This was a tactical issue with no issue of principle at stake on either side. But most comrades there were taken aback by the vehemence with which John, with the support of Lindsey German (and also with a degree of sympathy from me), insisted on having his way. The tone was ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’.

It was that argument began the fracture on the CC. What produced the polarization was the assumption on John’s part was that he should define the leadership’s line on Respect. This reflected, more generally, how work on both Respect tended to be reported to the CC. While quite a lot of information would be shared with the CC, it wasn’t on a basis that really invited discussion or dissent.

In retrospect, this represented a breach with how the party has intervened in united fronts. It was always taken for granted comrades involved in leading united fronts would be under particular pressure to adapt to their reformist allies. The role of the Central Committee would be to support these comrades, but also to act as a counter-pressure to any tendency of rightward adaptation.

Quite so. But, and I know I’ve probably bored you all to death on this point, doesn’t the criticism of Rees call into question the correctness of the split? One might argue that the inbuilt tensions in Respect Mark I meant a big bust-up was inevitable in the longer term, and I agree with that. One reason was the fudging of its political basis. Another was the lack of democracy inherent from the start, with the SWP enforcing a three-line whip on even the most minor procedural issues and the real decision-making process being located not at conference or in the NC, but in diplomatic manoeuvres between John and Lindsey on the one hand and George on the other. (The refounded Respect has at least, to its credit, taken steps to address this, by abolishing the slate system and actually having contested elections for the leadership.) But you can agree with all this and still believe that last year’s split was wholly unnecessary.

The contingent reason, of course, was George’s letter criticising Rees for organisational inefficiency and failure to maintain working relationships, and suggesting that another SWP member be appointed to work alongside him. Bearing in mind Rees’ sacking from the CC, and the buckets of shit being poured over him by the CC majority, this all seems rather mild. Actually, the SWP could have massively improved their standing in Respect by admitting that George’s letter identified some real problems, and committing to work constructively with him to deal with these problems. By going nuclear, for what seem to be internal party reasons, this opportunity was thrown away. Worse, there was the ludicrous campaign against the “witch-hunt”, a witch-hunt that had never existed. Worse still was the SWP CC accusing Asian Respect members of “communalism”, the political equivalent of saying poppadum on Big Brother.

Now, Alex and Chris and Martin could win themselves a lot of good will by admitting they made a mistake. They certainly don’t need to shoulder all of the blame, but the sacking of Rees – scapegoating though it may be – provides them with an opportunity to mend fences. Yet they won’t do it. They bemoan having alienated the middle ground in Respect, but can’t concede that this might have anything to do with the SWP’s actions (beyond those for which Rees has already been criticised). And this is the sort of thing that really, really pisses people off. It’s why, for instance, there was a whole layer of Socialist Alliance people who wouldn’t make the jump into Respect. There are plenty of other similar examples, most notably in Scotland, but that would take us too far afield.

Let’s conclude with Alex on the question of improving party democracy:

In fact, my own attitude to Neil’s arguments is very similar to Chris Harman’s, who has been privately been expressing for many years the kind of views stated publicly in his reply to Neil. Like Chris, I think the problem is less one of structure than of ethos. In other words, formally party structures are highly democratic, but the culture of internal debate has been much weaker in recent years, and more broadly the party has been over-reliant on top-down initiatives from the CC.

No shit, Sherlock. You’ve been in the national leadership for thirty years and Chris for over forty – whatever your private concerns may have been, you didn’t exactly bust a gut to do anything about them. And in fact:

But Neil is right that the Central Committee, scarred by the crisis of the late 1970s, has been very cautious about expressing public disagreements, and indeed has become more cautious over about this over time. This tendency has been reinforced by features that become more prominent in the 1990s. Sustaining party activity in a period when, after a series of big, though unconnected mobilizations in 1990-4, was remarkably lacking in serious struggles required increasing doses of voluntarism on the part of the centre. At the centre itself a certain hothouse atmosphere and excessive preoccupation with trivial internal infighting and backbiting developed.

Yes, one of the most remarkable facts about the Callinicos and Harman articles is that, while championing an improved party democracy, there is still an ingrained tendency to see the CC as the source of any serious initiative and the membership as an inert mass. On the other hand, at least you have to give them credit for recognising that there is a problem, while John and Lindsey remain quite frankly elitist (for which John’s peculiar reading of Lukács is the theoretical justification).

My reading of the situation is that, whatever about these articles from the party intellectuals, the key figure in the debate is the emergent maximum leader Martin Smith, and you can explain Martin’s position in terms of his position in the party. As the national secretary, he is the direct representative of the apparat, which predisposes him to be sceptical towards anything that might be construed as liquidating the party. (Martin, like Chris Harman, was known to be a Respect-sceptic, which suggests that he may have had his own opportunistic reasons for backing up Rees last year.) Where Rees complains about the incoherence of the party’s activities, I would say that my impression of Martin, at least from seeing him at work in the past, is that he’s not a great man for big ambitious initiatives, and is at heart a pragmatist who’s willing to take modest and sensible initiatives that stand a good chance of advancing the organisation. This, I believe, is the main factor behind his sudden popularity with a cadre whose heads are spinning from years of “decisive” leadership – well, that and his ouster of the widely despised Rees.

And I think we can locate his sudden transformation into a born-again democrat in pragmatic terms – he wants to re-enthuse the cadre, improve the party’s functioning and head off mounting discontent in the ranks. But at the same time, a democratic revolution with Martin Smith, Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos at the helm is going to be nothing but a self-limiting revolution. Obviously any opening up is most welcome, but what’s really necessary is for people like Neil Davidson and John Molyneux, and their supporters in the ranks, to keep up the pressure on the CC majority, because left to their own devices they won’t agree to anything more than the bare minimum of reform – certainly not to a move like election of district organisers, which would do more than anything else to improve matters. At the very least they would need to insist on a lay majority on both the democracy commission and the control commission. There is, however, one point where I disagree with Neil, and that’s on his idea of postponing the election of the new CC. I do think the CC needs to have its base radically widened, but it’s much more important in the short term to terminate Rees with extreme prejudice.

Which brings me to Lindsey German’s document. My view of the erstwhile Power Couple has been that they can claim in their favour that at least they had the imagination to push outwards and go for the bigger prize, in Stop the War or Respect. But this is negated by their practice, which is extremely elitist even by SWP standards, only magnified as it’s been transposed into the outside world. I have to say, though, that while I do have some sympathy for Rees’ claim that he’s been scapegoated for things the entire leadership agreed to, I’m not more kindly disposed towards him by Lyndzee’s long complaint about how poor ‘ickle John is being victimised. Nor does her assertion that she was always right, even when she was wrong, cut much ice with me.

Well, here are a few gems anyway:

Over Big Brother for example, we had to steer a position between those who wanted to break with George completely, to severely criticise him, and those who were totally uncritical. I think we took the right position (although I sometimes feel that life would have been easier subsequently if we had broken with Galloway).

This is disingenuous at best. I don’t know of anyone who wanted to actually drum Galloway out of Respect over Big Brother. I do know that Salma Yaqoob, Ken Loach and Alan Thornett wanted to formally rap him over the knuckles, and the SWP blocked any such move. I also vividly remember the national secretary of Respect, one J Rees, appearing on Newsnight and opining that the whole fiasco had been worthwhile because he, Rees, had been invited onto Newsnight.

Here’s Lyndz on the Left List electoral run:

[Had we not stood] we would have been totally marginalised, there would have been no left candidate standing against an increasingly right moving Livingstone, and we would have left the field open for Galloway – and, in particular, his argument that we should go soft on some New Labour figures [i.e. Ken Livingstone]. Had Galloway won a London assembly seat (unlikely as this now appears), we would have been in a substantially weaker position to argue the case for an independent Left.

It’s nice to get an admission that this was a spoiler candidacy, but this may not go down terribly well with SWP comrades who were spun along with claims that Lyndz, the great mass leader, was going to do really well, and were left in the end with, well, a big green balloon of a special type.

But this is the real nugget:

If white socialists had been elected in 2006 in Newham and Tower Hamlets (as they very nearly were) then the balance of forces and level of politics in those areas would have been raised.

You know, I can see what she’s getting at, as nearly all the white candidates in Tower Hamlets and Newham were SWP members. If she’d claimed it was necessary to have SWP members on the councils to provide the non-SWP councillors with the correct politics and keep them honest, it would have been elitist bullshit (and note that the SWP’s trophy recruits like Ahmed Hussain didn’t turn out too well) but it would at least be consistent with her established politics. But to phrase it like this, in a context where the racial dynamic of Respect was very delicate, where leading SWP members have been accusing their antagonists of practising “Bangladeshi village politics”… can she not see how bad this looks, or does she just not care? Shit, even the AWL would hesitate before using that language.

Anyway, there’s one thing that’s absolutely clear, and that is that German must be removed from her leadership position along with Rees. (Bambery, like the slippery weasel he is, will no doubt find a way to save his job; I don’t care about Nineham.) Remember that she was the one who sponsored his rise up the greasy pole of the SWP’s fulltime apparat. Remember that he was brought onto the CC on her recognisance (and over the objections of Chris Harman, amongst others). It was she who groomed him as the successor to Cliff. And there isn’t a howler he’s committed that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it. I can understand, from a bureaucratic point of view, why the CC majority want to keep her in the tent pissing out – she knows where the bodies are buried, and could potentially be extremely destructive. But as to how her continued presence on the CC can be justified politically – well, I await an explanation from the great dialecticians Harman and Callinicos.

Madison on factionalism

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From The Federalist No. 10:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

And again:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

And once more:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

The Bolshevik-Leninist tradition, it’s true, doesn’t mean the same thing by faction as Madison meant, but his points remain important ones. And, while I’ve said this innumerable times, it’s worth repeating if only because it’s counter-intuitive – when Cliff launched his big campaign for democratic centralism in 1968 – the same campaign that produced Harman’s “Party and Class” essay – Cliff took it for granted that the democratic centralist party would have factions and tendencies within it, and that these would be represented on the leading bodies.

In fact, Cliff then went on to prove his point by introducing the Matgamna group into IS. Sean immediately availed himself of the factional rights guaranteed by Cliff’s 1968 constitution, much to the frustration of Cliff, who had brought Sean into the group to assist Colin Barker in Manchester, only for Cliff and Colin to be left ruing the day, and straining every sinew to get rid of Sean. In fact, this necessary task took a whole three years, which tells you something about the liberal regime in IS at the time. Things had tightened up a few years later when Cliff moved against the native oppositions, and culminated in the gerrymandered 1975 conference, but even then it took some while for the draconian prejudice against factionalism to take its full form. I suppose the squaddist purge of the early 1980s marks a watershed in that the squaddists weren’t a faction at all – the founders of Red Action didn’t link up until after their expulsion – but Cliff took the attitude that if he said you were a faction, then you were one. It was after that that you started to see comrades being purged for “secret factionalism” – i.e. informal contacts to which the CC took exception.

Here’s my point. I’m not trying to lionise factionalism for its own sake. Factions, even loyal and disciplined factions, are a pain in the arse at the best of times. But factions and tendencies are both inevitable and necessary. Conversely, it’s natural for the leadership to prefer unanimity, and a lack of revolt in the ranks, but a mature leadership should try to check any tendencies on its part towards monolithism. Because, human nature being what it is, you don’t eliminate disagreements by eliminating their expression through factionalism. What you do is drive disagreements underground – Gerry Healy ran an extremely oppressive and in fact violent regime, but that only ensured that the convulsions, when they came, were more explosive than they would otherwise have been.

What you also achieve, particularly by the proscription of so-called permanent factions, is not a factionless party but a party with one single permanent faction, namely the entrenched leadership. And indeed this permanent faction comes to have more and more the features of a clique.

Finally, all this railing against factionalism has very little to do with the Leninist tradition. Lenin (the real one, not Seymour) was an inveterate factionalist, and the membership of the RSDLP, under conditions of Tsarist autocracy, had rather more in the way of democratic rights than members of some offshoots of the Church of Latter Day Trotskyism, despite the latter operating under conditions of bourgeois democracy.

Two little historical factoids might be of interest. First was the question of who should sit on the CC. Lenin used to describe Kamenev as a congenital vacillator, and he was proven right in the course of 1917. And yet, it was precisely because of this that Lenin opposed the removal of Kamenev from the Bolshevik CC – because his vacillations represented a real tendency in the party. Secondly, even when the Bolsheviks finally banned factions (one of the many examples the Bolsheviks give of things we shouldn’t try to emulate) the leaders of the Workers Opposition still had representation on the CC, even though their faction was formally disbanded.

The neo-Stalinist or Maoist concept of the monolithic leadership, no less than the monolithic party, is a theoretical abomination that should be abandoned thoroughly and not merely pragmatically. Might we say that glasnost isn’t just for Christmas?

Molyneux contra Davidson contra Rees contra Harman ad infinitum…

This is of course pure gravy for me, but it’s nice to see the discussion in the SWP going on apace. I have to say that this is the most serious discussion for, oh, at least 20 years, and you have to hope that something good will come of it. By the way, I am greatly amused at the idea of my chum Richard Seymour writing an IB document calling for a culture of open discussion. What lends this some piquancy is that, despite the Tomb operating a comments policy akin to the Pravda letters page, there are people in the party hierarchy who reckon Richard’s blog to be dangerously undisciplined and anarchistic.

Sadly, this presumed comic masterpiece is not yet in the public domain, although a trip to the underground car park may yet turn up a copy. What we have at the moment is a goodish article from John Molyneux, a genuinely excellent one from Neil Davidson, and a pretty poor one from the Harmanator on behalf of the CC.

Let’s deal with Chris first, and I must say that, while there’s some good historical stuff on the United Front, in general it’s not a very inspiring read. On the other hand, I do remember many years ago being much taken by Chris’ “Party and Class”, and it’s nice to see Chris emerging as a champion of enhanced democracy in the party. Nice, if a little unexpected. Chris, remember, has been in the leadership for over forty years and in all that time has shown little sign of ever thinking that the SWP’s internal democracy fell short of perfection. Indeed, what he was best known for in the old IS days was never once voting against Cliff. On more than one occasion, Cliff and Harman were a minority of two, but it was a cast-iron rule that, if you knew what Cliff thought, that was also what Harman thought. His major role, in fact, was to render Cliff’s brainstorms into a workable perspective.

This has an unfortunate effect on the political content of the article. One expects Chris to defend the honour of the leadership, but the insistence on the leadership’s unparalleled wisdom over the decades does grate a little. I am especially unimpressed by Chris disinterring one of Cliff’s less attractive ideas, that the leadership was right even when it was wrong. Here he is on Bambery’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign shutting down the branches:

Most members of the current CC would probably recognise that the CC of eight years ago made mistakes over the branches at the time—mistakes we are still suffering from in some areas. But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist (with members beginning not to attend out of boredom). It is easy to forget that a good many members felt a sense of relief at the decision taken by the CC. We chose the wrong solution, but there was a problem.

No matter how much waffle about dialectics or stick-bending you throw in there, Chris, it doesn’t improve things.

On the plus side, Chris does realise that the internal democracy of the party is deeply stunted and atrophied, and that this has more to do with the culture of the party than the formal structures. I give Chris a brownie point for that, but promptly take it away for his suggestion that the lack of rank-and-file involvement in debate is the fault of the ranks for being too dazzled by the sagacity of the CC.

There is little else to say on Chris, although I’m slightly annoyed at the treatment of Respect, where it might be putting things too strongly to say that Chris’ pants are on fire, but there does seem to be some definite smouldering coming from his nether regions.

Look, I was hostile to the formation of Respect, for reasons that are probably not a million miles removed from those that Chris alludes to. I had doubts about George Galloway, I felt the closure of the Socialist Alliance and the launching of Respect was done in a completely high-handed manner (not that I had much time for the SA, but never mind), and while I felt the socialist-Muslim alliance coming out of the antiwar movement was extremely important, I suspected that the SWP was approaching this alliance in an opportunistic manner and that the alliance was too unstable to base a party around. While my position was probably sectarian, I do continue to feel that those concerns were justified.

An open argument around these issues would be quite healthy for the SWP, but unfortunately we don’t have one. John Rees is right to be aggrieved in that the whole leadership endorsed his actions last year, but that also restricts the ability of the CC majority to admit any mistakes. What all four of our writers give us is the libertyvalanced history of Respect, with Galloway’s right deviation being read ever further back into the past, with an insistence on the mythological “witch-hunt of socialists” in Respect, with AWL-lite stuff about rightwing Islamists, and with everyone saying the SWP was correct to “resist Galloway”. Resist him over what, one might ask? Over his complaints about John Rees’ performance as Respect secretary, and the suggestion that another SWP member be appointed to work alongside John? The same John Rees who’s just been sacked from the CC, on the basis of his failings as a leader? Since Harman, Molyneux and Davidson all bemoan their loss of the middle ground in Respect, they might like to consider whether continuing this sort of mendacity sheds some light on their lack of allies in a battle they didn’t even need to fight.

And, before I get too annoyed, let’s pass on to Neil Davidson. Neil begins his article with some spectacular puffery on behalf of the SWP, but I’ll leave that aside. I will also pass over quickly his failure to say anything substantial about the split in the SSP, as if it was nothing to do with him. These are not insubstantial points, but they don’t detract from the substance of his article, and the very strong points he makes on leadership.

I will point out, just as an aside, that Neil is good on the membership figures and in particular the strange category of “unregistered member” – that is, people who aren’t members but who remain on the books. There’s also the interesting point that the claimed registered membership is 6100, down from 6900 last year, despite by all accounts the SWP having done a good bit of recruitment around the colleges. This suggests that Martin Smith is trying to massage the claimed membership down towards something more closely approximating the real membership, without admitting that the present figures are massively inflated. Give him a few more years, and you might actually get an honest figure.

Anyway, here’s Neil on the party’s subjectivism:

However, since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism, lack of involvement, failure to understand the new mood, inability to see the silver linings in every dark cloud, or whatever.

Quite so. Which led to an assumption that the failings of the organisation could be traced to a lack of enthusiasm in the ranks, which led to the culture of forced marches and target-setting, which led to all sorts of other undesirable outcomes. Breaking with this subjectivism, and trying to achieve a reasonable sense of what can actually be achieved, is the beginning of wisdom.

Neil is also good on the United Front – which is, after all, at the heart of transitional politics – and on the CC’s habit, inherited largely from Cliff, of using dubious analogies with the past or seeking out bolstering quotes from Lenin or Trotsky to justify whatever it wants to do. Neil has the professional historian’s correct disdain for the false analogy, and his argument is all the better for it.

Neil is at his strongest on the question of leadership:

In some respects, of course, many aspects of our party’s organisation and approach have changed since the early 1980s–the size and number of branches, our attitude to participation in electoral alliances, our willingness to stand for full-time union positions–but not the relationship of the CC to the rest of the party. At the heart of this relationship is the idea that the leadership will debate issues amongst themselves, then decide on a course of action and only then inform the membership what this decision is and what it will involve them in doing–although we are of course then invited to ratify the CC’s decisions at Annual Conference.

This is bolstered by John Molyneux:

Two things are crucial here: one is the CC internal united front against dissidents, which has meant that differences within the CC are kept hidden from the membership while any critic is met with an overwhelming rebuttal. I will give a personal example (unimportant in itself and it happened to many others) just to make clear what I mean .Some years ago, at a Party Council, I questioned the estimation and figures given for a demonstration (the Birmingham demo against the closure of Longbridge). I was immediately replied to by five members of the CC, but, of course, given no right of reply to them. The other, less important but still of significance, is tone. Critics can be replied to politically and strong arguments put, without making the victim feel like they never want to speak at an SWP conference or council again. Such practices, once prevalent, have dramatically declined recently. They should not be brought back.

I’m sure plenty of John’s readers can add their own examples. Back to Neil:

Unfortunately, the attitude the CC has taken to avoid the problem [its debilitating fear of a split] is to suppress any debate beyond what it deems a reasonable level, which is usually about the practical or technical application of policies which members of the CC have decided among themselves. But this does not lead to the elimination of differences, just to their internalisation, which in turn leads to cynicism, inactivity and ultimately to comrades leaving the organisation. In effect, it produces the very situation it seeks to avoid, except that the lifeblood of the party is not transfused into another organisation, it simply drains away. The long term corrosive effect of this is actually far more debilitating than any open split would be.

Indeed, and I think one of the big problems with the Cliff legacy is the pas devant les enfants attitude of the CC to the ranks, combined with a myth of CC infallibility in the ranks. This was probably less of a problem when Cliff was alive (though it was hardly insignificant even then), but post-Cliff you end up with a problem of authority. It’s like Hegel’s idea of the enlightened monarch, which works fine if your monarch is Frederick the Great, less well if the man at the top is less able.

Neil has a further, extremely important point on the CC, which is worth quoting at length:

The other argument is that, if comrades are unhappy with the role of the CC, its membership can be changed at conference. But this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership in waiting capable of challenging the CC. Of course, a potential national leadership does exist out in the country–indeed, if it did not, and there were really no cadres who could possibly take over from the core of the CC that has been in place since the early 1980s, then we would have utterly failed in one of our key tasks, which is surely to develop such a leadership. The problem is rather that they are generally operating in isolation from each other, have few means of making themselves known at a national level and are rarely consciously developed.

Yes!

In fact, with very few exceptions, most of the comrades who have been invited to join the CC since the early 1980s have been student or district organisers–in other words they are drawn from the ranks of the party’s paid officials, whose jobs had previously been to relay the views of the leadership to the members. Now, the organiser’s job is a necessary, difficult and not particularly well paid one. The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role–or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further. With one exception the entire CC consists of comrades who are paid full-timers, “professional revolutionaries”, all of whom live in the same city… Clearly, some current members of the CC would remain as part of virtually any reconfigured body, but not all. Can there be anything more damaging to the idea of revolutionary leadership than the perception that members of what I call the superior part of the CC occupy a sinecure or permanent fixture, that its members will retain their posts–or some post, at any rate–regardless of what they do or fail to do in the exercise of their duties?

And Neil continues:

The CC needs to be reorganised, both in structure and composition. The leadership should at the very least, be weighted as much towards those who are actually leading in workplaces, universities, campaigns, communities and intellectual life, as towards party full-timers. It also needs to reflect the different spatial experiences of the class: the rhythms of political life are different now in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and no decisions about the Britain as a whole can be taken without taking these differences into consideration.

This is very important. The composition of the CC is not simply a pragmatic issue, as it has tended to be taken up to now. The predominant view of the CC is that it is a political leadership and at the same time a management committee made up of the most capable administrators. (Although, even on the latter criterion, a major clearout is indicated. I surely don’t have to rehearse the biographies of current CC members in order to flag up failings in the administration.) These two are hard enough to combine at the best of times, but what’s completely missing is the idea that the CC is, in some sense, a representative body of the party. There is no geographical spread. There is no occupational spread, unless Prof Callinicos is taken to represent the worker members. There is no representation for political minorities. (Cliff and Harman, in years gone by, took it for granted that there would be. And I would certainly be in favour of Molyneux and Davidson’s election to a revamped CC.)

I will now end with John Molyneux, who deals a little with the question of Rees’ removal from the leadership. I have my doubts about John M’s position, which seems to me to be supporting the CC majority in the hope that they will issue in a new period of democracy, but I do think he’s right to flag up that Rees (and Lindsey, and Bambery, and Nineham) have never seen any problem of a lack of democracy in the party. In fact Rees seems to have gloried in the status quo, backed up by his peculiar Lukácsian notion of leadership. Molyneux says:

Obviously John is not the only one responsible for the difficulties in Respect/Left List/Left Alternative etc . In one sense the main responsibility lies with Galloway and co. In another sense it lies with all the CC, and in another sense with all leading party cadre. Nevertheless he was the CC member responsible for this area of work and this carries with it certain consequences when there are a series of mistakes, as I’m sure John, Lindsey, and Chris have had to explain to many a failing organiser in the past. Of course it is ‘personalised’ (in the sense of someone’s personal political record not their personal life) because the election of the CC is about the election of specific persons to lead the party. Fairness doesn’t come into it. No one has a right to be on the CC. The only right involved here is the right of the party membership to elect its leaders and it must elect the people who will serve it best, regardless of ‘fairness’.

That’s actually a very fair way of putting it. John continues:

John [Rees] also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently.

Oooo.

At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.

Well and good. I’ll believe this new democracy when I see it, and I’d be especially interested to see if Swiss Toni and his acolytes over here change their ways, but I wish you the very best of luck. God knows, the SWP has worn out a lot of good will, but if it can change and regenerate, it may yet have a positive role to play in the future, and not just a somewhat illustrious past.

Britain’s banana republic

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I’ve had a certain fascination for Sark since, more years ago than I care to remember, I read Mervyn Peake’s glorious Mr Pye. I think Mervyn would have quite liked the Passport to Pimlico saga that’s been unfolding on the island – at any rate, he could have got a decent comic novel out of it.

On the one hand, you have the little island whose inhabitants are deeply attached to their traditional way of life, with no cars or electric street lights. This also involved, until last week, the maintenance of the feudal system of government established in Elizabethan times. The spin around last week’s Chief Pleas election, or at least how the London media chose to read it, was that outmoded feudalism had finally been abolished (a mere eight years after Scotland!) and democracy brought to this remote backwater.

Now here’s where I shock readers with a defence of feudalism. No, not really – the ancien regime on Sark didn’t live up to formal standards of democracy, but I was prepared to see it as basically a harmless anachronism – certainly it wasn’t clear that the masses were being oppressed by it. Your building block, as per the constitutional settlement of 1565, was the forty tenants, the hereditary landowners who sat in the Chief Pleas as of right. Now, this might have had some of the form of an aristocracy, but the tenements are quite small and the tenants, taken as heads of the landowning families, represented a fair whack of the population. Since the last major reforms in 1922, they had been supplemented by twelve popularly elected deputies, thus creating a system that, while not really representative, wasn’t grotesquely or oppressively unrepresentative either.

You also have to consider that the tiny size of the polity – a population of only 600 – was a mitigating factor. There are social pressures in communities, particularly island communities, that small, which can be stifling, but also militate against abuse of power. So things worked reasonably well for a very long time.

On the other hand you have, in the role of pantomime villains, the Barclay brothers, secretive press barons and owners of the Daily Telegraph. (Where they have just cemented their notoriety by sacking much-loved scribes AN Wilson and Craig Brown.) Back in 1993 the brothers acquired the neighbouring islet of Brecqhou, where they have built an imposing castle and where they live when they aren’t in Switzerland or Monaco. Brecqhou is a tenement in its own right, and thus the brothers could have been considered part of the Sark establishment. But they didn’t like the Sark establishment, for reasons that remain obscure. They ran a long-running campaign to have Brecqhou, a tiny and desolate rock, declared independent of Sark. When that didn’t work, they moved on to a hostile takeover of Sark itself.

This has proceeded on various levels. The Barclays acquired no less than five other tenements. They also took over or set up a number of businesses on the island, thus transferring a large proportion of the population onto the Barclay payroll. This went hand-in-hand with a campaign – including a legal challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights – to abolish the feudal system and replace Sark’s hereditary rulers with a system of government more to their liking.

And so we arrived at last week’s democratic elections to the Chief Pleas. The Barclays weren’t running themselves, but the whole contest revolved around pro- and anti-Barclay factions, namely those who liked Sark the way it was and who wanted to keep it that way, and those seduced by the glittering vista of tarmacked roads and heliports. They were helped along by the Barclays publishing lists of candidates who they wanted to be elected, or who they wanted kept out of power, and threatening to close their businesses on Sark if the broad masses voted the wrong way. Trouble is, your Sèrtchais peasantry doesn’t much like being told who to vote for. They didn’t like it coming from Hitler, and they don’t like it much more coming from these perishing outsiders:

In the run-up to the election a bitter rift opened between the Barclays and what they see as Sark’s “establishment” – people largely loyal to the feudal lord, the seigneur, and the seneschal, the island’s judge and returning officer. The results were devastating to the Barclays. Though they did not stand or vote, they published a list of nine candidates they wanted to win seats in the new parliament, but only two succeeded. They also published a list of 12 they believed would be ruinous to the island. Nine of those got in.

Mark the sequel, as the Barclays have indeed followed through on their threat of closing their businesses and ruining the island’s economy. It seems they didn’t like being thwarted in their plans to convert Sark from a traditional feudal society into the Kingdom of Barclaystan. Their spokesman has been moaning about how the peasants didn’t appreciate their benefactors’ investments, but this looks like the most enormous fit of corporate pique we’ve seen in a long time.

Personally, I hope the Sèrtchais tell these two to go sling their hook. There was a thriving Sark before the Barclays were even heard of, and there will be one long after they’re forgotten. But for the meantime, it looks very bad. In fact, in punishing the democratic electorate for making the wrong decision, it looks like nothing so much as a miniature version of the siege of Gaza. Except that the Sèrtchais haven’t even done anything so bellicose as to fire Katyusha rockets into Guernsey – all they’ve done is to annoy two rich old men. More power to them, I say.

Rees protests his defenestration

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You know, one of my big problems as a polemicist is that I’m not a very good hater. Of course I can and do take digs at certain individuals, but there’s an innate defect in my character that makes me look for the good in everybody. Take Martin Thomas. Lots of people say he’s a cunt, but I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think the British left should mint Martin a medal, as recognition for his devoting the best years of his life to the thankless task of telling Sean Matgamna to take it easy. Would you be prepared to do that? I know I wouldn’t.

Which brings me neatly to John Rees. Never having been able to stomach the guy while he held a position of power in the SWP, I almost feel sorry for him in his rapid fall from grace. And, with the dissemination of his Big Article putting forward his side of the current debate, John has actually gone up somewhat in my estimation. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s a disingenuous fucker, and it’s hard to judge his document in the absence of the article from Neil Davidson that he’s polemicising with, but he makes some points that are well worth flagging up.

The occasion for this is of course John’s unceremonious dumping from the slate for the incoming CC to be elected at next month’s conference. He is, understandably, hopping mad about this, feeling that he is being unfairly scapegoated for the Respect disaster, and goes on to complain that the other members of the leadership backed him all the way. (He seems to bear a particular grudge against The World’s Most Prominent Citizen, Professor Callinicos, but this may just be a case of Alexander being more prolix in his polemics than other CC members.) This is of course correct, and it’s rather unedifying for Martin Smith et al. to be putting on the “nothing to do with me, honest guv” act now.

John himself, as it happens, isn’t willing to do mea culpas for anything beyond the dodgy cheque for which an apology has already been extracted from him. And he also manages to get all the way through a rather long article on current perspectives without even mentioning the Left List fiasco. Nonetheless, there is useful stuff here. The whole thing bears out my longstanding view that the biggest obstacle to progress in the SWP has been the tendency to hold up the monolithic party as an ideal, and the CC’s connected practice of keeping a united face in front of the membership. Once CC unity busts open, all sorts of things are possible.

Much of John’s polemic relates to the minutiae of which CC member said what in which forum, and I do not intend to go into this. Nor do I intend to go into any detail about John’s arguments around Respect – regular readers will be aware that I have my differences with him, and it would be a distraction to rehearse them yet again here. What I’d like to do is look briefly at some of John’s broader points. For instance, John locates the current dispute within the SWP’s recruitment problems:

Why was recruitment such an important and explosive issue? The lack of party growth stands behind much of the discontent in the SWP at the moment. The question behind the questions is ‘Why have we not grown as much as we should have done through the period of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements?’

Or, to put it another way, how come the SWP actually shrank rather dramatically during the last decade, when it found itself at the head of several rather large movements that should have provided a golden opportunity to grow? Partly this comes with the territory – so Militant recruited rather few people while it was leading the movement against the poll tax. But there are other, subjective, factors as well. It may be worth, for instance, asking why so many radical youth, the sort of people who should be perfect recruits for the SWP, define themselves very strongly as anti-Leninist, and what that has to do with their experience of Leninism SWP-style.

John talks about the tensions involved in the SWP’s shift over the last decade from standalone propagandism towards mass campaigns:

We argued a perspective, largely accepted by the party, and fought to make as much progress in building these mass campaigns as we could. But a significant section of the membership, while not openly or effectively opposing the perspective, remained rooted in the old party structures and habits of mind. They felt uncomfortable with the party’s evolution, critical of a ‘move away from Leninism’ and so on.

Over time this produced a differential experience among party members. Some understanding the needs and challenges of the united front, others unhappy that the SWP seemed to be forgetting the truths of revolutionary socialism as they had been taught them in an earlier phase of the struggle. This gap mattered less as we rushed forward and encountered no reverses. But it has cost us a great deal when we encountered a problem in Respect. Too many people encountered this as an external threat caused by the specific behaviour of comrades in this area of work rather than as a problem that we were all engaged in and had to solve collectively.

I have my difficulties with John’s characterisation, notably with his use of the “united front” formula, but this rings true to me, especially in terms of the more purist section of the party’s quiet boycott of Respect. This reflects a laissez-faire culture in the party, at odds with the rhetorical monolithism, where members have been allowed to pick and choose their areas of activity as long as they didn’t challenge the CC. This in turn has led to a lot of the SWP’s coherence being dissipated. It used to be that if you spoke to five party members you would get a pretty consistent party line, maybe with different emphases or different levels of subtlety. These days you’re likely to hear something more akin to Rashomon.

John then moves onto recruitment:

The recruitment figures given in Internal Bulletin 1 show some success but they do not tell us about party growth because they only tell us about those who have joined not those who have left. Retention is the vital issue here. But because of the permanent financial crisis in the SWP retention is primarily addressed by the CC majority as a question of paying direct debit. This is not necessarily a sign of active engagement in the party. A member can pay a direct debit and be just as passive and inactive as those who do not. The retention issue is not being addressed politically by strategy of actively engaging members in both the work of the united fronts and the party.

Quite so. I would further stress that a recruitment campaign, 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 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.)

Unfortunately, I suspect the CC has engaged in double book-keeping over membership for so long that the habit has become unbreakable this side of a complete breakdown at the top. John continues:

The apparatus of the party has increased its weight in relation to the membership. The full-timers now often substitute for an active membership rather than being given a strategy to develop an active membership. This has, in the recent debate, created a bullying and intimidatory atmosphere where the apparatus of the party plays a far larger role in the internal debate than it has done in the past when the membership was more active and party structures better attended. The recruitment crisis has also become a financial crisis as the membership cannot sustain the apparatus inherited from a previous era.

It would be nice if John had noticed this when he was on the dishing out, rather than the receiving, end.

Then there is a lot of waffle about the Charter, a disinterred version of the famous Action Programme from ten years ago, and this is where John loses me a little, since his arguments centre around counterposing the SWP’s Charter to others being put forward by John McDonnell or the Morning Star, not on programmatic grounds but on the basis that the others aren’t controlled by the SWP. Conceding that a charter of working-class demands could have a useful propaganda function in the crisis, the priority should surely be having a charter with serious purchase in the labour movement rather than something run by the SWP, with some famous names adorning the committee. It’s not like we’ve never seen that model before.

John then cites the Living Thought of Tony Cliff as an authority:

Cliff’s method in this was right. To do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason. People have jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in. If you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You have to ‘bend the stick’.

I must confess, when I hear that phrase, chills run down my spine. As Jim Higgins pointed out:

So matters stood for some time, when Cliff, almost single-handed, reinvented the “Leninist” concept of stick bending. It derives from a speech by Lenin at the Second Congress of the RSDLP: “The Economists bent the staff towards one side. In order to straighten it out again, it had to be bent towards the other side and that is what I did”. You will notice here that Lenin is talking about a correction to the Economists, not a 180 degree turn from what he himself was saying a little earlier. On the one hand we have exaggeration in the course of a political struggle and on the other a capricious or opportunist reversal of policy.

Indeed, and too often in the past (by Cliff above all) stick-bending has been used as an alibi for head-spinning lurches from one exaggerated perspective to another. John is correct, I think, when he talks about the incoherence of the current CC majority’s perspective – there is lots of stuff being done, but none of it seems to gel very well together, and Charlie Kimber’s line-of-march article was clear as mud – but a return to stick-bending is hardly the answer.

The most interesting bit comes at the end, when John engages with Neil Davidson. Neil, rather bravely, has identified a democratic deficit within the SWP. I say bravely, because this democratic deficit has existed since at least 1975, has in the interim become a yawning abyss, and members who have raised it in the past have tended to rather quickly become ex-members. What’s even more surprising is that the CC majority seem to have taken up the cause of democratisation. This may be in bad faith, for factional ends, and I’ll believe there’s a new party democracy when I see it, but even so, this is all to the good.

And John himself makes concessions to this line of argument:

I’m sure there are valuable improvements that could be made to the party constitution and to party democracy. The important thing is to find ways of increasing our political clarity by involving more comrades in discussion of and participation in our political strategy. Crucially this involves strengthening the branches, the basic democratic unit of the party. As well as recruiting, this means getting members back to the branches by making them places where politics is discussed in the context of activity, where we develop explanations of events but also discuss and organise the broadest possible campaigning activity.

It also means diminishing the weight of the apparatus and its abuse of the existing democratic structures. It is obvious for instance that the current delegate entitlement, where there are sometimes more people elected to conference than there are people in the room to elect them, needs to be reformed.

This is good stuff, and a very long way removed from what we’d hear even a year or two ago, that the SWP was the most democratic organisation on earth. It’s worthwhile, however, setting it alongside the arguments about what the leadership should look like. Martin Smith seems to want to move towards a team leadership and away from the feudal-federal system of the post-Cliff CC; John seems to want to maintain the autonomy of the fiefs. The argument is rather opaque, however.

I’m also intrigued by Neil’s idea of a semi-professional CC, which would draw on members who have paying jobs and who live outside Hackney, the theory being that this would lead to the CC being able to draw on a wider range of experience. Frankly, I’ve been in favour of this sort of thing all along. Virtually all of the current CC, with the notable exception of Prof Callinicos, are SWP fulltimers. Some have barely been outside the centre in decades. Too many have never held down a job outside the SWP, although I have heard that Chris Harman once had a paper round. This tends only to narrow the base of the CC dramatically, and to create an echo chamber. As Jim Cannon used to say, if you get a bunch of like-minded people in a room, they can talk themselves into just about anything.

I also have some sympathy for Neil’s view that the understanding of a “united front” should be narrowed towards the classic Comintern view, in particular ditching the concept of the “united front of a special type”. Given that the broad party model of the SSP or LCR is seriously undertheorised, the UFOAST doesn’t improve our understanding one jot. Two cheers for Neil, as long as he isn’t arguing for the abandonment of the united front method.

There’s also the question of where this will all lead politically. The CC minority of Rees, German, Bambery and Nineham, although they aren’t my four favourite people, are the people most associated with the push outwards over the past ten years. It’s not clear yet that the CC majority actually is pushing towards a more introspective, propagandist approach, but it certainly bases itself on the section of the membership that does favour such an approach. And, while I have some instinctive affinity for the purist wing, it’s also the hardest wing of the party to have any sort of engagement with.

So the balls are in the air, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It may be that personal recriminations at the top will overshadow the serious politics. On the other hand, at least the splits at the top have created the space where the politics can be discussed.

Do these guys have nothing better to do?

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Oh holy God:

THEY may not always be in agreement but it seems Eoghan Quigg has managed to unite Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness have both come out in support of the Dungiven teenager as he prepares for the biggest gig of his life.

In a joint statement the politicians both praised his achievements and urged the Northern Ireland voting public to get behind him.

It seems nobody can resist the tousle-haired scamp. Honestly, it puts you in mind of the worst excesses of Mr Tony Blair’s regime.

The Brillo Show

brillo

Not having seen much daytime TV for a while, I turn on the goggle box to find it reassuringly familiar. Still the same surfeit of health, property and DIY. Still as hard as ever to make money on Bargain Hunt. The Loose Women still reckon that if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.

And Andrew Neil is still fronting the Daily Politics on BBC2. I tell you what, for a man who’s a BBC outsider, and supposedly a harsh critic of the Corporation, old Brillo Pad seems never to be off the air. And the show is, despite its best efforts at projecting warmth and accessibility, still as alien as ever to those who aren’t Westminster insiders.

I suppose, of course, that you’re constrained by your guests, who are often fairly unprepossessing. Yesterday we entered Scotto-Tory hell as Brillo collogued with Michael Gove. Nor was the thing saved by having the unlovable Caroline Flint come in to talk to Gove and Brillo about James Purnell’s latest plan to crack down on the arbeitsscheu, and how to reflate the housing bubble.

That was bad enough. Then today, and without any decent warning, that horrible asshole Denis Macshane pops up out of nowhere… Jesus.

I’ve also noticed that as is the run of these things – and it applies also to Bill Oddie, so it can’t be just a news thing – Brillo comes equipped with a female sidekick. The cast varies from time to time, although she’s always fairly attractive and always some decades Brillo’s junior. Her role also remains constant. That is, to read out emails, do some exposition in front of that screen, ask the questions that have slipped Brillo’s mind for the moment, and perform the Tess-Daly-on-Strictly function of laughing through gritted teeth as Brillo recounts a joke even older than he is.

It’s just as well, then, that BBC News seems to have an unlimited supply of capable and presentable women to plonk on the sofa. Thursdays at the moment belong to Jo Coburn, who demonstrably knows her stuff and also has something of a sexy headmistress vibe going on. The rest of the week, it’s radio’s Anita Anand.

Ah now, Anita. I like Anita. When she was doing the late show on Five Live, I was a regular listener and thought that she really deserved to be used more. I suppose this is the glass ceiling, though – maybe in ten years, you could see a woman fronting this show, but for the time being, a supporting role to Brillo is about the best that can be hoped for.

There’s also, and I hesitate to mention this, the visuals of it. When you see Brillo in close proximity to an Asian babe, you have to ask yourself – are the Beeb producers deliberately baiting Private Eye or what?

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