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.