One of the things that used to puzzle me slightly about the SWP, at least in latter years, was the great enthusiasm of most of the leadership for the early Lukács. Our friend the Sheriff of Nottingham was particularly enthusiastic about History and Class Consciousness, and used to wax prolix on the subject whenever given the chance. This wasn’t of course a universally held position – John Molyneux eloquently dissented from the Lukácsian consensus, as did Professor Callinicos, although I am not sure that Alexander’s championing of Louis Althusser was much of an improvement.
Why was this puzzling? Well, if you’ll recall, H&CC was denounced by the Comintern on the (correct) grounds that it was philosophically idealist. Not necessarily an obvious fit for a party that loudly proclaimed its unbending materialism. (I have the same problem with Historical Materialism, an excellent journal in many ways but not containing a fierce lot that’s historical or materialist. Some of the articles are at such a level of abstraction as to give the reader a nosebleed.) I have come to believe, though, that the attraction was on the level of Methodological Marxism.
Allow me to explain. If you’ve read H&CC, one of the most memorable bits is Lukács’s little essay asking “What is Orthodox Marxism?” His conclusion – and I can still remember this being hilariously deconstructed by Duncan Hallas – was that, even if all the propositions of Marxism could be refuted empirically, Marxism would still remain valid because Marxist orthodoxy resides in method. Now, it is important to bear in mind at this point that, despite some suggestive passages in his earlier philosophical writings, Marx never at any point wrote a discourse on method. What has come to be known as the Marxist method is something that was very largely deduced from his writings by the theorists of the Second International and carried on (in prose that seems badly translated from German or Russian, even when the writer is a native Sacsbhéarla speaker) by today’s further left.
Given my historicist leanings, you’d expect me to be a little flippant about such matters, and indeed I am. The late Kurt Vonnegut used to say that, as a young man, he’d been given two useful pieces of advice when his school principal told him to go out and kill Hitler, and his father told him to never stick anything in his ears. Likewise, I have acquired a few simple rules of thumb that usually stand me in good stead. When leftists talk about a turn to the class, it’s time to be suspicious of what’s coming next. When they talk about a turn to Lenin, it might make more sense to ease yourself quietly out the the door. And when they talk about the Marxist method, you can be reasonably confident that they’re making it up as they go along. As one Marxist methodologist of my acquaintance once exclaimed, “Facts? What can you learn from facts?”
To keep this intellectual for the moment, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt has a great description of this mindset in his immortal treatise On Bullshit:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Which brings me neatly back to the Sheriff.
I find reading SWP Pre-Conference Bulletins something of an enervating experience, requiring you to work yourself up into that willing suspension of disbelief that dramatists aim for. There used to be an awful lot of ringing declarations of the party’s infallibility; statements so sweeping you would hope (usually in vain) that the more bumptious element wouldn’t take them literally; and libertyvalanced versions of events that you were sure didn’t happen like that. The factional situation this time round at least means there are two sides doing the libertyvalancing, and the claims of infallibility has been replaced by an acknowledgement that yes, some minor mistakes were made, but it was all the other lot’s fault. If you remember the polemics between Taaffeites and Grantites when Militant split, it’s a bit like that. There are also some good (and one or two quite strange) contributions from further down the hierarchy, which unfortunately will probably get lost in the mix.
I should state at the outset that I don’t have a dog in this fight, and will try to take a fairly detached view. I should also state that I’ve been listening rather too much to Southern Culture On The Skids, which may contribute to a slightly skewed outlook on the world. One mentions this as a reason, not an excuse.
The big draw in IB2 is of course the long awaited platform of the Rees-German “Left Platform”. It’s followed by a reply from the CC, which bears all the stylistic hallmarks of Alex Mango, and a pleasingly short and pithy one from a comrade Nick, which is not surprising if that’s the same Nick I’m thinking of. But here are some observations of my own.
This debate needs to take place in a fraternal and tolerant atmosphere free from personal attacks. No one should feel nervous about putting forward their views for fear of being denounced as factional or, worse still, of facing disciplinary action.
The real tradition of Leninism in such periods is of free and open debate in which all positions are ensured maximum exposure and careful consideration in order that the most effective policies can be adopted in a democratic manner. We should therefore avoid misrepresentation of comrades’ political positions.
The correct response at this point is to say, hark who’s talking. The main author of this document was notorious for thinking that there were absolutely no deficiencies in party democracy until he was removed from the Central Committee. But, having established that we all believe in mom and apple pie, let’s beat on:
Ten years ago at the time of the Seattle demonstration [after having abstained from Stop the City a few months earlier] the SWP made a sharp strategic change. Faced with an anti-capitalist mood [it's still never been explained what an anti-capitalist mood actually is] becoming a movement, we decided the starting point for revolutionaries was to get involved with the movement and do what we could to give it direction…
We launched Globalise Resistance as a loose anti-capitalist network involving a number of leading figures on the left and had real success mobilising and expressing the sentiments of thousands of activists in this first phase of radicalisation…
Our pivotal role in Britain’s biggest ever mass movement, Stop the War, took this process to a new level. The SWP provided a good deal of the inspiration, the organising backbone and the political direction for Stop the War. We gained huge credibility in the process and recruited many of the best of a new generation of activists, many of whom have been central to the organisation ever since. We took this process a step further with the wider project of Respect [notice no reference to the Socialist Alliance], which had significant success until its crisis in 2007.
And following this list of triumphs in which faction leaders were centrally involved (and skipping lightly over, for instance, the obsolescence of GR), we have this gem:
No strategy is risk free, and like any other orientation, aspiring to lead mass movements creates many difficulties. However it is crucial we do not allow past setbacks to prevent us from taking future initiatives.
This reads to me rather like Mr Tony Blair’s “let’s draw a line under it and move on” routine. With perhaps an undertone of “don’t blame the people who had the balls to take risks”.
The SWP should commit to spearheading a broad and political united front response to the economic crisis and its effects.
In that case, you’re not talking about a united front, not even of a special type. You’re talking about a generalised political bloc, or even a party if you prefer. This woolly use of language annoys my brain.
We need branches which are interventionist, geared around the many demands of the class struggle and the movements, which can act as centres of resistance for socialists locally, rather than, as too many of them are, small and sometimes abstract discussion centres.
This raises the appalling vista of a return to the infamous “action branches”. And from the people who ended up going further and disbanding branches altogether.
We need a campaign of sustained recruitment… We should be organising more regular recruitment rallies that break out of the pattern of standard public meetings.
Oh no, not that old chestnut. If all else fails, have a recruitment drive. At this point, let’s remember how Cliff improved on that in 1973 by appointing himself membership secretary and regaling the monthly NC meetings with a league table of organisers showing the ace recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Although within three months all that table showed was who was the most shameless liar, usually Roger Rosewell.
The limited but real increase in industrial struggle demands much more than a propaganda response. And it also demands much more than organisations that are ‘party fronts’ that contain few figures beyond the SWP or only contain them as figureheads.
Hmm. We’ll get back to this.
What is required is a broad, united left organisation on a national scale that can deliver solidarity to each dispute as it occurs on a far more effective level than the SWP alone is capable of doing.
Sounds a bit like what the SA, SSP and Respect projects were supposed to be about, and we know what happened to them. And who happened it.
After some musing on Cliff’s metaphor of the small cog moving the big cog, and the necessity of a middle cog (Gear! How many times, it’s gear!) we get some rather obfuscatory arguments about Right To Work agitation. And yet more about this broad united front against the recession, which sounds uncannily like the heretical idea of the broad left party. Except that those like Socialist Resistance who say they want a broad left party actually have a clear idea of what they want, and don’t just rely on half-baked sloganising about all-purpose united fronts.
We then move onto the big swingeing polemic about the transcendent importance of Stop the War.
In the run up to the last Party conference we heard for the first time a critique of the anti-war movement as being too ‘top down’ and ‘too reliant’ on notables… Worse still some CC members have now started to repeat the criticisms of the Stop the War Coalition first heard from the left sects – that ‘Stop the War doesn’t generalise enough’ and that ‘Stop the War failed to stop the war’.
The latter is factually indisputable. As for the rest, just because the Weekly Worker says something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Furthermore, the Left Platform comrades seem to find it inexcusable pessimism to state that Stop the War isn’t as important as it was in 2003. Of course Afghanistan remains an enormously important issue, but the massive gap between anti-war sentiment and anti-war activism is a reality, and it’s a gap that can’t be bridged by getting the SWP Central Committee to read The Power of Positive Thinking. Even Bookmarks getting in a job lot of its sequel, Enthusiasm Makes The Difference, might not be enough.
We then move onto a discussion of the united front tactic that might interest Harry Frankfurt:
For Lenin and Trotsky the strategy of the united front was essential to advancing the interests of the working class… The united front is therefore integral to revolutionary strategy… But what happens when the revolutionary party stops pursuing a united front strategy? The lack of such a strategy can lead to revolutionaries accommodating to political forces to their right.
It’s hard to believe – no, actually it isn’t – that John Rees is the author of a relatively recent pamphlet on strategy and tactics. The united front, as the early Comintern understood it, was a particular tactic that may or may not be applicable in given circumstances. In fact, as Trotsky later expanded on the topic, it is to be understood as a concrete manifestation of transitional politics. Since the SWP doesn’t believe in transitional politics, it is perhaps excusable that John doesn’t get this, but it is not excusable that he falls into the schoolboy sectarian error of elevating a tactic to a strategy, and a permanent strategy forbye.
To put it in Marxist terms, we need a dialectical unity of opposed principles.
This is not a good sign in what’s supposed to be a perspectives document. He’ll be talking about the negation of the negation next.
CC members have argued that ‘we have no partners’ for a united front… The wider left may be weak but, partly because of this, there are a number of trade union leaders, MPs, radical journalists, high profile academics and cultural figures who are ready to work with the revolutionary left. A glance at the impressive line up at Marxism is conclusive proof of this. The truth is we have not even tried to involve these kind of people in, for example, a Right to Work Campaign.
This reads to me like the same old routine of a front with an impressive array of left celebrities on the platform, the SWP providing the apparatus (and therefore largely able to do what it likes with the apparatus) and the base as a stage army. I don’t want to prematurely write off the Son of No2EU coalition, but there’s a strong argument in that case that having three trade union general secretaries speaking in a personal capacity does not equate to having a labour movement mobilisation. It would be all the more of a stretch to imagine that you could build a popular Right to Work Campaign by putting, say, Seumas Milne or Slavoj Žižek on the platform, entertaining as Slavoj might be. (Sadly, I don’t think they have Slavoj in mind. It would be another “let’s get Tony Benn to be our honorary president” job. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly a brave departure from what’s gone before.)
Then we get to the business end of the faction document, which paints for us glowing opportunities in terms of popular sentiment on things like the Afghan war, climate change and political corruption.
We are not simply witnessing a shift to the right in British society; rather we are seeing growing polarisation between a left- and a right-wing pole. The existence of a mass, broadly leftwing, broadly anti-capitalist consciousness is still evident.
I’m not convinced of this, but what our factionalists are concerned with is why the SWP isn’t setting the agenda in this presumed favourable atmosphere.
The other response is to look more closely at the method itself.
Down your shots now!
We will need to be creative in our own activity, offering the Party as an attractive proposition for activists. This involves developing a dynamic programme of party events… [snip long list of dynamic events]
And here’s the kicker:
We need flair, and a bit of imagination. But most of all we need to show that we can lead and deliver for the movements.
We need to move with the times, become leaders within the movement again and ensure the continuity of the revolutionary tradition.
Get that? No more of those conservative dullards on the CC, let’s have people with flair and imagination!
Did I mention Lukács? Yes, and I was thinking of John Molyneux’s criticism of Rees on the grounds that
John 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. Nor is this just a question of personal arrogance, I also think John holds an elitist theory of leadership derived from Lukacs’ concept of the party as bearer of working class consciousness (but perhaps that is a debate for another time).
In point of fact, that was a debate for 25 years ago. What we have here is a little Lukács, crossed with Cliff’s liking for Samuel Smiles (as in, there is no limit to what we can achieve if we just try a bit harder) and now crossing into Nietzsche. Maybe it’s just me, but John and Lindsey really do seem to see all the big initiative of the last decade (almost regardless of how those initiatives have ended up) as triumphs of their will. But, have they succeeded in going beyond good and evil?