…you always have to make sure it’s you doing the screwing and not getting screwed. I’m guessing that most readers will already have seen the Indymedia story about resignations from the SWP in Belfast. On that thread, Cllr Gino Kenny has confirmed that there have been departures, and I’m told by my own sources that the broad thrust of the story is correct. There has still been no word from the people concerned, however, so that’s a lacuna.
Here are a few thoughts. The first thing to note is that the three individuals named do not have a reputation for questioning the party line. All are longstanding activists and would be regarded as diehard party loyalists. Furthermore, all have a reputation as being very hawkish on the regime question – if they have reinvented themselves as born-again democrats, it’s probably because, when you’re on the receiving end of democratic centralism rather than the dispensing end, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. If the party is losing people who have spent many years defending every political contortion and every disciplinary crackdown emanating from Henrietta Street, something has gone very wrong somewhere.
Despite the proximate issue apparently having been a local tactical one around elections, this does relate to the current faction fight in the British mothership, although in a rather complicated way. To recap, the Rees-German faction accuses the CC of returning to a downturn perspective – this is an obvious exaggeration, but it’s true that there has been a noticeable shift back towards the old view that the branches were the basic building blocks of the party, that you both build the branches to intervene and by intervening. The minority counterpose to this what they view as systematic united front work – it’s not unattractive in the abstract and contains some important elements of truth, but in practice it often leads to what I think johng described elsewhere as a small number of hyperactivists running around being brilliant. That’s the danger at least.
Now then. The Irish burger-flippers have indicated their advance support for whatever the London leadership want to do. This is no surprise, they did the same over the ISO expulsion and the Respect split. But the irony is that the practice of the Irish franchise is about as Reesite as you can get – although this is in an untheorised way, and largely determined by the environment. The organisation of years past may have exaggerated its importance, and some of its apparent strength was a matter of smoke and mirrors – so the idea of Belfast as a party “stronghold” a few years ago was largely down to the personal dynamism of Davy Carlin – but there’s no mistaking that it looks much weaker organisationally than it used to, with visible things like paper sales having almost disappeared.
And yet, this weakness coincides with the party leadership being more prominent than they’ve ever been. Ten years ago, the SWP ran election candidates under its own name and got derisory votes; now, under the People Before Profit umbrella, it has several councillors and a modest base it can hope to build on. The Great White Chief himself has gone from being an obscure far-left activist with holes in his jumper to having a super-duper academic career and establishing himself as a bit of a media pundit on trade union issues. Much of this success has come via what the party describes as united front work, to the point where you can barely set foot in Dún Laoghaire without seeing a black-and-white poster featuring Richard Boyd Barrett advertising some campaign or other. So, in the absence of a strong organisation, this only strengthens the existing elitist tendencies.
Also to be considered is that the Irish group has always been inordinately keen on one of Cliff’s less attractive ideas, the theory of the “conservative block”. Basically, this posits that people who have been around a while become demoralised, pessimistic and stuck in their ways. They also have a disturbing tendency to develop ideas of their own. You will note, of course, that the visibly ageing politburo is exempt from this conservatising pressure – at least, any member who has the cheek to suggest they might doesn’t stay a member very long. There is some occasional lip service paid to the idea of experience cadre acting as the memory of the class, but in practice there is a strong assumption that the permanent leadership contains all the experience and knowledge that will ever be needed. The revolving door is not a problem – in fact, the younger and rawer the recruits the better. You also have to take into account a deeply subjectivist culture that says that, if the leadership’s latest brainstorm has failed, it’s not because of objective circumstances or (God forbid) that the idea was a stupid one in the first place, but because the conservative elements in the membership failed to be enthusiastic enough.
This all points in one particular direction. It points to a perspective, which may not even be conscious, that you develop prominent personalities and then the movement will be built around the personalities. There have been problems with this sort of perspective, related to Tommy Sheridan or in a somewhat different way George Galloway. You would think these would filter through eventually. After all, Eamonn McCann is the most prominent leftwing personality in Ireland, and a most attractive candidate, but it’s not as if Derry is a hotbed of Trotskyism.
So, to return to Belfast, it is said there was a bust-up over electoral strategy. Seán Mitchell, as it happens, is rather a good catch for the SWP. He’s articulate and energetic, he has lots of contacts, and he’s from a prominent Gaeilgeoir family, which counts for something in west Belfast. I’m sure he will make a good councillor some day, although for which party remains to be seen. But it is plausible that branch members would want to think over whether they had the wherewithal to run an election campaign around Seán; it’s also plausible that the leadership would want to take a punt on him; and, if it came to a disagreement, it’s inevitable that the leadership would detect the presence of conservative elements who needed to be rooted out. The message this might send to the people they are trying to get into a broad left coalition is something I’m confident didn’t even cross their minds.
As a bit of a rud eile, the Indymedia thread notes a small glitch in this electoral strategy. Any Mitchell candidacy would be under the aegis of People Before Profit. The Derry-based Socialist Environmental Alliance has voted, no doubt in a monster mass meeting, to fold itself into PBP, and the SEA is no longer registered as a political party. PBP is, but if you head over to the Electoral Commission website, you’ll notice that the officers are given as: Leader and Nominating Officer, Gordon Hewitt, Treasurer, Mark Hewitt. If the SWP want to run any PBP candidates – including in Derry – they had better seek an amicable arrangement with Gordon and Mark. If Gordon and Mark aren’t minded to play nice, they could always contact Linda Smith to hear about an analogous situation.
 This reminds me of one of my favourite examples of sectarian vainglory, when a leading SWM member at the end of the 1980s proclaimed the group to be the leading force on the left, since it now had 150 members and Militant only had 130. This, by the way, was when the Workers Party was at the height of its powers.
 I’ll freely admit that it’s been a long time since I read The First Five Years of the Communist International, but I could have sworn the united front perspective governed how substantial communist parties could work with organisations – whether social-democratic parties or national liberation movements – with a mass character. I evidently missed out the bit where every issue of the revolutionary paper has a statement from Kevin Wingfield on behalf of Ballymun Against The War, Ballymun Against The Bin Tax or Ballymun Says Down With This Sort Of Thing.