The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met in my life

Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time by Ian Birchall (Bookmarks, £16.99)

Well, hello again. (Waves uncertainly at passing tumbleweed.) Yes, I know, the real world has been keeping me away from online tomfoolery, but I’m not going to pass up the chance to reflect a little (or, more likely, at infinitely tedious length) on the book of the year. If you neither know nor care who Tony Cliff was, feel free to skip this, because much of it will be incomprehensible.

Moreover, I suppose there’s a question of why anyone outside of the organisation founded by Cliff should be remotely interested in his life story. Most political biographies, after all, are about politicians who’ve actually done something quantifiable in the real world. A man who spent sixty-plus years beavering away in the world of hard-left sects – and quite a lot of that time spent on writing about the sociology of the USSR, rather than practical activity – might not seem terribly promising material. All I can tell you, and I hope this will come through, is that Cliff was important to me. I could make an argument that Mike Kidron, or particularly Chris Harman, informed me more in the sphere of ideas, but they made their bricks from Cliff’s straw, and the personality of Cliff was such that he couldn’t fail to make an impact on anyone who crossed his path. You could say that I went to Cliff’s kheyder, and I’m grateful to him for what I learned there, even those things I no longer agree with. He was a unique figure – capable of being genuinely inspiring one moment, and an incredible pain in the hole the next – whose like we shall not see again.

There’s been a gap I’ve felt for quite a while that Ian Birchall’s lovingly crafted biography goes to fill. I was terribly disappointed by Cliff’s posthumously published autobiography, A World to Win. Granted that the old fellow was seriously ill at the time and was writing from memory rather than a researched work: all the same, I was unimpressed by Cliff’s assertion of his own unfailing correctness, even when he was patently wrong; even less impressed by his serial failure to give credit to the contributions of anyone other than himself; and worst of all, it didn’t really capture what Cliff was like. Maybe it would have been better had Bookmarks released it as an audiobook.

But that was one thing about Cliff that was always striking. Ian remarks towards the end of the book that those who know Cliff from his writings only half know him. This is true. Not even Cliff’s admirers would claim him to have been a great literary stylist. Credit must go to his indefatigable wife, Chanie Rosenberg, who long had the thankless task of not only doing the typing but of turning Cliff’s manuscripts (often in an idiosyncratic mixture of bad English and Hebrew) into something resembling idiomatic English. No, there was none of the literary panache of LD Trotsky or Isaac Deutscher to be found here; there was functional prose which served the purpose of getting Cliff’s ideas across, and such appeal as it had was down to the strength of the ideas.

I read Cliff’s book on state capitalism (in a battered old second-hand copy) some considerable time before I ever saw him in person. It was a hell of a shock. Though the writing didn’t suggest an image of the author, the pseudonym “Tony Cliff” did call to mind a suave 1950s crooner of the Dean Martin or Andy Williams variety. Had I known to expect Ygael Gluckstein from Zikhron Yaakov, the shock would have been much less. The great man turned out to be short, elderly, bespectacled, with a hairstyle best described as mad scientist chic, and – let’s not put too fine a point on this – dressed like a tramp. When he spoke, it was in a very strong Russian-Hebrew accent that took a minute to get your ears around. He was a grumpy bastard, incapable of normal social pleasantries, but when he got up to speak…

…the Cliff meeting, of course, was a performance. Offstage, Cliff was extremely reserved, and perhaps the willpower needed to perform gave his speaking its force.[1] The arm-waving, the wisecracking, the obligatory reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s latest pronouncement as a lot of bloody rrrubbish, these were the easily satirised visible elements. On a more basic level, he was trying to explain often quite complicated ideas in accessible language – so the humour, the performance aspects, were the spoonful of sugar. On more than one occasion I sat through a 45-minute talk on the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy[2] and actually enjoyed it. That’s how good Cliff was when he was on good form.

Even Cliff’s dodgy grasp of the language could be turned to good effect. His idiosyncratic approach to English syntax and his mixed metaphors added a lot to the humour. Then there were the characteristic mispronunciations, as seen in Ian’s account of a meeting on racism where Cliff informed a bemused audience that in the 1930s the working class had been prejudiced against the yetis. (Disappointingly, it turned out that he meant the Eyeties; thus, Italian immigrant workers rather than abominable snowmen.) All that went towards getting an audience chuckling, and there’s no better way to lighten up what threatens to be a boring topic.

One thing that was immediately apparent about Cliff, lifelong atheist and anti-Zionist though he was, was how profoundly Jewish he was. You got this from the very cadences of his speech. There was a broad streak of the Borscht Belt comedian in there (if I heard the joke about the rabbi and the goat once, I heard it a dozen times); one could also, if one closed one’s eyes, imagine Cliff bearded and wearing a shtrayml, in the role of a Hasidic rebbe expounding his mystical interpretation of the Toyre to his fanatical band of followers. But it’s a broader cultural thing. If I say Cliff was a Talmudist, I don’t mean that as an insult. You all know, of course, that the Talmud is a codification of halokhe, of Jewish religious law, but that’s far from all it is. The Talmud is also five thousand or so pages of rabbinic sages scoring off each other using not only halokhic erudition, but also puns, insults, bad jokes, gossip and anecdotes of dubious relevance. Sound familiar? Put Cliff two millennia in the past and have him speaking Aramaic, and he’d have fit right in.

One thing that’s long intrigued me was the detail of Cliff’s youth in the old Mandate of Palestine – Cliff himself rarely said much about it, though he wrote a little in A World to Win. Gaps still remain, not least because most of the people who might remember are now dead, but immense credit goes to Ian Birchall for giving us a sense of what Cliff’s background was like. I’ll get onto the politics at a later stage, but there are suggestive hints about Cliff’s formative influences, and in particular his parents. From his mother, Esther, he seems to have got his intellectual curiosity and occasionally frail health. But his father, Akiva Gluckstein, seems to have been a most appealing character:

Gluckstein was a handsome, jovial man, greatly liked by those who knew him. He was a born actor; he loved to tell jokes, and though he constantly told the same stories, he always varied them. In later life he joined a Yiddish theatre company and travelled around the country with it. He retained his curiosity and zest for life into old age.

Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

What else comes to mind? Cliff’s legendary single-mindedness, which had a couple of aspects to it. Some of us used to jokingly call Chris Harman the Renaissance Man, which was a bit scurrilous but also paid tribute to the breadth of his interests, the way no aspect of human life was safe from Chris trying to analyse it. Cliff didn’t really have any interests outside of the organisation, and even then he would have a very narrow focus on the issue in hand. Sometimes that would stand you in good stead; sometimes it would tip over into a lack of perspective. And it could also feed his impatience with those who didn’t see the needs of the moment as clearly as he felt he did. Cliff could deploy a formidable amount of charm when he had to, but if he felt he needed to read you the reproof, you wouldn’t soon forget it:

In John Molyneux’s words an argument with him could be like a “benign hurricane”. On one occasion Cliff was having a heated argument with Molyneux when Molyneux’s four-year-old son intervened: “Don’t argue, Dad; can’t you see he’s just a little old man?”

Some people who in their time had been subjected to an eight-hour Cliff harangue may want to quibble with John about the “benign” bit, but not with the “hurricane”. Cliff himself used to have a good joke about this single-mindedness, which was that of his four children only one, his younger son Danny, had inherited his fanatical temperament. The punchline was that Danny was the only one of the kids never to join the SWP; his fanaticism was directed into his music. Moreover, Cliff himself had zero interest in music, though he was always very encouraging towards Danny.

I realise I’m in danger here of simply repeating favourite Cliff anecdotes, but there is a purpose. Cliff’s organisation can’t be understood separately from Cliff the man; organisations have their own cultures and personalities, and small organisations with a dominant founder tend to reflect the founder’s personality. The late Jim Higgins quipped that Gerry Healy’s group had been paranoid and thuggish, Ted Grant’s group had been stultifying boring, and Cliff’s group had been hyperactive and overexcitable – and that this was not an accident. This is to simplify matters somewhat, but it’s not untrue.

On the other hand, to cast the modern SWP as a triumph of Cliff’s will just won’t do. Cliff could have been as brilliant as anything, and it would have meant naught had he not had people around him. This is where the great strength of Ian’s book lies, in the hundred-plus interviews, what saves it from being a simple story of Cliff writing this and then doing that and then speaking on something else, which would be of little interest to anyone other than historians of Trotskyism. This is where we get to hear the voices of those whose paths crossed Cliff’s, who give their impressions of him and his impact on them. And while we see some very pertinent points made about his failings, it’s also apparent how much warmth and loyalty he was capable of inspiring.

The quotes are where it comes alive, whether it’s from a miner telling you about hearing Cliff speak in the 1984-5 strike, or from Alex Callinicos being remarkably candid about old arguments on the Central Committee (and filling in the detail on a couple of things I only half-knew), or from Cliff’s family, to whom he was ferociously devoted, telling us what he meant to them. A particular favourite is from Anna Gluckstein, on being asked in primary school what her dad did for a living. Unwilling to say he was a professional revolutionary, she replied that he was a writer who wrote children’s books about a wizard called Lenin. For some reason, this pleases me immensely.

And with that, I’ll sign off, though with the confirmed intention (I know, I know) of coming back to ruminate on this some more. But, just as a taster of the old fellow’s style, here’s a Cliff meeting on a wizard called Lenin. The animation captures the spirit quite well, I think.

[1] This may also have been true of Chris Harman, though not to the same extent.

[2] If you don’t know what the Permanent Arms Economy was, don’t worry. Life’s too short.

The vaulting ambition of Vincent Browne

The latest Phoenix [subs required] turns once again to its bête noire Vincent Browne, apropos of his involvement in discussions to lash together a far-left electoral slate for the next southern elections. Some of us may point out that these discussions have been happening periodically for a dozen or more years with underwhelming results, but evidently Vinnie is a desperate man. Take it away, Goldhawk:

The born again Blueshirt/Trotskyist developed cold feet at the slight whiff of sulphur arising from that “Right to Work” kerfuffle outside the Dáil (elevated to the status of riot by some media) in May [this was some excitable SWP types deciding to "do a Greece" and storm parliament, only to be anticlimactically turned back by ten unarmed guards] and his enthusiasm for the new Bolshevik Party waned simultaneously. Browne had been approached by various media friends who advised him that he was damaging his profile (specifically, that he looked a little foolish rather than dangerous) by associating with Trots and other malcontents…

Browne has now used the inability of the NGO community types to relate to the more hardline SWP Trotskyists such as Kieran Allen and Richard Boyd Barrett as an excuse to bow out from the putative new movement. All of which means that Browne’s long time ambition to make it into the Dáil – with any party, be it Blueshirt, Trotskyist or the Monster Raving Loony Party – has once again been thwarted.

I would only add that those Vinnie has left in the lurch may like to ponder the predilection of Swiss Toni and his acolytes for celebrity politics, especially when the celeb is as politically promiscuous as Vincent Browne. This may be a point worth addressing before you find Gráinne Seoige or Eamon Dunphy being unveiled as People Before Profit candidates on the principle that you can’t beat the marquee factor.

Miaow!

Actually, this is even better than Dynasty. Red Maria has struck comedy gold. Facepalms all round, comrades.

Update: This may shed some light on matters. And what would Footie say?

The examination of the conscience (or lack thereof)

Mark Steel has a good story about the Militant tendency. Like many of Mark’s stories, there is probably a little embellishment but there’s little doubt that the core of it is true. It goes like this:

Mark is walking down the street one fine day when he espies a black-and-white poster proclaiming, “The Round London Jobs March Is Coming To Your Area”. Mark thinks this sounds like a good idea, and at the appointed time is waiting for the march along with a couple of mates from the Croydon SWP who he’s press-ganged into this. When the march arrives, Mark walks up to the Militant fulltimer leading it.

Mark: We’d like to join your march.

Militant: Oh yeah?

Mark: Yes, I saw the poster and thought it seemed like a good idea.

Militant (pointing to SWP branch banner): Not with that, you’re not joining this march.

Mark: Why not?

Militant: This march has widespread trade union support, and I’m not going to jeopardise that by having an SWP banner on this march.

Mark: You may have widespread trade union support, but I can’t help noticing there are only four of you.

Eventually some deal was worked out, and Mark and his chums were allowed to join the march. The punchline was that, however bemused the commuters were to see seven people with two banners trudging along the side of the road, they’d have been much more bemused if they’d known four of those people were thinking, “This was a pretty good little march before the other three turned up.”

I cite this because it’s a great double-edged joke. When told to an SWP audience, it would evoke a great roar of laughter from people who would lap up any story of the Militant behaving like dicks. But half of the audience would be uneasily aware that they themselves had behaved just like that before, and doubtless would do again. It’s worth going back to that chapter of Reasons To Be Cheerful where Mark regales us with tales of the lunatic behaviour of left groups – as he says of Militant, either the 5000 rudest people in Britain had all spontaneously decided to join the same far left group, or they trained them to act like that – because it does have this double-edged quality. Mark was a member of the SWP at that time, and his criticisms of the party don’t go beyond talking about Cliff’s endearing eccentricities, but there is a pretty bloody obvious warning there for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Which leads me to something I’ve been pondering in terms of the most recent SWP ruckus. Andy has a good discussion apropos of Lindsey German, of how loyalty to the party can be reconciled with loyalty to whatever broader forum – a union, say, or a single-issue campaign – that the party member is working in. It’s a discussion worth having, but I want to concentrate on something much more basic – why the left, which is supposed to be fighting for a society based on solidarity and comradeship, so often behaves so badly. I’m not just talking here about sheer bloody rudeness on the blogs, but about behaviour in the real world too – the lack of face-to-face interaction in the blogosphere can encourage extra bad behaviour, but that doesn’t explain patterns of bad behaviour in the real world, much of it going back decades.

So, are we just scraping the barrel in terms of human material, or are there explicable reasons? I like to think it’s the latter. It’s not innate but a learned behaviour, traceable back to the left’s social isolation but also ensuring it can’t escape that isolation. There are issues about groups with fantastically grandiose perspectives – small far-left groups most real people have never heard of, but who aspire to overthrow every government in the world – but whose lack of impact in society at large means their posturing carries with it very little in the way of consequences. Allied to that is a cod-Leninism – which is really a cod-Machiavellianism without the merits of either Lenin or Machiavelli – which disdains personal probity as just bourgeois moralism, which preaches that the ends justify any means, and which carries with it a highly elitist view of leadership. There are many worse examples out there than Lindsey German, but when I hear talk about bending the stick, seizing the key link in the chain or the small cog moving the big cog, a shiver runs up my spine and I wonder who’s about to be shafted.

The theoretical justification for this, as far as the SWP goes, is in Cliff’s Lenin: Building The Party, which you will recall paints a portrait of Lenin as someone whose genius resided in his unique ability to see a situation clearly, grasp what action was necessary and single-handedly cajole the party into doing what needed to be done. One particularly remembers that section about the Bolsheviks after 1905, which argues that even though Lenin was completely wrong about the political situation, he was still right, because the course of action he was advocating would have been the right one had his perspective been right. If you think this portrait of Lenin closely resembles Cliff, you have hit the target, rung the bell and may collect a cigar or cocoa-nut according to choice.[1]

So, Andy notes:

Cliff was a wheeler-dealer, utterly charming when you were useful to him, utterly ruthless and impersonal when he saw you as an obstacle; and given the mercurial changes of perspective he was inclined to, then you couldn’t predict your downfall coming! John and Lindsey have the same approach, but neither of them have the genuine charm of Cliff, nor his remarkable ability to maintain people’s personal affection even after he had shafted you.

Which reminds me of what Jim Higgins wrote about Cliff’s MO back in the 1970s:

The most difficult thing, and one in which nobody succeeded, was to convince Cliff that his latest idea was not some kind of revealed truth, in the pursuit of which everything else should be set aside. To get across the simple fact that the workers’ movement has certain norms of conduct and definite procedures that are there precisely because it is a collective movement, at its best involving all members of the collective, proved impossible. For Cliff the “brilliant” insights of an individual (himself) could be submitted to popular approval on two conditions: one; that they agreed with his proposal in double quick time, and two; that if they did not agree he won anyway. This cast of mind is one he shares with some trade union leaders. It drives most militants into paroxysms of rage which is why, whenever the bureaucracy is pulling a fast one, the Conference Arrangements Committee report at trade union conferences, is one of the most passionate debates. The existence of this phenomenon is one of the reasons why a genuine revolutionary party has, by definition, to include many experienced militants in its ranks because, among other things, they are the best guarantee against bureaucratic manipulation and capricious, high-handedness. The failure to grasp this simple fact of working class life is evidence of a fundamental and debilitating ignorance and an absolute bar to revolutionary success.

And here’s Andy again:

But the big issue that is raised here is whether this model of political organisation can ever be effective in advancing radical social change. There is an inherent contradiction between trying to unite in one party the widest number of self-confident and assertive activists and leaders, and at the same time seeking to reduce those self-confident activists into being cannon fodder for a centralised organisation that has its own institutional biases. The result is that the SWP is less than the sum of its parts; as it under-utilises the talents and potential influence of its members; while an internal culture of deference and self-denial, provides a perfect culture for bullying and rudeness to flourish.

Which brings us neatly back to the question of personal behaviour. Because, if the political content is problematic enough, it can be made infinitely more so if the person carrying it out insists on being a cunt about it. Or, more to the point, if there’s a culture encouraging such behaviour.

Allow me to be concrete about this. One thing that was highly controversial on the British left was the move to close down the Socialist Alliance and set up Respect. I freely admit that I was sceptical in the extreme about this. Granted that there were objections to Respect in bad faith, and objections for the wrong reasons – whether this was the Alliance for War and Liberalism on the right, or Students Power on the doctrinaire left – but it was possible to have concerns in good faith without either being crazily sectarian, or thinking that the SA was some unimprovable utopia. I was in favour of a socialist-Muslim alliance against the war, but sceptical that this could be carried through into an actual party. I had my doubts about Galloway, and what political content might have to be thrown overboard to keep him sweet. I would have preferred a more explicitly socialist profile to a populist one. And, while you can’t have an alliance without concessions, I was worried about whether the concessions that were being made were justifiable ones.

In retrospect, this might have been a sectarian position, but I don’t think it was an unreasonable one. The important thing is that while the Respect turn may have been the correct thing to do, even if you absolutely believe it was the correct thing to do there were obviously huge problems with the execution. I’m talking here about the steamrolling of people who did have reasonable concerns, often with some personal nastiness involved. It is simply untrue that those in the SA who didn’t follow through into Respect were all pro-war Islamophobes. With a bit more sensitivity and a bit less bold and decisive leadership, most of the reasonable sceptics could have been won over. Likewise, when Respect split – and this is regardless of whether you think the split was inevitable or who you think was in the right – it was surely the superabundance of bold and decisive leadership that ensured that the SWP lost the entire middle ground.

Moreover, once trust is compromised, it takes an awful long time to win back. I’m going to pre-empt Mark P by making a point about all the horror stories surrounding Militant. Most of these have a foundation in truth even if they’ve grown a little with the telling, but it’s notable that the hairiest stories are all located some considerable time in the past. Partly that’s due to a much smaller SP not being able to operate the way Militant used to, but there’s also a strong element of the SP having calmed down a lot and changed their MO. While it’s very easy to find the SP taking stances you think are wrong, and if you look closely it can’t be that hard to find individual SP members behaving like dicks, it’s been a long time since the SP as a body did something outrageously sectarian in the movements.[2] This means that today the SP has a rather good reputation on the broader left, including among people who strongly disagree with it, for being sensible and constructive. But it took years to get there.

Finally, it’s not just a question of bad behaviour being tactically stupid. There’s also the question of it being morally wrong. Sometimes the means contradict the ends, and further, if we’re committed to the better society then that means trying to set an example, even if we fall short. Socialists should not need to be told that abusing people’s trust, or scapegoating them for other people’s mistakes, or stealing their labour, is flat out wrong. Socialists should not see as normal and unobjectionable an institutional culture of bullying, ostracism and denigration that would land any capitalist employer in front of an employment tribunal. Socialists should not preach about how every comrade is gold dust, then treat the socialist organisation as a personal bailiwick for the aggrandisement of the leader at the expense of the rank and file. Socialists should seek to build relationships on a basis of honesty and comradeship, and using the talents of the membership rather than building up their beer buddies or fuck buddies as the revolutionary general staff. These are things that shouldn’t even need to be said, but as John Rees used to say, sometimes you have to repeat yourself until the penny drops.

We have far too many people who want to be Lenin – or, in the case of the late Paul Foot, who wanted to be Shelley – but whose secular Thomas à Kempis act does not have much substance to fall back on. The lives of the saints are not there for us to re-enact their detailed actions, but to give us exemplars of the good life and to strive to improve ourselves. Perhaps I’m unusual in preferring Ignatius Loyola to Tony Cliff in such matters, but this isn’t the obscurantism it may seem. The Ignatian examen – the examination of the conscience – involves a serious reflection on one’s actions and desires, identifying one’s faults and working on them systematically, with the aim of drawing towards one’s higher self. It’s an approach with a lot to commend it, but unfortunately the left goes in much more for self-justification than self-criticism.

Just as a final point, it never hurts to make a meaningful gesture. There are ruptures – the Respect split was one, this current SWP fight is another – that provide an opening to make those gestures. In these contexts, admitting a mistake – even admitting that, while you still think you were right to do something, you could have handled it better – costs you little and may gain you some good will at least. The SWP say they have changed. That’s all well and good for them, and many members are saying things have improved, but for those of us who are a bit jaundiced, it’s not quite enough to replace the John and Lindsey double act with Martin and Judith and urge us to put our trust in Martin’s good nature. (Since the Jefe Máximo’s personal record is exemplary, and he has charmers like Bradley and Yunus backing him up.) For the other side, one would hope that the experience of being on the sharp end of the regime would lead to some reflection on the regime that was led by those people complaining about sharp practice now. One would hope.

Not wanting to belabour the point, but there is a broader movement containing people who have been left damaged and disillusioned by pocket Lenins playing silly buggers. There are plenty of people who must, on some level, have some conception that their actions have consequences, and who must know that a quiet word in the right ear would go a long way. We’re not talking public flagellation here, just some basic human decency. Go on, you know it makes sense.

[1] Slavoj Žižek’s take on Lenin is remarkably similar, which is why Alexander’s enthusiasm for Žižek worries me slightly.

[2] I know there’s an argument about the Scottish split, but I am absolutely not going to get bogged down in that one right now. Life’s too short.

“Once Tiberius is dead I, Sejanus, will rule as Emperor in Rome”

Via Luna17, here’s what we’d all been waiting for:

We are writing to resign from the Socialist Workers Party. We do this with great sadness but the events of recent weeks leave us with little choice.

The immediate reason for our resignation is the attempt by the Central Committee to stop Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, from speaking at a Stop the War meeting in Newcastle. This demand was justified by the claim that the meeting was ‘disputed’ or bogus. In fact, it was a properly constituted Stop the War public meeting, agreed at two consecutive Tyneside steering committees. Two SWP members tried to block the meeting because it clashed with a party branch meeting. The Stop the War meeting was a success, but was boycotted by the local SWP. The Central Committee demanded that Lindsey should not go to the meeting and ‘reserved the right’ to take disciplinary action if she attended.

Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement. Unfortunately, it fits into what is now a well-established pattern.
For many years, the SWP has played a dynamic role in the development of mass movements in Britain. The party made an important contribution to the great anti-capitalist mobilisations at the start of the decade, it threw itself into the Stop the War Coalition and was central to the Respect electoral project. These achievements were dependent on an open, non-sectarian approach to joint work with others on the left and a systematic commitment to building the movements.

The SWP leadership has abandoned this approach. The task of building broad, political opposition in every area to the disasters created by neoliberalism and war is now subordinated to short term party building. We believe this undermines both the movements and the prospects of building an open and effective revolutionary current in the British working class.

The most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left. Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left.

An authoritarian internal regime has developed as a result of this change in direction. In the run up to the recent party conference, four members of the Left Platform opposition were disciplined, three of them expelled. Since the conference, four of the remaining student comrades at the School of Oriental and African studies in London have been effectively pushed out of the party. A comrade in Newcastle was given an ultimatum to resign from a key position in the local movement in January. He resigned from the party and 10 comrades left in protest at his treatment. The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement.

For these reasons we are now submitting our resignations. We do not do so lightly and we will of course remain active socialists and revolutionaries. We all joined the party because we felt it would make us more effective. Sadly, we now feel that is no longer the case. We have, however, enormous respect for the many fine comrades in the SWP and we regard it as essential to continue to work with SWP members in the unions and campaigns, since we all share a broad agreement on the need to confront recession, war and fascism. We remain convinced of the need for revolutionary socialist organisation. In fact, the need for a radical political alternative and resistance on a massive scale has rarely been more urgent.’

And there follow the names of 42 resigning members, plus the additional endorsement of 18 who had previously resigned.

My first reaction to this was: holy piss. My second reaction was: holy piss. But now it’s been an hour or two, so here are a few disorganised thoughts.

I’d been expecting something like this, but not quite so soon. And the list is a bit longer than I’d been expecting, too. Time and attrition being what they are, a good lot of the names mean nothing to me, except that I seem to detect a bias towards comrades in provincial towns where Stop the War has been the consistent focus of activity. There are a couple of people I wouldn’t have expected; conversely, a couple I might have expected aren’t there. Nor is this the detritus of the party. Leaving aside for the moment the three former CC members, Neil F is a thoroughly good bloke with a fully functioning brain. Ady C has been one of the party’s most skilled propagandists, and is a known whiz with new media. There are a few others I recognise as genuine assets to whichever organisation has them.

Now, I hate to take a cynical tone, but the sentences

An authoritarian internal regime has developed as a result of this change in direction.

and

The use of disciplinary methods to ‘win’ arguments is completely foreign to the traditions to the SWP and should have no place in the socialist movement.

immediately leap out at the reader and provoke the reaction “Oh yeah?” Without wanting to go over the regime that the former Power Couple presided over, with the enthusiastic support of most of the current leadership… it is wondrous to behold, how the strict disciplinarian can become a born-again democrat when the boot is on the other foot.

Within the ranks of the SWP, this will probably lead to some demoralisation but rather more widespread relief that the former minority is out from under the party’s feet. At least from the opinions I’d been canvassing, though some people understood that the democratisation process might require giving the oppositionists some slack – or at least giving them a considerable amount of rope – there was also a view expressed that these guys were on a split trajectory and so there was nothing to be gained from allowing them to hang around any longer. The comrades’ willingness to go in for organisational expediency to resolve a political problem remains something that has to be dealt with.

Moreover, let us recall the record of the three CC members at the core of this. These guys’ track record involves the smashing up of Birmingham STWC; the abrupt closure of the Socialist Alliance; the split in Respect; the dodgy OFFU cheque; the stoating success story that was the Left List; and on top of that, they opposed the Democracy Commission that, for all its weaknesses, was rightly very popular with party members. With a rap sheet like that, I would have thought it would take an absolute moron to make the former Left Platform look like the wronged parties, although the General Secretary and the North East organiser seem to be making a fair stab at it. One may also bear in mind Jazz Club’s letter to the troops explaining Lindsey’s departure, which quite openly signals that action will be taken against anyone suspected of “factionalism”, a charge so sweeping it’s almost impossible to be acquitted of it.

Look, as I keep saying, I don’t have a dog in this fight. My misgivings about the former LP are to do with the very broad voluntarist streak they’ve expressed and continue to, with all of Lindsey’s references to stick-bending, grabbing the vital link in the chain, and the small cog moving the big cog. These are all perfectly within the canonical Cliff tradition, but they’re all things that are problematic to say the least, and become even more so when combined with an elitist concept of leadership. On the other hand, the current leadership – which includes most of the former leadership that was complicit in the aforementioned rap sheet – is not unproblematic in itself.

Everyone makes mistakes, but the key question is whether you can learn from your mistakes. Some mea culpas would be nice, some bridge-building with people who’ve been done wrong, but at the very least an indication that the course has been corrected. John Rees would have much more moral authority today if he’d gone away, reflected on the things that he’d got wrong – regardless of how many other people shared the blame – and come back with a self-criticism. I’m not John’s biggest fan by any means, but I know that if he got past his ego and turned his mind to an honest account of what went wrong, he has the ability to produce something really worthwhile.

Nor does this absolve the other side. I was greatly encouraged by Chris Harman’s intervention around democratisation, because Chris understood that the problem was not simply one of structures, much less personnel, but of a deferential and top-down culture that positively encouraged arbitrary and hare-brained wheezes at CC level. This was true under Cliff, and it has been true since. The implication of what Chris was saying was to call for a cultural revolution in the SWP, and I would feel much more confident about the party’s future if he was still around. The Democracy Commission’s work is a step in the right direction, as long as it is a first step rather than a final one; and there are certain recent developments, such as a lionising of fulltimers, that are a little worrying. Party members who thought they had put bold and decisive leadership behind them had better watch out, lest they find themselves subject to more of the same, just from a slightly different cast of bold and decisive leaders. One doesn’t wish to compare Martin Smith to Joe Stalin, but there were a lot of Bolsheviks quite happy to see the back of Zinoviev’s bold and decisive leadership.

As for the splitters, time will tell. They have enough critical mass in terms of numbers to sustain a smallish organisation – perhaps of the magnitude of Socialist Resistance or the AWL – and enough of a pool of talent to do their tasks well, provided they set themselves sensible tasks. And thereby hangs a question. The perspectives of the Left Platform, to the extent that they made sense, made sense if you could marshall a couple of thousand people to carry them out. A perspective of hyperactivists running around the movements being brilliant will not work with sixty or seventy people – scale alone would force you to be more modest. But now their trajectory will be theirs to set, and the divergence won’t be long in making itself apparent.

Rud eile: I couldn’t let the day’s other resignation go unmarked, so here’s wishing good luck to AVPS as he ventures into the badlands of social democracy.

Exit stage left

AVPS has the big scoop, in that longstanding SWP leader Lindsey German has resigned her membership. What we have to go on is this email exchange between Lindsey and SWP General Secretary Harry Worth:

Dear Lindsey,
On behalf of the CC, we are repeating our request that you don’t speak at the disputed StW meeting in Newcastle tonight [Wednesday 10th February]. We expect you, like all SWP members, to respect our decisions.
We also think that it is imperative that you meet with members of the CC at the earliest possible opportunity. Could you please give us some dates when you are free.
Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)

Dear Martin,
I asked Judith whether I would be subject to disciplinary action if I went to Newcastle. Your reply is ambiguous on this question. Could you please clarify. The STW meeting is not disputed, as you put it. It was agreed at two Tyneside STW steering committees, despite our comrades raising why I was going to the meeting. I therefore think your request is misplaced.
Lindsey

Dear Lindsey,
We have already made our decision very clear to you. If you ignore our request we reserve the right to respond as we see fit.
Martin

Dear Martin,
It is clear from your reply that your request is in fact an instruction not to speak in Newcastle tonight at the Stop the War meeting.
I regard such a course of action as damaging both to the party and STW. The meeting is properly constituted as evidenced by two sets of minutes of steering committee. There is no good reason for me to withdraw and none that I could possibly justify to STW members locally or nationally.
I have always tried to prevent internal disputes from damaging the movement. I feel that you have brought these disputes into STW and that is unacceptable.
It is therefore with the greatest regret that I am resigning from the SWP. This is a very hard decision for me. I joined more than 37 years ago and have always been committed to building it, which in my view meant relating to the wider movement.
I was on the CC for 30 years, edited the Review for 20 and played a major role in the movement and party building. My respect and affection for many party members remains, and my commitment to socialism as ever. I hope to continue working with them in the wider movement.
Lindsey German

Lindsey,
I acknowledge receipt of your resignation and have amended our records accordingly.
Please note it is your responsibility to inform your bank to close your Direct Debit/Standing Order.
Martin Smith (SWP National Secretary)

This is obviously very big news. Not only was Lindsey a fixture of the national leadership for decades, she was also one of the two political heirs named by Cliff to ensure the party stayed true to his vision – the other being the late Chris Harman. It’s obviously an enormous shock, but what does it mean?

On the immediate issue, one thing that isn’t clear is how this went down at the centre. If the CC had been determined to get rid of Lindsey, she walked right into a trap. If, in the post-conference period, they had been thinking of playing nice with the Reesites in London – and I’d heard chatter to that effect – then it is possible that Yunus has fucked the dog rather brutally.

Let’s go over the Tyneside situation briefly[1], because personalities do come into this. I know a lot of party members who respect and even admire Yunus for the struggles he’s led and the personal shit he’s been through, but who don’t actually like him very much. Though I don’t know him well – I’ve bumped into him from time to time – that would be my position too, and I’ve said quite a few times in informal conversation that, while Yunus would be a fine addition to the industrial department or the paper, the idea of him holding a position of authority over other comrades fills me with absolute horror. It isn’t surprising that the North East became an opposition stronghold.

To tease this out a little more, factional lineups are never quite straightforward. Some of the most swivel-eyed Reesites of two or three years ago have become the most vitriolic anti-Reesites of today. On the other hand, there were quite a few people in the Left Platform who were not personal worshippers at the shrine of the Power Couple, but just happened to agree with them. This included, for instance, people whose centre of activity was Stop The War, and who did feel that the leadership was winding STW down. The concentration of minority supporters in STW, including its national leadership, raised the possibility that it could become, or be seen by the majority as, what in Maoist parlance would be called a factional headquarters. Certainly, the North East organiser (who, not so long ago, would have regarded criticism of Lindsey German or John Rees as a serious disciplinary offence) appears to have treated it as such.

So, on the formal question of discipline, Lindsey disobeyed a direct instruction from the General Secretary, which in SWP terms didn’t leave her a leg to stand on. From a political point of view though, instructing the STW convenor not to attend an STW event because the people organising it were no longer members of the SWP (although they were members in good standing until very recently) does not look very good, and is not made more attractive by the fact that Lindsey herself would have been quite prepared to use that sort of pretext against dissidents in the past.

Which brings us to the schadenfreude issue. Lots of people don’t like Lindsey. In particular, lots of ex-members don’t like Lindsey, because the number of expulsions she was involved in runs easily into three figures. It wasn’t entirely unknown for Lindsey to instigate somebody’s expulsion at CC level, then sit on the Control Commission that would confirm the expulsion. Those with long enough memories will recall Lindsey’s role in the closure of Women’s Voice, where she operated as Cliff’s battering ram, being sent on a tour of the branches to make sure they voted the right way. (If they voted the wrong way they’d be rewarded with a return visit.) In that instance, she managed to browbeat the SWP Gay Group into voting for the closure of WV, only to be closed down themselves immediately afterwards. At the centre, she had a reputation for extreme personal hostility to anyone who crossed her. So we’re not talking about an innocent abroad here.

On the other hand… let me make it clear that I don’t bear a personal animus against Lindsey. She has never done me wrong. The same goes for John Rees, who, on the few occasions I’ve had to deal with him, has been unfailingly friendly and helpful. The reservations I have about them – and have expressed about them from time to time – relate to their political track record and modus operandi, their lapses of judgement and accounts I’ve had from people whose judgement I trust and who have experienced them at closer quarters than myself.

Personalities do matter, though. When members of the British CC would visit their colonial franchise in Ireland, it would be widely remarked on that, while Lord Callinicos would always stay in a nice hotel and eat in a nice restaurant, Lindsey and John would stay in someone’s spare room and eat at a greasy spoon. Small things like that matter. And they also matter in a negative way, in that John’s increasing reputation for arrogance counted against him at least as much as the mistakes that were charged against him.

On the purely personal level, I’m distant enough from Lindsey not to have terribly strong feelings about that aspect of it. There are plenty of people who will have valued the contribution she’s made over the years, and I can understand that; there are plenty more people who will feel that what goes around comes around, and I can understand that; I suppose I partake a bit of both. (I leave aside the apparatchiks whose response to each and every departure is “good riddance”.) But there is a political aspect that concerns me more.

During the recent factional discussion, one point that I thought was terribly important to make – and a few comrades did so on the blogs – was that there were two tasks. One was to sort out the political questions that were tied up in the factional dispute. From the outside, I can understand that it must have looked like a completely apolitical bunfight, with only differences of nuance between the sides. But that’s not entirely the case. The different perspectives were inchoate and not very clearly expressed, but they were there. To recap, the reason I wasn’t hugely sympathetic to the Left Platform was that it seemed to me to have a very broad voluntarist streak, and I’ve believed for a long time that the SWP needed to get its voluntarism under control. The CC’s response to this, I believe, was seriously weakened by its terror of the opposition branding it “conservative”. Notwithstanding its own voluntarist streak and its teenage industrial perspectives in particular, there’s no question that the CC was putting forward a consolidation perspective. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it accounts to a large extent for the new regime’s popularity with cadres whose heads were spinning after a decade of bold and decisive leadership.

But, having said that, there was an arguably more important task, which was to democratise the party, and in particular to get rid of this habit of using disciplinary measures to short-circuit political differences. Another stumbling block was the party membership – there are those who honestly seem to believe the SWP’s internal democracy is nothing short of perfection, and there are many more who have been trained up to regard discussions of how you organise as sectarian, introverted and apolitical. On the contrary, the regime question is a political question of the first order. Not least because, if you have a democratic regime it’s much easier to correct mistakes. See Rosa Luxemburg on how the mistakes of a real movement are worth more than the pronouncements of the wisest Central Committee.

The thing leftists from other traditions tend to pick up on is the SWP’s constitutional ban on permanent factions and secret factions, especially the former. Now, I think these rules suck, and that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. The ban on permanent factions was IIRC brought in after the party dispensed with the services of John O’Mahoney – if you want to know what a disruptive minority is really like, ask somebody who was around back then – and has remained in force ever since. My view is that factions, even loyal and disciplined ones, are a pain in the hole, but restricting the rights of minorities is actually damaging to the party in terms of the chill it casts on open discussion. Then there’s the rule against secret factions, which is meant to be an anti-entrist measure – although it didn’t stop those two fascists in Manchester. Nobody of course will actually defend the existence of a secret faction. But the rule is wide open to abuse from the leadership – see, for instance, the squadist purge – and means that, if the CC say you’re a faction, then you are.[2] However, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the vast majority of SWP members support these rules.

This is not to say that there’s no democracy in the SWP, or opportunities for dissent. You can do that without factions – when Progressive Labor split from the faction-ridden CPUSA, they decided right at the outset that they weren’t going to have factions, they were going to have criticism and self-criticism. (PL of course may not be the happiest precedent.) You can state your case in branch meetings, get delegated to Party Council or stand for the NC, raise concerns in your industrial fraction and what have you. There’s also a sort of informal democracy that you’ll notice on the fringes of the SWP conference rather than in the formal sessions, where comrades will compare notes from their areas (are the BNP a problem where you are, have you been managing to integrate students, what was your experience in the postal dispute) and share thoughts on where the party is going. The spread of electronic communications makes this much easier to do.

And yet, this informal democracy is radically disconnected from the formal democracy, which is the enlightened despotism of the CC (two contested elections in thirty years), and a layer of district organisers who function as feudal fiefs in their areas. The commission structure at conference means members aren’t used to proposing motions or taking votes. So initiative from below, when it happens, is usually a matter of someone having a bright idea and persuading the hierarchy it’s worth a try. Not an easy matter when discussion is institutionally rigged in favour of the leadership.

Now, there is no organisational quick fix that can solve these problems. (Talk to Socialist Party members, for instance, and they’ll probably moan to you about the ridiculous number of committees and working groups in the SP. It’s a contrast to the SWP’s back-of-an-envelope style, but different is not necessarily better.) As Chris Harman said a year or so back, it’s more a matter of culture than structures. I am, though, cautiously optimistic about the outworkings of the Democracy Commission, which is at least a baby step in the right direction.

But here’s the conundrum. The Left Platform may actually have had more success winning cadre to its position had it not had the Dynamic Duo leading it. For John and Lindsey to have opposed the Democracy Commission was an own goal of enormous proportions. (Not just in terms of the DC itself. John’s defenestration was popular because the CC sold it on the basis that nobody was above accountability; he hasn’t shown many signs of being chastened by the experience.) Beyond that, when it came to the organisational complaints of sharp practice during the pre-conference discussion, the CC could simply point to Lindsey and John having been involved in similar jiggery-pokery for years. One could also point out, when they called for imagination and flair, that during their dominance of the party only those within the magic circle were allowed to show imagination and flair. (When I hear that phrase, I always think of someone else who was praised for having imagination and flair, and helping to make STW the success it was. Where is she now, I wonder?)

You’ll sense that there’s a but coming, and indeed there is. When Catholic historians write about the Inquisition, they’ll often point out that the Inquisition’s standards of due legal process were actually quite advanced for the time, that only a minority of prisoners were tortured and that the level of executions was far below the death toll in Protestant Europe – from roaming amateur witchfinders in Germany, say, or state-sponsored religious persecution in England. This is almost certainly true, but you don’t justify something that was morally wrong by saying that someone else did more of it. And the current SWP leadership (which is the old leadership minus John and Lindsey) does not automatically become virtuous because of the excesses of the old regime (in which they were all enthusiastic participants).

There is a principle here, in terms of the democratisation process, which is not abrogated by the process having been opposed by some of the people currently receiving the rough end of the pineapple. One recalls a story Tariq Ali tells about some old caliph in Baghdad – this would be during the great flowering of Islamic thought – who decreed that Free Thought and Reason would be the guiding forces of Baghdad, and he would execute anyone who didn’t agree.

Which leads me back to Harry Worth. Perusal of the emails will reveal that Harry is an extraordinarily rude fucker, but we all knew that. As for Lindsey, I’m not all that interested in whether she retains her membership of the SWP. But you can despair of the SWP’s inability to tolerate dissent without necessarily sympathising with those who dissent. And you can think it curious that a Trotskyist group, that supposedly is made up of the most rebellious members of society, seems to aspire to monolithism in its organisation. Finally, though I doubt that Harry would understand the principled reasons behind this, let me finish on a pragmatic point. Expulsions, and resignations under conditions that seem like constructive expulsions, look bad. They almost always look bad. Unless the expellee is transparently guilty of something pretty fucking outrageous, most people will automatically sympathise with the expellee. When you’re trying to rebuild your reputation with the broader left, including people who John and Lindsey fucked over, you really don’t want to reinforce the reputation you already have for chewing people up and spitting them out.

[1] Alex has more on the local background. He has his own axe to grind, of course, so you take that under advisement if you wish.

[2] Now is not the time to get into the SWP’s disciplinary system, but I think this is a nice summary: “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

A bit of local Kremlinology

Well, that was a nice little musical interlude, but of course what many of you come here for is the sectariana. “Since you’re on the ground in Belfast,” the broad masses cry, “why don’t you tell us what’s going on with the local Swips?”

The first thing I’d say to that is, there’s still quite a bit we don’t know for certain, as the official SWP is taking the “nothing to see here guv” line, while the dissidents have been maintaining radio silence. What we do know is that it isn’t just the three musketeers who find themselves outwith the organisation. Others are being mentioned, including younger people who had joined in recent years, and long-term sleepers – which is to say, people who are basically inactive but retain a loyalty to the organisation and would turn out for a big event. I have heard talk of there being both expulsions and resignations, but given the party’s disdain for formal procedures that will probably be a matter of perception. As for the official org, that’s supposedly down to a small circle around the putative candidate – and I’m not actually sure that young Seán is even in town at the moment, it’s been ages since I saw him about – but what’s certain is that organiser Dónal, having been imported from Dublin, is running around like a blue-arsed fly putting up posters for public meetings with high-profile speakers. One senses a big push on from the centre to rebuild the branch.

There’s a political aspect to this too that may not be immediately apparent, but first I’ll go on a bit of a digression about republicanism.

You see, there is an interesting coalescence in what might loosely be termed non-Provisional republicanism. The dividing line doesn’t break down in terms of left and right, but in terms of your attitude to armed struggle. There is, and there probably always will be while partition lasts, a smallish constituency for physical force republicanism. Of this the most cohesive exponents are the Contos, who can offer you the Provisionalism of 1971 only on a much smaller scale; there are the Real Republicans if you like your militarism more or less neat, with only a little dash of politics to taste; and we don’t even want to get into small groups of yahoos like the “ÓNH”, who don’t even pretend to have a political aspect and are really just armed Celtic supporters. Not to say that the physical force constituency is totally insignificant – it may be small, but it repays attention – but it’s very much a minority pursuit, and there’s nobody there really rallying much support.

What’s probably more interesting is the significantly larger constituency, what we might term soft republican, which is critical of the peace process but unwilling to countenance a return to war. This constituency hasn’t asserted itself till now, but it is there, there’s a potential for some tendency to gain traction there, and it could easily grow. There’s éirígí in the first instance, who may be a mess of contradictions but who are growing and seem to have a little momentum behind them. The interesting thing is that the people in Dublin who set up éirígí are relatively straightforward – their politics is essentially Dublin PSF of five or six ardfheiseanna ago, and their main criticism of Gerry was that he was insufficiently socialist. But as they’ve expanded into the north, they’ve brought on board people who have more traditional republican concerns. Breandán Mac Cionnaith is a case in point, and I was struck when Cllr Louise Minihan of Dublin defected that her statement stressed the republican aspect more than the socialist one.

Be that as it may, it’s the case that éirígí, as a wholly political group with no armed wing, has a definite appeal to that segment of the Provo base that’s disgruntled but is not attracted by the idea of rerunning the Troubles. Certainly in Belfast, the PSF hierarchy seem more worried by them than the armed groups, because they have at least in theory the potential to get a populist bandwagon going. And I’m sure that a similar consideration came into play for the IRSP, and their announcement of the standing down of the armed wing and commitment to a totally political path – messy as it was – had to do with detoxifying the IRSP brand in order to make a play for some popular support. Upcoming elections to the new Derry-Strabane supercouncil will figure here.

That’s also, I suppose, the reasoning behind the IRSP’s unity offensive of the moment. On paper, an IRSP-éirígí lash-up would seem to be the most logical outcome – both groups have a liking for populist agitprop, in particular – but that’s not going to fly in the foreseeable future. (Some IRSP members at least regard éirígí as a nest of Provos, and it seems the suspicion is mutual.) However, a number of discreet meetings have been taking place involving an interesting cast of characters from varied socialist and republican backgrounds – more I cannot say at the moment – and it is not impossible that some sort of alignment might emerge.

Which leads me circuitously back to the Swips. It has been said that the disagreement here was about the minor tactical issue of who to run in the elections and where, and that this manifested itself in a division between the west and the south of the city. There’s more to it than that, but in an untheorised way – by which I mean that there are underlying political issues beneath what looks like a minor tactical issue, but those are largely unstated, almost certainly haven’t been discussed systematically, and the protagonists may not be fully conscious of them.

First we have to consider that the SWP is not a programmatic party. The Socialist Party has a programme, and a fairly rigid perspective – which can sometimes be a disability, but from the SP’s point of view keeps it on the straight and narrow. The SWP is different in that it doesn’t work to a programme, it works to a regularly shifting perspective. From the outside this can look like breathtaking opportunism, from the inside it’s perceived as an ability to be flexible and creative while being firm in your core beliefs. Sometimes it works well, sometimes the results are not so good. But there are two elements here, inherited mainly from Cliff, which I think are often unhelpful. One is the tendency to be distracted from long-term work by the glimpse of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The other is the theory of corrective exaggeration or “stick-bending”, allegedly derived from Lenin although Katy seems to have it sussed. It may be that the British group, in dealing with the Füredite voluntarism of the Left Platform, could get a grip on these tendencies, but they’re very much part of the organisation’s culture.

One aspect of unprogrammatic interventions coupled with a taste for stick-bending is that you often adapt to the milieu you’re working in. (Sometimes the leadership will think you’ve over-adapted and then bend the stick back. Eventually your stick may look more like a Curly Wurly, but such is the price to be paid for bold and decisive leadership.) To put it less uncharitably, if you decide you’re going to work in milieu X rather than milieu Y, that implies a different set of tasks. This applies in spades to whether you’re going to stand in West Belfast or South Belfast.

It will have impressed the Dublin leadership, who as noted have a de facto strategy of building around prominent individuals, that Seán Mitchell won over 700 votes at the Assembly election in West Belfast and did so at a canter, leaving open the opportunity of building on that base. They will also have noted that the SWP has stood previously in South Belfast and got a low vote, as indeed has the SP. Therefore, running Mitchell in West Belfast would seem to be a no-brainer.

And yet, and yet. There are certain reasons why your candidate might do better in West Belfast, notably because it has an unusual concentration of the flotsam and jetsam of northern republicanism and Marxism. Let’s say for the sake of argument that there are a hundred or so éirígí supporters in the area – and they’ve got close to that number on demos – who are they going to vote for? There may be a similar number of IRSP supporters. There may still be forty or fifty old-time Peoples Democracy types who don’t have anything they can support. There are a few CPI people; even a few ORM people, who I imagine would not be falling over themselves to vote Workers Party. There are always disgruntled ex-Provos knocking about, and there may at any given time be some restive Ógra kids willing to lend a preference.

Maybe none of these constituencies adds up to much on its own. But any of them might be in the market for a candidature that’s a bit socialist and a bit anti-imperialist. You wouldn’t even have to mobilise any of these guys – and, given their mutual contradictions, that might be as well – but if you avoided actively alienating any of them… you might be talking about 400 or 500 votes as a par score in the West Belfast constituency, and that’s before you get onto whatever positive appeal the candidature might have. Having a fresh banner (People Before Profit) without alienating historical baggage; a fresh, young and articulate candidate; a campaign with a bit of energy; and a leaflet that says as little as possible about the peace process – none of these things hurt. We may also note that the wee lad attracted strong transfers from Republican Sinn Féin and from the tallies would also have done from the Workers Party had they been eliminated earlier – which indicates to me that a general anti-establishment vote (or to some extent anti-Gerry vote) is at least as likely as 700 west Belfast people suddenly becoming convinced that the Soviet Union was state capitalist.

For the Dublin leadership, they might not be aware of these nuances. Even if they were, they might not give a crap. The thing to consider, from where they’re sitting, will be the possibility of 200 here or 700+ there.

The people who would give a crap would be located in Belfast. Even so, if it was just a pragmatic tactical issue, longstanding party diehards would be expected to go along with the decision from the centre. It comes to the implications for what you want to do, and what you’re comfortable doing.

An election run in South Belfast, probably with Barbara Muldoon as the candidate, would distinguish itself as progressive, cross-community, anti-racist, multicultural, maybe environmental. It would be competing for votes, effectively, with Anna Lo. A Mitchell campaign in West Belfast would be trying to take votes off Gerry Adams, and even if you didn’t call it left republican – a description the SWP would never accept for itself – it would need to be fought on left republican territory.

Perhaps more to the point, an attempt to build a base in West Belfast would be a bit of a reversion to what the SWM was doing pre about 1990, when the activity and the meetings were concentrated in that area and the perspective was to cannibalise the PSF base. Thereafter there was a shift – spearheaded by a couple of people who recently departed – to move to city centre activism, perhaps some thought about building in mixed areas, and promoting a cross-community (definitely not republican) profile. If that’s been your consistent background for years – augmented by movementist and NGO-type politics – to move back into the Wild West and try to appeal to nationalist youths in Andytown must seem like a regression. Doubly so when you consider the unwillingness of west Belfast people to leave west Belfast – Andytown localism is of a whole different order to the local politics the proponents of Save Our Seafront would be familiar with. Anything that looks like a greening of the organisation would face some resistance – and, although the McCann vote in Derry is distinct, it may not be coincidental that the big northern meeting at this year’s Marxism was Eamonn speaking (disingenuously IMO) on the SWP’s anti-Agreement credentials. Maybe that vote for Mrs O’Hara concentrated some minds.

Of course, there’s quite a bit of educated guesswork in the foregoing, and some of it may be wrong. But I would be surprised if these underlying local factors were completely absent. We also haven’t heard anything from the dissidents, who are keeping very quiet. This probably indicates they are discussing what to do next, which itself presents a problem or two. One is that, while tactical differences and problems with the regime are enough to get you kicked out of the SWP, they aren’t sufficient to justify a separate organisation. Another is that, even if you have enough members to give you some critical mass, being cut off from the material base in terms of money, equipment, speakers and so on is bound to cramp your style. And of course there’s a recalibration of perspectives, which may be something the Reesites in Britain have to face in due course – a perspective of being hyperactive in the movements may work if you have several thousand SWP members to play with, but you can’t do it with forty or fifty people, so other options would need to be looked at. The Belfast dissidents find themselves in that position now, on a micro scale. On the other hand, if John Rees fancies acquiring an Irish section at a knock-down price…

Crackers, cheese and pickled herring

Forgive me for indulging in a little whimsical digression, but I was just thinking there of a scene in The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood where Robin (George Segal) is running after some bad guys, and divers peasants gather round to watch. “Look,” they exclaim, “it’s Ivanhoe!” Whereupon Robin has to stop what he’s doing and patiently explain that Ivanhoe wears black, not green.

And so, by popular demand (well, at least as indicated by the site statistics), we return to the Swips. I’ve been meaning for quite some time to have a look at the Democracy Commission report, because there’s quite a bit in it that’s useful, and perhaps to proffer some constructive thoughts on the matter.

Which feeds into this running theme that on the left, it’s not only a question of what you say and what you do, but how you say and do it. How you say it brings up the importance of tone, and the dreadful frequency of hate speech on the left; there’s also the issue of how we do what we do. If I may, I was struck by something johng said over on SU about this:

The decision to wind down SA and go with Respect was I think a correct decision. The WAY it was done I think was a problem, but at the time (thankfully this is no longer the case) such criticisms would have been regarded as ‘non-political’.

This is, I think, a very important point, regardless of what you think about the proximate issue. Somehow we arrived at this position where, for instance, winning a vote in a campaign to march on this Saturday rather than that one was the “political” issue; while arguing internally about whether it was right to pack a meeting to win that vote was “non-political”. And the extraordinarily un-Leninist view that the internal conduct of the party was the most non-political thing of all. As Cannon explained, in general political questions should take precedence over organisational ones, but the question of the regime is itself a political question.

Which brings me to the DC report, and there’s plenty of meat there. It’s pleasing that the Commission members have taken their job seriously, canvassed a wide range of opinion and obviously had some serious discussions. To be honest, the backlash from the membership post the Respect split probably meant the majority leadership couldn’t have done less, while the Rees-German minority did themselves huge damage – and the party a favour – by setting their faces against democratisation. Let’s skip over the generalisms in the preamble and get stuck in, with the role of the National Committee:

The Democracy Commission believes that the party constitution should be amended [to] make the NC’s decisions binding on the CC. The political reality is that the CC could not ignore or defy NC decisions. Formally recognising this would help highlight the importance of the NC’s role.

At least here we have a recognition that some sort of leadership body is needed that is wider than the dozen or so members of the CC (or even the half-dozen or so core CC members who have been in situ for a very long time). Nor would we want a return to one of the nadirs of the Cliff years, when the NC supinely voted itself out of existence. The task, then, is to have an active and combative NC rather than a rubber stamp – the test will be whether you get an NC with independent-minded members or one full of hand-raisers. There has been sufficient experience of the latter.

What the Respect crisis brought to a head was a tendency on the part of the CC to act on its own, in isolation of the rest of the party – as a vanguard that had lost touch with the rest of the army. What is therefore necessary is a rebalancing of the relationship between the CC and the rest of the party, and, as a crucial part of this, a major strengthening of the role and functioning of the National Committee. This stronger NC should be buttressed by the systematic use of fraction organisation in united fronts as well as trade unions.

But this necessary rebalancing should not be allowed to undermine the importance of the CC as a centralised political leadership that takes the initiative in ‘the national direction of all political and organisational work’. For all the many mistakes the party and the CC have made over the years, the many successes we can be proud of derive crucially from having a strong political leadership.

Translation: the CC can’t go on having the virtually untrammelled power it has hitherto enjoyed, but we don’t want to admit we are actually reducing the power of the CC because that would undermine its authority. Some tweaking of the slate system notwithstanding, it would make sense that the CC would be the body least amenable to reform, no matter what some of its members might prefer.

We then move onto a discussion of the fulltime organisers, and generous tribute is paid to these people who work very hard for very little material reward. It’s not surprising, when virtually the entire CC is made up of fulltimers, with only Lord Callinicos representing the lay membership. But this is an area where serious attention needs to be paid, and where things have been got badly wrong in the past. So we have a defence of the idea that organisers are centrally appointed by the CC, and a dismissal of the old IS practice of electing them:

If we accept that the main role of the organiser is to push through the areas of activity prioritised by the CC, then the organiser must surely be, answerable to, and replaceable by, the CC, not the local comrades.

District Organisers must be able to win respect and support in their districts, but that is not the same thing as winning a popularity contest. If a section of the cadre of a district fall into opposition the organiser should ordinarily be fighting for the agreed national position, not that of local dissidents.

Having said that, a district organiser should be alert to the mood of their district, should have respect for the comrades within it, and be able to feel free to bring concerns from the district back to the CC.

That is as may be, but comrades will be well aware of the culture that exists whereby organisers like to see themselves as the CC’s enforcers in the districts, whose job description does not involve being alert to the local mood but rather stamping on any signs of independence. Moreover, I would argue that, if you’re not going to allow local members to elect their organiser, it would be nice if there was a procedure whereby the local members could vote no confidence in their organiser and remove him. There have been far too many cases of organisers behaving destructively and being backed up by the centre as a matter of course for the comrades to be blithe about this.

Finally some representations from members have talked about organisers not treating members with respect. It is vital that organisers take seriously Cliff’s maxim that every member is gold dust. Members should be treated in a comradely manner at all times.

(Laughs hollowly…) It would also be nice if the central leadership, who are supposed to set an example, took that maxim seriously. And in fact, the comrades seem more concerned about the feelings of the fulltimers:

Having said that, this is a two way process. Comrades in Districts must afford the organiser the same level of respect and comradeship that they would expect to receive. Often the organiser will be young, dedicated, and enthusiastic but will not have the experience of some of the district cadre. However anyone using that experience to patronise, belittle, or undermine the organiser is certainly acting outside the spirit of our tradition.

Given the real balance of forces in the organisation, this is almost grotesque. I have seen, for instance, a 25-year-old organiser literally screaming in the face of a comrade twice her age who thought he had a better idea of what was happening in his own union. I have known an experienced organiser who made it his practice to arrive at meetings half an hour late, then to announce that what had been discussed up to that point could be forgotten about because he had fresh instructions from the centre. Or there are countless stories about organisers who will behave in an arrogant way towards local campaigns when they have only just arrived in an area and really don’t have a clue what is going on. Not that I want to belittle good and dedicated organisers, but this sort of thing is much too common to be put down to a few disgruntled members who don’t get on with their organisers.

Partly it’s a question of getting the right people in the right jobs. If Martin Smith asked me, for instance, I could tell him that Comrade X would make a brilliant industrial organiser but should on no account be put in charge of a party district, and if he was put in charge of a district it would soon become a hotbed of dissidence. It would also be an idea to try and avoid appointing people with severe personality disorders. Organisers should be encouraged to have some modesty and humility, to be good listeners above all, and not to regard themselves as pocket commissars sent out to whip the stage army into shape. Of course, the CC sets the tone here.

There is further discussion about CC members operating in “united fronts”, where the uncharitable might be tempted to see a reference to the factionalists at Stop the War; some sensible stuff about industrial and student fractions; and a rambling discussion about use of t’internet, which at least marks an advance on the days when Alex Callinicos was arguing that anyone working with a VDU was middle class. There is here too a belated acknowledgement that technology has vitiated some of the old practices of secrecy – all right, there is some genuinely sensitive information about finance or people’s personal details, but I’ve never seen why political arguments had to be kept secret. If your conference bulletins are going to be leaked to the Weekly Worker anyway, why not publish the bloody things? Indeed, if memory serves the party did publish its pre-conference bulletins as a supplement to Socialist Review at some point in the 1980s.

Oh, and I can’t pass by this pure piece of comedy gold, about the fraternal conduct of discussions:

We debate in order to decide and act – and (this) in no way precludes vigorous political argument, but vigorous political argument should not include personal denigration or abuse. There should also be some regard for proportionality: erring, i.e. Minority, comrades should not in general be crushed to the point of humiliation. All party meetings – branch, district, national, CC , conference – should be conducted and chaired with this in mind.

Quite. But my view is that the culture will be much more difficult to change than the formal rules, and the culture of the organisation has some deeply weird features which new members often take several years to figure out. One is that, for an organisation whose formal politics are all about spontaneity and the rank and file and socialism from below – and an organisation that doesn’t have much in the way of formal structures – the SWP is intensely conscious of status and pecking order. And this seems to have no rhyme nor reason to it.

If I may, let’s compare the Socialist Party, whose structures in some ways echo those of the official labour movement. It would be absurd to say there was no pecking order in the SP, but it’s a more or less transparent one, where status is conferred by belonging to various party bodies – national, regional or branch leadership, various specialist roles etc – and is closely linked to experience and time served. I may joke about Peter Taaffe being general secretary for 45 years and counting, but it makes sense in that Peter has been around longer than just about anyone else and has a unique breadth of experience. And people who have been in both the SWP and SP comment that in the SP, for all its more overt formality, it’s much easier to fraternise with the leadership. (This was not the case in the heyday of Militant, but that’s another story.)

No, you have quite a weird set-up where there is the formal central leadership, elected (almost always in an uncontested election) at conference, below that there are the appointed organisers who sort of function as feudal fiefs in their districts, and below that a very informal, miasmic set-up of cliques, personal relationships, informal networks and shifting in and out groups. This is why, by the way, disciplinary procedures often seem so arbitrary – if you belong to the in group you can get away with almost anything, if you belong to the out group then the slightest infraction can see you being summarily kicked out. And if you move from the in group to the out group… well, look at John Rees being pilloried for things that his latter-day opponents defended for years.

This comes into play with the current faction fight. I commend the position of Comrade Harrods, and will add a few points of my own. Some comrades are arguing at this point that there are two tasks facing the SWP – the first is to defeat the Rees-German faction, the second is to get away from the practice of using disciplinary procedures to resolve political arguments. I think the two of these are distinct tasks, and at some points may be antagonistic.

The factional issue, for me, should be about politics rather than personalities. When it comes to John and Lindsey, I really don’t give a stuff if they retain their membership or not come February. But there is a strong argument that the party needs to make a break from the sort of RCP-style voluntarism they have come to represent. (Which was also present to some considerable extent under Cliff, although the CC’s need to do a Thomas à Kempis On The Imitation Of Cliff routine may stop them fully acknowledging that.) I’d be in favour of that as a precondition of a more healthy organisation, the same way as the Catholic Church in Ireland will never renew itself unless it makes a definitive break from Jansenism – though there’s a similar issue of whether you really can purge something so encoded in the DNA.

Now, on the issue of discipline. There are, as we know, formal procedures. I used to know control commission chair Pat Stack reasonably well, and can attest that Pat is a thoroughly decent comrade who will weigh each case on its merits, and in no way allow himself to be influenced by hating John Rees’ guts. Pat, I am certain, will be sure that minority supporters will get a fair trial before being hanged.

But it’s telling that we can even be flippant about such matters. There’s such a thing, you know, as the slippery slope, and in the case of IS I think it can probably be traced back to Cliff’s bright idea in 1968 to bring John O’Mahoney into the group. It is a mark of the then liberal regime in IS that it took three whole years to get rid of the Mahoneyites when Healy and Grant had taken far less time to dispense with John’s services; it is also true that the regime was much less liberal when they left. (John, of course, has long since graduated from serial expellee to expeller himself.) After that there’s a constant search for “tightening”, with the so-called Right Opposition (progenitors of the later RCG and RCP) being expelled for no reason I can recall other than being a pain in the arse; the big purges of the mid-70s; then, what should have rung serious alarm bells if nothing else had, the “squadist” purge. I say this not to defend the squads, who really were a menace, but to point out that there was no squadist faction, the ideology of “squadism” was almost entirely a straw man of Cliff’s own construction, and by their own account those who went on to form Red Action had no contact with each other until after their expulsion. Sending them expulsion letters in prison was a particular low.

So the current fight takes place in an atmosphere where the leadership hasn’t had to face a factional challenge for maybe thirty years, and where the apparat has become accustomed to expulsion as a way of ensuring political homogeneity. This is not good. Even from the cosmetic viewpoint, expulsions look bad unless there’s a very good reason for them. Expulsions are dumb politics in a faction fight. They are doubly dumb if they are done ahead of conference on vague grounds of “factionalism”, where there is a recognised faction. (I don’t know the details of Alex or Clare‘s cases, but as an outsider there’s nothing that looks compelling to me.) There may be a certain Sopranos appeal in sending a message to John and Lindsey by picking off their followers, but it still looks really bad. Nor does it cut much ice to point out that the current “Left Platform” were the people who resisted the Democracy Commission and all its works and pomps. John and Lindsey as born-again democrats may look absurd, but a leadership that manages to turn them into martyrs would be really congenitally stupid, and only serve to prove to outsiders that the shiny new regime of Democratic Martinism is more of the same.

Again, it’s not just a question of what you do, but how you do it. As Madam Miaow is fond of pointing out, Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals And Ours, not Their Morals And We Ain’t Got None. A break from the bad habits of the past does not necessarily require John Rees’ head on a stick, though that may be an incidental bonus; more heartening would be a demonstrative break from this cod-Machiavellian attitude that says that, once the correct line is decided, all methods are righteous in pushing it through. If John wants to be a martyr, it would be dumb to give him an alibi; the smart move would be to let him immolate himself. Selah.

Madness to the method

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?

You see, Richard, building a revolutionary party is very much like making love to a beautiful woman…

…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[1], 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[2], 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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