You absolute shower!

terry_thomas.jpg

I’ve held off for a while commenting on the shitstorm unleashed by Gorgeous George’s frontal attack on his putative comrades in the SWP, mostly because I was waiting to see if the SWP would respond. Bearing in mind that Lenny and the other SWP bloggers have been keeping very quiet on this issue, a lot of the discussion has been pretty one-sided. Happily, the SWP CC’s official reply is now out in the open. All the documents are helpfully gathered in one handy place at the Conrad Party of Great Britain site, where you can also read an entertaining article by Peter Manson in the latest Weekly World Worker News [pdf] – take it with a pinch of salt, but enjoy it all the same.

Much of what George says rings absolutely true about the SWP’s modus operandi, which they have imported into the Respect apparat. The anathematisation of individuals is a key one – witness Salma Yaqoob, who was built up by the SWP when they needed her to stitch up Brum Socialist Alliance, then when she started to emerge as a serious figure in her own right, and an impressive media performer – with which Respect is not exactly overburdened – she found herself consigned to exterior darkness. Another is the “test” – the idea that the SWP, having taken stick for downgrading gay rights in deference to Muslim sensibilities, would then order Muslim councillors to dance on a float at Pride may seem comical, but is all too credible.

He’s dead right, too, about the culture of organisational amateurism. Anyone with any inside experience of the SWP could have told him this years ago. Carelessness with money, of course, goes with the turf in an organisation where membership figures and paper sales exist apart from empirical reality, in a complicated mathematical system designed to advance people in the pecking order via (as Duncan Hallas said of the Healy movement) “bluff, bluster and bullshit”. And I certainly recognise George’s complaints about a personnel system where people just pop up with no clear job descriptions. Any SWP member of a few years’ standing can tell you stories about someone who got hired at the centre because he was good with computers, and then was sent out into the field as a district organiser; or a female comrade of hilarious ineptitude who suddenly becomes a fulltimer because she fucked somebody on the CC; and so on ad infinitum. Some of these stories are probably apocryphal, but if they didn’t contain an essential truth then they would have no power. And George is correct that a serious party shouldn’t operate in this way.

So much for George’s criticisms, but what does he want? Probably, in the Brechtian sense, he would like to abolish his party and elect another one. The SWP may have lionised him, but he has never had much affinity with them, and regards most of them as little better than gofers. Indeed, George often expresses his regret that the CPB/Morning Snore, a current much closer to his own politics, hasn’t joined Respect. Notwithstanding that he namechecks a few of the outstanding activists outside London, I have little doubt that he would love to ditch the SWP brass – God knows, the Rees-German-Callinicos-Begbie junta are hard to take at the best of times – and draft in some tankie Stalinists to replace them. Whether he can pull off something along those lines remains to be seen.

The SWP are in a little bit of a bind here. Yes, they probably command a majority of Respect’s membership, and they can, if they put their minds to it, pack the conference. But the power dynamics within Respect don’t favour them. To put it bluntly, Respect without the SWP would be weakened but still viable. It might even attract in some punters who are put off by the SWP’s involvement. But Respect without George wouldn’t be viable for five minutes, and the non-SWP membership, by and large, owe their loyalties to George. Remember also that George is the conduit to the Muslim vote bank – he is an MP, but John Rees couldn’t even get elected to Tower Hamlets council. Not only is George the indispensable national figure, a sort of little Bonaparte, but on the ground in the East End it turns out the Bengalis are better at packing meetings than the SWP are.

Add to that the internal tensions that the Respect turn has generated within the SWP. Significant numbers, especially outside London, may have nominal Respect membership but simply don’t do any Respect activity, much to George’s – and the CC’s – annoyance. Then again, one hears a steady trickle of reports of SWP cadres going native in Respect. This leaves the CC in a delicate position – if it pulls the party out of Respect it might, just possibly, energise some disgruntled comrades, but it would leave quite a few behind as well. And then there’s the fact that a reversal of the Respect turn would cause a huge loss of face for the infallible CC. Not to mention the important question of what the SWP would do without Respect.

This is what adds some comic bathos to the CC document, which opens with a weary sigh about how George has suddenly launched this attack out of the blue, when there are far more important things to be at. They also rhyme off Respect’s impressive electoral performances, tactfully skating over the failures. They also talk about how they want to expand Respect’s base in the non-Muslim working class, which is a bit cheeky of them. It does lead Peter Manson into setting up a dichotomy between the socialists and the Asian businessmen around George, but then the SWP’s record in the East End has seen them time and again support the Asian businessmen and mosque elders against progressive Muslims.

And what do we end up with? The assurance that the SWP will agree to everything George demands, except for the resignation of John Rees as national secretary. And a bit of waffling about Metronet, which is apropos of absolutely nothing in this discussion. I also love this gem: “The original vision of Respect lay behind the whole selection procedure for the GLA that has seen a list of candidates that reflect fully the London working class.” With Lindsey topping the list?

And where do I stand on this? Well, my instinct is not to support either side. I wouldn’t trust George as far as I could throw him, no matter what about the correctness of his criticisms. As for the SWP, I would love to think they would wake up, rediscover some principled politics and ditch the Respect turn. However, bearing in mind the sort of internal regime the SWP has, the near-total absence of democratic procedures or of an internal opposition, and how far removed from Marxism the permanent leadership are… I’ll not be holding my breath. In the meanwhile, I’ll be watching this saga with a beady satirical eye, because the mayhem possibilities are just too good to miss.

More on this from, amongst others, Liam and Andy.

27 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    September 14, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    1. Does it matter? Is anybody really likely to say, or think, anything about Respect, the SWP of the far left in general that they did not already think, as a result of the latest dveleopments?

    2. Carelessness with money, of course, goes with the turf in an organisation

    Is this not true of the left in general? I’ve never really found many people on the left who can, when it comes to money, find their arses with their bare hands. Always seemed pretty stupid to me, since the left tends not to have much money in the first place and I’d have thought the less you have, the more you need to be careful with it.

    3. Does anybody actually think that if an organisation appeared on the far left with a different sort of internal regime and procedures, and whatever we might consider a Marxist viewpoint and politics, that it would flourish?

    It’s odd, because everybody in the far-left bunfight says that that’s what they want, but obscurely, it never seems to happen. Now it’s possible that this is because by the time we all acquired our wisdom, we were all too old and knackered to have the energy to do this. Mebbe. Or it’s possible that we’re much better at observing one another’s mistakes than at showing one another how it should be done. Possibly. Or, it could be that if there has been a degeneration is the general standard of far left organisation and politics* over the last couple of decades, which is more than possible, it may be because of the long-term effect which I often drone on about on here – the social changes which have caused the organised working-class movement to decline steeply and thereby to make it excrutiatingly difficult to marry theory and practice. It’s not surprising, therefore, that people are all over the place – because where’s the place gone, that they’re supposed to be?

    Nothing like quoting a old reactionary to back up one’s point:

    We cannot revive old factions
    We cannot restore old policies
    Or follow an antique drum.

    But what (a socialist fogey writes) can we do?

  2. ejh said,

    September 14, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Oh, sorry, the asterisk. I was going to ask if you saw Ken McLeod the other day.

  3. Andy Newman said,

    September 14, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    I think you are a bit too cynical here (not to mention the fact that you give credit for publishing the SWP doc to the WW, when I published it before them, hrmmmph)

    Whatever else happens, the fact that a substantial minority of the SWP has openly argued against the CC poistion over Rees is a big shift in the SWP. Things will never be the same again in that organisation.

    this is a much bigger problem than the limited revolt when they ditched the SA. There were mumblings from Lowestoft, Scarborough and Swindon SWP then, and as an SA national exec member I had to resign from the SWP, but no open debate in the party.

    This suggests that there is a more substantial minority within the SWP who have gone native with Respect, and also that there is probably more polarisation within the SWP over this issue.

    At the same time my impression is that when ther CPB leadership lost the vote in their organisation over joining Respect, many voted against not becasue they opposed the idea of joing a new party in principle, but they didn’t wnat to join one dominated by the SWP.

  4. Andy Newman said,

    September 14, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    worth pointing out that the “you” i refered to above was splintered, but ejh is too cynical as well.

    The crisis in the SSP was not inevitable, and if Sheridan had kept his dick in his trousers, or been willing to weather the NOTW storm without turning to court action, then the left in Scotland would still be intact with at least one MSP.

    There is nothing structutrally different about Scotland froom the rest of Britain.

    If we look wider afeild in Europe, like Germany, Italy, Denmark and Portugal, we see realitively succesful left parties.

  5. ejh said,

    September 14, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    There were mumblings from Lowestoft, Scarborough and Swindon SWP then

    Hmmmm

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 14, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    Credit where credit’s due, Andy. I provided the link to the WW really because they’ve collated everything in one handy place. And I enjoyed Manson, although he doesn’t really grasp the dynamics of the SWP.

    The going native thing is interesting… I also hear about a lot of people who voted with their feet and stayed out of Respect. Which the CC would tolerate as long as there was no actual challenge to the CC line, but this is quite something else.

    A lot will depend on how the CPB play things. But my instinct would be that anything that undermines Rees can’t be all bad. 😉

  7. chekov said,

    September 14, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I pretty much agree entirely with splintered, only thing is that I would question this: “Respect without the SWP would be weakened but still viable”. Now I’ve only got what I read to go on, but I get the impression that there is really no independent cadre within Respect, so I can’t see how it would survive as a party without them. I’m sure that Galloway isn’t interested in putting a whole load of work into building a party organisation and I doubt whether the Bengali wing has the reach to do so and the smaller leninist outfits are only in it to denounce and demand that other people do stuff. I can’t see Respect surviving in any meaningful way without the SWP

  8. Andy Newman said,

    September 14, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    ejh

    Wat do you mean by Hmmmm?

    Do you say it isn’t true?

  9. ejh said,

    September 14, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    I wouldn’t have the faintest idea, since I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the state of play inside the historically crucial areas of ideological conflict that constitute Lowestoft, Scarborough and Swindon SWP.

  10. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 14, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Fascinating analysis splintered. To be honest – and like chekov I’m very much outside all this – I can’t see Respect surviving without Galloway whatever the issue re the SWP. ejh puts it well, I think as regards asking a crucial question as to the viability of it as a vehicle for the far left.

  11. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 14, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Incidentally, you point to this yourself, but having just checked out Lenin’s Tomb the silence on the issue is er… well identical to silence.

  12. Liam said,

    September 14, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    You don’t have to love or admire either GG or the SWP to acknowledge that the collapse of Respect would be a major setback for the Saxon left. It is the first outfit in a long time to get people elected mainly because they stand against imperialist war. Opposition to imperialism has not been a strong point of the British left.
    Both sides make a lot of valid points against each other and are strongly reminiscent of critiques that oppositionists were making when GG and the SWP were a double act.
    The job for those of us with the chance to take part is to roll up our sleeves and engage in Respect.
    Compared to the Belfast branch of People Before Profit it is a seething cauldron of intellectual ferment.

  13. ejh said,

    September 15, 2007 at 9:09 am

    “The Saxon left” is an odd phrase. What do they do, oppose the Norman Yoke? That would be following an antique drum, with a vengeance.

    the silence on the issue

    I don’t tend to put much store in discussing what people haven’t said, or written about – it’s an infinitely flexible stick to beat people with, I think. Blogs aren’t official party publications and can write about what they want (indeed, if they do not, they won’t last very long).

    The job for those of us with the chance to take part is to roll up our sleeves and engage in Respect.

    I doubt this. If there’s a job at all, it involves finding constructive things to say in whatever manner suits.

  14. Cian said,

    September 15, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    It is the first outfit in a long time to get people elected mainly because they stand against imperialist war.

    They got elected because they were able to mobilise the Muslim vote. That’s a pretty limited platform for the long term.

  15. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 15, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Hmmm… the Saxon left. Perhaps they’ll drag poor old Biff Byford out and get a rendition of the Red Flag set to the music of Denim and Leather. Or perhaps not.

    ejh, in fairness if a topic such as this one is being discussed everywhere but amongst one group of protagonists then it seems reasonable to point it out. It’s not McCarthyism by stealth to do so. And it would also be reasonable to enquire as to why it wasn’t being discussed – because it is an issue of some gravity and as noted above it leads to a one sided discussion. One of the great things about the left on the net is that it offers the opportunity to actually air these things in a more open fashion. That seems entirely constructive to me if we can leave sectarianism aside and interact reasonably.

  16. ejh said,

    September 15, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Up to a point, but I don’t think people are somehow obliged to post about it on their blogs or that other people should find it suspicious if they don’t. At best that’s shadowplay. And that “if” in the last sentence is about the size of Wellington’s statue in Phoenix Park…

  17. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 15, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    I don’t find it suspicious. Nor do they have an obligation. But perhaps because I come from a background of parties which tended to be very closed in how they dealt with issues – call it Stalinist if you will – I tend to think that open pluralist discussion is a better and more honest way to approach problems.

    Still I take your point about the ‘if’.

  18. ejh said,

    September 15, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Of course I agree with you about the benfits of open discussion. But while I think the fact that this doesn’t happen (in any number of organisations) is largely down to the closed nature of those organisations themselves, I don’t think the attitude of their rivals and critics helps either, since everybody knows that everybody else is going to run round screaming “Split! Split! Split!” rather than anything more constructive.

    Incidentally, if I had a fiver for every “SWP to split” article, conversation and internet thread I’ve ever come across, I reckon I could afford not to be a socialist…

  19. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 15, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Frankly I doubt the SWP would ever split in a serious fashion, and I’m not talking about the way that it – like all organisations – loses members as time passes. It has an internal dynamic of its own. If its survived this many decades highly unlikely that it won’t survive a few more…which I guess is saying more or less the same as you really. But at the same time I’d still like to hear SWP voices discussing this, see what their take is on it.

  20. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 15, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    And this is why I don’t take the Weekly Worker seriously – they’re good at ferreting out info, but don’t have any sense of the internal dynamics of the SWP.

    I’m not thinking myself of a split, but more that there are centrifugal forces at work. The CC has been willing to tolerate members not getting involved in Respect, but OTOH I think in the case of a breach with George there are quite a few, especially those recruited via Respect, who would stay behind. So we’re looking at a significantly weakened SWP whether they stay or go.

    But isn’t the CC doc terribly apolitical?

  21. Cian said,

    September 16, 2007 at 9:58 am

    “Up to a point, but I don’t think people are somehow obliged to post about it on their blogs or that other people should find it suspicious if they don’t.”

    I think that depends. Lenin’s Tomb is not exactly shy of defending the SWP on almost any topic (he even put up a post defending Galloway’s cat impression on Big Brother). If he’s silent on this issue… well its interesting.

  22. ejh said,

    September 17, 2007 at 10:28 am

    Only if you think inference-drawing is a useful way to go about discussion. I don’t.

    Incidentally, I do several cat impressions on any given day. What’s to defend?

  23. Cian said,

    September 17, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    You’ve lost me I’m afraid.

  24. Mike said,

    September 17, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    We can only watch and wait to see how the game is played out in Respect. The truth is and always has been that as a way forward for the left in England Wales it is a non-starter.

    What is more interesting is where does this leave the SWP and its misleadership? Clearly the Respect strategy has dsmally failed and the Rees-German clique would be removed in any group with an active and conscious membership as a result of their ineptitude. But this is the SWP we are discussing.

    So what chance is there of rank and file mebers or even the likes of Molyneux raising open political criticisms of this mess from the left? That some elements, numericaly insignificant I suspect, will drift out to the right going native in Respect is another matter. Will any criticism be raised from the left and will at least somecomrades seek to return the group to a proletarian orientation as that is, in my opinion, what is needed.

  25. Andy Newman said,

    September 17, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    With regards to ejh’s metropolitan elitest comment #9, that it doesn’t matter what hapens in lowestoft, swindon and Scarborough.

    It seems that the SWP do use as an example what happens in Preston and Bolsover. Towns no bigger.

    Firstly, when the SWP left the Socialist Alliance, there were critical and intelligent dissenting articles in the next Internal Buletin from long term SWP activists, both of who are trade union branch secretaries one from Swindon and one from Lowestoft.

    One of the curses of the small left groups is that they revolve aroung the big city branches . Where, for example, the SWp have enough people to generate their own clique, adn where full time organisers and student memebrs have more weight.

    In fact of course a very large part of Britain’s organised working class is in the smaller towns, and in the days of the IS factory branches they were often in small towns, for example there was a factory branch in the Forest of Dean, in rural Monmouthshire.

    Specifically with Swindon, it has of course been one of the most importnat towns histically in terms of left organisation with not on the CP very strong but also the SLL/WRP being infuential. It seems bizarre to knock a town as irrelevent which still has two unionised car factries and where Stop the War regularly has twice as many people at meetings than Greater manchester STW.

    In the smaller towns there is much more need for the left activists to talk to and relate to people outside their own organisations, and they cannot dvelop a political life revolving around their own group. As such the small town branches have always been the canary in the coal mine for exposing that the perpsectives were wrong, and there have always been IB articles from small branches saying so. While the big city branches recycle the fulltimer bullshit.

  26. ejh said,

    September 17, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    With regards to ejh’s metropolitan elitest comment #9, that it doesn’t matter what hapens in lowestoft, swindon and Scarborough.

    What a ludicrous and silly misrepresentation of what I said. (Incidentally, I live in a town rather smaller than any of them.)

    a proletarian orientation as that is, in my opinion, what is needed.

    I refer to my quotation back in posting #1.

  27. Alex said,

    September 17, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Oh, it matters what happens in Lowestoft, Swindon, and Scarborough; whether what happens in these places’ SWP branches matters is quite another question.


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