The Cliff mode of ideological production


So, pondering on the disorientation of the post-Cliff leadership of the SWP brings me to the way the party line used to be decided. There’s a fascinating dynamic here in terms of ideology, perspectives, the organisation and how they all intersected.

Firstly it’s worth observing that left groups vary widely between the more and less ideological, but generally ideology isn’t as all-important as the partisans of the different groups like to think. I myself would tend to put a lower premium on ideology than some other people I know, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I think it has its place, and its place is not one of total dominance. This is in fact how most groups function – there may not be the exact equivalent of what you used to find in the Communist Party tradition, where part of the party secretary’s job was to indicate to the branches whether the latest output from the ideology department was to be taken seriously or just worthy of lip service, but there are similar processes in most groups. There are of course some groups built by like-minded ideologues with an extremely high level of homogeneity – Workers Power springs to mind – but they tend to reach a certain point and then break apart on ideological grounds.

Now if you go to the Marxism event or read the SWP press, you’ll know that the Living Thought of Tony Cliff looms large, even though the precise relevance of State Capitalism or the Permanent Arms Economy to today’s politics is unclear to me, and most party members would be hard pushed to explain what they meant. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the movement was built very much in Cliff’s image, and having observed him over many years I can well understand why. Unfortunately, Cliff’s appalling autobiography very much tends to ascribe all the great intellectual breakthroughs to Cliff alone. This may have something to do with him having fallen out with or expelled most of his early collaborators.

In the early years, in the 1940s and 1950s, Cliff wrote a good deal. Mostly this was about the Russian economy, spun off into his work on the buffer states and his book on China (possibly the most boring book I’ve ever read). Look at the early issues of Socialist Review and you’ll see that Cliff writes virtually nothing on Britain. If he was a one-trick pony, though, it was a good trick. However, Cliff’s ongoing preoccupation was always building the organisation, and in later decades you would find almost everything he wrote was geared towards organisational ends, and even factional ends. (This is true even of works that don’t appear very factional: the Rosa Luxemburg book was a thinly disguised polemic against Healy, while the Lenin autobiography was aimed at the Higgins-Palmer-Protz opposition, and the women’s liberation book is a whole other can of worms.)

It helped immensely that the Cliff group also had some very serious thinkers who could add their own input, the best of these by far being Kidron. Kidron was not only a brilliant man, but, more to the point, he was less than inclined to take whatever emanated from the mind of T Cliff as tablets from the mountain. But there was a sort of modus vivendi arrived at where Cliff would have a flash of inspiration, sometimes an excellent one, sometimes less so. This would then be palmed off on somebody else to turn it into a workable theory – for a long time Kidron did the job, then the law of diminishing returns kicked in and you got Harman, Rees and Callinicos. There were some basic ideas underlying the various theories, but no great overarching structure of the type Mandel used to go in for, and new theories tended not to be integrated in a seamless way into the group’s politics, but hacked about a bit to make them compatible. This would account for what Kidron used to refer to as the makeshift nature of SWP theory.

Then you had the question of filtering ideas from the centre down to the rank and file. Because there was no imposition of orthodoxy and no real commissars – the fulltimers were a rather different case – this was done through the party press. When it came to theory, you could more or less take your pick, and comrades would often come to their own conclusions on these matters or on political matters that didn’t impact on the group’s practice. For example, I knew one long-time comrade who held a degenerated workers state position on Russia; I myself was supportive of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Disagreements of this sort were never really a problem – perspectives were a different matter, as an open disagreement with the perspective could be taken as a challenge to the leadership.

Perspectives would be arrived at in the same way as new theoretical ideas, but with a slightly different cast of characters. Likewise, you got a bit of a decline in quality as people who could have stood up to Cliff left the stage, and the old man got a little madder towards the end of his life. But you can’t really blame Cliff for his rushes of blood to the head – we all knew what he was like – rather, a situation where he might be working out a trade union perspective in consultation with someone who hadn’t set foot outside the centre in 25 years was bound to exacerbate his worst features.

Again, you had the problem of turning the slogan of the moment into a practical orientation. As the New Zealand SW comrades say – and this is a very important point – you can’t simply enunciate a principle and then deduce a set of tactics from it. This is where the idiot filter, alias the district organisers, would come in. Not to say that the organisers were all idiots – there were and are plenty of very talented people in those positions – but there were definite types. People in fulltime positions were often recent ex-students, which would make sense as they were used to living on peanuts. They were ferociously loyal to the CC that had appointed them as part of a complex system of patronage. They had assimilated the basics of group politics but didn’t have much life experience. They also often had arrogance bred into them by their status, hence the spectacle of an organiser hectoring a trade unionist twice her age on how to run a strike.

If you had a good organiser, the latest wheeze from the centre would be taken with a pinch of salt, and some care would be taken to make sure the new initiatives wouldn’t derail the long-term work of local comrades. If not, the perspective would be taken as a matter of loyalty, almost in a liturgical call and response:

Organiser: We must turn from propaganda to agitation!
Branch: We must turn from propaganda to agitation!

Needless to say, many organisers did show a real gift for the intrigue, backstabbing and clique politics that plays far too big a part in the SWP, and a new perspective could be a heaven-sent opportunity for shafting your enemies.

What’s much less forgivable is the export of this sort of politics into the Pomintern. International conditions vary so much, and the likelihood of a sensible perspective being arrived at from somebody making a guess at what’s happening thousands of miles away so remote, that you would need to handle the international tendency with an extremely light touch. At this point any readers in the American ISO will be starting to chuckle.

However, while clodhopping interference from London hasn’t done the tendency much good of late, what’s more depressing is the number of people, in places as diverse as Canada or Greece, who will pick up a perspective from Britlandia and simply adopt it mechanically. Not to mention Swiss Toni and his acolytes endorsing the Brits’ actions in the Respect split before it was even clear what those actions would be. As JP Cannon used to say, a party that can’t develop its own indigenous leadership is never going to lead anything. And I might add, a dominant group in an international current that can’t assimilate that lesson is, with the best will in the world, going to end up with a Spartacist-Mormon international that does nobody any good at all.


  1. Andy Newman said,

    November 9, 2007 at 12:56 pm


  2. Phil said,

    November 9, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    the Lenin autobiography

    Freudian slip?

  3. ejh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    A pedant writes: how can one be a recent ex-student?

  4. chekov said,

    November 9, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    ejh, that’s stretching pedantry beyond breaking point.

    Splintered, that’s a very interesting essay, very illuminating for an outside observer and it really rings true. I always thought it was bizzare to expel a group for disagreeing with a strategic outlook, which is after all always going to be something of a guess about the future. I had always sort of assumed that if they demanded such a level of loyalty vis a vis crystal ball gazing, then the theoretical homogeneity must be even more tight. It’s interesting to learn that this isn’t so and it also tallies with my experience too.

  5. ejh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    As a rule, you can have a large of people believing a small number of things, or a small number of people believing a large number of things, but you cannot have a large number of people believing a large number of things, or not for very long anyway. It’s unlikely that most CP members believed most of the things they were supposed to believe and to be honest the people who said they did probably didn’t either. Yer problem with Trotskyism here is that it takes “the line” very seriously indeed and so it doesn’t really have any option but to split all over the place as well as to try and achieve a level of consistency that no philosopher has ever managed ever. (Theologians manage it, but that’s because all contradictions are resolved in the mind of God which is a helpful joker to play when you need one.)

    In some ways this can be traced back to the list of boxes that the Comintern made everybody tick before they could join (I can’t remember how many there were, was it twenty?) which has misled several generations of leftists, or some of them, into thinking that you can actually achieve ideological homogeneity, missing the point that the whole reason people had to tick the boxes was that they wouldn’t have agreed with all of them unless they were made to. And as small Trotskyist groups don’t have the same incentives to offer that the CPSU did, these days boxes tend to stay unticked.

    I think one can easily overlook the benefits of speaking with one voice. There’s reasons things like party discipline exist – in all sorts of parties, not just small far-left ones – just as there are reasons why you have Cabinet responsibility and so on. But there are limits, and even if there were not, you can’t keep intellectual austerity going, any more than you can keep material austerity going, unless people start to see the benefits of it pretty quickly. If they don’t, it breaks down, not least because contrary to some opinions Trotskyites tend to be intelligent people with a strong capacity to think for themselves and when they disagree with something they are liable to say so.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    That was a Freudian slip on the Lenin book, but a good one. Duncan said IIRC that it should have been called Building the SWP, Illustrated from the Life of Lenin.

  7. Andy Newman said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Or as John Sullivan described it, it reads like the biograohy of John the Baptist written by Jesus.

  8. Binh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    I agree that ideology does tend to be overemphasized on the far-left, and would cite the Bolsheviks as example. They were flat out wrong on the class content and nature of the revolution. Yet, they overcame their ideological shortcomings and led that revolution. Just one example of when getting it right in practice can lay the material basis for overcoming ideological confusion. The overemphasis on ideology in much of the Trotskyist movement is a function of its isolation from real struggles, especially working-class struggles. Hence the emphasis on getting “the line” perfect on a piece of paper, rather than having an impact on the real world.

    As for Cliff, I always had a feeling he borrowed or leaned heavily for his theory on Raya Dunayevskaya who argued that Russia was state cap as early as 1940. See and Her first book on the subject appeared in 1946, and Cliff’s “the Nature of Stalinist Russia” came out a year later. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    As for perspectives and organizational dynamics, I don’t agree with you. You seem to be arguing that the SWP (and its predecessor, the IS) were structurally flawed because of a patronage system. Yet the Bolsheviks used the same system and they seemed to do alright (until the civil war and Stalinism, which can’t really be blamed on how they organized).

    My own feeling is that the SWP’s degeneration into what it is today began quite a long time ago, perhaps as far back as the 1970s or 1980s. I know there were some expulsions and/or resignations of leading members because of internal resistance to declaring the IS a party by changing its name to the SWP. Then there was serious faction fighting in the 80s that almost destroyed the organization. After that I have a feeling the CC including Cliff decided that all disagreements would be kept in the CC and that everywhere else they would present a united front to prevent dissension and factionalism in the ranks from ever destroying the organization.

    The result was that, after embracing a wholly wrong perspective through the course of the entire 90s (it’s the 30s in slow motion, the far left and far right would grow as the economy tanked, a perspective of wars and revolutions opened up with the collapse of the USSR and the growth of instability in the world capitalist system, Blair’s honeymoon will be short, etc), there was no internal mechanism for challenging the perspective or changing it as long as the CC remained monolithic.

    The train wreck that is the IST became wrecked through the course of the 90s, as the SWP CC got involved in every group to make sure everyone had an identical perspective, regardless of particular local or national circumstances and regardless of the consequences for the group in question. The case of the American ISO is only so well-known because we are (or were) the biggest group outside of the UK and we weren’t going to be bullied. First they accused us of failing the test of the Kosovo war and that we didn’t understand the unite front method because we raised disagreements about Milosevic with Stalinists and Serb nationalists who opposed the war. Then we were accused of “failing the test of Seattle” (what is it with Professor Callinicos and accusing everyone of failing tests?) because we failed to forsee what would happen in the streets at the WTO meeting. When we pointed out that the SWP CC also failed to forsee what would happen there and its significance, we were told that we were being sectarian for not labelling the global justice movement against neoliberalism as “anti-capitalism” which it wasn’t and which Harman later admitted.

    When it became clear we weren’t going to settle for being a British colony, we got the boot, even though the Tendency by definition was not a centralized organization abiding by its own “21 Conditions” and therefore it was impossible to expel us from it. Later it became known that a lot of the fight was about the fact that the SWP CC said “we weren’t ready” to have a theoretical journal of our own, the International Socialist Review. Apparently they wanted us to subsist on the politically deficient stuff they were putting out in the ISJ and were worried that having our own journal would put us in a position to challenge them on perspectives. The ISO in fact did develop its own independent perspective through the course of the 90s as we found that the SWP’s formulas and analogies to the 1930s failed to accurately describe our experience and the environment we were operating in. The break between the two, however, occurred partially, sporadically over a series of seemingly unrelated questions but at the heart of which lay the heart of the Marxist method – how to build a revolutionary party and the united front method.

    The latest disaster in RESPECT just shows what happens when you get it wrong, refuse to think seriously about the issues, and then expel people left and right who dare to raise them. What I’m hoping for is an SWP Renewal conference to end the madness.

  9. Ray said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    There are benefits to speaking with one voice, true.
    But how many of those benefits follow when the voice is that of a small, perpetual elite, who spend their life in the party?

  10. Madam Miaow said,

    November 9, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    True, Ray. The bane of the left – the professional revolutionary.

    Thanks, Splinty. Another good one.

  11. ejh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    21 conditions, that was it, not 20. No wonder I was always crap at Pontoon.

    how many of those benefits follow when the voice is that of a small, perpetual elite, who spend their life in the party?

    I wonder if that may have been among my points?

  12. November 9, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    […] bleibt noch der Hinweis, auf einen lesenswerten Artikel zur Theoriebildung in der […]

  13. WorldbyStorm said,

    November 9, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    That’s a fascinating addendum to Splintered piece Binh. Wow… ‘not ready to have a theoretical journal’… one would never guess these are voluntary groups made up of people who by no stretch of the imagination – and I’m including myself in this – are ‘experts’ in this chosen field of activism… Chutzpah?

    Still, ejh, I also broadly agree with you. Some discipline is essential. But how much? And the left is filled – ironically – with individualists!

  14. ejh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    I’d have thought the answer to “how much?” might be “it depends on the circumstances”, which is not, perhaps, a prescriptive answer and perhaps not even a helpful one…

  15. Andy Newman said,

    November 9, 2007 at 6:23 pm


    Not meaning to be cynical, but wasn’t the SWP/ISO bust up also about money, and a certain life insurance policy?

  16. Binh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Andy, not to my knowledge. There were rumours that the SWP demanded our leadership expel Ahmed S., the editor of ISR, but I have no idea if that’s true or false. I wouldn’t put it past the SWP CC though, in light of the last 7+ years.

  17. Matthew said,

    November 10, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Excellent post.
    To put it crudely it seems to me that much of the SWP’s concern is to train its membership to accept and enthusiastically endorse and apply the latest turn of the leadership. There’s a kind of pleasure from keeping up with the latest vertiginous twist. Of course this involves accepting that the leadership is always right and only ever goes from being right to even righter. Which means that honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses, honest accounting of what actually happened just isn’t encouraged. Look at the CC account of what happened with Respect – SWP 100% correct at all times. It’s just scientifically implausible,isn’t it?

    Underlying this is the lesson drawn from 1917 – the party (party right or wrong; inside the party everything, outside – nothing) and the infinite political wisdom of Lenin. Really the party is training its membership to follow its leadership when it comes to our forthcoming October. Which opens the debate about the relevance of the October Revolution to the present situation – an important debate that we should continue to have.

    It’s really good to have a contribution from a member of the ISO here – really they should get into the blogosphere more. I’m an admirer of the way the ISO stood up to the SWP. I’m an admirer of the alternative perspective to the ludicrous ’30s in slow motion’ line. I’m a fan of the ISR. The amazing thing to me when I look at the ISR or the line-up for the ISO’s annual bash is how similar the politics of the SWP and ISO are. I was partly amused and partly annoyed at Marxism 2008 by the SWP’s continuing failure to maintain a franchise in the USA – ah the Left Turn episode, the time when Mike Davis was apparently their sole supporter, and this year the appeal to chat to the nice young American student, while comrades talked about how they really ished there was a Repect in the US.

    But a couple of specifics for Binh. I don’t think the coincidence between Cliff and Dunayavskeya counts for much. You can find different variants of state cap theory going all the way back to Kautsky, and Cliff’s version is philosophically very different from Raya’s and clearly emerged from debates in the Fourth International. The story I remember is that Cliff was given the task of critiquing a kind of state cap approach by Ted Grant and the debate they kinda swapped theories – but I’m waiting for Birchall’s biography of Cliff to sort it out.

    ‘Test of Seattle’ – well I think the SWP had a point, just pushed it too far. I was following the internet discussion for several months leading up to Seattle and it was clear that networks were forming and people were buzzing with activity as they built for Seattle – and the ISO just missed this. Of course the SWP missed the massive anti-cap day of action in July (I think) 1999. You just can’t trust the infallible wisodm of leaderships.

    On ‘anti-capitalism’ – I agree that the movement was more complex than that label and that the perspective that we are in a new era suddenly stating and coming from nowhere in November 1999 is ludicrous and misleading, but if you’ve got a clear source for Harman admitting the movement wasn’t anti-capitalist I’d dearly like to have it please.

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 10, 2007 at 11:38 am

    I did hear a couple of well-sourced stories about Cliff demanding Ahmed and Sharon’s heads, but no doubt there’s plenty we don’t know.

    I do want to come back on Binh’s point about the fulltime apparatus. You’re right that the Bolsheviks did operate a similar system, but I’m not sure the Bolsheviks are a good example. I’d raise the point of the internal culture and how it interacts with the structures. The ISO has a very similar formal structure to the SWP, but just from my limited observations their culture is very different. The ISO no doubt has weaknesses of its own, but it seems to me to be much more open and less stratified and deferential, and the leadership is infinitely more modest. That probably has a lot to do with being a very small group in the not too distant past.

    But it’s something that is worth watching, this tendency of left groups when they get to a certain critical mass to create mini-bureaucracies. In the 1980s Militant famously had more fulltimers than the Labour Party itself, and before it sold the printshop the SWP had a paid staff of about 100 to cater for maybe a couple of thousand members. There’s a logic to using your resources to build the apparatus, but it does get to be a problem beyond a certain point.

  19. ejh said,

    November 10, 2007 at 11:48 am

    I was partly amused and partly annoyed at Marxism 2008

    Not so much slow motion as fast forward?

    Actually now I’m in my forties, my thirties seem to me to have taken place, in comparison, in slow motion. Is that what they mean?

  20. John Green said,

    November 10, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    ejh said

    “. . . contrary to some opinions Trotskyites tend to be intelligent people with a strong capacity to think for themselves and when they disagree with something they are liable to say so.”

    Heh heh. I’d agree that they like to think they’re more intelligent than the rest of us. Certainly, from my experience, they do have a high opinion of themselves and their grasp of events, which is probably why they’re rarely backward in coming forward. But I also think that’s why so much of the rest of (what’s left of) the Left indulges in such schadenfreude when they get things wrong.

  21. ejh said,

    November 10, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Up to a point, as I say too often, but then it’s possible that if the left were not so interested in schadenfruede at one another’s expense, the term “what’s left of” might not need to be used…

  22. Korolev said,

    November 10, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    Schadenfreude is only worthwhile when the target richly deserves their Schade. I have been disagreeing with the SWP ever since I first came across them as a schoolboy in the 1970s. But they have never really annoyed me that much. So I cannot get much pleasure out of the unravelling of Respect, fascinating story though it is. But when the WRP imploded back in 1985, God! how I laughed!

  23. neprimerimye said,

    November 11, 2007 at 1:52 am

    Hey SS did I not coment to you some years ago that Cliffs China book was the most boring I had ever read? Well not to worry the point does hold.

    With regard to the early Socialist Review Group SS is correct that Cliff wrote very little other than recycled pieces on Russia, in fact the group exec in Brum complained bitterly about this, as I learned from reading an unpublished memoir by a member of the exec.

    Cliff was moreover quite inactive in building the group for some time even after his enforced sojourn in Dublin was long over. Largely because the groups perspectives were for a long haul in the Labour Party under stable conditions for capitalism. The development of the PAE theorised this perspective and deepened it. For the rest of the groups history prior to its transofrmation into the SWP theiry, not ideology, was very important in my view and did not slip around too much allowing for some improvisation on the part of the group as a whole. I’m thinking here of the never developed concept of the ‘shifting locus of reformism’.

    On the similarity of the formal structure of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP and the SWP too much is made of this. After all the former functioned in very diferent conditions and there were some famous failures as a result of their star system! Or should be forget Malinovsky, Stalin and worst of all Zinoviev! No lets scrap the star system and trust the membership to elect both the leadership and the full timers while ensuring that the latter are subjected to the local committees. That being the way the Bolsheviks functioned when legal as we know. In any case it is far more fruitful for the party to get things wrong and learn from its errors than for the leadership to get things right behind the backs of the members so to speak.

    As for the theory of state capitalism there is no question that Cliff borrowed his theory from the Johnson-Forrest Tendency of Dunayevskaja and James. Nor did he swap ideas with Ted Grant when co-opted onto the leadership of the RCP. No the truth, in my opinion, is that both Cliff and Grant were influenced by Jock Haston who had developed ideas, probably written up by Grant his office boy, as to the tendency towards capitalist statification. I hope to publish the main document in this discussion in the new year.

    Turning to the question as to when the SWP began to degenerate for me the crucial moment was the expulsion of the ISOpposition comrades around Jim Higgins and company. A momement that coincided with the start of the retreat of the workers movement and that was no accident. Despite which I think we did a lot of good work in the late 70s and on into the 1980’s but the construction of the group was by then prioritised over building the workers movement and building a workers party through that movement.

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 11, 2007 at 11:36 am

    I can of course think of worse books than Cliff on China. Mike Banda’s Whither Thornett? springs to mind, but then it has a perverse entertainment value.

  25. ejh said,

    November 11, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Whither Thornett?

    Please tell me you’re making that up.

  26. Binh said,

    November 12, 2007 at 1:15 am

    A few things:

    1.) Andy, any information you have on “life insurance” would be much appreciated, but I think the split was inevitable given the widely-divergent practice between the ISO and the increasingly-bureaucratic and opportunist/sectarian SWP. We were getting to big for their britches and they were not going to be able to do the hatchet job on us that worked in S. Korea, Zimbabwe, S. Africa, and elsewhere.

    2.) The ISO and the Blogosphere: the internet unfortunately gives undue weight to all kinds of cranks, sectarians, and armchair revolutionaries – hence the multitude of Trotskyist sites all denouncing the others for deviating from “the true way” (there’s even a Fifth International out there I think). The reason the ISO is noticeably absent from the blogosphere is because our members are all holding down jobs, going to school (sometimes both), and are full-time professional revolutionaries who are doing their best to engage in struggle and relate to people politically in the real world. That’s why they don’t have time to be on the ‘net shooting the shit.

    I’m in an odd situation because I have two jobs, work 70 hours a week, so I’m not an active member as of earlier this year. But I’ve been in the group for 7-8 years now, and the ISO has taught me the ABC to the XYZ about politics. At one of my jobs, I often have time to peruse the internet, read things, and I type quickly so, here I am.

    3) RSDLP, ISO, SWP: Full-timers in the ISO are very very small. There are members of our CC who are not full-timers (they’re not professors either). So the dynamics are a bit different from the SWP.

    Again, this is where the “pratice is more important than theory” argument that I made earlier is validated. The ISO and SWP are from the same tradition. I came of age reading Cliff, Harman, and Callinicos (I joined at 16, I’m 24 now). But how we relate to movement, to contacts, train new members, handle internal disputes, and deal with other forces on the left couldn’t be more different. The SWP’s methods speak for themselves, and I think the ISO’s do as well. As a member of a dissenting minority, I can proudly say the leadership bent over backwards to make sure my point of view got its fair time and hearing. They did the same for the Left Turn faction sponsored by the SWP CC, even after they stopped selling the paper and paying dues.

    Lastly, I think one major difference between the RSDLP structure and the ISO/SWP is the issue of slates. The ISO has inherited the slate system from the Brits, and it has served us well because it promotes political homogeneity. At the time the ISO was founded and throughout most of its existence, it helped avoid unnecessary factionalism that plagues so much of the left. However, that’s not how the Bolshies did business. The reason their CC was so dynamic is because its members were elected at party congresses as individuals, not as a slate (see Cliff’s Lenin volume 2). Lenin did not have an “April Theses” slate and Zinoviev did not have an “I’m scared shitless of proletarian insurrection in backward Russia” slate. For the October 1917 CC, Lenin received the most votes, Trotsky came in second, then Zinoviev, and Kamenev and others. Doing it this way makes sense when you’re a mass party, when you have to reflect, embrace, and intervene in a working class that is uneven in consciousness and confidence. Zinoviev and Kamenev not only represented the more conservative full-timers in the party in 1917, they also represented the more conservative layers of the working class of which the Bolshies were a crucial part. Read Rabinowitch’s book on 1917, and you’ll see speaker after speaker at the branch level saying the mood is quiet in the Petrogard factories, the masses won’t come out if we call them, etc. The reluctance to move towards insurrection was a real trend in the class and among its most revolutionary elements in the party.

    However, the ISO and the SWP are much much smaller organizations operating in a period with a hell of a lot less class struggle (duh). Thus, there is bound to be much more political homogeneity within the experience of the membership, and a slate system of electing a national leadership makes a lot of sense. The experience of building a small revolutionary Marxist group on a campus in NYC is similar to doing so in LA, or in London. In France, the Marxist left is bigger and there is more struggle, and so that means there will be more debate as an organization grapples with which way forward. In Venezuela, where the struggle is light-years ahead of the Western world, the ISO-aligned group the PRS has actually split over the question of whether or not to join Chavez’s United Socialist Party and work within it as a faction (entryism) or to retain organizational freedom and political independence from it and using the classic united front method to try to win the best elements in Chavez’s party. This is despite the fact that they have exactly the same politics.

    Anyway, I know that’s long, but I’d like to see what others think.

  27. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 12, 2007 at 10:15 am

    No, Whither Thornett? is a real book. Banda demonstrates inter alia that Alan is an opponent of the Marxist theory of cognition, which of course explains his opportunist deviations.

  28. November 12, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    On the question of full timers, from what I understand the patronage system the SWP operates continually reinforces an area/district organiser’s dependence on the CC by getting them to pursue targets issued from the centre in terms of papers sold, books sold, Marxism tickets sold, members recruited, etc. This comes at the expense of localised political work that could help a branch build up a profile and sink routes. In the SP, whereas there’s nowhere near as many full timers as there were back in the heady days of the 80s, the relationship between fulltimers and the rest of the party in the regions tend to be a lot more branch-focused rather than target-driven.

  29. ejh said,

    November 12, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Is there a Marxist theory of shooting a gnat with an elephant gun?

  30. Andy Newman said,

    November 12, 2007 at 2:16 pm


    Yes – and there are two other aspects worth mentioning. The full timers answer to the national secretary, and the targets of recruitment, tickets, sales are those that reflect the institional interests of the SWP, not of implementing the current political perspective. So sometimes the paper is saying one thing, and the party ublically is saying do this, but the full timers are saying something different, and do that.

    The other thing worth saying is that the SWP doesn’t have any quality control, so the full timers are judged on results, but the centre takes their word for it what the results are! The resulting fulltimer bullshit to the centre is partly responsible for the exagerated sense the SWP has of its own importance.

    #29 – ejh – well don’t read it then.

  31. ejh said,

    November 12, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    It is right to comment on the activities of obscure leftists at great length, but not to comment briefly on the worth of that activity….

  32. Andy Newman said,

    November 12, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    WEll if It is right to comment briefly on the worth of commenting on the activities of obscure leftists at great length, it is also right to comment briefly on the worth of commenting on the worth of commenting on the activities of obscure leftists at great length.

  33. Ray said,

    November 12, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    If the SWP is insignificant and obscure, how much more insignificant and obscure is the discussion on this blog? Your comments may be brief, ejh, but considered proportionately – you’re obsessed.

  34. ejh said,

    November 12, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Don’t be silly Ray. I comment briefly on a discussion which is notoriously lengthy, repetitive, ill-tempered and in my view unproductive. Now if that makes me obsessed, what does that make the participants?

    Try the telescope from the other end, hmm?

  35. Cian said,

    November 12, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    So what is a Marxist theory of cognition? I’m guessing Banda doesn’t mean Vygotsky, or Leon’tev. I find myself fascinated for all the wrong reasons…

  36. ejh said,

    November 12, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    I find myself thinking of Topol, for reasons that are probably not yours but which are equally wrong….

  37. neprimerimye said,

    November 12, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    With respect to binh’s point concerning the slate system of electing the leading committees of a revolutionary group I should point out that the old IS did not use that system. Just like the RSDLP and most revolutionary groups larger than a taxi party they elected individuals. The system worked well, allowed for the representation of minorities and was open to scrutiny. It was finally ended when the Cliff faction moved to expell the IS Opposition in 1975 the beginning of the end for the IS current in Britain.

    Like you Binh I read, Cliff, Harman and Callinicos while in the SWP. But I also read Higgins, Harris and Kidron. Which is why I still consider myself to stand within the IS tradition of politics. A politics I seek to relate to my practice in my union and otherwise.

  38. neprimerimye said,

    November 12, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Binh please note that I have reposted an article by Duncan Hallas on Joint Slates on my blog. It stands as a demolition of the entire Respect project.

    Curiously the comrade who runs the Hallas Internet Archive has not posted this article despite having had it for a considerable time. Given that I’ve co-operated with the comrade in question on the Hallas, Cliff and other IS related archives one cannot but wonder why this piece has not found a permanent home………

  39. Ray said,

    November 12, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    This blog is not exactly Comment is Free in terms of readers, and most of the posters seem to be posting from work.
    The SWP and RESPECT are organisations that employ, what, dozens of people? contain elected political representatives and thousands of members.
    If one is worth commenting on – briefly but frequently – then the other is probably worth a book a week.

  40. ejh said,

    November 13, 2007 at 7:53 am

    Not by any system of multiplication with which I am familiar.

  41. Binh said,

    November 13, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Someone asked the source of the Harman quote where he says the movement isn’t actually anti-capitalist. I misspoke – I read it while perusing Callinicos’ “Anti-Capitalist Manifesto,” the text of which I haven’t found on the internet because it’s probably copyrighted and they (or he) want to make some money selling it. (Funny how we’re going backwards from Communism to Anti-capitalism and at the same time selling books.)

  42. Binh said,

    November 13, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Also, I’ve read my share of Kidron and Harris, and I read some of Higgins and I have a lot of respect for them although I have my differences with them as well. Thanks for the info about the slate system coming into effect in 1975.

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