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.