Further teasing out the implications of the Renewal project, I just want to ponder briefly on a question Andy had raised a little while back: that of truth and reconciliation.
This becomes quite important because, as Andy points out, some of those sharply criticising the current practice of the SWP had themselves been involved in these practices previously. Indeed, Dave Renton, someone I respect a great deal, has given this as one of his major reasons for taking the SWP side in the dispute.
Without wanting to rake over old disputes unnecessarily, I don’t think it’s a tenable proposition to say that we should, in Mr Tony Blair’s phrase, draw a line under the past and move on. There are too many bad memories, too many grudges – many of them quite justified – poisoning relations between people who could work together. I think this places a responsibility on people involved in Renewal, who are trying to build something better.
The point is that people can and do change. My mind goes back to 1985 and the collapse of the WRP. There was a genuine transformation on the part of many – of course not all – Healyites as they came to look at the shipwreck of their movement, and ponder what they had done. Even someone like Mike Banda – the thug’s thug, Gerry’s enforcer for thirty years – could do quite a searching self-criticism. And a lot of these guys were never the same again.
Now I’m not remotely suggesting that Renewal should institute a Maoist-style regime of “speaking bitterness” and compulsory self-flagellation. Far from it: it’s just a question of demonstrating practically that the bad old habits are being outgrown.
I think that in the first instance the victims of today should be thinking about building bridges with the victims of yesterday. I think of Steve Godward, a fine trade unionist who got fucked over by the machine for being too independent-minded and too popular for his own good. There are people – they know who they are – who owe Steve an apology. I think of Anna Chen, one of the best press officers the British left has had, getting fucked over by Rees for being too good at her job. An apology from the Rees camarilla is probably out of the question, but there are people out there who Anna helped and who didn’t stand by her when she could have done with the support. In these and many other cases, it’s my humble opinion that some modest gestures – and maybe private gestures would be more meaningful than public ones – would go an awful long way to building trust.
So much for reconciliation, where does truth come in? Simply that it’s important to realise that the behaviour of the SWP leadership is not just a question of them getting things badly wrong over Respect, on a whole number of levels. Rather, we are talking about a process of gradual degeneration going back thirty or so years. If the SWP is doing what Duncan Hallas warned against in the 1970s and becoming a kind of state capitalist WRP, that’s just the end of a long road.
What is needed here is to show that people can reflect on their experiences and draw meaningful lessons from them. This could actually be a valuable learning experience for a lot of people. I would love to see a serious article on the decline of the SWP from someone like Rob Hoveman – not that I’m particularly singling out Rob, but he just comes to mind as someone with the intelligence, insider experience and ability to produce something really good and insightful.
Truth and reconciliation? If handled correctly, yes, it could improve matters no end.