There was an interesting discussion on Radio Galloway the other night about the dodgy Labour donations scandal, and in particular the brave (some might say foolhardy) call from Liberal Democrat MP and friend of the Cheeky Girls Lembit Öpik for state funding of political parties. In this matter I agree with George that if a party can’t finance itself through membership subs then it doesn’t deserve a subsidy from the taxpayer. There’s also the aspect of the Labour and Tory parties, despite a precipitous decline in membership, running a vastly over-inflated arms race in election spending – hence the increasing reliance on US-style corporate donations, with the inevitable potential for scandal.
This also points to the interesting tradition on the left of Marxist entrepreneurialism, something I’ve touched on to some degree before. The key in this is the printshop. Traditionally, the organisation will acquire printing equipment for its own publications. But, having a printshop staffed by party members on well below union rates would make a left printshop able to offer attractive quotes, and thus attract commercial contracts that could subsidise the party. This would then be used to build up the party apparatus, according to the well-known tenet of miniaturised Leninism that says a bigger apparatus means a bigger and brighter future for the party.
Historically, the great example of the cash-rich sect was the American SWP under Jack Barnes. During the 1970s, the US SWP got very wealthy, partly through young members from monied backgrounds coming into inheritances, but mainly through its publishing arm. Pathfinder got to be quite a money-spinner, thanks to producing not only the works of Trotsky, which every university library worth its salt would but, but also crowd-pleasing tomes by Che Guevara and Malcolm X. Not to mention the added benefit from scoring Cuban government printing business.
And this money was, of course, ploughed into building up the fulltime apparatus. At one point in the late 1970s there were something like 250 fulltime staff on the US SWP payroll, which for a movement that counted only around 1500 members in the adult party and perhaps another thousand in the YSA, was positively extravagant. This was justified by a scenario of massive growth in the near future – which is why George Novack boasted of having an apparatus that could cater to a party of 100,000 – but, when that failed to materialise, this mini-bureaucracy came to be a problem in itself. It would be a crude generalisation to give this as the reason for the rise of Barnesism, but the apparat did provide Jack with a material basis for the way he took the party.
In Britain the trailblazer in this, as in so much else, was the indefatigable Gerry Healy. It was often said, perhaps apocryphally, of the Healy-Lawrence split in 1953 that Lawrence had more votes but Healy still won by virtue of having more shares in the Socialist Outlook publishing company. What’s certainly true is that Gerry managed to acquire swish new equipment courtesy of capital from the Banda brothers, which paved the way for the future financial health of the Healy movement, not to mention Gerry’s commercial ventures in printing Gaddafi’s Green Book and glossy brochures extolling the glories of Saddam’s Iraq.
So it was, too, with Militant. Ted and Peter also acquired a printshop, and thus were able to build up an enormous apparatus, which in the tendency’s entrist heyday of the 1980s numbered some 200 fulltimers, famously more than the Labour Party itself.
Which brings me to the Swops, who quixotically offloaded their printshop in 2004, citing its commercial unviability. This was puzzling on a number of levels – the number of long-term contracts held by the party should have provided a steady if modest stream of income, and if the equipment needed upgrading (which was true) then finance could easily have been secured for that. Moreover, the printshop had also provided the necessary financial underpinnings for a bloated apparatus of around 100 fulltimers, bloated not least because it provided social employment for the drinking partners, children and fuck buddies of senior cadre. I’ll grant that the apparatus needed some very serious pruning, but selling off the printshop looked to me very like selling off the family silver.
SWP financial reports are notoriously opaque, but this very likely had something to do with a black hole caused by declining subs revenue and the very high expenses connected with electioneering via Respect. Of the £2m or thereabouts realised by liquidating this big chunk of capital, it’s impossible to know what’s left – but living off your capital isn’t generally considered a very clever strategy. I may be wrong, but I suggest that this might be a material factor pushing the SWP towards a propagandist retrenchment, at least once honour is satisfied and the white elephant of REESpect can be wound down.