The print industry and Trotskyist accumulation

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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.

24 Comments

  1. andy newman said,

    December 3, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    The sale of the printshop certainly realised far less than it could have done becasue they did so before the Olympics led boom in property prices.

    But I have also heard from two seperate sources that they had a big windfall from a legacy of an American comrade who had made his will in favour f the SWP when he lived in London. I am told that i) the sum was substantial; and ii) this was a contributary (if not causal) tension behind the blow up in relations between the ISO and SWP (remember the caustic questioning from the ISO on where funds from the IST actually went)

  2. margo said,

    December 3, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    There is no mystery really. Out of one building into another.

  3. Mark P said,

    December 3, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Into what building precisely Margo?

    My understanding is that the SWP no longer have a printshop capable of producing either their own regular publications or undertaking the kind of commercial work it once did. It certainly still has some printing equipment, but the printshop is for all intents and purposes gone.

    On the more general point, an obsession with building the apparatus was a particular hallmark of the Healyites. It’s worth noting that even the tiny remnants of the WRP (newsline) still produce a nearly daily paper. While the Northite splinter has all but wound itself up in the real world in favour of producing probably the fanciest website on the far left. Both decisions seem to me to be very odd but at least the Northite SEP’s website can be read by larger numbers than the WRP (newsline) daily paper. They can produce the latter but they can’t distribute it meaningfully.

  4. andy newman said,

    December 3, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    I ama not sure whether margo’s reply “There is no mystery really. Out of one building into another.”

    as a direct response to my question: “remember the caustic questioning from the ISO on where funds from the IST actually went)”

    If so that would be an unbeleivavble scandal as the funds were rasied for the development of sister groups in South Africa, and elsewhere.

  5. margo said,

    December 3, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    Behave Andy – always looking for scandal eh? You are the only one gossiping here.

    I simply mean that the organisation has left one building behind, and moved to another one suited to the needs of the organisation.

    Quite boring really.

  6. Lobby Ludd said,

    December 3, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    But what about the printshop as a functioning enterprise, Margo? Does the SWP have one or not?

  7. andy newman said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:59 am

    Margo

    But it would be true that they sold the old premises before the (entirely predicted) boom in property prices?

    And it is also true that they closed the print shop.

    At the time this was done I asked not only why they couldn’t make a go of it (splinty points out they had an advantage in low wages) given that they had a track record with big contracts like Private Eye and Morning Star, they could have got a loan for new equipment. Other commercial print frims have survived the new technology. (and the press for the SEP in the USA is booming by all accounts)

    But there was also the nature of the decision making process. A previously successful and profitable print firm closes down. The CC announces the decision to the NC for approval, after the decision has already been made, There was no debate in the party itself.

    Surely there were some reasonable questions about what the alternative options were. Why not get a commercial loan for new kit, and raise £500000 through a broad labour movement appeal to keep the press open? Why the hurry making the decision?

    Your economical “we moved from one building into another” tells us nothing does it.

  8. December 4, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Some comrades from my branch are getting into this entrepreneurial lark. We will be selling revolutionary t-shirts at the campaign against climate change demo this Saturday – we do Che, Lenin, and red star designs. If you see us, stop by and buy!

  9. Mick Hall said,

    December 4, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Phil

    What with the weather forecast for the weekend it looks like you might be in need of a bit of climate change, especially if you have to model those excellent T-shirts.

  10. margo said,

    December 4, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    The thing is Andy I don’t have to give you any detail do I?

    But since you asked, check out the extent to which Londoners have bailed out Newsfax International in their relocation move. We are talking about millions of pounds. The costs of rekitting a new printshop are actually prohibative. Who wants to be in hoc to the banks?

    Low wages features across the industry except for a few printers, so that has no
    real influence here.

    The building was sold in a rising market, but the new building needed to be purchased in the same market, deh.

    Anyway I am sure it was a hard decision with pluses on both sides.

  11. December 4, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Mick. We Stokies are used to doing stalls in cack weather, so a bit of wind and rain won’t be a problem for us. Btw if anyone sees two would-be Delboys flogging t-shirts, come up and say hi 🙂

  12. andy newman said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    But Margo,

    The issue here is not so much whether the decision was correct, as the process by which such an importnat decision did not involve membership consultation.

    And the buying and selling in the same market issue is only true if the Olympics property price boom was uniformly distributed, which it wasn’t.

  13. margo said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    You don’t like the decision making of the SWP fullstop. But criticising it for being what it is will get you nowhere, except for having another moan.
    Anon.

  14. Chris Bertram said,

    December 5, 2007 at 10:06 am

    My guess is that 1 full-timer per 10-15 rank-and-file members is about right, assuming that you can come close to enforcing a 10% tax on the membership (which was the old IMG norm) and assuming that you can have a proportion of the full-timers sign on as unemployed and have their incomes subsidised by the state (perhaps easier in the 1970s than today.) Given their membership in the early 80s, Militant’s apparatus looks to have been sustainable, the SWP today look on the edge.

  15. andy newman said,

    December 5, 2007 at 10:44 am

    It may be financially sustainable, but it is politically damaging as it provides an inbuilt institutional inetrtia, and also a grossly inflated sense of the groups real social weight.

    All those mouths to feed is bound to increase pressure for the short term goals of servicing recruitment, sales and fund-raising over the harder and more long term task of building relationships and developing well rooted militants.

  16. TLC said,

    December 5, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    “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.”

    I think you are wrong here. The reality is that the SWP put very little financial resources into Respect except for paying for John Rees wages – but since he was working principally for the SWP that’s fair enough. They did put lots into the Socialist Alliance and I think they decided never again. In the North West during the Euro elections the SWP paid around £1000 to get UAF posters and leaflets printed for an anti-BNP festival but refused to make even a one penny collective donation (from SWP funds – rather than SWP members) to the Respect campaign.

    I’m afraid we’ll have to look elsewhere for explanations as to the retrenchment.

  17. December 5, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    the maoist KPD/AO in Germany had around 500-600 full-timers in the mid-seventies while it had only 1.000 members (criteria for membership where relatively hard) and probably somewhere between 3.000 and 5.000 members in its different front organization … the KPD/AO was probably among the richest of the far left groups of the 70ies, mainly due to some members from a posh background, who gave their whole inheritance to the party

  18. Binh said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    a big windfall from a legacy of an American comrade who had made his will in favour f the SWP when he lived in London. I am told that i) the sum was substantial; and ii) this was a contributary (if not causal) tension behind the blow up in relations between the ISO and SWP (remember the caustic questioning from the ISO on where funds from the IST actually went)

    My understanding is that this happened after he (I know his name) was expelled from the ISO, not before. I’m guessing this is the life insurance policy you were referring to in a much earlier post Andy?

    The point of raising the question of where the IST money went was to put the SWP CC on the spot about the results of their “brilliant” leadership in the Tendency.

  19. Ray said,

    December 5, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    What I’m curious about is, if the SWP internal bulletins around the RESPECT split were so widely available, why is everyone reduced to guesswork about the party accounts? Are they more secret?

  20. andy newman said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    oh yes

  21. December 7, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    btw … one function of the parties’ printshops of the pro-soviet CPs like the Danish, Austrian or German CP in the 1970ies and 1980ies was, to provide former full-timers with a job, when they were not bearable anymore e.g. as a regional or local party secretary for “non-political reasons” (often alcoholism or similar stuff)

  22. Cork Oscar said,

    December 7, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    A historical anecdote about the Healyite press from the early days [circa1950s/early 1960s] . I remember Bob Pennington telling me in the 1970s about a “printing contract ” that the Healites won. The Wimbledon tennis tounament was coming up and the regular printers were on strike. Cometh the hour! Cometh the man! Gerry Healy won the contract to produce the tournament programme. The strike breaking was justified by the argument that building the party was the central object of socialists. Brian Behan, who was a member at the time, was strongly opposed to these antics. His objections were dismissed by the others as a “syndicalist deviation”.

  23. Binh said,

    December 10, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Oh, and let me take this opportunity (better late than never) to shamelessly plug http://www.haymarketbooks.org for all your X-mas shopping needs. There are some great new titles out, including Dahr’s Jamail’s “Beyond the Green Zone” and “Sin Patron” about the Agentinian factory occupations written by Naomi Klein.

    Also, if you go to http://www.socialistworker.org and use the Amazon.com search bar thing, a portion of what you buy using the search portal goes to the U.S. ISO. So even if you have to buy your relatives Ayn Rand, you can offset your sin (a little bit) by buying it through Socialist Worker and contributing to the ISO.

  24. Phil said,

    December 10, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    “Sin Patron”

    But that’s enough about Aleister Crowley. Or indeed Gerry Healy.


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