Get out of Denver while you can

michelle_marsh_dominatrix_1.jpg

I’ll return to Koštunica presently, but here’s a question: why does the Socialist Workers Party remind me of Yugoslavia in the early 1980s?

It’s all a problem, you see, of managing succession. This is especially hairy when you have the regime’s founder, who built the regime in his own image, still hanging around at an advanced age and with no heir apparent.

I was thinking about this in terms of the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, which was perhaps not Edvard Kardelj’s best idea. Under the ’74 dispensation, the centre was massively weakened to the benefit of the republics and (to a lesser though still considerable extent) the Socialist Autonomous Provinces. Evidence of this was that the more powerful bit of the federal legislature was the upper house, the Chamber of Republics and Provinces, where unanimity among the regional delegations was required and so nothing controversial could get passed. The lower house’s utter powerlessness was demonstrated by the fact that it was actually allowed to decide things by majority vote, because nothing it decided mattered. And as in the state structure, so too in the League of Communists, with the regional bureaucracies becoming basically self-standing.

This was only workable as long as Tito was still around to act as arbiter of last resort. But by the time Tito died in 1980, the grand old man was almost ninety and so all of his longstanding kitchen cabinet were either dead or dying. There was nobody left with the authority to fill the gap. And so the poor Yugoslavs were landed with a toothless “collective presidency” of eight anonymous regional pen-pushers with a rotating chair. And so anonymous were these pen-pushers that it became a staple of Yugoslav humour, when the collective presidency appeared on TV, to wonder aloud just who these numpties, the collective head of state, were.

Slobo put a bomb under that, of course. This is not because of Slobo’s unique malevolence – although he was a definite no goodnik, I’ve never bought the popular image of him as a Bond villain stroking a white cat – but simply because he was the first Yugoslav politician to act as if Tito was dead.

Now we come to the problems besetting the SWP. Cliff was always an awkward bugger of course, and I firmly believe he had lost touch with reality in later years. But the party at its best was much more than Cliff, and you have to ask yourself what happened to the extraordinarily talented leadership that IS had in the early to mid ’70s, when the group was at the peak of its influence. The answer is, of course, that most of those guys are now dead or expelled or both, and the few who remain in the SWP – with the sole exception of Renaissance Man Chris Harman – are long since departed from central leadership roles.

What you have instead is a leadership the core of which was formed in the 1980s, and has been remarkably stable since. They are a group of people with talent, I’m not denying that, but there are factors militating against them apart from just being too long in office. There is, for example, to my knowledge no member of the Central Committee who has ever been in the Labour Party. (Chris Harman might possibly have been in the LPYS forty years ago, but that doesn’t count.) That’s a big disability, especially in the electoral field and when it comes to dealing with rough-and-tumble local council politics. Secondly, although the party contains some fine trade union militants, these are not represented at the centre. I’m scratching around for someone with a solid union background on the CC, and can’t think of one. Certainly, industrial organiser Charlie Kimber has never been a union militant in his life – for all the insight Charlie brings to the subject, they may as well have appointed classic computer game Simon Says. Finally, there are far too many people on the CC who became party fulltimers straight out of college and who have never actually held down a real job. The problem is common in the British political class, but in a revolutionary group…

Anyway, that’s enough about composition. There’s another point here where the Yugoslav analogy is more appropriate. That is that the post-Cliff “collegiate leadership”, which some comrades hoped would be an improvement on one-man management, is better described as a federal leadership. The various party tops all have their own bailiwicks, and exercise feudal authority within them.

Renaissance Chris, for instance, runs the ISJ, where he has quietly surrounded himself with co-thinkers. Commander Begbie edits Socialist Worker. Martin “Bebop Tango” Smith has authority over the organisers, and moreover gets to hector address the comrades every week via Party Notes. Martin’s partner, resident glamourpuss Judith Orr, edits Socialist Review as well as running Bookmarks, the party’s only really successful venture. My old friend Prof Callinicos, meanwhile, is charged with administering the colonies. This he does in fine old Rhodesian style, perhaps explaining why the SWP’s international empire is a lot smaller than it used to be.

This is what’s known as a balance of forces, where nobody has the strength to achieve real hegemony. But that doesn’t explain the pre-eminence in recent years of that cuckoo in the nest Kim Jong Rees, who actually has shown the initiative in realising that this is a post-Cliff era. Yes, John and Lindsey may have established themselves as the “power couple”, but their actual base is remarkably narrow. And narrowing by the day, with their credibility being so much bound up with Respect. Perhaps, to turn the problem on its head, it’s simply that none of the other CC barons has the strength to move against them unilaterally. It would really require a combination of forces.

This is, by the way, getting to be an urgent question for anyone in the SWP who thinks the group should be more than a shrivelled sub-Healyite sect. For myself, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Rees was a high-functioning sociopath. This explains why those who know him best tend to like him least. He can be utterly charming if he’s trying to cultivate you, then cut you dead in an instant if he thinks you’ve slighted him or his importance as Great Revolutionary Leader. This is why he’s proved good at putting coalitions together, and absolutely rotten at sustaining them. If you have a situation where the national secretary of Respect, whose job should involve maintaining effective relationships, won’t speak to George Galloway or Salma Yaqoob (which was the case for quite some time before George’s letter), then it’s obvious that something is very very wrong.

The trouble with the SWP CC, as I see it, is that they have been together so long that it’s second nature to them to act as a cosy clique. Even those who don’t like Rees will instinctively get his back against the outside world, and convince themselves they’re defending The Revolutionary Party. And yet, it surely must have occurred to one or two of them that the SWP is shrinking rapidly, its flagship paper’s circulation is in the doldrums, they have no allies, they have no money, the organisation’s reputation is rapidly disappearing down the dunny, and both events in Scotland and the dodgy Dubai cheque are likely to see things getting a lot worse. If Rees was working in an actual business, or even a relatively efficient part of the public sector, he would have been sacked long ago.

I am told, by the way, that Bookmarks is soon to publish a pamphlet on “Strategy and Tactics” by one J Rees. I refuse to believe that Bookmarks would court ridicule by doing such a thing. It would be as absurd as, say, Ireland invading Chad. Oh, hold on…

22 Comments

  1. parodycenter said,

    February 23, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    the centre was massively weakened to the benefit of the republics and (to a lesser though still considerable extent) the Socialist Autonomous Provinces.

    Double bind of the century: Socialist Autonomous Provinces (a province that is NEVERTHELESS autonomous) In more conventional lingo, this is usually called a REPUBLIC

    If you cast an even cursory glance at Edvard Kardelj’s writings, some of which I could dig up links to on the internet if you’re interested, you will see that his every second or third double-bind was something Serbophobic and mentioning the grave danger of ”Serbian aggression”. Noone up to now has managed to explain in which particular way Serbs were being aggressive towards the other republics and ”autonomous socialist provinces”, but the end result of the incessant propaganda about Serbian aggression is that few people noticed the Slovenian and Croatian backtrack in ”Eurovision” games with Nazism and Fascism. I have no problem with anyone calling Serbs aggressive as long as they don’t forget to mention that Serbia STOOD UP against imperial aqressors of all shapes and colors, all throughout its history, which would be a very strong argument against the idea that Serbia had any imperial ambitions towards the other constituent elements. Simultaneously, given their less than envious histories, one could easily suspect that Slovenia and Croatia DID have imperial ambitions, and remained very frustrated that they were never able to take the chair of their masters, like Austro-Hungaria or the European Union.
    Still we could have dealt with all this, we have the expertise AND the power. The Serbian problem were the endlessly corrupt Serbian Communists, who allowed Tito and Kardelj to engage in scheming deals with the West – it is not for no reason that our emblem contains the words ONLY UNITY SAVES THE SERB (Samo sloga Srbina spasava). Those were only really into their Swiss bank accounts, not the fate of Serbia.

  2. Johnny said,

    February 23, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    I must say, I was really shocked to learn this week that the ‘revolutionary comedian’ Mark Steel had left the flock. Now anything is possible. Wonder what odds you’d get in the bookies on Eamonn McCann jumping ship on this side of the water?

  3. margo said,

    February 23, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    I can’t speak for McCann, but for certain he is a different proposition to Mark Steel. Steel has had no influence on the direction of the SWP, and it has been some time since he was systematically involved in anything to do with the SWP.

  4. mickhall said,

    February 23, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    “There is, for example, to my knowledge no member of the Central Committee who has ever been in the Labour Party. (Chris Harman might possibly have been in the LPYS forty years ago, but that doesn’t count.) That’s a big disability, especially in the electoral field and when it comes to dealing with rough-and-tumble local council politics. Secondly, although the party contains some fine trade union militants, these are not represented at the centre.”

    This is not only the major flaw with the SWP, but much of the non LP left, who exist in a cocoon of like minded people where the differences are mainly based on personality clashes or protecting ones back in the manner of all good labour movement bureaucrats.

  5. johng said,

    February 24, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    “This is not only the major flaw with the SWP, but much of the non LP left, who exist in a cocoon of like minded people where the differences are mainly based on personality clashes or protecting ones back in the manner of all good labour movement bureaucrats”

    ….and not a flaw with the Labour Party left?

  6. yourcousin said,

    February 24, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    What’s up with the title of this piece?

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 24, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    It’s a Chuck Berry number IIRC.

    Based on my acquaintance with Eamonn, and knowledge of his relationship with the centre, I’d be very surprised if he jumped ship. He’s just too comfortable where he is.

    Mark is a slightly different kettle of fish. True, he’s never cut much ice in the formal structures of the party. On the other hand, he has been one of the party’s most high-profile members, an articulate representative and was a personal favourite of Cliff.

    Parodycentrum, I take your point. And there’s another important point – what did autonomy actually mean in a one-party state?

  8. parodycenter said,

    February 24, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    what did autonomy actually mean in a one-party state?

    Precisely! And to extend this to the UN, which is an extension of self-management as I’m sure you realize, what does the right to self-determination mean in a totalitarian world run by the EuroAtlantic Empire?

  9. margo said,

    February 24, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    On the other hand, he has been one of the party’s most high-profile members, an articulate representative and was a personal favourite of Cliff.

    In much the same way that ‘Dad’s Army’ was also a favourite – flawed but funny on a Sunday night

  10. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 24, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    There is, for example, to my knowledge no member of the Central Committee who has ever been in the Labour Party. (Chris Harman might possibly have been in the LPYS forty years ago, but that doesn’t count.) That’s a big disability, especially in the electoral field and when it comes to dealing with rough-and-tumble local council politics.

    A very good point.

  11. Doug said,

    February 25, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I love the way SWP hacks are sneeringly dismissive of Mark Steel – now. a man who is a pretty good fairly high profile rep of the Party. A socialist with a wicked sense of humour, not someone to endeer himself to the usual po-faced hacks on the Far Left. Mind you, I can see why he finally left – too much competition. Just take the CC -the laughs they’ve given us over the last few months..

  12. Doug said,

    February 25, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I love the way SWP hacks are sneeringly dismissive of Mark Steel – now. How pathetic – the man who pulled off the impossible, giving the SWP a human face. No wonder he left – too much competition, the laughs the CC has been giving us over the last few months.

  13. margo said,

    February 25, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Don’t misunderstand me Doug, Mark is a loss. I have always enjoyed his contribution, even if I don’t always agree with him.

    Simply, although as an outsider you might not agree, McCann and Steel are not equals in terms of their importance and influence. And as I hinted before the nature of their activity has also taken a different path. I hope that is not sneering.

  14. Binh said,

    February 26, 2008 at 1:51 am

    So are you saying eventually the fiefdoms will go to war and split up like Yugoslavia?

    If so, I’d like to see Professor Callinicos try to run his colonies without his home “country.”

  15. Dawg said,

    February 26, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I know for a fact M. Smith has been a member of the Labour Party, as a correction to the initial article.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 26, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Has he indeed? He never told me that. It must have been a very long time ago.

  17. Darren said,

    February 26, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    What Doug said.

    The way the SWP centre moved bureaucratically against Steel – “where’s your dues, comrade?” – because he penned a critical piece for the Internal Bulletin spoke volumes, imho.

  18. Dave said,

    February 26, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    A seventies rocker writes:

    Get Out of Denver is certainly in the style of Chuck Berry. It was, however, written and recorded by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, and best known in Britain for the Eddie and the Hot Rods cover version.

  19. redegalitarian said,

    February 27, 2008 at 2:57 am

    why do you call Harman the “renaissance man”?

  20. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 27, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Bob Seger, yes, that would make sense. Haven’t heard it in years, and associated it with the Berry style.

    Harman is the renaissance man because he’s the expert on everything. You want an instant opinion on the most obscure subject, go to Harman. After all, he wrote the history of the world.

  21. BatterseaPowerStation said,

    February 29, 2008 at 5:09 am

    Yes, it was the second worst book on the history of the world in world history…

    Martin Smith, ex-Labour Party, no way – name the branch and year!

    CC and Yugoslav paralles; again, ask about the money, it will soon become quite a sensitive area…

  22. Mike said,

    March 3, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Sure the ‘leading members’ of the SWP run it as a series of interconnected fiefdoms. But they share a common base and that is crucial as the group is simply too small for the various leaders to develop their own bases from separate campaigns.

    Moreover poor Harman has had to allow his publication to publish some abominable tosh in order to justify the idiotic electoralist turn that has culminated in Reespect. For example Joseph Choonara dumb ass article on the United Front as a strategy and not as a tactic. The point being that the United Front is a tactical method of approaching reformist and nonpolitical workers in a fight for common goals.


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