With the tea brewing and Aunt Rosemary singing “Mambo Italiano”, I turn my attention to the linked questions of autonomy and substitutionism. This is an area where the legacy of Cliff turns out to be more than a little problematic.
To take autonomy first, let us go back to the closure of Women’s Voice. This turned out to be quite a traumatic affair. It’s not just that it was controversial within the party, it was even controversial in Cliff’s family. It also turned out to be the making of a bright young fulltimer fresh out of college, one L German. Lyndzee made her reputation by acting as Cliff’s battering ram on the issue, going on a tour of the branches to ensure they all voted the right way. Branches that voted the wrong way were rewarded with a return visit.
Now, even the defenders of Women’s Voice would have said it was problematic, lacked focus and needed a serious overhaul. But basically, it fell foul of the retreat to the bunker signalled by the downturn perspective. That the move against WV wasn’t about the specific problems of WV was signalled by the fate of the SWP Gay Group, who got a lesson in Machiavellian politics when they voted in favour of closing WV, only to be closed down themselves immediately afterwards. Flame also fell by the wayside about the same time, in what precise circumstances I do not recall.
Well, that could be argued to be fair enough, in terms of the period. An experiment was made and it didn’t work out. However, then you run into Cliff’s fondness for theorising his pragmatic decisions. In practice, WV had proved to be a road out of the party; therefore, a recurrence of that sort of thing could be avoided by taking a stance against autonomous organisation. And if this was an unfortunate tendency of Cliff’s, the second rank of the leadership were much more rigid in this position. Cliff, at least, was pragmatic enough to be able to reverse his positions when he got a sniff of an opportunity.
So there was a culture that grew up of defending (in a rather abstract way) minorities’ right to self-organisation while in practice aiming the vast bulk of one’s fire against “separatism”. And we might rhetorically support the Black Sections in the Labour Party, basically to embarrass Kinnock, but there was no question of having any analogue in the SWP.
Actually, this was for a long time a small but significant underlying difference between the SWP and the ISO. Since the ISO was based in the homeland of identity politics and had seen much of the New Left disappear into Jesse’s Rainbow, you might have expected them to be even tougher on the autonomy question. In fact, while their position was formally identical to the SWP’s, the stress was very different, based on an understanding that minorities would organise themselves no matter what clever white blokes had to say on the subject.
Now we come to substitutionism. Cliff, in his occasional Hundred Flowers moods, used to like to quote Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that the mistakes of a real, living movement were worth more than the resolutions of the wisest Central Committee. You might say, would that Cliff had applied this piece of wisdom to his own practice. But then you have to set this alongside Cliff’s fondness of talking about how Lenin (the real one, not Seymour) would go over the heads of the Bolshevik CC and appeal directly to the class. It’s crucial to understanding Cliff’s self-image. Of course, this only works if you’re prepared to believe that Cliff really did have a mystical connection to the working class.
Albeit that I don’t believe the structures of the Cliff movement were ideal, given those structures there were clear advantages to having Cliff around. He was a tough taskmaster. Notwithstanding his indulgence of some notorious chancers, he usually had a keen nose for bullshit. And, despite a broad sectarian streak, he was essentially a pragmatic sectarian, quite willing to carry out dramatic u-turns (“bending the stick” in Cliffspeak) if he thought it would help build his organisation.
Now, it could be said that the Cliff movement after the departure of the Great Helmsman would lose some of Cliff’s less attractive idiosyncrasies. But it also lost his assets as well, and its real weaknesses have been harshly exposed in recent years. Most prominent among them is a Central Committee the core of which has been in office a very very long time – imagine if Gordon Brown’s cabinet was packed full of relics from the Callaghan government and you’ll get the idea. This visibly ageing leadership is not supplemented by fresh blood as it needs to be – every so often some wunderkind will be headhunted, but talent does not rise up through the ranks. Nor is there any mechanism for it to do so.
At this point we enter a chicken-and-egg discussion, but it can scarcely be gainsaid that the permanent leadership does not really trust the membership, at least not to the point of allowing them the latitude to make their own mistakes and learn from doing. And this is reinforced by a tendency to circulate in a rather small, incestuous world. Not to mention they guard their positions jealously – power in a small sect may not seem like much, but it can become addictive in a way that Alex Callinicos’ ancestor Lord Acton would have recognised. And so the CC sets itself up as the font of wisdom, and the poor membership are reduced to being little more than a stage army. Which can have some romantic appeal if you fancy being a sailor in a re-enactment of Battleship Potemkin, but scarcely makes for the sophisticated and assertive cadre that (as Harman underlined in Party and Class) would be necessary to hold the leadership to account.
Now, this has definite political consequences. If you, as a would-be revolutionary leadership, have contempt for your own members, then contempt for the class as a whole cannot be far behind. The result is an almost inevitable political sectarianism.
This is why I think the “Russian dolls” analogy used in Respect, although it describes something real, is not quite right. Maybe it’s better to start with Rees’ assertion that Respect was too important to be allowed to fail. If you’re building a broad party – and I leave open whether that’s what you want to do in the first place – the Marxist left has to consciously minoritise itself, and accept that things are going to happen that it doesn’t agree with. When you’ve got a multi-ethnic formation to handle, you also need some sensitivity on issues of self-determination and autonomy.
Now let’s say that the leadership treats its own cadre as a stage army. In this scenario, the members of a broad front are yet another rung down – a stooge army, perhaps? Since the front is too important to allow mistakes to be made, there will be a strong temptation to use your organisational muscle to make sure everything goes the right way. The trouble is, that makes people outside the magic circle feel excluded. It’s particularly difficult if you’ve a lot of militant Asian youth with energy to burn and who are up for a political discussion, if they get nothing to do except leaflet drops and barbecues while the clever white blokes make the decisions.
Not that I’m lauding spontaneity for the sake of spontaneity, you understand. If you leave politically raw youth to their own devices, they are sure to make mistakes. But I think it’s a sign of political maturity to allow them the space to make mistakes, to have faith that they’re capable of reflecting on what they’ve done and learning lessons, and above all for a tendency with very few concrete achievements to its name to have a sense of modesty about itself. That may mean that some middle-aged white blokes have to take a back seat, but it’s not like the rest wouldn’t do them some good.