You will hurt your foot

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.


  1. Briz Blogger said,

    April 21, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Excellent article, which prompts the burning question: has Lyndzee ever had a PROPER job?

  2. Anon said,

    April 21, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I think that a great deal of trouble stems from the self-perpetuating nature of the CC’s structure. Without a charismatic leading personality, any organisation elected by self-proposed slate is bound to stagnate both democratically and dynamically. No single CC member has the personal legitimacy to openly criticise the internal party organisation or leaders (by implication, the CC’s entire slate) without jeopardising their position. Equally, all criticism of Party policy at conference can be quickly and easily morphed into a criticism of the CC and personalised thusly.

    I commented a few weeks ago to a friend of mine that the SWP’s internal structure actually resembles an ideal fascist mode of organisation. Regionally there is a complete contempt for any attempt to formalise Party processes. Branch meetings, aggregates and essentially any discussion on internal organisation and structure are placed well down the list on the priorities the Office lists to its organisers – far above is ‘action’, ‘sales’, ‘Respect’, ad infinitum. If a vote or an alternative platform was to be created, members would have to firstly work out how to organise branch meetings in many cases completely against the wishes of their local organisers (there’s so much more ‘real’ stuff to be getting on with after all) publicise themselves internally at the risk of personal ostracism in the Party’s official organs and most likely complete anathaematisation from them top and all without any existing structures through which to conduct this activity.

    Members rise through the ranks of the Party hierarchy without any concrete education in theory or history. The processes of Party democracy are never explained in more than linear detail to any members (after all, does ANYBODY even know how that all works anymore?) and members are left to their own devices in terms of coming up with views and activity deemed ‘acceptable’ to the top. Favourites are appointed positions in the Office regardless of their standing in their own ‘Branches’ or of their references from fellow members, and in particular local Branches have almost no say over the appointment of their organisers.

    All of this is embedded in a culture which severely scolds any personal deviation from the established ‘line’. You’re free to criticise the SWP as a member, just so long as you are willing to be excluded from Party discussion and are happy with the prospect that your membership will never mean anything more than selling papers from then on. Otherwise, you’re not in luck mate.

  3. Doug said,

    April 21, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    The low level of Party education and limited knowledge of Marxism is a symptom of a deeper malaise – the fact that the SWP is not a dynamic organisation underpinned by class politics but a self-perpetuating clique i.e. the cc, plus a largely supine membership. The veering between crass opportunism and ultra-left posturing merely reflects this. In any half -decent revolutionary organisation Rees actions would have been met with expulsion but as he’s part of the clique they close ranks and weather the non-existent storm from the robotic membership. The Jane Loftus situation really hits home how much they’ve degenerated.

  4. Andy newman said,

    April 21, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    The interesting question that anon raises is that comrades CAN criticise, but only at the cost of internal exile, which is of course the strategy that many old lags take of just getting on with their own little political activity, and seeking not to engage with the party beyond the minimum.

  5. Garibaldy said,

    April 21, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    I wonder how far thi situation evolved because of the nature of the membership. I don’t know if it’s true to say (as one often hears) that the average member of the SWP lasts six months before leaving, but I think it’s fair to say that the turnover must be fairly high. So given that this is the case, is it not inevitable that a leadership emerges that sees itself as the ‘true’ SWP because it has been involved over a long period of time, and that it is only right that it – and a (slightly?) larger cadre of members – take the decisions that affect the party as most of the membership will be gone in say two years’ time? That seems to me to be the crux of the issue. The very nature of the SWP, of its recruitment practices and areas of strength, and perhaps of its politics and the focus on the short-term, seem to me to make a permanent leadership unresponsive to the membership inevitable.

  6. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 21, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Garibaldy, re membership, take the WP. IIRC membership churn was low right through the 1980s and into the 1990s. I can’t say about prior to that. But that adds to political cohesiveness and ability. Mind you, it can also lead to a certain stratification (and I also think about what splintered says about giving young people space to make mistakes). I think the dynamic you describe is v. important re a permanent centre and a fractious eager periphery that continually flakes away…

  7. Anon said,

    April 21, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Rather than saying an average member lasts 6 months, I think it’s more accurate to say that proper members often last a long time. The vast bulk of SWP recruits, however, simply never materialise on the scene… more often than not without attending a single SWP event (in my experience). People often have little idea of what they are putting their name to, and if the Party’s lucky they’ll sign up on direct-debit anyway and pay subs for an indefinite number of years without ever speaking to a single comrade. Many student members drop out of activity after university is over (predictably) and there are a small (but significant) portion who are wooed by other left groups.

    wrt the culture of leadership at the top end, I don’t believe attitudes are so much ingrained by a sense of ‘eliteness’ so much as individual political shrewdness. Formal Party structures are not encouraged not because members are not trusted comrades (resistance to organising branch meetings over mindless activity happens in areas with well-established and long-term membership as much as anywhere else, in my experience) but simply because they make diktat more difficult to enforce; it impedes the ability of the Party to act with a historically impaired memory and switch line at whim.

    More than anything I think that the problem lies with the fact that the ability of the membership to act autonomously is seen as completely unnecessary, when the embodiment of proletarian consciousness and leninist theoretical legacy is already present in the CC. As the CC’s structure makes it impossible for it to concede any serious fault in tactics as a product of it’s own negligence or incompetence. When mistakes are made, they are simply swept under the rug – the collective memory of the Party footsoldiers is erased – and a new line is adopted at command. Silly little branch meetings and internal forums don’t help to progress the next best revolutionary activity; all they do is completely unnecessarily provide the means by which members can organise and disobey. Disobey! Can you imagine, when all proletarian will and consciousness is already represented by the CC!? Waste of time.

    I do also believe that this perspective is not simply the result of cynical political manouvreing, but also a genuine incomprehension of the need for members to be able to express dissent. I’ve heard members of the CC personally comment upon the quaint naiveties of some less hackish members, sincerely referring to them in terms of patronising endearment;- explaining to those disbelieving Swappies around them, jaws ajar in suspended incredulitude, the bizarre views of these dissenting comrades, clarifying though that ‘it is their right’ to express these views, after all. Just incase we weren’t aware…

    The SWP is no longer a revolutionary organisation, and therein lies the true problem. It is now simply a hollow shell around which SOME revolutionaries do their business. There are no long-term strategic goals for the revolution, nor analysis as to how our present activities are contributing towards one. The Party has become an organ which does nothing but perpetuate its own tortured existence, the attitude and perspective of those close to its heart in the CC and bureucracy represent that.

  8. Andy newman said,

    April 21, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    I laregly agree with anon – though when the SWP did have regular branch meetings, and weekly meetings of elected branch committees that reported back to the branches, the situation was not really very different, becasue everythig would still spin on a sixpence once Cliff had a new wheeze, and there was the same culture of anathamisation of dissenters (people who are “difficlut” or “oppositionist) .

    But in terms of the perpetuation of the party’s own existence, i would say – follow the money. The financial structure of the party involves an inner core of financial trustees who are even more of an inner circle than the CC. And the increasing age of this inner circle is an interesting aspect.

  9. anglonoel said,

    April 22, 2008 at 7:35 am

    I remember reading in John Callaghan’s “The Far Left in British Politics” (published in 1987) that the IS (as was) had an annual membership turnover of c.48% in 1974. I should imagine the percentage increased over the years. In the early 90s I heard stories that anyone who bought a copy of “Socialist Worker” would automatically be asked to join the SWP and be handed a membership form.

  10. Anon said,

    April 22, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    You’re definitely encouraged to offer membership forms to anyone who buys anything from the stall, has a minor conversation with you on the stall, or comes to a single meeting;- if not straight away, then acting with an intention to.

  11. Garibaldy said,

    April 22, 2008 at 6:20 pm


    Low turnover can indeed lead to stratification and other problems, but I’ll stick with those over the ones experienced by the SWP.

    It seems fairly clear that in fact there are several levels of membership within the SWP. They’d be better admitting that and amending the constitution accordingly rather than persist with a fiction that causes this level of discontent.

    I also think though that the very fundamentals of the SWP’s politics and activities are a major part of the problem, and that that is not being fully faced up to by those with a history in the SWP

  12. Binh said,

    April 23, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Not sure what you’re referring to here:

    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.

  13. IST-bot said,

    April 23, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I remember reading a very old Callinicos charge published in Party Notes (I think) where he wrote something like “If it walks, sell them the paper. If they buy it, recruit them!”

    Now THAT’S how you rebuild the socialist movement, comrades.

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 24, 2008 at 11:35 am

    To come back on Binh, and I may have limited info here, we’d be talking more about a difference in rhetorical emphasis. The ISO position as I always understood it was that movements of the oppressed had to be supported as a general principle, and specific criticisms should take second place to that support. The SWP line is formally pretty much the same, but in practice you found nearly all the emphasis was on attacking ‘separatism’. Made it difficult, to say the least, to get a hearing.

    There was a bit of a break with that connected to Respect, but more recently the stick has been bent back with a vengeance.

  15. Matthew said,

    April 24, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Small points of correction: Lindsey German was an established part of the leadership in the WV debate rather than the ‘bright young fulltimer’ you patronisingly create. In Leeds WV was very strong and one of the first SWP aggegates I went to we were quite beastly to the person from the centre sent to win the argument (Comrade JN) and made her cry. There was a political argument being put, about not ‘ghettoizing’ women’s oppression and the need for the whole party to take these issues up. I remember a good argument from Chris Harman, him saying that it was the example of Helen Gurley Flynn as a woman leading male workers in strike action that made him break with the idea of separate organisation for women. I think we should deal with the actual arguments on their actual merits rather than just building up a demonology of how bad the SWP is. Remember this was one of the last big arguments inside the SWP.

    Also – I don’t think you meant to confuse but teh WV argumentwas way before the Rainbow Coalition issue – and the ISO were red hot in their opposition to the Rainbow coalition – whether they would be so hostile now is an interesting issue

  16. Mike said,

    April 24, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    The difference of emphasis between the SWP after say 1981 and the ISO has complex roots which I’m not about to get into here.

    In fact there have always been differences within the Bolshevik Leninist movement on these questions. Note for example the various positions developed by CLR James and, if you like, the influence these have played in the development of Flame and the SWP not to mention the ISO.

    Hell if you want go back to the debates concerning the Bund in the RSDLP. Not often, if at all, cited within the discussions we had back in the day around Flame and the other groups but always in the background. Not that I knew that at the time like.

  17. Binh said,

    April 25, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    The SWP line is formally pretty much the same, but in practice you found nearly all the emphasis was on attacking ’separatism’.

    Well the ISO never had to deal with separate oppressed groups organizing within the organization to my knowledge. Also, attacking separatism is not as easy in a country where the example of the Black Panther Party is (rightly) admired by many on the revolutionary and even the reformist left. Not sure if that has anything to do with what you’re talking about. The ISO is still very much against identity politics and has published polemics toward that end in the ISR magazine.

    Also, I don’t think anyone in the ISO is even remotely friendly to the Rainbow Coalition or Obama for that matter.

  18. Mike said,

    April 25, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I suspect Binh that the ISO is, very wisely in my view, very aware that it is far to small to initiate any group that is based on any of the national minorities that are to be found in the good old US of A. In part the problem faced by the IS/SWP in the 1970s was that it hoped to be able to found a group based on the Asian and Black national minorities here – remember the level of struggle on the part of the class as a whole and of the national minorities was then at a high level – but lacked the cadre to do so. hence the failures of Flame and Chingari.

    That said I suspect that we would have been better advised in seeking to work within existing radical groups which were open to radical ideas. Albeit that some were very much influenced by Naxalism and we really did lack the cadre in the right places for an effective orientation on them. On the whole I suspect that founding a group, regardless of its formal relationship with the revolutionary party in embryo as we thought ourselves, was always doomed to fail. Far better, perhaps, a dedicated publication as was the original aim of Womens Voice and indeed its more illustrious forerunners Gleicheit and Rabotnitsa.

  19. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 26, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Yes, I do think an orientation to the existing groups would have made more sense. The Turkish and Bengali groups in the East End coming immediately to mind, and IIRC the New Jewel Movement used to run a few cells in London including one in the Post Office.

    On the matter of the Bund I suspect I’m a bit more sympathetic than Mike is, but I’d just say there’s a good practical reason why the Bund took the Austro-Marxist position on cultural autonomy, and that’s because they were trying to organise a non-territorial minority. Which may mean Bauer et al still have some relevance for today.

  20. johng said,

    April 27, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    “Albeit that some were very much influenced by Naxalism”

    sorry to be obsessive but any info on this? I never heard of this. I’d be very interested to hear more.

  21. BK said,

    April 27, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    “I think we should deal with the actual arguments on their actual merits rather than just building up a demonology of how bad the SWP is.”

    Sorry, M, you’ve come to the wrong place then. Have a peek through the archives. Its about all SS is good for. I reckon he’d be out of bizness in four or five days if he couldn’t piss on the IS.

    “Well the ISO never had to deal with separate oppressed groups organizing within the organization to my knowledge. ”

    Actually ,you’re wrong. It was part of the reason for the only significant split in the group’s history, in the early 80s. But while we’re out here, Binh, tell us: you’ve represented yourself several times as a member of the ISO. The leadership says that’s not right. Can you tell us which it is, just for clarification?

    Sound enough. The ISO did make an attempt to recruit en masse a group of mostly black youth–some ex-IS–around an anti-racist group, TUFF, in Detroit in the late 70s/early 80s. The best of them came in for a time but fell away–mostly because the level of struggle in general fell off, I’d say, and because there was no real branch in Detroit to hold them. To my knowledge, there are still some of them quite friendly to the ISO. And you can understand why: the group has done some incredible work through difficult times.

    Beyond that, we were up for the same relationship to independently organized movements of the oppressed as the SWP seemed to be at the time, and as you probably know some of the cadre at the center of Flame etc were back and forth to the US regularly. The important differences were 1) that the ISO had about 100 or so members nationally in 1981, possibly less; and 2) these movements were in very serious decline, with the bulk moving into the DP. The Rainbow phenomenon came later, and in the context I think the ISO related to it about right. From what I’ve read in SW lately, and in Phil Gasper’s recent piece in MR, there’s a shift in emphasis, probably appropriate in relation to the elections. But the argument there isn’t about independent organization; its about how to relate politically to large numbers of African Americans, young people energized by Obama’s campaign.

  22. Mike said,

    April 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Sure I’m not as sympathetic to the Bund as your good self. But they were right on the question of cultural nationalism and it is noticeable that in their practice post 1917 the Bolsheviks adopted exactly that strategy. Not that the ortho-trots can ear to see this reality mind you.

    You will have to do some digging but there is an archive on line of early 1970s Asian orientated publications that prove my assertion. Damned if I can remember where it is. Sorry bout that.


    Out of curiousity what was the nature of the split in the ISO? ALl I know is it involved the Winslows. An obscure episode.

  23. Binh said,

    April 28, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Actually ,you’re wrong. It was part of the reason for the only significant split in the group’s history, in the early 80s. But while we’re out here, Binh, tell us: you’ve represented yourself several times as a member of the ISO. The leadership says that’s not right. Can you tell us which it is, just for clarification?

    I wasn’t aware of that split which is why I said “to my knowledge.”

    The leadership is right, I’m not a member. Used to be though.

  24. Darren said,

    May 5, 2008 at 4:14 am


    “Sorry, M, you’ve come to the wrong place then. Have a peek through the archives. Its about all SS is good for. I reckon he’d be out of bizness in four or five days if he couldn’t piss on the IS.”

    Swoppies are a funny lot. Think they’re the centre of the universe but when someone puts them under the spotlight, then it’s all feigned hurt, and accusations of ‘why are you picking on us you sectarian bastards?’

    I guess they have issues with the fact that some of us memories which extend past the last edition of the Party Notes, and have witnessed their shennanigans at first hand.

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