But Martin hath said he was ambitious, and Martin is an honourable man


Well, isn’t this a turn-up for the books? It’s all unofficial at this point, of course, but I will be fascinated to see the spin that’s put on it. The IBs should be more than usually interesting at any rate.

Actually, as I understand things, it’s not that Rees has been sacked as such. The situation is that, at the annual conference, the outgoing Central Committee puts forward a slate for the new CC. Usually there is only the one slate, although in theory anyone can put forward an alternative line-up, and usually it is passed unanimously or as near as makes no difference. The thing is that Rees has been left off the slate for the new CC. Which, bearing in mind the remarkable stability of the CC for the last 20 years or so, is significant in itself.

The question is, why and why now. I mean to say, a Central Committee that includes Mike Bradley is not so obviously awash with talent that someone like John Rees can be easily dropped, especially when (it seems) Lindsey remains within the big tent. Here’s my take on things. Firstly, you have to go back to the last major CC reshuffle of a few years ago, when John and Lindsey stepped down from having specific responsibilities within the SWP in favour of secondment to Stop the War and Respect. As long as both of those initiatives were flying high, this was the basis for their pre-eminence. But the decline of the antiwar movement – and nobody can seriously claim it’s operating on the level of 2003 – together with the split in Respect have left them seriously exposed. At the same time, the SWP’s own organisation has atrophied, which has bolstered the criticisms of the more purist wing who were never enthusiastic about Respect in the first place, and in many cases quietly boycotted it. It took a while, but the purists eventually found an echo in the apparat.

As I’ve said before, while it’s hard to avoid a little schadenfreude, there’s an element of tragedy involved. The old sell-the-paper-and-recruit method was well suited to holding together an organisation in the hard times of the downturn. In the 1990s, with most of the rest of the left having gone awol, an energetic application of the old methods could lead to serious gains in numerical terms. This led, I think, to delusions of grandeur, most damagingly from Cliff. (The old man was far from the worst, but he set the tone for others who lacked his abilities.) The problem in the longer term was that the old methods were sufficient for building a largish sect, but were a barrier to building anything beyond that.

So along came a number of opportunities, with the emergence of the global justice movement, the mass antiwar movement, and the electoral interventions via the Socialist Alliance and then Respect. You didn’t have to be a died-in-the-wool sectarian to have some concerns about these movements. Nonetheless, it was probably necessary to jump in to the first two, and have a constructive orientation to the others. But here’s where you found barriers popping up. There was a fetishisation of “doing stuff” that led to a perspective that was under-theorised to say the least, and often incoherent even in its own terms. I am convinced that there was a real fear in the SWP leadership of the unpredictable consequences of joining anything broader, particularly in terms of the membership going off message, competing with the fear of being passed by. And there were innumerable bad habits stemming from twenty years of not having worked with anybody.

So here you had a situation where the organisation was throwing itself into broad initiatives with a stress on pure activism, often effacing its own politics or importing politics of the reformist, anarchist or pacifist variety into its own ranks. At the same time, you still had a very broad streak of sectist control freakery that managed to piss off just about every potential ally. (But which, and this is important, was at least as much directed towards the rank and file of the SWP as towards the non-SWP component of the various “united fronts”.) Personal qualities also came into it, when you think of Rees’ inability to maintain working relationships in Respect. Or, to take another tack, think of Stop the War. If you think of individuals like George Galloway or Tariq Ali, I’ve never hidden my reservations about them, but they do have advantages as popular leaders. They bring to the party a certain flair, a certain class, a certain je ne sais quoi. Old IMG heads can tell you lots of stories about Tariq’s uselessness in various roles, but still acknowledge his attractiveness as a mass leader. There’s a certain amount of hubris involved in thinking that Lindsey, purely because of her position in the StW hierarchy, could be a readymade popular mass leader.

And so here we are, with a de facto (if untheorised) turn back towards the old practices by the SWP leadership. Partly, yes, it has to do with objective conditions, or rather the party’s inability to respond to changes in the objective conditions. There is also the issue, as one SU commenter put it, that

If they’ve kicked out the people who wanted to stay in Respect, and kicked out the guy who led the walkout from Respect, who the hell is left? The people who never wanted to be in Respect in the first place?

Step forward, Chris Harman. Actually, this is the tragic thing, in that those most closely identified with the push outwards – Rees, German, Nineham – are now distrusted by those who took the outward turn seriously (which is not just those SWPers who jumped ship in the Respect split, but also many more Respectophile comrades who stayed in through a sense of discipline) but also on the outs with the purist wing. Poor old John, having had the legs cut out from under him by the Respect split and Left List debacle, looks like being the people’s choice as fall guy. He’s been removed from the leadership of Left Alternative, the party’s moribund electoral front. He’s been sent on a speaking tour of the provinces, which says something in itself. (He might not mind the occasional trip to Liverpool, but having to spend night after night speaking to tiny meetings in the Midlands or Yorkshire is the CC’s equivalent of exile to Magnitogorsk. And more than a little galling for someone who not long ago fancied himself not merely a national but an international leader of our movement.) And now he’s being busted down to the ranks, although it’s likely he’ll be offered some kind of parachute.

All this, it’s worth pointing out, is taking place with a minimum of discussion, let alone self-criticism. Professor Portnoy, to take one example, is still touting about the Rees version of the SWP-Respect split, spiced up with stuff about “Muslim notables” taken off the shelf from the AWL. One assumes the line will be that John made a few errors (though these are very very small set alongside the machinations of Galloway) and had become a bit of a block to moving on. And moving on to what? Well, more concentration on SWSS, an attempt to revitalise anti-fascist work, a bit of agitprop around the financial crisis, whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The Pomintern is at sixes and sevens – although the Irish and Canadians are as ultra-loyal as ever, some others are distinctly out of step with London. And my old friend Charlie Kimber, whose industrial experience consists of being an NUJ member, doesn’t appear to know what an industrial strategy is.

You know what, I’m for open discussion and self-criticism all round. This applies equally to Respect – while I was impressed with the serious, modest and businesslike atmosphere at last month’s conference, there are still unresolved arguments, plus not a few people who used to be Rees’ little helpers and who could benefit from a period of reflection. But now, heading towards January’s conference, would be a good time for SWP comrades to think about where they’re going, and whether it’s a good idea to move from the John Rees regime to the Martin Smith regime without pausing to draw breath, let alone reflect. One of the biggest barriers to that has been the cult of CC infallibility, for which blame must be shared between Cliff’s organisational prescriptions and the CC’s practice of keeping discussion internal to itself. Ructions within the CC make that more difficult to sustain.

My view is, let a hundred flowers bloom. There will be people who come up with bad ideas or even completely daft ideas. There will be all sorts of deviations and unorthodoxies. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a period of open discussion, things would start to flow, surprising connections would be made and – who knows? – people on opposite sides of polarised debates might find areas of agreement. A mature Marxist leadership shouldn’t fear a discussion where the outcome isn’t pre-determined, it should welcome one.

Here endeth the lesson.


  1. Angus McDavitt said,

    November 28, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    First question: Mike Bradley? Surely some mistake…on the CC, really?
    Secondly, I have no idea how this will impact on the Irish SWP but there seems to be something very strange about them these days. The website barely works and you can’t seem to read SW on it. You never see SW being sold on the streets now, except at an occasional demo. The organisation seems to have a very low profile. Those in the know suggest that is because all resources are being poured into RBB’s and Brid Smith’s efforts in the local elections.
    Yet for the SWP’s near invisibility, especially compared to the early 90s, RBB and Kieran Allen have quite high media profiles. Allen is often on the radio as a kind of militant trade unionist/general anti-capitalist while Richard has had a bit of a media role since the Iraq War started. Back in the early 90s there was no talking heads on radio or TV, except occasionally McCann but there was regular city centre paper sales, workplace sales, decent turnouts on protests, active college groups etc. Anyone have any ideas about all this?

  2. Mark P said,

    November 28, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    The Irish crew may be as loyal as ever, but they are quite unlikely to follow the British mothership’s new turn in practice. They are locked into the People Before Profit Alliance strategy and I don’t see how they can be expected to drop it for selling the paper and recruiting no matter how much waffle Prof Callinicos churns out about the moment of opportunity passing for such formations.

    They may have to do some thinking for themselves (horror of horrors). Or they might stick to regurgitating the kind of arguments the Brits were making back when Respect looked like a viable strategy.

  3. ejh said,

    November 28, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    The Professor also has a letter* in the new London Review of Books that you may wish to take issue with. (It looks perfectly reasonable to me but you may wish to take issue with it nevertheless.)

    [* which is more than I have. Before I emigrated my hit rate was close to 100%, now it’s 0%. I shall have to start putting Professor Horton, University of Huesca at the bottom of my emails and see if that makes a difference. Or sign myself “Reverend”, which according to popular myth always used to work with the Guardian.]

  4. skidmarx said,

    November 29, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Rees off slate for new CC. World in crisis.

  5. skidmarx said,

    November 29, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    I looked at the Callinicos letter and now am stuck wondering what laterally proliferating heterogeneity is when it’s at home.

  6. lrb reader said,

    November 29, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I looked at the Callinicos letter and now am stuck wondering what laterally proliferating heterogeneity is when it’s at home.

    I looked at the letter too. It seems that “laterally proliferating heterogeneity” is the rhizome when it’s at home. Something with lots of weird knobbly bits sticking off the sides of it like a bit of fresh ginger.

  7. Phil said,

    November 29, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Well, you’ve got your heterogeneity, haven’t you – that’s like, not homogeneity, obviously. And some of these heterogeneities proliferate – like, they spread all over the place – and some of them don’t. And some of those ones that do proliferate, they proliferate kind of up and down, but some of them proliferate from side to side – and they’re your laterally proliferating heterogeneities. Simple really.

    I was in a seminar once (at a conference organised by Colin Barker, to keep things vaguely on-topic) where someone gave a paper on rhizomatic forms of organisation and how great they were – I think the idea was that they went over and under and around things, instead of just sort of hitting their head on things and getting stuck. A mean-spirited person in the audience asked what that Actually Meant In Practice. This question reduced the speaker to embarrassed silence – she didn’t even try to make something up, which I suppose you could say was to her credit.

  8. ejh said,

    November 30, 2008 at 9:51 am

    someone gave a paper on rhizomatic forms of organisation and how great they were

    Well “rhizomatic” is pretty great on its own.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 30, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Good old Colin Barker, I always liked him. Actually, there’s an idea – since concentric circles are now off the agenda, could the rhizome be coming into fashion?

  10. November 30, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    […] there is movement on the revolutionary Left we shouldn’t doubt. Splinty carries news of Martin Rees departure from the central committee of the SWP, and Socialist Unity carries rumours of John Rees’ […]

  11. ejh said,

    November 30, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Are you sure you didn’t mean Marlon?

  12. lrb reader said,

    November 30, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    great link at comment number 10.

    I look forward to more on Martin Rees’ departure. And also, perhaps, news of whether John Smith is still on the SWP CC.

    Why let the facts get in the way of good sectariana?

  13. skidmarx said,

    December 1, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    7. Now I know who to go to when I need to parse my arse.

  14. Andy Newman said,

    December 1, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    I am reliably informed that much more is afoot in the SWP than currently meets the eye.

    Personal;y, i think it is better I keep out of it though.

  15. Phil said,

    December 1, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Skiddie – that’s way above my pay grade.

  16. Garibaldy said,

    December 2, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    You’re such a tease Andy.

  17. Mark P said,

    December 2, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Yep. Go on, give us a hint.

  18. Andy newman said,

    December 2, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    I honestly don’t know much more than I have said.

    I have been told from a couple of sources that something interesting is going on.

    But I have delibertaly not tried to find out more, because any ihint of associatin with SU blog would be counterproductive.

    It is a shame that SWP members don’t realise that the reputation of their organisatin would be enhanced and not diminished by having any debate in the open.

  19. December 4, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    seems, that the Weakly Worker knows more: http://cpgb.org.uk/worker/748/motherofall.html

  20. Richard Searle said,

    December 5, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    The WW article makes for some scary reading.

  21. Mark P said,

    December 5, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    What’s scary about it?

    Remember that you have to filter everything in the WW to remove some of the fantasy and hyperbole and outright lies.

    What does it really tell us that we don’t already know:

    1) That Rees and German are angry enough to openly argue against their CC colleagues at an aggregate or two.

    2) That someone with some respect but little real sway is writing an article critical of the whole Respect turn in their internal bulletin.

    3) That Callinicos and Smith are putting the boot in Rees in the IB.

    Not really much there, unless you think that Rees and German have a base strong enough to challenge the rest of the CC, and I’d be surprised if that was true.

  22. skidmarx said,

    December 5, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    I had much the same reaction.

  23. Andy Newman said,

    December 5, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    great new look

  24. Andy Newman said,

    December 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    BTW – I don’t think WW have said any more than i have.

    There were big rows at the 4 or so aggregates in London.

    But the problem is that there is huge amnesia, so trying to get Rees to carry the can doesn’t face up to their collegiate failing.

  25. Andy Newman said,

    December 5, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    And I wondered whethetr this comment was a bit close to the knuckle: “He might not mind the occasional trip to Liverpool”

  26. harpymarx said,

    December 6, 2008 at 11:05 am

    I thought I have stumbled onto the wrong blogsite. Fancied a changed Splintered One?

  27. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 6, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I liked the old template, was just a bit bored with it. No doubt there’ll be more tinkering to come…

  28. chjh said,

    December 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    The WW doesn’t know that much – they got the venue of the Hackney aggregate wrong, suggesting they didn’t actually speak to anyone who was at it, but just invented something that they thought would sound plausible.

  29. reader said,

    December 7, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Use of the phrase “In fact reports of the meeting I have heard…” is surely the mark of the most incisive and authoritative journalism.

    How anyone can question the WW’s credibility is beyond me.

  30. ejh said,

    December 7, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    You could have stopped that posting after the first six words, it already covered all the necessary ground…

  31. skidmarx said,

    December 8, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    I’m not sure it helps your own credibility when assessing the SWP that you attack “Professor Portnoy” without analysing his claims and talk about IST groups being out of step without any details. More fact, less opinion. Here endeth the lesson.

  32. Kidron said,

    December 9, 2008 at 12:23 am

    This is a thought-provoking analysis. You’re closer to the actual dynamics of what is happenign inside the party than you think. But there’s a lot more to come out, especially in the wider fallout in the IST.

    It’s quite possible that at the end of all this London will be with Chicago and not with Athens. One thing’s for sure: the day is out when the London leadership could hope to have them both basking in the glow of its wisdom.

  33. ejh said,

    December 9, 2008 at 9:48 am

    You’re closer to the actual dynamics of what is happening inside the party than you think

    Oh no, it’s underground-car-park-speak…

  34. Mike said,

    December 10, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    It’s garbage there is no possibility at present of a reconcoliation between the ISO and the SWP. the ISO leadership remains very bitter towards the entire leadership of the SWP.

  35. skidmarx said,

    December 11, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Mike – So the steering committee of the ISO hasn’t just written “the ISO Steering Committee seeks to reestablish formal and comradely relations with the SWP-GB and the leaderships of the member groups of the IST” in a letter to the SWP & IST?

  36. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 11, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Not to deny that there is a lot of bitterness, but my impression was that the Brits were a lot more intransigent about not working with the ISO again. What I’d heard from ISO circles was not that they ruled out reestablishing relations, but they weren’t going to go back into the old colonial setup.

    But this approach is totally consistent with the ISO’s formal position since they were excommunicated. How it’s received… now, that will be interesting.

  37. mike said,

    December 11, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    I note that the document from the ISO explicitly rules out rejoining the so called IST. What they are seeking is the same kind of loose relationship they have with various tendencies that came out of the long dead FI.

  38. skidmarx said,

    December 12, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    So you’re not going to admit you were talking garbage.
    My reading of the letter, and I’ve read it several times because of the varying interpretations put on what seems simple and straightforward, is that they are saying we have comradely relations with groups that we don’t share in common as much as we do with the SWP. While they say they don’t want to rejoin the IST and briefly restate their position on why they were expelled, it seems blindingly fscking obvious that they don’t want to make a shibboleth out of the differences. Which may be unfortunate for those on the outside who wish the SWP or specific of its members ill.

  39. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 12, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    they don’t want to make a shibboleth out of the differences

    Which is precisely what they said before their expulsion, and what they’ve been saying ever since. I think you need to consider the “who whom?” question before you cast this as the prodigals making their way back to the fold.

  40. skidmarx said,

    December 12, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    I don’t understand what the “who whom?” question is, so I require some elucidation before I can consider it.

    While trying to find out what SPEW is, I discovered an old David Aaronovitch article in which he talks about “Professor Alex Callinicos”. And also describes the slogan Occupy, Nationalise and Fight for the Right to Work as a “Mugabeism, if ever I heard one”. I did mean to ask if he’d been mean to you as a child or summat.

    I haven’t cast this as the prodigals making their way back to the fold.It seems to be the ISO wanting to meet as equals. Whether the SWP feels the same we’re yet to see, though what with the approach from the SP either much peace is breaking out or at least the SWP appears a more attractive potential partner to many.

    Maybe the Americans just want cheap Cliff books.

  41. ejh said,

    December 12, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    While trying to find out what SPEW is, I discovered an old David Aaronovitch article

    Boom boom!

  42. skidmarx said,

    December 13, 2008 at 10:32 am

    I saw DA on the TV once saying that maybe some Islamists should be excluded from political discussion and thought maybe I’ll ignore everything you have to say. I’m not saying you are David Aaronovitch in disguise, I’m just suggesting that the frequent personal attacks on him don’t put you in very good company. If they’re funny, or make a useful point that’s forgivable.

  43. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 13, 2008 at 11:28 am

    You can get plenty of cheap Cliff books at the Waterstone’s in Gower Street. Not, I think, a problem for the ISO, who have the Bookmarks catalogue for the States and are printing their own.

    Maybe I was slightly cryptic. The “who whom” issue is simply that the the SWP expelled the ISO and not vice versa. This has certain consequences.

    The first is that the ISO thought they should never have been kicked out of the IST. Since their expulsion they haven’t asked to rejoin (a subtle shift) but they have consistently said that they want civil relations with the SWP/IST. As they say, they get on well enough with people a lot further removed from them politically.

    The SWP have a problem of face in that they carried out the expulsion and have defended it vigorously ever since. (See the Callinicos-Bensaid exchange on this matter.) So a reconciliation, however limited, would have to be managed in such a way that it didn’t look like a climbdown. On the other hand, it might do the SWP some good not only in its own right, but also with people like the LCR, who know very well that the ISO aren’t a rogue group led by sectarian crazies. It doesn’t help that the job would devolve to Alex, who has a lot of personal history on this matter, so perhaps the next reshuffle on the CC might be the determining factor.

    Anyway, the ISO letter seems straightforward to me. They want a resumption of contacts, which is what they’ve been saying for years. They say the crisis makes this more urgent. They say their younger members don’t understand the breach, which is true. (Their members are educated with Cliff and Hallas, but the leadership don’t hark on much about the split.) And they propose a mechanism for establishing contact. This is all fair enough.

    And it gives us a fair summary of the ISO’s position on relations with the SWP. I don’t think anything more can be read into it in terms of their assessment of the political health of the SWP or developments on the British left more generally – they’re careful about pronouncing on those things, and I’m sure would have carried both sides of the Respect dispute had the SWP submitted theirs.

    And that’s that. The interesting thing will be what response, if any, it draws from the SWP.

  44. Chris C said,

    December 14, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Disagree here Splintered. My recollection of the expulsion (which had little to do with principled issues or even tactics) was that the ISO did not remain passive but managed to split significant parts of the IST. For instance, even within the SWP it was known that about a third of the Greek organization had left with the ISO.
    In recent years, it has become clear that the ISO is in contact with a number of ex-IST and some parts of the tendency.
    This letter is part of a recognition that there is substantial dissent and argument about the Respect debacle and the deeply flawed leadership from the British SWP. The open letter is always a polemical device, not designed to win the hearts of the public target but to win the minds of its followers – this falls into that category.
    The fact that such mild requests as communication, educational exchange and mutual publication of articles are incendiary to the IST tells its own story about the palpable decline of the tendency. Someone once said that Trotskyists were in danger of becoming ‘Europe’s last Stalinists’. Now my mind plays tricks on me, who was it?

  45. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 14, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Well, I’ve given a literal reading, and you’ve just given the Machiavellian one. The question is whether the ISO are mischievous enough to say, “Hmm, now’s a good time to pour oil on troubled flames”, and I plead the Fifth on that one. What would put some doubt into my mind is that since their expulsion they’ve been quite self-effacing, which speaks well of them, but sometimes a bit too self-effacing when they might have had some influence.

    Anyway, some folks in an underground car park tell me interesting developments are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

  46. Dave Garner said,

    December 15, 2008 at 8:08 am

    And there’s more….


  47. skidmarx said,

    December 15, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Chris C – you seem to be saying both that that the letter is a trick, but also that it shows how rotten the IST is. I think there is a contradiction in what your saying, never mind that I think it is an inaccurate assessment of what I know and I would guess what I don’t.

    splintered – if you do need to do further name calling, have you considered “AC/DC” or “Lex Luthor”?

  48. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 15, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    My name calling is purely affectionate. I love Alexander, really.

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