You know, the current debate in the SWP makes me feel a bit like Lisa Simpson.
Allow me to explain. You’ll probably recall the episode where Bart sells his soul to Millhouse for five dollars. It then falls to Lisa to convince Bart that he’s done something wrong, even though she’s not entirely certain that Bart has a soul. Well, I feel a bit like that.
So, in the spirit of goodwill to all men, let us turn to the latest offering from the party’s chief ju-ju man, Professor Callinicos. You will remember that, in his article, the renegade Rees levelled quite a fusillade against the good professor. Now, it be payback time, sucka!
I’ll try to stay on the high ground and concentrate on the main political questions, though I will, from time to time, have to correct various factual assertions and misrepresentations made by John… In the course of this I shall make some comments on Lindsey German’s document, though I think it adds little of substance to the debate.
Miaow! Actually, Alexander manages to stick to the high ground for maybe the first half of his article, where he talks about perspectives about the crisis, and attempts to place the current CC majority as the true inheritors of “Suck it and see!” and “Bend the stick!”, not perhaps Cliff’s most inspiring aphorisms. In the course of this he makes some good points, and a few where I actually agree with him – such as the diminished centrality of Stop the War.
There is a useful argument to be had also in terms of the united front, although I note that Alexander, like Chris Harman, appears to be mired in Dimitrov’s 1935 exposition of the UF. Some reflection on the UF method may be called for. But it is clear that both Callinicos and Harman conceive of “united fronts” primarily as single-issue campaigns initiated and run by the SWP. To this extent, there is a turn back towards the old propagandist methods, and many older party members will welcome that. What the post-Cliff levy, educated in the Rees-German method, will make of it is another question.
There’s also a rather useful discussion of the weakness of Marxism as a pole of attraction in the post-Seattle period, which seems to put a question mark over Alex’s more triumphalist pronouncements back in 2000. And, while Alex doesn’t really do self-criticism, this isn’t the only bit of rowing back in the document:
Then came the era of Seattle. The CC decided that the branches had become an obstacle to the necessary turn outwards and in effect scrapped them. The suspension of branch meetings in London during the GLA elections in 2000 symbolized this shift. I accept my share of this responsibility for this decision, which may indeed have been justified in order sharply to break with the past… Scrapping the branches removed one key agency in recruiting comrades. More important, it meant that if we recruited someone, they had nowhere to go. Unless they were firmly attached to one of the united fronts, the individuals would drift into a shapeless mass of semi-detached members and all too often disappear.
When I read this, the first thing I thought of was this:
The ISO increasingly viewed the world through its own sectarian prism. In an extraordinary speech at the ISO’s convention in December 2000, the group’s National Organizer, Sharon Smith, attacked the idea that the ISO could, by systematically focusing on [the global justice movement], “leapfrog” over the rest of the left, and insisted that methods of party-building forged in the downturn were necessary irrespective of the changing objective conditions. “Branches are now and will always be the measure of the size of the organization,” she said.
Smith here made precisely the mistake against which Trotsky warned – namely that of turning a specific method of building into a matter of principle. The SWP and its sister organizations (including the ISO) developed during the 1980s a routine based on large geographically based branches that met weekly mainly for general political discussion. This fitted a situation where the level of class struggle was low, and it was necessary to concentrate on developing individual members’ understanding of the Marxist tradition in order to survive in a hostile political environment. This structure, however, increasingly became an obstacle to party-building in the 1990s, when the generally slow revival of struggle and much more rapid political radicalization required much smaller, more activist branches that could begin to root themselves in working-class communities. The ISO’s failure to follow the example of, for example, the Socialist Workers Parties in Britain and Greece in making this shift may help to explain its increasingly sectarian trajectory. Sectarian organizational being began to assert itself over Marxist political consciousness.
Physician, heal thyself, etc. I will sidestep Alexander’s tendentious version of the ISO’s politics – I’m sure the ISO have plenty of faults, but they certainly aren’t the sectarian crazies they were made out to be. What is perhaps more to the point is that Prof Callinicos, in his long stewardship of the international tendency, has made rather a habit of exporting organisational shibbolethim from Britain across the world. The regular abolition and resurrection of branch committees, which were alternately a school for cadre or a conservative block depending on which side of the bed Cliff got out of, springs to mind. There was the drive in the 1990s towards tiny branches, which even by Alex’s account brought the Danish group to the point of collapse, and which the Americans (to their credit) resisted. And now, we have the admission that the closing down of the branches by the CC in 2000, Bambery’s Maoist tour of the nation implementing this turn, and the consequent disorganisation of the cadre, was a disaster. Could it be that those crazy Yanks had a point after all?
But the fulcrum of the Callinicos document is an extraordinary character assassination on John Rees. I hasten to add that the fact of a character assassination on this scale is par for the course when someone falls from grace in the SWP, what’s extraordinary is it being put into print. And Alex, while he’s more than a little shifty about his own track record, does manage to put together a fairly devastating charge sheet against John.
There are, however, a couple of problems here. One is that Alex’s account of the defects in John’s personality, his elitism, his arrogance, his irresponsibility etc, would be all too familiar to anyone who’s worked alongside John for even a matter of weeks. And yet, the bugger has been on the Central Committee for fourteen years. For most of that time, the talents that he brought to the party, opaque as they may be to me, were held to outweigh the defects. No, John is being penalised for his recent actions, for the split in Respect and the subsequent Left List debacle – sure, there’s also the dodgy cheque, but that can’t be separated out.
And here’s the problem, because the CC put a huge premium on saving face, and because last year they backed him all the way. As a result, the CC can’t go very far beyond the Mr Tony Blair line of “Let’s draw a line under this and move on.” In fact, all contributors have rehashed the line about how it was correct to “resist Galloway”. Thus Alex:
But that document [the CC’s balance sheet on Respect] makes absolutely clear that political responsibility for the destruction of Respect lies with George Galloway and his allies.
Therefore Lindsey’s claim that John is being made a scapegoat for this disaster is nonsense. The problem was rather that the crisis in Respect exposed certain systematic weaknesses in John’s methods of working – in particular a failure to respect the collective decision-making of the party and, in large part as a result, to make serious mistakes that caused him to lose the confidence of the majority, not just of the leadership, but of the party cadre as well…
Most members of the CC thought it would be unwise to prejudge the results of this meeting [with Galloway on 4 September 2007]. This was a tactical issue with no issue of principle at stake on either side. But most comrades there were taken aback by the vehemence with which John, with the support of Lindsey German (and also with a degree of sympathy from me), insisted on having his way. The tone was ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’.
It was that argument began the fracture on the CC. What produced the polarization was the assumption on John’s part was that he should define the leadership’s line on Respect. This reflected, more generally, how work on both Respect tended to be reported to the CC. While quite a lot of information would be shared with the CC, it wasn’t on a basis that really invited discussion or dissent.
In retrospect, this represented a breach with how the party has intervened in united fronts. It was always taken for granted comrades involved in leading united fronts would be under particular pressure to adapt to their reformist allies. The role of the Central Committee would be to support these comrades, but also to act as a counter-pressure to any tendency of rightward adaptation.
Quite so. But, and I know I’ve probably bored you all to death on this point, doesn’t the criticism of Rees call into question the correctness of the split? One might argue that the inbuilt tensions in Respect Mark I meant a big bust-up was inevitable in the longer term, and I agree with that. One reason was the fudging of its political basis. Another was the lack of democracy inherent from the start, with the SWP enforcing a three-line whip on even the most minor procedural issues and the real decision-making process being located not at conference or in the NC, but in diplomatic manoeuvres between John and Lindsey on the one hand and George on the other. (The refounded Respect has at least, to its credit, taken steps to address this, by abolishing the slate system and actually having contested elections for the leadership.) But you can agree with all this and still believe that last year’s split was wholly unnecessary.
The contingent reason, of course, was George’s letter criticising Rees for organisational inefficiency and failure to maintain working relationships, and suggesting that another SWP member be appointed to work alongside him. Bearing in mind Rees’ sacking from the CC, and the buckets of shit being poured over him by the CC majority, this all seems rather mild. Actually, the SWP could have massively improved their standing in Respect by admitting that George’s letter identified some real problems, and committing to work constructively with him to deal with these problems. By going nuclear, for what seem to be internal party reasons, this opportunity was thrown away. Worse, there was the ludicrous campaign against the “witch-hunt”, a witch-hunt that had never existed. Worse still was the SWP CC accusing Asian Respect members of “communalism”, the political equivalent of saying poppadum on Big Brother.
Now, Alex and Chris and Martin could win themselves a lot of good will by admitting they made a mistake. They certainly don’t need to shoulder all of the blame, but the sacking of Rees – scapegoating though it may be – provides them with an opportunity to mend fences. Yet they won’t do it. They bemoan having alienated the middle ground in Respect, but can’t concede that this might have anything to do with the SWP’s actions (beyond those for which Rees has already been criticised). And this is the sort of thing that really, really pisses people off. It’s why, for instance, there was a whole layer of Socialist Alliance people who wouldn’t make the jump into Respect. There are plenty of other similar examples, most notably in Scotland, but that would take us too far afield.
Let’s conclude with Alex on the question of improving party democracy:
In fact, my own attitude to Neil’s arguments is very similar to Chris Harman’s, who has been privately been expressing for many years the kind of views stated publicly in his reply to Neil. Like Chris, I think the problem is less one of structure than of ethos. In other words, formally party structures are highly democratic, but the culture of internal debate has been much weaker in recent years, and more broadly the party has been over-reliant on top-down initiatives from the CC.
No shit, Sherlock. You’ve been in the national leadership for thirty years and Chris for over forty – whatever your private concerns may have been, you didn’t exactly bust a gut to do anything about them. And in fact:
But Neil is right that the Central Committee, scarred by the crisis of the late 1970s, has been very cautious about expressing public disagreements, and indeed has become more cautious over about this over time. This tendency has been reinforced by features that become more prominent in the 1990s. Sustaining party activity in a period when, after a series of big, though unconnected mobilizations in 1990-4, was remarkably lacking in serious struggles required increasing doses of voluntarism on the part of the centre. At the centre itself a certain hothouse atmosphere and excessive preoccupation with trivial internal infighting and backbiting developed.
Yes, one of the most remarkable facts about the Callinicos and Harman articles is that, while championing an improved party democracy, there is still an ingrained tendency to see the CC as the source of any serious initiative and the membership as an inert mass. On the other hand, at least you have to give them credit for recognising that there is a problem, while John and Lindsey remain quite frankly elitist (for which John’s peculiar reading of Lukács is the theoretical justification).
My reading of the situation is that, whatever about these articles from the party intellectuals, the key figure in the debate is the emergent maximum leader Martin Smith, and you can explain Martin’s position in terms of his position in the party. As the national secretary, he is the direct representative of the apparat, which predisposes him to be sceptical towards anything that might be construed as liquidating the party. (Martin, like Chris Harman, was known to be a Respect-sceptic, which suggests that he may have had his own opportunistic reasons for backing up Rees last year.) Where Rees complains about the incoherence of the party’s activities, I would say that my impression of Martin, at least from seeing him at work in the past, is that he’s not a great man for big ambitious initiatives, and is at heart a pragmatist who’s willing to take modest and sensible initiatives that stand a good chance of advancing the organisation. This, I believe, is the main factor behind his sudden popularity with a cadre whose heads are spinning from years of “decisive” leadership – well, that and his ouster of the widely despised Rees.
And I think we can locate his sudden transformation into a born-again democrat in pragmatic terms – he wants to re-enthuse the cadre, improve the party’s functioning and head off mounting discontent in the ranks. But at the same time, a democratic revolution with Martin Smith, Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos at the helm is going to be nothing but a self-limiting revolution. Obviously any opening up is most welcome, but what’s really necessary is for people like Neil Davidson and John Molyneux, and their supporters in the ranks, to keep up the pressure on the CC majority, because left to their own devices they won’t agree to anything more than the bare minimum of reform – certainly not to a move like election of district organisers, which would do more than anything else to improve matters. At the very least they would need to insist on a lay majority on both the democracy commission and the control commission. There is, however, one point where I disagree with Neil, and that’s on his idea of postponing the election of the new CC. I do think the CC needs to have its base radically widened, but it’s much more important in the short term to terminate Rees with extreme prejudice.
Which brings me to Lindsey German’s document. My view of the erstwhile Power Couple has been that they can claim in their favour that at least they had the imagination to push outwards and go for the bigger prize, in Stop the War or Respect. But this is negated by their practice, which is extremely elitist even by SWP standards, only magnified as it’s been transposed into the outside world. I have to say, though, that while I do have some sympathy for Rees’ claim that he’s been scapegoated for things the entire leadership agreed to, I’m not more kindly disposed towards him by Lyndzee’s long complaint about how poor ‘ickle John is being victimised. Nor does her assertion that she was always right, even when she was wrong, cut much ice with me.
Well, here are a few gems anyway:
Over Big Brother for example, we had to steer a position between those who wanted to break with George completely, to severely criticise him, and those who were totally uncritical. I think we took the right position (although I sometimes feel that life would have been easier subsequently if we had broken with Galloway).
This is disingenuous at best. I don’t know of anyone who wanted to actually drum Galloway out of Respect over Big Brother. I do know that Salma Yaqoob, Ken Loach and Alan Thornett wanted to formally rap him over the knuckles, and the SWP blocked any such move. I also vividly remember the national secretary of Respect, one J Rees, appearing on Newsnight and opining that the whole fiasco had been worthwhile because he, Rees, had been invited onto Newsnight.
Here’s Lyndz on the Left List electoral run:
[Had we not stood] we would have been totally marginalised, there would have been no left candidate standing against an increasingly right moving Livingstone, and we would have left the field open for Galloway – and, in particular, his argument that we should go soft on some New Labour figures [i.e. Ken Livingstone]. Had Galloway won a London assembly seat (unlikely as this now appears), we would have been in a substantially weaker position to argue the case for an independent Left.
It’s nice to get an admission that this was a spoiler candidacy, but this may not go down terribly well with SWP comrades who were spun along with claims that Lyndz, the great mass leader, was going to do really well, and were left in the end with, well, a big green balloon of a special type.
But this is the real nugget:
If white socialists had been elected in 2006 in Newham and Tower Hamlets (as they very nearly were) then the balance of forces and level of politics in those areas would have been raised.
You know, I can see what she’s getting at, as nearly all the white candidates in Tower Hamlets and Newham were SWP members. If she’d claimed it was necessary to have SWP members on the councils to provide the non-SWP councillors with the correct politics and keep them honest, it would have been elitist bullshit (and note that the SWP’s trophy recruits like Ahmed Hussain didn’t turn out too well) but it would at least be consistent with her established politics. But to phrase it like this, in a context where the racial dynamic of Respect was very delicate, where leading SWP members have been accusing their antagonists of practising “Bangladeshi village politics”… can she not see how bad this looks, or does she just not care? Shit, even the AWL would hesitate before using that language.
Anyway, there’s one thing that’s absolutely clear, and that is that German must be removed from her leadership position along with Rees. (Bambery, like the slippery weasel he is, will no doubt find a way to save his job; I don’t care about Nineham.) Remember that she was the one who sponsored his rise up the greasy pole of the SWP’s fulltime apparat. Remember that he was brought onto the CC on her recognisance (and over the objections of Chris Harman, amongst others). It was she who groomed him as the successor to Cliff. And there isn’t a howler he’s committed that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it. I can understand, from a bureaucratic point of view, why the CC majority want to keep her in the tent pissing out – she knows where the bodies are buried, and could potentially be extremely destructive. But as to how her continued presence on the CC can be justified politically – well, I await an explanation from the great dialecticians Harman and Callinicos.