Rees protests his defenestration


You know, one of my big problems as a polemicist is that I’m not a very good hater. Of course I can and do take digs at certain individuals, but there’s an innate defect in my character that makes me look for the good in everybody. Take Martin Thomas. Lots of people say he’s a cunt, but I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think the British left should mint Martin a medal, as recognition for his devoting the best years of his life to the thankless task of telling Sean Matgamna to take it easy. Would you be prepared to do that? I know I wouldn’t.

Which brings me neatly to John Rees. Never having been able to stomach the guy while he held a position of power in the SWP, I almost feel sorry for him in his rapid fall from grace. And, with the dissemination of his Big Article putting forward his side of the current debate, John has actually gone up somewhat in my estimation. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s a disingenuous fucker, and it’s hard to judge his document in the absence of the article from Neil Davidson that he’s polemicising with, but he makes some points that are well worth flagging up.

The occasion for this is of course John’s unceremonious dumping from the slate for the incoming CC to be elected at next month’s conference. He is, understandably, hopping mad about this, feeling that he is being unfairly scapegoated for the Respect disaster, and goes on to complain that the other members of the leadership backed him all the way. (He seems to bear a particular grudge against The World’s Most Prominent Citizen, Professor Callinicos, but this may just be a case of Alexander being more prolix in his polemics than other CC members.) This is of course correct, and it’s rather unedifying for Martin Smith et al. to be putting on the “nothing to do with me, honest guv” act now.

John himself, as it happens, isn’t willing to do mea culpas for anything beyond the dodgy cheque for which an apology has already been extracted from him. And he also manages to get all the way through a rather long article on current perspectives without even mentioning the Left List fiasco. Nonetheless, there is useful stuff here. The whole thing bears out my longstanding view that the biggest obstacle to progress in the SWP has been the tendency to hold up the monolithic party as an ideal, and the CC’s connected practice of keeping a united face in front of the membership. Once CC unity busts open, all sorts of things are possible.

Much of John’s polemic relates to the minutiae of which CC member said what in which forum, and I do not intend to go into this. Nor do I intend to go into any detail about John’s arguments around Respect – regular readers will be aware that I have my differences with him, and it would be a distraction to rehearse them yet again here. What I’d like to do is look briefly at some of John’s broader points. For instance, John locates the current dispute within the SWP’s recruitment problems:

Why was recruitment such an important and explosive issue? The lack of party growth stands behind much of the discontent in the SWP at the moment. The question behind the questions is ‘Why have we not grown as much as we should have done through the period of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements?’

Or, to put it another way, how come the SWP actually shrank rather dramatically during the last decade, when it found itself at the head of several rather large movements that should have provided a golden opportunity to grow? Partly this comes with the territory – so Militant recruited rather few people while it was leading the movement against the poll tax. But there are other, subjective, factors as well. It may be worth, for instance, asking why so many radical youth, the sort of people who should be perfect recruits for the SWP, define themselves very strongly as anti-Leninist, and what that has to do with their experience of Leninism SWP-style.

John talks about the tensions involved in the SWP’s shift over the last decade from standalone propagandism towards mass campaigns:

We argued a perspective, largely accepted by the party, and fought to make as much progress in building these mass campaigns as we could. But a significant section of the membership, while not openly or effectively opposing the perspective, remained rooted in the old party structures and habits of mind. They felt uncomfortable with the party’s evolution, critical of a ‘move away from Leninism’ and so on.

Over time this produced a differential experience among party members. Some understanding the needs and challenges of the united front, others unhappy that the SWP seemed to be forgetting the truths of revolutionary socialism as they had been taught them in an earlier phase of the struggle. This gap mattered less as we rushed forward and encountered no reverses. But it has cost us a great deal when we encountered a problem in Respect. Too many people encountered this as an external threat caused by the specific behaviour of comrades in this area of work rather than as a problem that we were all engaged in and had to solve collectively.

I have my difficulties with John’s characterisation, notably with his use of the “united front” formula, but this rings true to me, especially in terms of the more purist section of the party’s quiet boycott of Respect. This reflects a laissez-faire culture in the party, at odds with the rhetorical monolithism, where members have been allowed to pick and choose their areas of activity as long as they didn’t challenge the CC. This in turn has led to a lot of the SWP’s coherence being dissipated. It used to be that if you spoke to five party members you would get a pretty consistent party line, maybe with different emphases or different levels of subtlety. These days you’re likely to hear something more akin to Rashomon.

John then moves onto recruitment:

The recruitment figures given in Internal Bulletin 1 show some success but they do not tell us about party growth because they only tell us about those who have joined not those who have left. Retention is the vital issue here. But because of the permanent financial crisis in the SWP retention is primarily addressed by the CC majority as a question of paying direct debit. This is not necessarily a sign of active engagement in the party. A member can pay a direct debit and be just as passive and inactive as those who do not. The retention issue is not being addressed politically by strategy of actively engaging members in both the work of the united fronts and the party.

Quite so. I would further stress that a recruitment campaign, such as John proposes, wouldn’t be worth running if it just leads to more of the sort of thing I mentioned a while back:

For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.)

Unfortunately, I suspect the CC has engaged in double book-keeping over membership for so long that the habit has become unbreakable this side of a complete breakdown at the top. John continues:

The apparatus of the party has increased its weight in relation to the membership. The full-timers now often substitute for an active membership rather than being given a strategy to develop an active membership. This has, in the recent debate, created a bullying and intimidatory atmosphere where the apparatus of the party plays a far larger role in the internal debate than it has done in the past when the membership was more active and party structures better attended. The recruitment crisis has also become a financial crisis as the membership cannot sustain the apparatus inherited from a previous era.

It would be nice if John had noticed this when he was on the dishing out, rather than the receiving, end.

Then there is a lot of waffle about the Charter, a disinterred version of the famous Action Programme from ten years ago, and this is where John loses me a little, since his arguments centre around counterposing the SWP’s Charter to others being put forward by John McDonnell or the Morning Star, not on programmatic grounds but on the basis that the others aren’t controlled by the SWP. Conceding that a charter of working-class demands could have a useful propaganda function in the crisis, the priority should surely be having a charter with serious purchase in the labour movement rather than something run by the SWP, with some famous names adorning the committee. It’s not like we’ve never seen that model before.

John then cites the Living Thought of Tony Cliff as an authority:

Cliff’s method in this was right. To do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason. People have jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in. If you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You have to ‘bend the stick’.

I must confess, when I hear that phrase, chills run down my spine. As Jim Higgins pointed out:

So matters stood for some time, when Cliff, almost single-handed, reinvented the “Leninist” concept of stick bending. It derives from a speech by Lenin at the Second Congress of the RSDLP: “The Economists bent the staff towards one side. In order to straighten it out again, it had to be bent towards the other side and that is what I did”. You will notice here that Lenin is talking about a correction to the Economists, not a 180 degree turn from what he himself was saying a little earlier. On the one hand we have exaggeration in the course of a political struggle and on the other a capricious or opportunist reversal of policy.

Indeed, and too often in the past (by Cliff above all) stick-bending has been used as an alibi for head-spinning lurches from one exaggerated perspective to another. John is correct, I think, when he talks about the incoherence of the current CC majority’s perspective – there is lots of stuff being done, but none of it seems to gel very well together, and Charlie Kimber’s line-of-march article was clear as mud – but a return to stick-bending is hardly the answer.

The most interesting bit comes at the end, when John engages with Neil Davidson. Neil, rather bravely, has identified a democratic deficit within the SWP. I say bravely, because this democratic deficit has existed since at least 1975, has in the interim become a yawning abyss, and members who have raised it in the past have tended to rather quickly become ex-members. What’s even more surprising is that the CC majority seem to have taken up the cause of democratisation. This may be in bad faith, for factional ends, and I’ll believe there’s a new party democracy when I see it, but even so, this is all to the good.

And John himself makes concessions to this line of argument:

I’m sure there are valuable improvements that could be made to the party constitution and to party democracy. The important thing is to find ways of increasing our political clarity by involving more comrades in discussion of and participation in our political strategy. Crucially this involves strengthening the branches, the basic democratic unit of the party. As well as recruiting, this means getting members back to the branches by making them places where politics is discussed in the context of activity, where we develop explanations of events but also discuss and organise the broadest possible campaigning activity.

It also means diminishing the weight of the apparatus and its abuse of the existing democratic structures. It is obvious for instance that the current delegate entitlement, where there are sometimes more people elected to conference than there are people in the room to elect them, needs to be reformed.

This is good stuff, and a very long way removed from what we’d hear even a year or two ago, that the SWP was the most democratic organisation on earth. It’s worthwhile, however, setting it alongside the arguments about what the leadership should look like. Martin Smith seems to want to move towards a team leadership and away from the feudal-federal system of the post-Cliff CC; John seems to want to maintain the autonomy of the fiefs. The argument is rather opaque, however.

I’m also intrigued by Neil’s idea of a semi-professional CC, which would draw on members who have paying jobs and who live outside Hackney, the theory being that this would lead to the CC being able to draw on a wider range of experience. Frankly, I’ve been in favour of this sort of thing all along. Virtually all of the current CC, with the notable exception of Prof Callinicos, are SWP fulltimers. Some have barely been outside the centre in decades. Too many have never held down a job outside the SWP, although I have heard that Chris Harman once had a paper round. This tends only to narrow the base of the CC dramatically, and to create an echo chamber. As Jim Cannon used to say, if you get a bunch of like-minded people in a room, they can talk themselves into just about anything.

I also have some sympathy for Neil’s view that the understanding of a “united front” should be narrowed towards the classic Comintern view, in particular ditching the concept of the “united front of a special type”. Given that the broad party model of the SSP or LCR is seriously undertheorised, the UFOAST doesn’t improve our understanding one jot. Two cheers for Neil, as long as he isn’t arguing for the abandonment of the united front method.

There’s also the question of where this will all lead politically. The CC minority of Rees, German, Bambery and Nineham, although they aren’t my four favourite people, are the people most associated with the push outwards over the past ten years. It’s not clear yet that the CC majority actually is pushing towards a more introspective, propagandist approach, but it certainly bases itself on the section of the membership that does favour such an approach. And, while I have some instinctive affinity for the purist wing, it’s also the hardest wing of the party to have any sort of engagement with.

So the balls are in the air, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It may be that personal recriminations at the top will overshadow the serious politics. On the other hand, at least the splits at the top have created the space where the politics can be discussed.


  1. Anon said,

    December 15, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    I think that moreso than any other factor, the ruminations of dissent from the top are resultant of the political vacuism of the SWP leadership than any real mood-change or swing in wider membership. Whether or not the common footies ever had the clout to occasionally get pissed off and actually effect some change is debatable; but they certainly do not today. The Old Timers and ‘Purists’ are, by and large, happy and contented in the provinces, ignoring central directives and perpetuating the traditional cycles of Swappy activity – slowly dissipating into non-existance. The small (but increasingly significant) group of reformers by and large still don’t have the gumption (or political experience) to get their acts together and form a cohesive platform (most of Smith’s democratic posturings of late have no doubt been influenced by this group of mainly insider post-student organisers). Almost the entirety of the new membership of the last 10 years are not serious Leninists. They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t take the organisation (nor their role/democratic duty within it) in any way seriously, on the occasion that they do actually know something about it. Lower activist membership is completely pocked with naive Kleinesque/environmental wannabe revvos, who don’t read, don’t understand the history or roots of the Party, and have no inclination to do so. I know the SWPs recruitment policy has come under fire amongst the left in recent decades, but I really think that actual real damage it has caused amongst the rank-and-file activists is understated even here. The SWP doesn’t actually have a membership *capable* of reigniting a modern, effective and genuinely revolutionary polity today, increased democracy or not. I’d even go as far as to say that giving the new membership an effective voice in the running of the organisation would be a bad thing.

    Dire straits, as far as I can see.

  2. ejh said,

    December 15, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Almost the entirety of the new membership of the last 10 years are not serious Leninists. They don’t know what they’re doing

    So where are the serious Leninists, who know what they’re doing and have been able to “reignite a modern, effective and genuinely revolutionary polity”?

  3. Anon said,

    December 15, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    A realistic assessment of the internal mess that is the Socialist Workers Party needs not an indication as to more viable alternatives in order to maintain its validity. Personally, I find the SWP infinitely more tolerable than most any other purportedly revolutionary socialist organisation – due to my personal experience with the Party, however, I do not conclude that they are in any way a *serious* organisation.

    Personally, I think the struggle we have today is, precisely, to reignite a “modern, effective and genuinely revolutionary” analysis for the modern day – not to reform organisations which have been lost to effective political re-routment long ago.

    I just don’t think you can patch this one up.

  4. end of an era said,

    December 15, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    You make some very cogent points, and of course it’s hard to see what Neil Davidson is arguing without access to his article, but for those of us who have argued for years that the UFOASK was seriously lacking in both depth and meaning at least there is something to play with here.

    The failure to deepen this argument past the basic Rees position that ‘everything is a united front from the trade unions to soviets’ allowed members to pick and choose whether to get involved or not. It held back the development of both the Socialist Alliance and the Respect while further allowing the leadership the political freedom to blow them out of the water when they no longer suited their latest perspective.

    The trouble with ‘bending the stick’ so often is that ultimately the stick breaks and you have to find a new one.

    So the branches are split into smaller and smaller units of increasingly tired and over-stretched individuals and then when that fails you decide, on dictat from above, to scrap the branches altogether (cue gentle exodus by exhausted comrades off to mow the lawn or watch the football on Saturday’s instead of selling the paper) which results in even fewer active members.

    But as long as the subs were flowing in and the Top Brass are able to ‘lead’ their various united fronts (special or otherwise) then all is well until the trail of destruction left by the desire to control everything (because the Marxists have the clearest idea of the line of march) leaves little influence and pent up frustration amongst your long-standing allies. And then the money starts to run out.

    So if this debate augers some honest soul-searching amongst the SWP then that’s all to the better. But since Rees is not prepared to admit to anything other than he took some dodgy cash (but really it’s all Galloway’s fault for telling people about it) while you took £75 grand from Morrissey and didn’t tell a soul (finger pointing mysteriously at CC member in charge of LMHR) then we’ve barely got an argument.

    The brace of Smiths, the good professor and the industrial giant that is Mr Kimber plus the rest of the CC majority are just as culpable as Rees, German and Bambery in the last few years slow decline. Rees is finished because he’s admitted, albeit obliquely, that the infallible CC may have made a mistake or two. But for the rest of the left to take the majority seriously we’ll need more than some collective finger pointing at yesterday’s man.

  5. Richard Searle said,

    December 15, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    The first thing that be said of the Rees document is that is that it is intended for public consumption. Anyone who believes otherwise is being naïve. You don’t put something like this on email without the desire for it to leak out, either by design or by default. It shows at least JR has learnt something from the last 12 months, where the SWP would get regularly ‘roughed-up’ in cyberspace.

    However, its playing a high value card and I wonder what other Ace he would have left after he’s played this one. This is a no going back strategy. Once in play, one side or the other has to win ( and the other die, metaphorically) or both will be paralysed.

    What of its contents. The document contains flashes of insight, a brutal honesty about the state of the organisation, joined together with dishonesty, and self–serving mendacity. There are a number of things he leaves out entirely.

    For example, one small case in point. The problem with the state of branch meetings is one that been going on for several years. It’s one reason I stopped going, they were boring, irrelevant, the agenda was set elsewhere and not as a result of what went on in the locality. But has JR only just noticed this

    However, that situation didn’t arrive overnight. For my money it started back mid-1990s when Bambery, as national Organiser, made pronouncements that we were to break up the big branches in to more localised smaller ones. This resulted in the North Manchester Branch which would regularly have 30+ plus people attend every week being broken off in to small fragments, which relied on after while a mad form of voluntarism to sustain their existence while losing members and not being able to retain new members. We lost a number of people whom we had recruited through the very active campaign to keep Booth Hall Children’s Hospital in North Manchester open.

    Over the course of the next few years the other branches created from breaking up the North Manchester branch, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury collapsed or were folded. Like wise this happen to the other big branches ( and I’m sure my brother would have a comment to pass at this particular Point)

    The next stage of the decline came in 2000 at Manchester District Aggregate when John Rees, quoting Lukas announced that we were getting rid of Branches. It went something along these lines, ‘To re-organise the party we must first dis-organise the party’. Well I can assure people that aspect was successfully carried out beyond people’s wildest expectations. This also robbed members of a place where they could discuss ideas, and more over assess and work out strategy and tactics.

    It’s hard to know how to plough through this to a solution. No one was saying there was actually a problem. For a number of years no one would actually admit there was a problem. People would mention it, the long standing District Treasurer would make a numerous references to the declining number of people paying local subs. Although there would be big sales of SW on Market Street, in the city centre. There would be no other or very few other public sales

    At no time do I recall either, the now CC majority or CC minority ever state there was a problem, and deep rooted one. It was just an organisational one. There were the slightly embarrassed announcements of the actual paid sale of SW at conferences. It would hover around the 7000 mark and the very loose definitions of membership. ( dealt with far better by Mark Steel)

    So for me its difficult to believe that either faction offers away forward. Both have been deeply complicit in total bollocks that was conjured up in the split in Respect. The dishonesty behind the idea of a ‘witch-hunt’ was utterly galling. What also I found disturbing was that a majority of members went along with it, but those who didn’t don’t tend to be members any more. So you have to ask what does that leave behind. So I do wonder what those who are left will make of this fraction fight. One year they must defend to the hilt JR because of a witch hunt. This year JR is the demon., lets join the witch hunt.
    ( and all he said was that this piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah,- queue stoning)

    Should we be bothering about this seemly small piece of theatre unfolding? . Yes, because it will result in fewer active socialists and a general diminution of the left as a whole. It will further demoralise a generation of activists who have held political organisation together, and have played a critical role whether in their Trade Unions, or in campaigns that have had a significant from Stop the War, to Defend Council Housing and the numerous local campaigns that spring into existence around the country.

    No, because the man how styled himself more on Oliver Cromwell is likely to end up looking like Napoleon, ten minutes after closing time on the field at Waterloo, who along with others on the CC majority, managed to bugger up the best left of Labour alternative in a generation, to only end up getting knifed by his bag carrier during the whole sorry episode.

    Neither is fit to run a bath let alone a political party.

  6. Irish Mark P said,

    December 16, 2008 at 2:27 am

    I’m not sure that I agree with Richard’s first point. Is there any evidence that this was intended for public consumption, beyond the fact that the document has been leaked?

    There are, relatively speaking, a lot of people in the SWP. Internal documents leak out quite regularly, particularly when some portion of the membership is disgruntled. This document does not read like something written for an external audience and it isn’t as if the Rees faction has set up its own website or even has people openly arguing for it’s view externally. It also hasn’t been followed by a stream of other articles, which we might expect if this really was a decision to go public.

    I can’t think why Rees would go public at this point, unless it’s already become clear that the debate is over and he is to be allowed no access to internal channels. If that was the case, and he was “going public” on that basis the document would be full of the gory details of victimisation. As it is there’s just a complaint in passing about the CC majority refusing to produce an extra discussion bulletin. Even if the minority had already decided on a split, they would have more to gain by fighting their corner internally until the SWP conference. This leak means that much of the remaining discussion will be dominated by allegations or insinuations of disloyalty, not something that helps Rees.

    There is a good chance that this was leaked by someone else in the SWP, a disgruntled member perhaps or an over enthusiastic supporter of Rees. After the huge amount of tactical foolishness surrounding the Respect split debacle I don’t find it hard to believe that an SWP leader would be unwise enough to put a document on email.

    Splinteredsunrise makes a good point when he says that the CC majority seem to have taken up the cause of democratisation and that this is likely to be for cynical reasons. Rees alludes to this in his article when he says:

    “I agree with many of the historical and theoretical points that Chris makes in
    criticism of Neil. But he agrees with many of Neil’s most immediate proposals on party
    democracy. I believe that this is a dangerous course on which the CC majority has
    embarked for purely pragmatic reasons. Like the decision to divide the leadership over
    the OFFU cheque it is being made to conciliate critics not for principled reasons.”

    Nobody can seriously believe that the people at the top of the SWP, people who have been there for decades in most cases, have suddenly and en masse had an attack of conscience on the issue of internal democracy. The idea is, frankly, preposterous. However, if there is a power struggle going on, and if there are punters in the rank and file who are genuinely getting irate on the subject then it’s a perfect stick to beat Rees with.

  7. Darren said,

    December 16, 2008 at 5:57 am

    “Take Martin Thomas. Lots of people say he’s a cunt, but I couldn’t disagree more.”

    Wait up. Who calls Martin a ‘sea with three stars’? That’s bastard harsh.

    He’s one of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met on the left.

    The only thing I ever held against him personally was his annoying habit of actually being one of the few people I’ve met in political life who’s actually read the books he would pontificate at length about.

    Put the rest of us to shame.

  8. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 8:02 am

    it will further demoralise a generation of activists who have held political organisation together

    How would it do this? Why would they not just migrate to other, healthier pastures?

  9. Mbari said,

    December 16, 2008 at 8:24 am

    “So where are the serious Leninists, who know what they’re doing and have been able to “reignite a modern, effective and genuinely revolutionary polity”?

    They’re in the (ex) RCP.

  10. Mike Macnair said,

    December 16, 2008 at 11:59 am

    If the SWP actually carried the discussion through to its logical conclusions, they could indeed revitalise the whole left. But that would require them to abandon:

    (1) appointment of district organisers from the centre as well as subordination of the branches to the organisers;

    (2) the illusion that they are “the only revolutionary party” and their self-deceptions about the size of their membership; in contrast they would need to accept that they are an organisation on the same scale as the SP, though a lot bigger than the rest of us grouplets;

    (3) the rejection of “permanent factions” and “permanent discussion” and the corresponding illusions (a) that the French LCR is ‘paralysed’ (yeah, really) and (b) that the IMG fell apart because of faction-fighting (in fact, the reverse is true: the IMG lived and grew with ‘permanent’ factions and discussion between 1969 and the early 1980s; it broke up because a large minority (the pro-US SWP faction) came to accept SWP-style views on party democracy, and the John Ross- Redmond O’Neill group made a bloc with them to save their jobs, with the result that sharing an organisation with them came to be intolerable for the rest of the group);

    (4) the attempt to keep internal discussion secret, and

    (5) the converse of (3) and (4), which is the belief that unity in action for limited purposes is only possible if debate on political differences between the participants is at least temporarily suppressed, resulting in lurches like that in Respect (SWP as Galloway fan-club abruptly followed by SWP as Galloway-haters).

    At the moment I see little sign in Rees’s or other texts of a real break with any of this stuff.

    This may perhaps be a matter of the political culture making it impossible for SWPers to say in internal discussion “Look, in 1976-77 we embarked on the same path as the WRP before us, that of deceiving ourselves about our own weight; that has driven us increasingly to undermine our own strengths; we have a last chance to get off this path.” If so there is a chance of a positive development.

    Or it may be that SWPers really genuinely believe in their illusions about their place in the world. If so, a WRP-style dissolution or US SWP-style collapse into a much smaller grouplet is already unavoidable.

    In either context it’s damn all use pointing to the numerical weakness of the SWP’s external critics as a reason for not taking criticisms seriously (ejh) . The WRP could have said very similar things before the crisis which broke it up. The left as a whole is in the shit and we all need, however (relatively) big or small we are, to think seriously about alternatives to how we have traditionally done things.

  11. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Bambery did have a job outside the SWP once: he was an IMG full-timer.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Indeed he was, back in Glasgow, and went from one group to the other without managing to lose his full-time status. Nice trick if you can pull it off.

    And well said, Mike.

  13. David Ellis said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    There is no politics in this `split’. The whole discussion is about organisation. Even the SWP’s splits are apolitical.

  14. Ken MacLeod said,

    December 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Mike makes some good points but I doubt the possibility of either a WRP or US-SWP type of development. Both these parties were a lot deeper into a world of their own than the SWP is today, and their members had a degree of bonkers fanaticism that SWP members may sometimes simulate but in fact (to their credit) lack.

  15. Garibaldy said,

    December 16, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Am I the only one astounded by the fact that Davidson revealed that the SWP CC has no (or practically no) people who aren’t full-timers, and no arrangements made to ensure that the different regions of the country are represented? Both these facts seem to me to be shocking, especially in an organisation that elects its CC by slate, rather than by votes for individuals. At another level, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that its organisational structures are warped.

  16. D_D said,

    December 16, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    This discussion, here and in the British SWP, should not be dismissed in one or two sentences. But initially I have to ask, purely on the basis of this fascinating glimpse inside from one of the horses mouths, why, if John Rees represents the outward-looking, ‘united front’ side of the Party, the SWP needs a ‘party-building’ purist’ wing at all?

  17. RobM said,

    December 16, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Garibaldy, its common knowledge and certainly not a secret!

  18. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    The left as a whole is in the shit and we all need, however (relatively) big or small we are, to think seriously about alternatives to how we have traditionally done things.

    Then why don’t you think about these things rather than having yourself yet another discussion about the faults of a small organisation, which faults are beyond your competence to do anything about? The point about the numerical weakness of the critics is that it is possible* that in terms of buildinbg organisations these critics don’t in practice have any better ideas. They’re very good at telling other people what they should do – but not very good at all at doing it themselves.

    This isn’t, I think, remotely their fault: but my point is that it doesn’t really matter if whichever organisation you’re discussing has a better line on this or that, a healthier approach to party democracy, deeper roots in the working-class, a more bottom-up approach to policy-making, a more disciplined apporach, a more flexible approach, a less opportunistic approach or whatever the criticism of choice may be. Nobody is making any meaningful progress at all with whatever approach they take, and that’s because the whole idea has come to a dead end. The political habits and ideas on which it depended have withered away.

    It doesn’t really matter what this or that member of the SWP CC does or does not do and it wouldn’t really matter if they’d done things differently in the past. Nor will it matter if they do things differently in the future: because it’s not about them. It’s about what’s happened to socialism, what’s happened to socialist ideas, what’s happened to the idea of working-class solidarity on which these ideas depend.

    Yoiu can’t even begin to address that question while you’re hung up on the idea that what’s important is the minutae of internal disputes and political changes inside an organisation of which you’re not even a member. Of course these things have a certain interest, especially to former members of that organisation, and people must of course discuss whatever they happened to be interested in (I mean I write a chess blog, everybody’s got to have a hobby). but it seems to me that there’s the most enormous failure of perspective involved.

    [* you’ll appreciate that this actually means “blindingly obvious”]

  19. skidmarx said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Is there something wrong with living in Hackney and not having paid work? It’s not just the Nine you know:

  20. skidmarx said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    ” Nor will it matter if they do things differently in the future”

    That’s only true if your previous paragraph is correct. While it’s probably true that it is a waste of time to discuss the internal organisation of the SWP if not a member, your contention that it (and all other far Left organisations ) are at a dead end seems like a case of ipse-dixitism.

  21. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Surely “is” unless the bracket is removed?

    I don’t see which far Left organisations, based on which principles and praxis (whether similar to the SWP or very different) and thriving and I’m really very inclined to see that as something intrinsic rather than something that’s only happening because nobody’s hit on the magic formula. I think the decline in socialist belief and in working-class consciousness is the indispensable backstory to the last thirty years in history and I don’t think that we have a formula to reverse it.

  22. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Anyway I have accepted blog discipline and accept (in order to maintain a united face in front of the proletariat) the requirement to actually read the piece referred to in the OP. I have got as far as:

    After all, Lenin accepted the help of
    the German state in the midst of war to return to Russia

    at which point I think I’d like to employ that “perspective” term again….

  23. Garibaldy said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:48 pm


    Thanks for that. I am not all that interested in the internal organisation of the various groups on the British far left, but this struck me as entirely unexpected. The point of a CC is to represent the party, and ensure that there is cohesion between the members and the leadership. It is also true that many members of any party will not be full timers, yet they can still make a valuable contribution, and play leading roles. I have never come across this specific combination before. Splintered’s criticisms of the SWP leadership as a self-interested group defending their collective privileges make more sense in this context. I’m still amazed that this could seem a reasonable way to organise a national leadership for a party that lacks councillors, MPs etc when such an approach might make more sense.

  24. Mike Macnair said,

    December 16, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    ejh: I would be more attracted to your idea that

    “Nobody is making any meaningful progress at all with whatever approach they take, and that’s because the whole idea has come to a dead end. The political habits and ideas on which it depended have withered away.”


    “It’s about what’s happened to socialism, what’s happened to socialist ideas, what’s happened to the idea of working-class solidarity on which these ideas depend”

    if it were not that

    (1) the phenomenon you are describing is (roughly) plausible enough for Britain and more generally the Anglophone countries, but does not appear to be global or even Europe-wide;

    (2) similar claims were made in the late 19th century and in the 1950s-early 60s, only to be spectacularly disproved by what followed;

    (3) Even in England, the Lib Dems (etc) have not succeeded in displacing Labour in its core working class constituency, and the continuing class division between the two main parties, reinforced in recent months, is hard to explain on any basis other than (very low-level) politics of class solidarity.

    On your substantive point, that commenting about groups’ internal affairs is a waste of time:

    (a) History is made not just by ‘objective forces’ but also by large numbers of individual decisions, including the decisions of small groups. Small-group splits and errors affect the morale of wider layers of activists, and vice versa unity among small groups can have and often has had a ‘snowball effect’.

    (b) The mode of internal organisation of the left groups, large and small, is a common concern for all of us because it both prevents us from uniting for effective action around our *common* views and concerns and has profound negative effects on the way a large number of people who have passed through or been in contact with groups see us all.

    (c) As to the idea that small numbers show that concepts of organisation are worse than or no better than SWP’s. Go back to the late 50s-60s: all the other groups were so far in the shadow of the CP and to a lesser extent the Healy organisation (Club, SLL, WRP) that none of them, even the IS, went much beyond double figures in membership. In the late 60s-70s the IS, Militant and IMG broke through to operate on the same broad scale as the SLL-WRP. That didn’t happen because Cliff & Co, Grant & Co or Jordan & Co suddenly developed new and better organisational conceptions than those they had held through the 50s-60s. (Though part of the rise of the smaller groups was due to reaction among broader layers against Healy’s Stalinist organisational conceptions. In the 60s the large size of the Healy group (or a fortiori of the old CP) was not an argument in favour of its organisational ideas. No more is the absolute size of the SWP now an argument in favour of its organisational conceptions.

  25. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    The mode of internal organisation of the left groups, large and small, is a common concern for all of us because it both prevents us from uniting for effective action around our *common* views and concerns

    And tell me….does all this discussion ever lead to an improvement in that situation? Does the fabled process of political clarification ever actually occur?

    , but does not appear to be global or even Europe-wide

    I think it’s certainly Europe-wide at the very least (though to be honest, it’s far wider than that). Are figures for union membership, for strikes, for membership of left organisations, really down only in the English-speaking countries? Is interest in socialist ideas really the same as it was a generation ago?

    If you think so, then by all means carry on as you were – but what will happen is that in twenty years’ time you’ll still be having the same arguments…and blaming the same people. You’ll have to.

    But I think that social consciousness is related to social being, and something serious has been happening to social being that all the discussion (or rather, recitation) of political lines and organisational forms and histories of this party or that isn’t going to change and isn’t even going to address. So what we have is smaller and smaller numbers of people shouting at one another – and it doesn’t mater how loud they shout, nobody else is listening.

    I don’t know how much this matters – certainly, I haven’t got a better specific idea (except that perhaps we should shout less). I haven’t got a Way Forward. I might have a Way Sideways though.

  26. skidmarx said,

    December 16, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Yes you are singularly right. I was in a rush.

    “So what we have is smaller and smaller numbers of people shouting at one another ”

    The SWP hasn’t terminally declined in size or influence. I think you’re wearing the reverse of rose-tinted spectacles.

  27. End of an Era said,

    December 16, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Does a Way Sideways involve little but complaining about “Fucking Merlot”?

  28. skidmarx said,

    December 16, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    I’m sorry, that last comment was from me. Posting as End of an Era was an unintentional accident.

  29. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    The SWP hasn’t terminally declined in size or influence.

    Well, I was actually thinking of the far left as a whole rather than one organisation within it: but since you raise the question, if I did think that of that organisation, why would I obviously be wrong?

    I don’t think I’m wearing any spectacles other than those which aid my actual and metaphorical sight. I’m looking, I think with perspectie, at what’s happened to movements and ideas over a long period and seeing some fairly clear patterns.

    Now of course anybody can say “well, people said that in the Fifties and look what happened next” but then again,even if that were an adequate argument (which it is not) I’m not necessarily saying the same things as were said in the Fifities.

  30. skidmarx said,

    December 16, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Is perspectie a Scots thing?

    My last post refers to a comment that didn’t appear asked whether a Way Sideways is all about bitching about Fecking Merlot.

    You would obviously be wrong because it isn’t a fraction of its former size. And even if it didn’t recruit, it did set up the Stop The War Coalition.

  31. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Yeah, but it didn’t recruit heavily from it. Rather the opposite as far as I can see. And that’s part of the point. Partly, because just because they were the most active people didn’t mean people, agreed with everything else they said – on the whole they didn’t (and wouldn’t have whatever their specific politics had been). And partly – why in this day and age would people want to be involved in a revolutionary party? What can they do in it that they can’t do without being in it? Or so, at any rate, it’ll appear to them.

    It’s gone, I think. This idea of forming, or joining, a party, which recruits other people, the best people, because it has the best ideaa and does the best things….it’s gone. It has a very, very high failure rate. Not because nobdy ever found the magic formula, but because there wasn’t one.

    The Way Sideways begins with a Step Backwards – to stop banging our heads against the wal, and to stop pretending it’s all the fault of That Other Group Who Are Really Terrible and to think about where we really are, without preconceptions and (please God) without reams and reams of regurgitated certainties, and to think about what modest things we might actually be able to do. If we feel up to it.

  32. WorldbyStorm said,

    December 16, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Those are some very intriguing points ejh. I tend to think you’re broadly right. It’s dismaying how class based analyses however thin appear to be ebbing away and that encompasses the spectrum from centre left to furthest left. And it’s not that there is no way back, but I’d also agree that the idea there is a magic formula is misconstrued. That said, and on something of a tangent, I wonder how the advent of the internet and the ability to get much more immediate insights into the internal workings of political formations than was ever true in the past – and moreover the ability to discuss and debate the issues – is changing the situation? Taking a small example, it’s much more difficult now to get away with inflated membership numbers, something the WP was very guilty of back when I was a member… and that’s got to have impacts.

  33. ejh said,

    December 16, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    it’s not that there is no way back

    I think there is no way back, but I don’t mean, by that, that we have to cast off all idealism and all socialist ideas and all accept that we’re just largely autonomous individuals seeking our personal destinies through the mechanisms of a modern market economy. I do think that old certainties have to be thrown off simply because there’s no way we can look at the experience and fortune of the socialist idea over the past generation and be certain about anything.

    And if we’re going to have a proper, thoughtful discussion about anything, and one that doesn’t repel any innocent observer who happens to take an interest, it would be helpful to that end if we weren’t over-burdened by bores and know-it-alls whose preferred approach to political discussion was going on and on about each other.

    Thoughtful. That’s a good word. That’s what most leftwing discussion isn’t. I presume in truth that there’s nothing much I can do about that, but I can at least say so.

  34. Andy Newman said,

    December 16, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Well left ideas are certainly back in vogue in Germany, and that is within Europe.

    And in France the PCF still has 100000 plus members, so i wouldn’t write the left off yet.

    Even in britain the Labour party will still get none million plus votes at the next general election, and Livingstone vot went up in the mayoral election in both percentage and absolute terms – even though he lost.

  35. Garibaldy said,

    December 16, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    I think ejh is certainly right that we are in an incredibly difficult period, but that others are also right to point to the green shoots of potential rebirth. Clearly the left needs to find new language to reach out to people, and the navel gazing and rival-baiting that goes on within many groups – especially on the British far left – is far from helpful. We have an opportunity to push old labour values at the least, and should be doing so.

  36. Dr Paul said,

    December 16, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Jim Higgins on Martin Thomas re Sean Matgamna: credit given where credit due:

    ‘I did, however, notice in Sean’s acknowledgements at the front of the volume, where he thanks Martin Thomas for help in editing the draft of part two of the Introduction to just a tenth of its original length. Now part two in the final text is 69 pages long, I counted them, and if you will just multiply that number by 10 you will realise that Martin deserves a heartfelt vote of thanks from all of us for his selfless endeavours. Now there’s a man I would be happy to go to the barricades with any day.’

  37. Dimitris said,

    December 17, 2008 at 4:59 am

    A… it seems we are in the verge of a cultural revolution in the SWP theese days. The monolithic CC split in two factions seeking to dominate the party and each of the waring parties adressing the red guards for support. This may be a perfect chance for the “kids” (I mean the members) to try to recapture some of the gains of the “revolution” for themselves (as in the original cultural revolution). I just hope what comes next is not an SWP version of Deng Xiao Ping and the four modernizations policy!!!

  38. ejh said,

    December 17, 2008 at 8:03 am

    And in France the PCF still has 100000 plus members

    How old are they?

    There’s quite a lot of PCE* members where I am, too, but whenever you see photos or TV coverage of them they all look like they grew up under Franco.

    We have an opportunity to push old labour values at the least

    I think this is probably true: there’s obviously, for instance, going to be an assault of welfare and pension provision just at a time when the assumption that you can provide for your family and future by work and private investment is at its shakiest.

    But there’s still not likely to be any takers for revolutions and overthrows.

    [* as opposed to the PCPE, for whom my local bar appear to be selling Xmas raffle tickets]

  39. Garibaldy said,

    December 17, 2008 at 9:28 am


    I don’t think now is the time to be talking about revolution either. I know people who used to think in the 1970s that they might see socialism in their lifetime, but I don’t know anyone who thinks like that anymore. However, talking about defending workers’ rights and public services within a broader framework of class politics is not necessarily the same thing as screaming revolution in the morning.

  40. Andy newman said,

    December 17, 2008 at 10:48 am

    How old are the PCF?

    I heard the same argument about the PDS in Germany, people would argue that most of the membership were over 50 years old, and some 20% were pensioners.

    But …

    10% of the membership were under 25, and as the membership was 78000, that meant they had nearly 8000 young members. If you look at the slate of representatives that PDS (even bofore merging into de Linke) used to put up for election, they were often young, the list was gender balanced, and with a proportionate number of non-whites

  41. ejh said,

    December 17, 2008 at 11:11 am

    that meant they had nearly 8000 young members


  42. Andy newman said,

    December 17, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Well 8000 young members out of a total 78000 members, and all in the former DDR, that itself had a population of just 16 million; and the organisation was able to win two deputies of the Reichstag in first past the post constituencies.

    To my mind that is the foundation for a serious left force – as of course die Linke have proven to be just such a serious force; winning literally millions of votes.

    If your thesis is that the left are finished in Europe, then you have too do better at explaining Germany, where the left is definitley back in fashion.

  43. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    December 17, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    I’m not sure its the Reichstag they are being elected to these days Andy.

  44. Anon said,

    December 17, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    But look at the long-term trends. Are we talking left in a genuinely revolutionary sense, here? Or are we (rather) simply discussing the preponderance of leftwing politicians in a political system which has no real aspirations towards socialism?

    I’d argue the latter; even with a genuinely revolutionary widespread mood within Europe, with the entire European economy not being productively based and as such being dependent upon emerging industrial economies (where though there are signals of class-consciousness emerging, there are no real claims to a sophisticated Marxist analysis coming to play any significant role in their development as of yet) would be fundamentally hamstrung. Hypothetically, imagine if a truly revolutionary mass movement did sweep Germany and a democratic workers’ state was set up next week – could it cater for its own needs? Could it, logistically, survive? I doubt that it could.

    The problem for the European left (so far as I can see) is that though it is never a good idea to sit on the sidelines and fiddle whilst Rome burns, to a certain extent we are placed in an impotent situation. What is taking place in a broader context is a global shift in power away from the West and towards the East, effectively reducing the potential impact of anything we could realistically achieve within the confines of the European borders. We should be bracing ourselves for a Big Hit, not becoming triumphalistic about the decline of capitalism. It still has alot of Ooomph left in it yet. In an unproductive economy such as that of most of Europe, the potential for revolution is inexorably diminished. Before Europe can realistically be seen as a potential revolutionary hotbed, capitalism must make its purges on the living standards of the Western working classes (under the auspices of the oncoming financial storm);- it must reduce us to standards of living which are competitive on the global labour market, and a productive working class must once again rise in Europe (as the only such social force with the adequate potential for building a new society).

    It’s a tough call – it’s never easy accepting your own lack of agency – but I’d say this is one of those occasions when Trotskyists need to be calling for tactical retreat…

  45. ejh said,

    December 17, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I’m not sure that it makes much difference whenther Trotskyites call for tactical retreat, full-scale retreat, full-scale attack or a coffee morning with biscuits and eclairs.

    Re: Germany, the phrase that comes to mind is “the straws are getting thinner all the time”.

  46. Binh said,

    December 17, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Good post, but I’m afraid Rees’ words will have as much impact as Molyneux’s call for more democracy.

    And I hope you go back to the old look of the site. The new one, frankly, is ugly as hell. I’d hate to see Richard Seymour be proven right on the question of how readable this blog is.

  47. Andy newman said,

    December 17, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    I don’t understand where you are cming from ejh.

    Germany shows that it is possible to revive left wing social democracy in Europe; ergo, the left is not dead.

  48. Donagh said,

    December 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    While this might be slightly off topic I think it should still be of interest to those reading this thread, and certainly it hits upon the subject of what strategies the entire spectrum of the left can use in dealing with the current meltdown of Global capital.

    In order to get discussion going around Michael Taft’s 10 proposals for economic renewal, which we published on Irish Left Review recently, I asked several well known politicians, commentators and academics if they’d be willing to write a piece as a response. Several have agreed to it, and we’ve already published articles by Professor Terry MacDonough of the Dept of Economics in NUI, Galway, Dan Boyle of the Green Party, and (the main reason why I’m mentioning all this here as he has featured in many posts by Splintered before) we’ve just published the response from Kieran Allen of SWP, who is also head of Sociology at UCD.

    Kieran takes issue with Michael’s tendency to remain wedded to Keynesian economics, but it’s an interesting read all the same.

  49. Ulbricht said,

    December 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    On the side issue of whether Rees intended this for public consumption: anyone who knows anything about him knows that he intends his shopping list for public consumption at some point, when his life is painstakingly recreated in the monumental state archive dedicated to John Rees thought.

    No. We can very safely assume that Rees not only wrote this with a public audience in mind, but also believes that it will become one of the critical documents of revolutionary Marxism.

    It’s an indication of just how frantic things must be in the Rees-German household that it is replete with uncharacteristic grammatical mistakes and sloppiness, including forgetting to change a section evidently penned by someone else from the third to the first person.

  50. Andy Newman said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Alos worth pointing out the terrible invasion of privacy that someone has hidden a web cam in the Rees household, results can be viewed here:

  51. AnnaNoble said,

    June 5, 2009 at 8:03 am

    I found the best thing to my boyfriend’s birthday… It’s really hard to find cool and still unique.
    So today I saw this thing from ZTARLET on facebook where you can name a real star in heaven and have the certificate and a teddy bear sent to you and pay it by a single SMS. So awesome 🙂

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