Ideologues and dissonance

cliff-tony

One of the late Tony Cliff’s more endearing features was his indomitable optimism. In particular, Cliff couldn’t possibly see a crisis in some other political tendency without suffering visions of getting member-rich quick at somebody else’s expense. It happened during the split in Militant, when Cliff entertained the possibility that the Taaffe faction, or a substantial part thereof, would admit that Cliff had been right after all about the Labour Party and would therefore join the SWP. Truth be told, there was never much chance of that. From time to time, he also thought a chunk of the Labour left would head our way. I draw your attention to the period after Mr Tony Blair’s elevation to the leadership, when Socialist Worker ran a “Leave the Labour Party” campaign, featuring weekly interviews with divers people on “Why I’ve left the Labour Party”. The trouble was, the collapse of the Labour left was a generational collapse, and these folks in their vast majority left the Labour Party and went home. On occasion they went directly to the retirement home.

What I was thinking of in this instance was the long slow death of the CPGB (the real one, not the Weekly Worker) back in the 1980s. Cliff reckoned that following the Soviet collapse he could fish in this pool. Possibly, but he got it all wrong. For one thing, although CP comrades would have been looking for answers about what went wrong in Russia, to take a line of “The Soviet Union has collapsed! Fuck yeah!” was maybe not the right tone. (I paraphrase of course, but the exaggeration is only slight.) The other big problem was that Cliff started approvingly quoting Professor Hobsbawm and Nina Temple, which was not a tactic guaranteed to win friends and influence people in the better parts of the CP milieu.

One problem, I suppose, is that the Eurocomms successfully framed the argument as one between dinosaur Stalinists and critical Marxists. They were helped along by some disingenuous quoting of Gramsci, and by genuine dinosaurs like Rothstein and Page Arnot surfacing to berate the young whippersnapper Hobsbawm. But there were ironies in this, as the “Stalinists” were fighting the battle for party democracy while it was the Euros who were running a draconian purge regime. Actually, not all that ironic, as the tankies generally had much better material, sociologically and, yes, ideologically. For all their deficiencies, they had some concept of class struggle politics and commitment to building a Marxist-Leninist party. The Euros didn’t. They were already well on their way to becoming a Kinnockite ginger group, and sociologically they were very similar to the black, gay and feminist entrepreneurs who a few years earlier had passed through the SWP on their way to sinecures in the GLC or Channel 4. Cliff should have had some idea that the likes of Temple, Jacques and Aaro (so light, so fluffy) were not the most promising material, but then hope springs eternal. Just not always in the right place.

One other thing that fed into this is the strong idealist streak in Trotskyism. Although supposedly we’re materialists, the Trots are often very reluctant to apply materialism to judging political tendencies. They like to judge (both others and themselves) not on their actions but on their formal ideological positions, their heresies and deviations in particular. Just look at the CPB/Morning Star and its Hibernian oppo, the CPI. If you didn’t know about their heritage, would they be recognisable as Stalinist parties in the classic sense? Don’t they look rather more like small left-Labour parties? Meanwhile, as Al Richardson pointed out, there are Trot groups that show remarkable affinities to anarcho-syndicalism, to social democracy and to Stalinism (of both Third Period and Pop Front varieties), more so than to the actual stances of Trotsky and the Left Opposition. (One classic counterfactual is why the Trots don’t like to refer to the economic programme of the Left Opposition. Possibly because it looks uncomfortably similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party.)

Yes, it’s one of those things that shouldn’t really surprise materialists, that people’s professed programmes – even those they sincerely believe in – are not always in accordance with their functional programmes. The old New Left Review, perhaps because of its divorce from practice, used to be a case study in this sort of thing. Perry said he was a Trotskyist, but he looked more like a Eurocomm to me. Norm used to say he was a Luxemburgist, but behind Norm’s praise of Luxemburgist spontaneity was an extremely elitist Marxism that’s been carried over into Norm’s Decent period. Very much like the pseudo-spontaneism of CLR James, although CLR was infinitely more attractive a guru than Norm.

It should be a basic materialist premise. You look at what the left does and then look at the dissonance with what it says. Strauss on Machiavelli doesn’t even begin to touch it.

78 Comments

  1. johng said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    I don’t have any memory of Cliff or the SWP suggesting that the eurocoms were the most promising material. As far as I can remember they were quoted simply to make the point that the CPGB leadership of the time were entirely bankrupt. The SWP had of course been longterm critics of Hobsbawn and the kind of view he represented (foward march of labour halted and all that), the recycling of which one see’s occassionally nowadays over on the Socialist Unity Blog. I don’t really recall that we thought we would recruit a lot of CP members and in general my memory is that whilst we’d back the tankies against the euros on class struggle issues, the term stalinist was misused in internal CP publications. An argument I had the great joy of having all over again with Mark Perryman over on SUN. Middle age brings with it its own special comforts.

  2. jp said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Over here in the USA, the relevant dissonance is those who claim to be left – even socialist – but act like – Democrats!

  3. February 25, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    “One other thing that fed into this is the strong idealist streak in Trotskyism. Although supposedly we’re materialists, the Trots are often very reluctant to apply materialism to judging political tendencies. They like to judge (both others and themselves) not on their actions but on their formal ideological positions, their heresies and deviations in particular.”

    1000% true. Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that “the Left” is a useless category, consisting as it does of sects and individuals who have a truckload on common on paper but absolutely nothing in common in real life. Which is why the Socialist Alliances in various countries – attempts to regroup on the basis of paper programme – have collapsed dramatically.

    The only serious left regroupment has to be on the basis of practical action. I wouldn’t go as far as Andy Newman saying that reform/revolution doesn’t matter any more, but in practical action Marxists who want to build a broad anti-capitalist party have much more in common with reformists or nationalists who want the same thing than Marxists who want to build a sect based on “programmes” which resemble religious credos.

    The idea that “us Marxists have to stick together” is the beginning of sectarianism.

  4. Dr Paul said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    SS wrote: ‘But there were ironies in this, as the “Stalinists” were fighting the battle for party democracy while it was the Euros who were running a draconian purge regime.’

    I don’t know about the first half, but the second half is true. I had a press pass to the CPGB’s congress in 1987. The disciplinary session was amazing. A large number of the party’s trade union militants were up for expulsion or suspension, including Derek Robinson. All except Judy Cotter, a Nalgo activist from Liverpool, had sent in their appeals to the party executive, only to have them turned down. A young Eurocommunist member of the disciplinary committee told the congress that Cotter’s appeal had not been received, but the executive was recommending rejection of it anyhow. There were howls of delighted laughter from the floor, and a few cries of disbelief from old tankies. Uncle Joe would have been proud.

  5. Dr Paul said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Someone else who had high hopes in the Tankies was David Yaffe of the Revolutionary Communist Group. He and his majority faction in the RCG, at that point a fairly orthodox Trotskyist group, suddenly got the idea in around 1975-76 that the old-style Tankies in the CPGB (who later formed the New Communist Party) represented a ready-made Marxist vanguard, as compared to the soggy Euros. This caused a big row in the RCG, and helped to lead to a split between Professor Yaffle and those who subsequently formed the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (later Party).

    It also helped to lead Yaffle & Co in the direction of Stalinism themselves. I doubt the political nous and even sanity of anyone who became a Stalinist in the late 1970s, at a time when the Soviet Union was definitely showing signs of decrepitude. Still, it enables the RCG today to bask in the Cuban sunshine, although the dread question must soon face them as to whether Raúl is following in the true footsteps of Fidel, or betraying the glorious revolution.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 26, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Coming back to johng, it’s possible I am misremembering some of the detail, as I was spending a lot of time in Bulgaria during this period. But I’m also being slightly facetious, as Cliff was also being facetious. If you’re producing a polemic for internal consumption, it makes sense to quote Eric and the Euros as the people most dismissive of the CP tradition. A quote from Mike Hicks just wouldn’t serve the same purpose. But that’s the exact opposite of what you would do if you were trying to win anyone from the CP base.

    On the other hand, having a look at some of the SWP material from the period, although Duncan in particular was very good on this, there’s also some affinity for the Euros. Not in the sense of signing up to FMOLH or the whole Marxism Today bill of goods, but more in the sense that you had youngish, progressive-minded people fighting against elderly hidebound Stalinists. I think that the “Stalinism” issue blurred things a little – and maybe this my Marcyite streak – but certainly my instinct would have been to critically support the tankies on a class basis.

    Ah yes, the RCG. They are a rum bunch, aren’t they? Still doing the Tanzanian folk dances I hope?

  7. February 26, 2009 at 9:59 am

    As an ex-Euro – who also attended the 1987 congress – I’m intrigued by this version of history. It is nothing at all like the events and people that I recall. I don’t suppose there is anything I can say that will change your mind on your assessments of the relative political programmes of the two sides in a long ago small civil war but I do think you’ve making a factual error in your sociological analysis.

    Actually, the key different on this front wasn’t between ‘Stalinists’ and ‘Euros’ but between generations: it was much more likely that people (then) in their forties or above would be manual workers and people under 35 would be graduates of one type or other of white collar employment, often in the public or voluntary sector. This was true on both sides of the divide in my memory: I knew several bright young Oxbridge educated ‘tankies’ (well Straight Left types anyway) – and I also knew manual workers who definitely took the side of MT – or at least who supported the leadership against Mike Hicks/Costello et al. But I accept more of the younger people were on the side of the leadersip or MT.

    I have no direct knoweldge of what the SWP might have thought it was up to in the period of the CPGB’s collapse. But if they thought their message was likely to fall on fertile ground on either side of the Euro/Tankie ideological divide at that time I’m afraid they didn’t understand the culture of the collapsing party.

  8. skidmarx said,

    February 26, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Not quite the way I remember it either. I note that what Al Richardson actually says about the SWP is “as to what the SWP’s virtue may be is another matter – perhaps comrades can enlighten me. Middle class syndicalism is, I believe, rather comical.” I recall mention in the late 80s that the Euros liked post-anything as long as it wasn’t a postal workers strike, and I think at the foundation of the CPB the line was much the same as you have here, that the CPB might be more tankie but still had some class politics.

    There really were people leaving the Labour Party. I seem to recall that the party’s line was that there was no organised Labour Left left to recruit a chunk of. I would have thought if one were to look for a materialist explanation for why most of them didn’t join the SWP one would start with the historically low levels of traditional class struggle.

    I met a number of ex-Millies who had joined the SWP pre-split, it’s not unreasonable to think more might have followed.

    I think it’s good that Cliff bent the stick away from describing anyone the SWP disagreed with as a petty bourgeois deviationist.

    What distinguishes CLR James’ “pseudo-spontaneism” from the coca-cola kind?

    Not knowing what Marcyite meant, I discovered this from Melbourne Indymedia’s field guide to the American Left: “”Marcyite” is the official orientation of this small national organization. Notorious for not working with other groups.” Seems a little more sectarian than the SWP’s desire to benefit from crises in other groups. What the forsooth else are they expected to do?

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I’m actually glad to have Charlie’s perspective. I wasn’t trying to give a history of the CP – don’t have the inside knowledge for it – so was really starting off with my impressions of what Cliff might have been trying to do. Of course, trying to second-guess Cliff may be a fool’s errand in any case.

    I remember a few people coming over from the pre-split Militant – and on one occasion a group from the SNP! – but I think more could have been done, including intervening in the CP milieu, with a bit of tactical thought. What Healy did in ’56 was probably exemplary although we know that didn’t last.

    And hey, Sam Marcy was a clever bloke. His organisation is very good at building single-issue campaigns and mass demos, but yes, not great at working in environments where they aren’t totally in charge. Good at working with high-profile individuals but not with other groups. And a bit at sea since their founding guru died.

  10. johng said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    In particular I can remember attending a Marxism Today conference on Gramsci dominated by the Euro’s at which we were told by a leading member that normally when we intervene in such conferences we try and locate the militant minority and relate to them etc, but at this do, ‘these people are scum-all of them’. We certainly would not have had that attitude to straight left or what have you. It was one of the most viciously unpleasent and right wing conferences it had ever been my misfortune to attend: ironically chanting broke out ‘get out the ice picks’ led by one beatrix campbell, rather re-enforcing the point that the only thing these people disliked about what they took to be Stalin was that it wasn’t right wing enough and only imperfectly adapted to right ward moving social democracy. Our attitude would have been entirely different to a section of the left still orientated on trade unions whether Stalinist, Trotskyist or interested in flying saucers. In my view the role of the Eurocoms in Britain was to try and co-opt the movements of the 1970s into right wing social democracy (and sometimes to the right of that). The ‘stalinists’ were more interested in left wing social democracy, and the pressures reflected more organic connections with sections of the trade union bureacracy. Yes Duncan Hallas (and indeed Ian Birchill) had a very good understanding of all this. And whilst some undestandably see the occassionally haphazard way in which the average SWP member forms his world view as a fatal flaw, I think, it must be taken into account that many comrades would take Cliff along with those other views. Its interesting that some of the eurocoms who did have principles of some kind on the left (I can remember martin jaques and stuart hall looking decidly embarressed during the worst moments of that conference) have since been rather self critical about the right wing excesses of the new times lot. Quite simply they were wrong.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Stalinist, Trotskyist or interested in flying saucers.

    Actually, the Posadists were quite good at intervening in industrial struggles. When you saw them, you’d be really disappointed at how sensible they were when not repeating the Leader’s thoughts about socialism in one galaxy.

  12. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    The biggest dissonance of all is claiming to be a revolutionary and yet failing to make the revolution – a perennial failure of the left in Western Europe.

    The RCG working their way from orthodox Trotskyism to a pro-Castroism is one reaction to that – not an irrational one, in my view.

  13. chjh said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I was at the same MT Gramsci conference as johng – my impression at the time was that MT was making a name for itself as a left pole of attraction, and that we were trying to pick up the people who were pulled by that, rather than by the Euros’ specific politics. Industrially, of course, we were working (yes, even that late) with people who were also attracted to the CPGB, and much of the more detailed polemic was aimed at them.

    I was never aware of any special orientation on trying to recruit people out of the fall-out, though. I went on a press pass from Socialist Review to the final CPGB conference, having argued that this was a moment to mark, but the reason I went was that no-one else was interested in going.

    And there was never any question about whether we were pro-tankie or pro-MT – I can’t ever remember any SWP member declaring the slightest sympathy for the Euros.

  14. johng said,

    February 26, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I should say that there was a reason for us to be there: aside from the late booking of Chris Harman when Quentin Hoare of recent decentist fame cancelled. It was to ‘defend the honour of Gramsci’. I thought the leading comrade who said that this was the only reason was being a bit OTT. Then I went to the conference. I think Chjh’s point about a ‘left pole of attraction’ might have been true for a narrow academic layer, but my memory (which obviously might be paling) is that this was the fagend of the phenomenan. Which indeed it turned out to be. On a bus with another comrade we discussed what if anything this rather strange collection of people represented. It recalled the kind of venue were John Lennon would ask people to rattle their jewlery. Now there was of course more to Eurocommunism as a general phenomenan then that, and there were some folk who went on to play a not dishonourable role in left politics. But in Britain during that period: not much.

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Eurocommunism of course never made it across to Ireland, where guys like Jimmy Stewart were very much the kind of communists Harry Pollitt would have recognised. I’m not sure whether this was good or bad, but to me (and my memory is probably telescoping a little) the MT project seemed… well, reasonable enough if you were a soft-left Labour faction, but a bit out of place for people who said they were communists. And in retrospect I think the McLennan leadership made an enormous mistake in leaning on MT. Had they leant the other way for their majority they might have had a party left at the end of the day.

    Talking of which, I see Carrillo resurfaced recently. I’d thought he was dead.

  16. Mark P said,

    February 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    It did sort of make it to Ireland but very late and in its most degenerate form – as a handy set of phrases and buzzwords for the people involved in the New Agenda/DL split from the Workers Party. Even the name DL and the name of their new publication (the truly abysmal) “Times Change” showed a pretty direct influence from the Italians and Brits.

    Eurocommunism had no real roots in Irish Stalinism though. It’s just that bits and pieces could be lifted from it for factional purposes in the post-Soviet Union WP.

  17. Andy Newman said,

    February 26, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I actually remember having a conversation with Hallas about this very topic, at the time. His assessment was that both sides had strengths and weaknesses, the Tankies had better class politics and orientation on the unions; the MT crowd had a more critical approach to Stalinism, and were better on oppression politics. I don’t have any recollection of the SWP trying to recruit from either pond, but the trajectory of the MT supporters was always going away from the SWP.

    I think the importnat point is in Splinty’s article about the disconnect between formal political programme, and the institutional and organisational forces built around it.

    This was certainly very true in the CPGB at that point. The formal ideological and political position on Marxism Today had a lot to commend it; but it could not be seperated by a fight to the death over the fate of the CPGB, and the issue of Stalinism couldn’t be avoided.

    The absoutely necessary task of the official communist tradition was to overcome the historical legacy of actually existing socialism, and the undemocratic legacy that had in actual practice of the Western communist parties. The structural impossisibility of the CPGB thoroughly completeing this task got all bundled together with the Marxism Today theses about the changing nature of the working class, and the need for coalitional politics. It was like a car wreck that everyone could see happening, but no-one knew how to avoid.

    Quite often in political faction fights, the struggle takes on a dynamic of its own that transends the original dispute.

    Arguable, without a perceived need to defend the USSR, there was actually no compelling reason for the CP to continue a seperate existance from the labour Party, given the failure of the CP to ever become a mass party. So the inherent liquidationism of anti-Stalinism in a British context also had a significant role, because the tankies accurately judged that the end game would be the winding up of the party.

    But I do think it is necessary to take the ideas of marxism today out of the pariah box they have been cast into to, and seperate them from the faction fight that surrounded them; because the issues that were raised are ones that the left has still not found answers to. And Hobsbawm’s “forward march of Labour halted” argument is actually much better than people remember, becasue we often only dealt with a caracature of it.

    It is also clear that there is a certain conservatism from some parts of the activist left, who prefer their propaganda sect purity to real mass politics; and the contempt that marxism Today had for that form of leftism is not misplaced.

  18. February 26, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    I really think you lot are re-chewing your intellectual comfort food. it must surely be stale by now? You should at least try to compare your inherited ideas of what went on in the old CP with the participants’ views. I would recommend Geoff Andrew’s Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of the British Communist Party for a broadly Euro view.

    What’s interesting about that book, in the light of this discussion, is that it re-affirms my own memory: the SWP simply were not on the intellectual radar of any part of the CP in the 1980s. & I say this as someone who shared a flat at the time with a SWP member.We just read different stuff and combined personal friendship with sniffy disdain for what the other thought of as ‘political theory and practice’. So Cliff must have been really out of touch to imagine anything else – unless he convinced himself 1991 was 1956 all over again..

    The other ‘sub-political’ sociological factor you need to grasp is a remarkably high proportion of the old CP in the 1980s – on both sides of the divide – were from Party families. The default – possibly unrecognised – assumption amongst a significant number of people on the Euro side was that they were obviously having a conversation within the Labour Movement about how to relate to the outside world because, actually, they were having a debate inside their families as well as publicly.

    I was at that Gramsci conference as well. in fact I found Hobsbawm’s speech on Gramsci from that event preserved online http://www.internationalgramscisociety.org/audio-video/index.html I think it remains interesting.

  19. johng said,

    February 26, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Having contempt for sect politics is fine. But then Neil Kinnock had contempt for sect politics as well. You need a bit more then that.

  20. Liam said,

    February 26, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    “And hey, Sam Marcy was a clever bloke. His organisation is very good at building single-issue campaigns and mass demos, but yes, not great at working in environments where they aren’t totally in charge. Good at working with high-profile individuals but not with other groups.”

    Thank goodness there’s nothing like that around anymore.

  21. Phil said,

    February 27, 2009 at 1:26 am

    In my view the role of the Eurocoms in Britain was to try and co-opt the movements of the 1970s into right wing social democracy (and sometimes to the right of that).

    I remember seeing a CP poster in Manchester at the time of the 1987 election; their argument was that the undemocratic electoral system was the main issue facing the Left, so we should vote for the party with the strongest commitment to PR. In a city which was still run by a left-Labour council, and which was about to lose its last Tory MP (to Labour), “vote Lib Dem”* didn’t strike me as the most radical gesture.

    *As they then weren’t – the merger was just after the election.

  22. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

    “Arguable, without a perceived need to defend the USSR, there was actually no compelling reason for the CP to continue a seperate existance from the labour Party, given the failure of the CP to ever become a mass party. So the inherent liquidationism of anti-Stalinism in a British context also had a significant role, because the tankies accurately judged that the end game would be the winding up of the party”

    Actually I think this was the crucial issue. And had been in the CP since ‘the british road’ had been formulated in the 1950’s(?). For us this whole trajectory was part of what we meant by Stalinism (and always had done).

  23. Doug said,

    February 27, 2009 at 10:58 am

    If, according to Andy Newman, MT were better on oppression politics, that still does nothing to commend them – my only dim memory is a mixture of shock and anger that ‘comrade’ Campbell’s response to the miner’s strike was slagging miners off for being sexist!

  24. February 27, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Splinty wrote: “when Socialist Worker ran a “Leave the Labour Party” campaign, featuring weekly interviews with divers people on “Why I’ve left the Labour Party””

    I hate these conversion testimonies à la “I was a true disciple of alcohol but now, I am only drinking Jesus” … interestingly, publishing these socialist conversion stories (from a sinning Cliffite to the bosom of Robertson, etc.) seems to me to be far more common in the “anglo-saxon” left than on the continent

  25. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 11:17 am

    ” Their argument was that the undemocratic electoral system was the main issue facing the Left, so we should vote for the party with the strongest commitment to PR.”

    Thank goodness there’s nothing like that around anymore.

    http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=3351

  26. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 11:19 am

    “so we should vote for the party with the strongest commitment to PR.”

    Thank goodness there’s nothing like that around anymore.

    http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=3351

  27. Dr Paul said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Re John G #22: It is surely no accident (as Uncle Joe would say) that the CPGB dissolved itself in the very same as the Soviet Union expired — 1991. Even more interesting is that it broke into three pieces in a manner remarkably close to that of the CPSU:

    1. The Ligachev wing, one which tried in vain to keep the old show on the road, represented here by the union bureaucrats and party full-timers with nowhere else to go.

    2. The Gorbachev wing, one which tried to keep a reformed, democratised post-Stalinism on the road, best personified here by the late Monty Johnstone.

    3. The Yeltsin wing, outright capitalist roaders, represented here by the lot around Marxism Today.

    On another tack, Jack Conrad of today’s CPGB, told me that even into the 1970s the old CPGB still contained a good quantity of Britain’s working-class militants, people who although pretty much tied to Stalinism could still have been won to revolutionary politics. I guess that this was the logic behind David Yaffe’s orienting his Revolutionary Communist Group towards the Tankies, although we know that the results were not quite what Professor Yaffle had envisaged.

    I wonder if these militants were too much tied to Stalinism to become genuine Marxists without going through a massive reconsideration of their tradition. The people around the Morning Star today, the New Communist Party and various others I’ve come across over the years are still to a considerable degree locked into Stalinist politics. And today’s CPGB, which has to large degree broken from Stalinism, hasn’t attracted more than a handful of old CPGB people.

  28. Mark P said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    The term “old CPGB” is extraneous in that last sentence.

  29. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Well I can remember chatting with one of our dockers about what CP meetings were actually like in the 1970s. His memory was that someone would lead off about political questions no-one was interested in, and then in the business section everyone would wake up and talk about trade union work. I was asking him about the shock of the state cap position and what a profound shift it was. He said that it did solve a lot of puzzles for him, and indeed attracted him, but that in reality, he like many other CP militants had always been much more interested in the practice of the CP then its world view. The largest part of the decision to join IS had to do with the risk of leaving that network of industrial militants, not doctrinal questions.This must have represented part of a historical shift from older days. On conversion stories and the Labour Party, the point is that any serious socialist organisation wishing to build an alternative to the Labour Party would print articles by ex-members who had made the same decision.

    On questions of oppression, I think its important to remember that the movements post-68 grew up quite independently of the CPs (which were bitterly hostile to them initially, far more so then the Trots). I don’t think the CPs ever became the home for the radical wing of movementism which is why I think some peoples beliefs about the relevence of this dimension of the MT tradition is misplaced. It was a shift to the right from movementism that the eurocoms represented.

  30. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    “We should vote for the party with the strongest commitment to PR.”

    Perhaps I might repeat Liam’s comment at 20: “Thank goodness there’s nothing like that around anymore.”

    http://tenpercent.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/salma-yaqoob-lays-down-some-righteous-truth/

  31. Phil said,

    February 27, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    If you’d seen someone advocating a vote for the Lib Dems against a Labour Party with a substantial Left, I’m sure you might.

  32. Dr Paul said,

    February 27, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    One must ask why the young people who subsequently became the driving force of the Euros were attracted to the CPGB in the first place. If you were a young lad or lass in the late 1960s, attracted by the radical ideas that were in ferment then, where would you go? I would think you’d be attracted by one or another Trotskyist or anarchist groups on offer; perhaps a Maoist one if you were a bit esoteric. Almost certainly not the CPGB; a party with a very dull and grey image, stodgy union bureaucrats with a sentimental attitude towards the not particularly inviting Soviet Union, and not at all friendly towards the novel issues of feminism or gay-lib. I suppose if you were from a CPGB family, you might join the family firm, as it were (if you weren’t too much into youth rebellion).

    I have the feeling that the bright young things who joined the CPGB represented rather the scrag end of the student movement. They joined an organisation which had an effective bureaucratic machine, which would help them get elected to committees and even help them get a career, and, perhaps the key factor, they shared with the CPGB a definite dislike of Trots. Such important factors compensated for the various negative features which they would encounter.

    I also suspect that King Street, despite its dislike for some of the modern views of these youngsters, were not unhappy to recruit a new generation of Trot-baiters.

  33. Garibaldy said,

    February 27, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Nothing to do then with say Vietnam?

  34. Mark P said,

    February 27, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Garibaldy:

    Young people from the post-68 generation who were primarily interested in issues like Vietnam tended to be drawn towards more radical options than the grey Moscow line CPs.

  35. Garibaldy said,

    February 27, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    That may well be the case Mark (in western Europe and among sections of the US left anyway), but the point I was trying to make was that Dr Paul provided a list of reasons one might have joined the CP that excluded any ideological considerations. And at the end of the day, Vietnam was fought by people who identified with Communism, and with weapons provided to a great extent by the USSR. Certainly Vietnam was one of the things driving the growth of groups oriented towards Moscow in Ireland, as well as say People’s Democracy.

  36. charliethechulo said,

    February 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    He was, undoubtably a charming, witty and charismatic figure. But his main “contribution” to Marxist theory, his particular version of “state capitalism” was incoherent garbage (the only sound Mrxism in it nicked off Shachtman), that didn’t even distinguish between use values and exchange values.

    I can also never forgive him for popularising “absolute anti-Zionism” on the left, and for dtating (in IS Journal #100) that he regretted supporting te right of Jews to emigrate to Palestine in the 1930’s…

    I don’t know what he was thinking of when he said that, but the SWP published it…if anyone but a Jew had said it, we’d surely denounce it as anti-semitism.

    I personally witnessed Cliff baiting Jewish students (at Birmingham University in 1976) in a way that a non-Jewish socialist would have never dared to do.

    The SWP-influenced left’s root-and-branch hostility to Zionisim (ie: inmho: “left-wing anti-semitism”), is largely down to the cover given by Cliff.

  37. February 27, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Deary me, what a ungracious lot you all are. We have had chapter and verse from several contributors on why you lot disagreed with my lot (as was) 25 years ago in terms which haven’t changed from that time. No re-thinking, no moving away from the passions of the particular moment into reflective mode…just what Andy Newman (#17) called the ‘conservatism of propaganda sect purity”.

    I’m particularly interested – having re-read the piece for the first time in 25 years this week – why you all seem so anti- the ‘Forward March Halted’ thesis. It seems a bit of an under-estimate of the actual progress of the Labour Movement since that lecture in 1978 to me, but perhaps you think the left have made striking advances over the last generation…

    But that’s bye the bye: Splinty’s main point was to distinguish between formal and functional programmes. So let me ask this in a kindly spirit, not seeking to point score: how’s the SWP and the rest of your section of the British and Irish doing on this front in your view?

  38. February 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Bugger: missing word in that last post. Should read:
    But that’s bye the bye: Splinty’s main point was to distinguish between formal and functional programmes. So let me ask this in a kindly spirit, not seeking to point score: how’s the SWP and the rest of your section of the British and Irish Left doing on this front in your view?

  39. Mick Hall said,

    February 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    What attracted most working class activists like me to the CPGB, was unlike the SWP, it was not on the outside of the class looking in. We where not entirely hostile to them, we just believed they did not interrelate with working class people like us. They simply saw us as fodder to fill their quota’s at meetings, marches etc and if true, Cliffs position all but proves this.

    In truth we were never going to transfer out allegiance to the SWP, for us being a communist was what we did full time, not only at weekends and the odd evening. I do not mean this insultingly, but in those days when-ever I came into contact with a Trot they had nothing to offer me.

    If anything, in truth I saw them as no different from gay rights and women’s lib campaigners, worthy, but I had a good idea where most would end up eventually. A bit harsh yes, but in many cases it proved true, whereas most of the tankies for all their faults remained solid socialists, even if their version of socialism is not mine. For example look at the Pensioners movement, I bet there will be a Tankie about.

    In my view not only do most Trotskyist have little idea about what makes working class people like me tick, they do not even like us. By the way, how many workers sit on the SWP governing body?

  40. Mark P said,

    February 28, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Charliethechulo:

    I’m not a supporter of a “one state” solution in Israel/Palestine and so am probably not included in your remarks above. I still object very strongly to your equating of “absolute anti-Zionism”, by which you seem to mean people who do support a one state solution, with “left wing anti-semitism”. That kind of shit completely poisons the wells as far as reasonable discussion goes.

    Charlie McMenamin:

    In all fairness you can hardly expect people to do much sympathetic “reflecting” about the merits of the Euros, given that where they ended up confirmed all of the rest of the lefts suspicions about what their politics meant and where they were headed. It’s a dead political trend and not one anyone is much interested in reviving. (Bar possibly Andy Newman).

  41. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 28, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    By the way, how many workers sit on the SWP governing body?

    At the moment, ten out of eleven are full-time party functionaries, with Professor Callinicos representing the lay members.

  42. Garibaldy said,

    February 28, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this question of the attraction of the CPGB in the 1960s and 1970s in relation to the current Labour government. I can name a couple of ministers since 1997 off the top of my head who were CPGB, and I know there are some MPs the same. I think Jack Straw used to be a trotsykist (but may be wrong about that). Are there any others?

    Isn’t the problem of an under-representation of workers and an over-representation of students a problem for many groups on the far left, and not just the SWP? Could Mick’s question apply to other groups?

  43. Mick Hall said,

    February 28, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Garibaldy

    I do not think Straw was a member of a Trotskyist group, even then he was far to ambitious, but I may be wrong. He certainly surfed in the wake of and benefited from the CP influenced group in the Students union. Most of whom preferred Straw to the Trots, which in itself was revealing.

    I do not believe Eurocommunism was as beyond the pale as it is portrayed today, the problem for the Euros in the CPGB was they had no idea how to move beyond there small group. As the only real politics they had learned was the faction fights of the NUT. If anything they were deliberately provocative towards CP trade unionists. (or appeared so to me) The article in Marxism Today that caused all the flack should never have been given house room.

    As it tarred rank and file TU officials, i e shop stewards, factory and site conveners,etc, with the same brush as the the trade union bureaucrats. You have to remember we CP trade unionists were already under attack from the Thatcher government and employers; and to be attacked in a CP house journal seemed like being knifed in the back and it was to my mind.

    I for one who was an anti Stalinist should have been regarded as a natural ally of the Euros, but as my politics were to the left of the stalinists they could not see beyond the Trotskyist tag.

    I forget his name, but my local full time district secretary, who was part of the Euro grouping once tried to goad me at a District AGM with, “Well Trotsky founded the red army” or some such NUS CP poison. Many comrades in my branch, including myself regarded the Trotskyist as being just as conservative as the Stalinists.

    We new the Party had to change, but what occurred was an argument between a group who displayed the worst of NUC politics and a group who displayed all the cirrhosis of full time trade union bureaucrats

    Although looking back it was a mistake, I thought a plague on both your houses. By the way I would love to know what, if any role the spooks played in all this. For it was obvious that if the two groups refused to pull back, the party would crash and burn and so it proved. Although the tiny core are rumored to have walked away with a tidy sum.

    By the way has the likes of Nina Temple joined the Cameron Tories yet, or am I being unjust? Last I heard she was working for Camelot.

  44. Mick Hall said,

    February 28, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Should have been NUS not NUC, sorry

  45. Garibaldy said,

    February 28, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks Mick. Very interesting stuff. I think if you look at the trajectory of the French, the Italian and the British CPs you can see that Eurocommunism, while having some interesting and innovative ideas, ultimately had a logic that led away from revolutionary politics, and that could not be stopped. The elements within Ireland influenced by it (and the use of a party magazine to attack elements of the party was repeated in Ireland) went the same way, although old fashioned opportunisim lay at the heart of that rather than evolving ideology. The CPB still has some good comrades and some good politics.

  46. Mick Hall said,

    February 28, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Garibaldy

    I agree, what Euro com did, was enable opportunist elements; and even comrades who were genuinely heading to the right politically, when doing so to rap themselves in a cloak that had a radical and progressive tradition. As you write, when they got where they wanted to be politically, many of them, but not all, quickly threw off the cloak of communism to become centre right politicians.

    I would have had a degree of respect if they had moved to the centre left, but the people in Ireland and the UK did not. Some over here went on to join the SDP or worked to do away with clause 4 in the LP. I suppose you could say they helped ruin two parties, LP and CP, now about those spooks again 😉

  47. Mark P said,

    February 28, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Garibaldy:

    I don’t think that a huge over-representation of students is actually a problem for all that many far left groups nowadays. If you look at the ISG remnants of the IMG, which was perhaps the studentyist of all British far left groups, there are hardly any students there at all. A lot of people who were once students but few young people of any stripe. Even the SWP, which probably still has the largest student cadre of any British group, doesn’t really have all than many students as a percentage of their membership.

    People with a university education are definitely significantly over represented in a lot of far left organisations, but most of them are now themselves workers in the Marxist sense of the term.

  48. Garibaldy said,

    March 1, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Fair enough Mark. I have always had the impression that the SWP in particular is an overwhelmingly student group in terms of numbers, and that most of its activities is centred round and involving universities, although the respect thing probably changed that for a while. I suspect we may now see a return to this type of thing with the abandonment of that policy, as witnessed by the recent coordinated occupations of university buildings. Where there are few students, it seems you get less activity. I had the impression too that other groups that had been less student based traditionally had as a result of the decline of Marxism found themselves more made up of students than say in the 1980s. Certainly in the proportion of active members I had perceived that to be the case. But I may well be wrong.

    Mick,

    I’m sure there is something in what you say, though the unfortunate reality is that whatever about any shenanigans all these groups had sufficient tendencies to render the shenanigans by and large superfluous. I think this also applies to the Provos by the by, despite some of the more outlandish claims by their opponents.

  49. johng said,

    March 1, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Garibaldy: If memory serves the CP in Britain opposed the slogan Victory to the NLF in favour of moderate pacificism. This may account for the fact that they did not grow in the anti-war movement. I think there is an interesting account of this in widgery’s book on the left.

  50. Doug said,

    March 1, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Relationships between Trot groups and CPGB members were never straightfoward. If Jim Higgins is to be believed then engineering workers in IS undertook where possible joint work with CP’ers in the early 70s, scuppered by crass sectarian stupidity by the CC. The CP became largely marginalised from the rest of the Left (including many socialists in the Labour Party) in the anti-NF campaigns of the late 70s, early 80s. The insistence on the ‘one race, the human race’ slogan and marching with liberals and vicars miles away from where the NF were congregating was met with a mixture of bafflement, amusement and contempt (mainly contempt).

  51. Mick Hall said,

    March 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Doug
    I cannot let you get away with this one, rewriting history is not going to help us move forward and the old CPGB had enough faults for us to mill over without inventing any.

    For example where I was living at the time in the 1970s, it was only the CP, along with left LP comrades who organized against the NF. Yep I may have marched with the odd liberal and even remember a vicar. However we were not marching miles away from where the NF were organizing, but on our own doorstep, as they stood a candidate in our area.

    To a young worker such as myself it was not the CP who were marginalized in the 1970s, it was the likes of SWP, who in truth had hardly any links with working class left activists. A day out outside the US embassy may have made the earth move for a wet behind the ears Trot, but it is not the core of what building a socialist movement is about.

    Higgin’s was correct, as an AUEW member I would have been happy back then to work with comrades from the SWP, it is just that they were very thin on the ground. In my area which had two power stations, docks, two large petro -chemical plants and factories by the score and with Fords Dagenham on the doorstep. As far as I was aware there were only three active SWP members. Two used to attend the local trades Council, a librarian and journalist and a third worked in the dock, but lived out of the area. They were fine comrades, but the two on the trades council had little if any pull on the local LM.

    In comparison by the end of the 1970s the local branch of the CPGB held monthly meeting of between 30-40 people. Party members were involved across a broad spectrum of political activities, trades councils and union branches, peoples right to work, center for the unemployed, CND, Palestine and Ireland, etc.

    Please do not think I am having a go at you, because I am not. I am just trying to point out, at that time, the roots and influence with the working classes of the CPGB was incomparable with the SWP, the more so beyond the UK’s big cities.

    I suppose what I am saying is the CP was a serious political party and the SWP and other similar groups were, in my opnion not much more than a protest group, I think this was the reason why they often flip flopped all over the place. They lacked an anchor so to speak.

  52. johng said,

    March 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    I would’nt dissent at all from Dougs statement that the CP had a much larger presence inside the working class then the SWP or any of the other far left groups that grew after ’68. Thats just true. It was equally true though that the weakness of the CPs politics in the 68 and after meant that by the end of the ’70s the CP had ceased to be what it once was.

  53. Garibaldy said,

    March 1, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks for the info John. I think Mick has a point that being marginalised from the rest of the left did not mean being marginalised from the working class, and could mean the opposite.

  54. Mick Hall said,

    March 1, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Garibaldy

    That is exactly what I meant; and John is correct to say that politics was the cause of the CPGB’s decline, although the mere mistakes party bureaucrats made in 1968 were miniscule in comparison with what actually lay behind that decline.

    I do not know about slogans, myself I feel the best slogans shouted on demos and marches are those that come spontaneously, not those which have been pondered over for hours by some unelected politburo.

  55. John Palmer said,

    March 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Mick – I think Doug was referring to the International Socialists – prior to its reincarnation as the SWP. Certainly in the early 1970s the IS had a significant industrial trade union cadre – in engineering, steel, the docks as well as the public services and to a lesser extent in the mines. Numerically it was smaller than the CP in most of these cases. But this was a period of rapid decline in CP membership in industry, in part because of the contradictions involved in CP support for the left trade union leaders at a time when they were selling incomes policy. This was also a period when there was a significant move by CP sympathisers and even members in industry to the IS. Doug was right this was all thrown to the wind in when the proto-SWPers effectively abandoned the independent rank and file strategy in the later 1970s.

  56. March 1, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Mark P #40

    I’m not part of your political tradition – but I’ve not come here as a troll to engage in pointless arguments to convince you lot Marxism Today was right. But it is always possible to reflect on previous arguments and learn something from them, and I’m interested in the degree to which the various strands of thought on today’s far left have done so.

    As a case in point I would point to someone nearer the politics of most contributors to this discussion than I, Phil over at A Very Public Sociologist. He critically reviewed the New Times book back in September last year http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2008/09/revisiting-new-times.html. I disagreed with his final paragraph but I thought it was a thoughtful and interesting contribution. It was subsequently republished on SU.

    P.S. Mick – I think you’ll find it is Sue Slipman who is now working for Camelot, not Nina Temple.

  57. harpymarx said,

    March 1, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    #18
    CharlieMcMenamin: “& I say this as someone who shared a flat at the time with a SWP member.We just read different stuff and combined personal friendship with sniffy disdain for what the other thought of as ‘political theory and practice”

    As someone from a different political tradition I have to say that the above is a correct analysis of sharing flats with people from different political currents. Indeed it was about combining friendship with a healthy ‘sniffy disdain’… Or maybe that’s just me…..

  58. Mick Hall said,

    March 2, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Charlie

    Yes, of course you are correct, I should have remembered as I new a member of the latter’s family, although he sacked me for going on a bender, not my finest hour.

    John
    I agree that there were IS/SWP WC activists, I mentioned one who worked in the Dock, but by 1979 in my area/industry they were thin on the ground, which was a pity as on my trades council they were always solid. I was interested to hear Doug and your own reasons for this.

    Despite our little spats on the internet, I feel the left has more in common these days than in the passed, if we could put our differences to one side and build on where we agree, I am certain we could move forward.

  59. johng said,

    March 2, 2009 at 8:10 am

    “Despite our little spats on the internet, I feel the left has more in common these days than in the passed, if we could put our differences to one side and build on where we agree, I am certain we could move forward”

    On that we’re as one.

  60. Doug said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I can’t let Mick Hall get away with re-writing history. He and other individual CP members might have carried on the anti-fascist traditions of the CPGB but in general his party certainly did not. My knowledge of the CP in the late 70s/early 80s was based on personal experience in Leamington and Coventry and, at the time, regular reading of the Morning Star. The Far Left and Labour Party socialists formed the backbone of anti-racists groups and the CP wouldn’t get involved. The Morning Star was quite consistent it disapproved of confronting the NF when they marched and rejected any class basis for opposing fascism, in favour of woolly liberalism.

  61. Mick Hall said,

    March 2, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Doug,

    I’m sure you are correct, what happened between us is I have got up your nose for the same reason you got up mine, no offense intended. The fact is there were people from all left traditions involved in the anti fash movement and there were also people who believed in ‘the vicar’ road.

    Myself I do not now think the latter when combined with direct action is as silly as I might have thought back then. Not everyone is young, fit or robust enough to get involved in confronting the Fascists head on. But they are as anti racist as the next person and had a role to play.

    Maybe I am wrong about this, I would have thought so in the 1070s; or perhaps because I am older and less robust physically I can see there is more than one way to skin a cat. [although admittedly it is no where near as enjoyable as driving nazis off the streets]

    I remember in the seventies giving a right mouthful to a comrade who used this argument against me, later I found out he was [TG] who at sixteen ran away from home to Spain and joined the international brigade and fought the Fascist’s bayonet in hand.

  62. neil said,

    March 2, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Mick, really interesting stuff in your posts. I could easily imagine making the same mistake as you with that older comrade if I had been around in the 70’s!

    Your view of how the CP viewed the rest of the ‘Trot left’ is facinating. Just out of curiosity did you look at the Militant in the same way? I ask because a lot of what people said about the CP in the 70’s (boring, grey, workerist) was said about Militant in the 80’s and of course the CP view of the rest of the left is also remarkably similar to the views of some of the less modest comrades in the 80’s (Grant and Woods particularly spring to mind, Woods is still banging that drum even today!)

  63. March 2, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Neil,
    Mick will no doubt answer from his own perspective. But perhaps these comments will help to understand the situation.

    – the CP had an official membership of around 30,000 in June 73 and this was down to around 21,000 by the time of the 1979 election. ( see the figures in the article in this edition of the Communist History Newsletter p 18 http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/chnn/CHNN_22.pdf. At the time the common view – as a non member, I had no way of verifying it – was that both the Militant and the SWP had about 2000 members. Because of the way such small groups – and I’m including the CP in that description – were unevenly spread around the country it rather depended on where you were as to how far one had contact with any particular other group. If this or that group had a particular local presence one would form a view about them in particular – if not they just tended to get grouped together under the general heading ‘Trot’ and collectively ignored or dismissed. I’m not defending this, I’m just recording how I experienced it.

    – My own impression is that, on average, the CP membership was older, more likely to be – or have been – manual workers, and a bit less active than the membership of the various far left groups I ran into. (The age structure might well have been related to the lower level of activity). I accept John Palmer’s point that this was changing, but it certainly hadn’t changed by the end of the 1970s.

    – the CP and far groups did, of course, come into contact through union structures and, it must be said, perhaps particularly through student politics. (As an aside, for which John Palmer – who I’ve never met – probably won’t thank me, I once knew CPer’s of his generation who described him as a ‘Euro-Trot’ on the grounds he was so reasonable at a personal level….). But the Militant in the 1970s concentrated their younger forces mainly in the old LPYS ( the Labour Youth wing) so tended to come into contact with the CP less often. But this was universally true – it depended on the geographical distribution of a an objectively very small number of people. .

  64. Garibaldy said,

    March 2, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Less active but active over a longer period of time, would that be a generally accurate description? Certainly the view I’ve heard from CPB people.

  65. March 2, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Garibaldy,
    All left groups are like bath tubs, with new members coming in ‘through the tap’ and old ones leaving ‘through the plug hole’. Perhaps the CP’s ‘tap’ and ‘plughole’ were both smaller than the far left’s in the 1970s and 1980s

    But I’m afraid it is also true that a slice of the membership were really quite old: hence the remarkable level of legacies the party used to receive right up to to its final demise.

  66. Garibaldy said,

    March 2, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    That’s certainly true of the overwhelming majority, but some hang on to members more than others. You still see legacies turning up in the Morning Star. A culture that doesn’t exist over here really I don’t think.

  67. Phil said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    I have always had the impression that the SWP in particular is an overwhelmingly student group in terms of numbers, and that most of its activities is centred round and involving universities, although the respect thing probably changed that for a while.I suspect we may now see a return to this type of thing with the abandonment of that policy, as witnessed by the recent coordinated occupations of university buildings.

    I don’t think they were all that co-ordinated (which makes them more rather than less impressive). My impression, gained partly from conversation with an SWP friend, is that both the occupations in Manchester came out of nowhere & took all the groups organised here by surprise (viz. SWP, PR/Revo and Communist “who?” Students). Would have been a superb opportunity for building Student RESPECT, but they don’t seem to have survived the split – I don’t think they had much of a cadre outside SWSS.

  68. Garibaldy said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Certainly it was being put round that they were spontaneous. Although given that some of those claiming that had been telling people about them days in advance, I’d be a little sceptical about that. I’ll bow to your superior knowledge on Manchester though.

  69. Mark P said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Less active but active over a longer period of time, would that be a generally accurate description? Certainly the view I’ve heard from CPB people.”

    I remember a book about the left in Britain in the 1980s giving rough estimates for Labour Party membership, Communist Party membership and far left membership. When trying to point out that paper membership figures aren’t the whole story, the same book made an estimate (this is from memory) that less than 10% of Labour members were party activists, somewhere around a third of CP paper members were and somewhere over 80% of the membership of the revolutionary groups.

    I don’t know how accurate those estimates were, but it certainly seemed to be broadly accepted that CP members on paper tended to be considerably more active than Labour ones but considerably less so than the Trotskyists, by the mid 1980s anyway.

    The CPB may well be right that they tended to be quite good at holding on to their members for many years, but there’s also something of a self-deception in that. They currently claim a paper membership of 900 or so, which would make them nominally the third largest far left group in England but in reality they can only actually mobilise the same kind of numbers as the likes of the AWL. They may well have hundreds more people who bung them a tenner once in a while and who carry a card but they only have the activist presence of a much smaller revolutionary group.

  70. March 2, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Mark P
    It’s been said that what counts as ‘activism’ on the far left counts as being a full timer in most other political formations. or at least it requires the same number of hours per week as, say, a local councillor might expect to put in. Views differ on whether this is a net advantage for the far left. Sure, it always allows them to have an influence on demos and strikes etc beyond their numbers. But whether it is sustainable for very many individuals in the medium-long term is a moot point.

  71. Phil said,

    March 2, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Some time in the late 80s or very early 90s – while it was still one party and had the G in the title – the CP published a breakdown of how many of its members were paying which of the tiered subscription rates. It was fascinating to read how high the membership rates were and how many of the members were paying the higher rates. I remember thinking at the time that you can design a fee structure to maximise recruitment or to get the most out of a small number of rich members, and this was definitely the latter. Mind you, it pales into insignificance next to the ‘tithing’ systems which (I was told) Trot groups operated. I suppose in that respect, as in others, the CP was midway between a semi-passive campaign organisation like CND and an activist revolutionary party.

  72. Garibaldy said,

    March 2, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I think that the hyper-activism of the 1970s and 1980s is a thing of the past, partly due to smaller numbers trying to cover the same or even more ground. Means we have to work smarter. Like leafleting parked cars at shopping centres rather than going round knocking doors etc as might have been done in the past. The decline of the culture of party papers is also part of this decline as selling them is a great organiser.

    Mark, I’m sure you are right about the numbers being greater on paper, though what you are suggesting may be an underestimate. The membership remains spread out beyond England which I suspects leads people to underestimate it.

  73. March 2, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Phil,
    Of course there were a few richish people in the CPGB – I mean, after all, a fair senior few TU officials were members and, of course, people like Hobsbawm lived in Hampstead. But they weren’t that common, on either side of the old Euro/Tankie divide.

    We were just older, on average, than most of the Trot groups of the 1980s, and thus further along our lifetime earning path…

  74. Mick Hall said,

    March 3, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Neil,
    This issue as I have got older has weighed heavily on me, my attitude was sheer youthful arrogance and ignorance. Having said that it is the young who will be the catalyst that brings about progressive change; and youthful arrogance is an important vehicle and is often not that far from the truth. However that is where a political party should come in, for if its worth its salt it will have a historical memory.

    On Militant Charlie just about sums things up. Although and perhaps I am being unfair, unlike some of the smaller left groups, I never felt the Militant bunch disliked the working classes. Whereas imo some left groups saw us as nothing more than cannon fodder. Militant/SP at least made an attempt to understand what makes WC people tick.

    Finally I find it amusing when comrades use the word workerism as a form of condemnation, the more so when they belong to organizations that claim to represent the working class. I always felt there was a bit of face saving going on there.

    All the best.

    Activism
    Used politically is an interesting word, in a comment above I tried to differate between what workers like me saw as activism and what many on the Trotskist left took it to mean. We saw it as representing and working with our class, whether in the trade unions, tenants associations, CND, anti racist campaigns, etc. From the outside, most Trotskyists seemed to view activism as solely building their organization, thus back then selling their ‘party’ paper along with producing and distrubuting it was seen as the most important role. Next came getting bodies along to centrally organized marches and demonstrations/meetings.

    We also did paper sales when we had a free sat, although more often than not we would be attending events like County Association of trades councils, broad left trade union aggregates etc, where we built links with party members and our left brothers and sisters in the unions from all over the country. Selling the star was not our main priority but an outcome of our main work. I think most small left groups overestimated the value of paper sales, indeed with some it looked from the outside like an obsession.

    I remember witnessing a comrade from the SLL/WRP putting in an enormous amount of work into a ‘pageant of working class history’ which took place[I think] at a Large London venue. Worthy perhaps, even entertaining, but how did that move the class forward? Pure window dressing.

    On the question of legacies, we had a couple of old ladies who joined the party in the late 20’s-30’s. They still took and read the Star religiously. Some of us would pop round periodically for tea and cakes and the ladies would tell us tales about their early days in the party and the people they new, all interesting stuff. They lived in a sizable detached house, very comfortable, which I’m told they left to the party.

    Charlie mentioned there were many older party members, whilst any party needs new blood and in the end the CP was not getting enough of it. The fact that comrades had stayed with the party into old age is a plus in my book. Not least because they were well aware of its shortcomings but had stayed true to their core beliefs. That could be uncomfortable at times, but they were not all dyed in the wool stalinists by any means.

    As we all live longer, (inshaller) any party that does not have a sizable element of old folk will have failed. Surly?

  75. The Digger said,

    March 4, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    As a young lad from a large family living on a council estate I joined the Birmingham IS in 1975 I encountered no hositility. This hostility to the working class guff is pure nonsense. Although joining after a split by some engineers and others the IS was made up of a mixture of students, factory workers, teachers and white collar workers.

    Perhaps I was typical of the shift in employment as my three older brother and sisters worked in factory like my parents, wheras I and two younger sisters went in to office work and only my younger brother went into factory work.

    Prior to joinng the IS I had been a regular reader of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker, with the former quite dull and the latter more agitational.

    As a day release student one of my lecturers was a member of the CP and he persuaded me to attend a CP week end school in the Star Club Essex St. It was a miserable weeked end with a lot of argument about hegemony and counter hegemony which went right over my head. Wheres IS speakers like Cliff, Hallas, Harris put across marxist ideas in a direct and easy to understand way.

    Finally on the issue of students could Mick Hall inform of the industrial background of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.

  76. Neil said,

    March 5, 2009 at 1:59 am

    “This hostility to the working class guff is pure nonsense.”

    Dunno about that Mr. Digger. You should take a trip over to Lenin’s Tomb where some of the erstwhile socialist workers are, in all seriousness, basically saying the Lindsey workers made up the claim that IREM was not paying NAECI rates just so they could risk their jobs and break the law so they could indulge in a nice bit of Johnny Foreigner bashing.

    (To be fair there is a minority of socialist workers trying to talk sense but he’s not really being thanked for it)

  77. thedigger said,

    March 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Well Neil I guess it depends on how we see the working class. My experience is that it is made up of socialists, racists, trade unionists, scabs, feminists, sexists, gays, homophobes and many who just don’t give a f**k. As a socialist I see my role as tackling those idea’s that I don’t agree with, showing solidarity with workers in dispute and organising those who wish to struggle for a better future.

    The Lindsey strike showed great militancy, it trashed the anti union laws, didn’t wait for the trade union bureaucrats and displayed the anger of those sacked and unemployed at a system and movement that it is failing them.

    However it also had less positive features, like the use of the slogan by some strikers of British jobs for British Workers. Unfortunatelty for the majority of the working class that don’t live in blogland or are not left wing trade union activists, it is this slogan that is seen as representing the dispute.

    The chants by some on the union demo at Staythorpe of “What do want – foreigners out” show this is not an issue that is gonna go away.

    We can close our eyes (and ears) and pretend it doesn’t exist or intevene and challenge such idea’s. The debate on Lenin’s Tomb is about what’s going on and how you intervene not an attack on the working class.

  78. Neil said,

    March 7, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    “Unfortunatelty for the majority of the working class that don’t live in blogland or are not left wing trade union activists, it is this slogan that is seen as representing the dispute.”

    Ah so now you know what the working class is thinking? I stand corrected in that case.

    Did you use your psychic powers to ascertain that the Lindsey workers were lying about IREM undermining the NAECI? (Which is what I was actually refering to not the wider concerns of SWP comrades which are legitimate, if misplaced) Is that where the comrades have got this information? And here was me relying on things like the word of shop stewards on the ground, IREM’s refusal to produce payslips etc. Don’t I feel like a fool!


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