Stand in the place where you are


Taking this as a brief follow-on from the last post, I’ll tell you something I always liked about the Communist Party tradition (and, I suppose, the Cannon-Dobbs school of Trotskyism that approximated it in some ways). That was that the ideologues were kept in their place. The official communist parties attracted their fair share of smart intellectuals, in some notable cases genuinely brilliant intellectuals, but rarely would you find an intellectual being elevated to the secretaryship. In fact, if memory serves, Pollitt was insistent that the CPGB general secretary should be a worker and not an intellectual, which had the unfortunate effect of disqualifying Johnny Campbell – who, with no disrespect meant to Gollan, would probably have been a more convincing leader.

But it goes beyond that. Your classic CP secretary would be someone with experience as a mass worker, someone with a high regard for ideology but also a sense of proportion when it came to ideology. You didn’t want some intellectual brainstormer like Palme Dutt in the job. Moreover, an unadvertised part of the party secretary’s job would be to discreetly let the cadre know which products of the ideology department needed to be taken seriously, and which could safely be ignored.

This is where I think Trot groups tend to operate at a disadvantage, because more often than not they’re led by ideologues, either established or aspiring. (Which is not to say that the ideological production is of any quality. Read Studies in Dialectical Materialism by G Healy if you don’t believe me.) And if you have a group dominated by ideologues, then the chances are much greater of the group being swept along with some brainstorm. Or breaking apart over nothing that really matters – Workers Power, as a highly ideological group even by Trot standards, was always more likely to fall out over ideology than anything sordidly practical.

Of course, it varies from group to group. In the Militant tendency of blessed memory, the Perspective and its associated dogmata – deep entry, the Enabling Act, nationalising the top 200 monopolies – tended to have the status of revealed truth, but I met very few Millies who ever took Ted’s ruminations on chaos theory and time travel seriously. And even more so with the SWP. I think johng makes a very useful point in the previous discussion about the haphazard way in which many SWP members form their opinions, which goes against the idealisation of the monolithic party you find in the late Cliff, but is absolutely true to life.

The SWP does of course have its handful of shibbolethim, which is to say State Capitalism, the Permanent Arms Economy and Deflected Permanent Revolution. Of these, Cliff came close to discarding the last towards the end of his life, the second has had little obvious relevance for about thirty years, and as for the big daddy, lots of party members own Cliff’s book on Russia, but few have actually read it, fewer still understand it and not all of them agree with it.

What’s important to realise is that, unlike say in the Healy movement, there have never been authorised inquisitors or heresy hunts in the SWP. The “line”, such as it is – and it’s often makeshift – is disseminated through the paper. You can agree with it or not. If you don’t agree with it, you can write in to the paper saying that Chris Harman, or it may be Alex Callinicos, is talking out of his hole. This doesn’t happen as much as it used to, partly due to new generations of members with a more deferential approach to the permanent leadership, and partly because, if it doesn’t do much good to raise a disagreement, there isn’t much point.

But yes, a lot of the monolithism seen by outsiders has little parallel in fact. You’re perfectly free to disagree with the leadership. You can even have a diametrically opposed view, as I did over the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. You can survive in the SWP for years while disagreeing with Cliff’s theory of Stalinism, as did several comrades of my acquaintance. Disagreement isn’t the issue. You can get away with that, as long as you don’t factionalise around it.

And as for the informal “lines” on all sorts of weird and wonderful issues, many of which are based on little more than the opinion of one CC member… One recalls, for example, Lindsey German’s introduction to the Redwords edition of Literature and Revolution, where Lindsey, evidently channelling Karl Radek at the 1935 Congress of Soviet Writers, comprehensively failed to understand what Trotsky was on about. Or Renaissance Man Chris Harman on anthropology. Frankly, if these come to be accepted as the party line – on issues where there should be no question of even having a line – it’s a problem of having a lot of strident nudniks around who are willing to swallow this stuff. Not a few of whom tend to end up in the apparat, but that’s another story.

My instinct is to hive off a lot of these brilliant intellectuals into a brains trust, and leave the practical stuff to the practical people. We could of course pay attention to what the ideologues had to say, but we wouldn’t have the situation of, for instance, some far-flung group in the international tendency making detailed tactical decisions based on something Alexander has read in the Financial Times. The right people in the right jobs would be a sensible line to pursue.


  1. Martin Wisse said,

    February 28, 2009 at 7:49 am

    That’s been my experience as well as an SWP sympathiser a few years ago. The people on the ground are not so much interested in the latest sweeping theory to dazzle the leadership as in their own, local actions and emergencies and such.

  2. chris y said,

    February 28, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    This is where I think Trot groups tend to operate at a disadvantage, because more often than not they’re led by ideologues, either established or aspiring.

    So Alan Thornett was so much more successful? (I liked Alan when I knew him, and Tony Richardson, pbuh, and the rest. But C’mon.)

  3. Ken MacLeod said,

    March 1, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Brains trust? Hah! I have a much better plan, all Web 2.0 and everything.

    Spot on about the SWP, by the way. I was asked to join after I had carefully explained that I didn’t agree with any of Cliff’s theories. On the other hand, I do remember meeting complete incomprehension at a branch meeting on evolution (or something) when I said that while Marxism might have useful things to say about life, the universe, and everything, the party shouldn’t have a line on anything other than politics.

  4. johng said,

    March 1, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Deary me being approvingly quoted by Splinty. I’d tend to emphasis that the notion that the method is ‘haphazard’ may be connected to an idea of what Leninism oughta be, which in its best moments, the SWP does not resemble.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Now you mention it Ken, I remember reading your modest proposal, and no doubt had it rattling around at the back of my head.

    And johng, damn your impertinence! Haphazardness of course is no bad thing, and the Bolsheviks in their heroic period were deadly for it.

  6. Andy Newman said,

    March 2, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    this is also what makes being in the SWP so incredibly frustrating if you do take the theory seriously.

    The problem I had over the year – particularly with industrial policy – was trying to reconcile whatever hare-braoned scheme the fulll-timers were announcing, with the body of theory; and if you sincerley argue your position based upon the SWP’s own published theoretical pronoucements, then you are regarded as the worst sort of oppositionist.

    Woe betide an SWP comrade who understands the State cap theory, and tries to aply it to analysing the actually existing word for their life would be rocky indeed.

  7. Mark P said,

    March 2, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    That’s easy enough to understand, Andy.

    Someone arguing plainly “unorthodox” positions can be humoured as an eccentric, as long as he or she makes no attempt to actually organise support for their unorthodoxy. Someone arguing on the basis of the SWP’s own alleged politics that a particular approach or idea is opportunist or wrong is, on the other hand, by their mere existence a standing attack on the leaderships own orthodoxy.

    Weren’t you planning on producing a lengthy piece on the difference between the SWP’s theoretical approach to workplace organising and the unions and their actual approach?

  8. Andy Newman said,

    March 2, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Mark P

    That article is indeed in preparation, it got overtaken by events with the Lindsey Oil Refinery Dispute, where the SWP’s position seemed to be in some flux.

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