What does John Rees have in common with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor? On the face of it, not very much.
And on the face of it, there’s nothing much to be said about Pope Benny’s appointment of Cormac to two positions in the Roman Curia, at the Congregation for Bishops and at whatever Propaganda Fidei is calling itself these days. If you’re willing to take the statement from the Catholic Communications Network as the last word on the matter, this is quite simply the Holy Father registering his esteem for a distinguished prince of the Church by giving him these important responsibilities. This is quite plausible in its own terms – even Cormac’s sternest critics will acknowledge that he’s a thoroughly decent man who has given decades of selfless service.
On the other hand, if you look at it from another, more cynical perspective, this can appear like the kind of slick manoeuvre of which Machiavelli would have been proud, addressing several problems with one fell swoop. It is said that Vinnie Nichols and Bernie Longley are exercised at the possibility of Cormac getting in their feet – given the long history of previous primates dying in office, the English hierarchy doesn’t really have any experience of the backseat driver phenomenon. As for those Anglo-Catholics who might be considering a defection to Rome, their jittery nerves aren’t going to be soothed by Cormac hanging around, when it’s well known that he opposed the new Apostolic Constitution. Cormac himself would like a Curia job commensurate with his status. And Benny would probably like to have Cormac where he can keep an eye on him – if the rumours are true that the ferociously orthodox Cardinal George Pell of Sydney is taking over the Congregation for Bishops, that would certainly count as keeping an eye on any cardinals stationed there.
Slick, indeed. It’s even better than the way Cardinal Des Connell, a Ratzinger ally of long standing, abruptly found himself spending more time with his study of French philosophy.
The Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party must be wishing they had found a similarly inventive way of dealing with the shambling miscreant Rees. Rather, since his defenestration from the CC at the start of the year, John and Lindsey have been holed up in their Stop The War fastness, nursing their grievance. And lo, with the pre-conference discussion period having opened, John has gone and got himself a faction.
There’s a write-up of this in the current issue of the Weekly World Worker News, which has got some ground to make up after the blogosphere has caught it napping several times in the last couple of years. They can run lots of good articles on Iran, and learned exegeses of Marxist-Leninist thought from Dr Macnair, but that’s not what people read the Weekly Worker for – if they can’t provide decent gossip, they’ve lost their USP. So anyway, Peter Manson is covering this – given the publication, the usual caveats about imaginative filling in of gaps apply, but you might find it of interest.
The reader will find more of interest than usual in the leaked IB, and there’s quite a bit there of political as opposed to prurient factional interest. Certainly I have no interest in the minutiae of how many papers were sold in Southampton last week, or how a comrade got a motion passed at a union meeting in Reading. On the other hand, there are a few debates on the go that are of broader interest to the left, because they’re touching on issues those of us outwith the SWP have to deal with. A serious and open discussion around issues like the economic crisis, No Platform, the antiwar movement, electoral strategy, developments in the unions and what have you would be all to the good. It’s entirely possible that there will be insights that everyone can profit from.
Anyway, this blog knows what the punters want, and what the punters will primarily be interested in is the factional barney. Now, it is not strictly true that this is purely a fight for position without political content. I think the fight for position is its motive force, but it’s picked up some political content as it’s gone along. It has done so, however, in a confused way, and there’s no obvious right side or wrong side.
Let’s begin with the grubby business of position, though. John Rees is evidently still aggrieved about his unceremonious dumping from the leadership. Although I don’t particularly like Rees, I can well understand his position – he’s had to walk the plank for things that many other people shared responsibility for, and after many years of being accustomed to a party culture wherein being a member of the CC meant never having to take responsibility for anything, not while there was someone further down on the food chain who could be dumped on. One particularly thinks of Cliff’s old party trick, when a “turn” didn’t work out, of blaming “conservative elements” in the party for failing to make the turn with sufficient enthusiasm, and then setting loose the apparat’s attack dogs on any poor sod in the branches who happened to be on the outs at the time. A year or two later, Cliff might announce that the turn had failed due to objective circumstances, but that was scant consolation to anyone who’d been fucked over in the interim.
The trouble is that, having dumped Rees less than a year ago, it would be an immense climbdown for the CC to take him back now, and unrepentant forbye. A Rees who had gone off and quietly spent four or five years doing an unglamorous job might have been rehabilitated, but not in these circumstances. Moreover, it’s hard to see how the CC could justify putting him in charge of a whelk stall, given the deconstruction of his failings that took place in the last pre-conference discussion. Here is Professor Callinicos:
The problem was rather that the crisis in Respect exposed certain systematic weaknesses in John’s methods of working – in particular a failure to respect the collective decision-making of the party and, in large part as a result, to make serious mistakes that caused him to lose the confidence of the majority, not just of the leadership, but of the party cadre as well…
The problem with John isn’t that he disagrees with the CC majority. Disagreements are necessary to the development of a living party. But John sees everything through the distorting lens of the struggle to maintain his personal position. This leads him to inflate real, but quite specific disagreements into systematic differences and to rubbish aspects of the party’s work for which, as a CC member for the past 14 years, he must share responsibility.
For a year now the Central Committee has had to grapple with the unrelenting struggle of an undeniably talented comrade to shield himself for being held to account for the mistakes he has made. For those of us with a long history of party membership, who remember the many personal sacrifices made by individual comrades and their disciplined acceptance of unwelcome decisions, John’s behaviour is nothing short of a scandal.
And here is John Molyneux:
Despite the odd nod in favour of democratic debate John makes it clear that really he is opposed to the idea of the ‘democracy commission’, while I strongly support it. John has never seen anything wrong with the state of democracy in the party and neither as far as I can tell have Lindsey or Chris B or Chris L . This may be true of other members of the CC as well but they at least seem to be shifting their position – John is not. John also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently. Nor is this just a question of personal arrogance, I also think John holds an elitist theory of leadership derived from Lukacs’ concept of the party as bearer of working class consciousness (but perhaps that is a debate for another time). At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.
John’s views on the Rees question have remained consistent for many years, as anyone who’s had the opportunity of talking with him will know. Alexander is slightly disingenuous, I feel. The reason I feel this is that the new regime is basically the old regime minus Rees and German, and that the people who a year ago felt Rees was unfit to hold a leadership position are the same people who for years protected him, promoted him, supported his brainstorms, went along with his pretensions to be the successor to Cliff, and went to war with important allies in his defence. Again, if we’re talking about serious fuckups, Alexander’s managing of the international tendency doesn’t seem to have undermined his position. (Although, to be fair, he seems to have calmed down a bit in recent years, and isn’t as promiscuous with the anathemata.)
What then are the political aspects? Well, the only real line in the sand that’s been drawn has been on the No Platform issue, and that’s not so much sand as mud. To recap: some while back John Molyneux, in his established role of loyal opposition, wrote a letter to SW arguing that No Platform should be re-examined – not that it should be dropped, but that it should be refined and amended. This seems sensible to me, especially given that no platform for fascists was conceived as an approach to be operated within the labour movement, and it’s only recently that it seems to have been extended to petitioning the state broadcaster not to interview fascists. This drew a swift response from the CC maintaining its total adherence to No Platform. Which in turn drew a response from the Reesites also proclaiming their total adherence to No Platform, while accusing the CC of having abandoned the policy. More heat than light then, and an example of how factional considerations can obscure an issue just as easily as bringing one into the open.
There’s also a more general issue of orientation – and this is where I think Peter Manson is off the mark when he accuses the CC of making up reasons for Rees’ defenestration after the fact. There were at least implicit differences a year or more ago, certainly since the parking of Left Alternative, and those have firmed up slightly although they’re still inchoate. Partly it comes out in scrapping over whether Stop The War or Unite Against Fascism is more important at the moment. For me, this is a tactical issue – while in general terms imperialist war is more important than a Mickey Mouse outfit like the BNP, the huge kerfuffle over Griffin on Question Time obviously required a response. It’s also easy to view this in purely cynical terms, based on who’s working in STW or UAF respectively. There’s something to that, but there’s also a political conception tied to it.
John and Lindsey’s insistence on the transcendent importance of Stop The War may be self-serving, but it’s linked to this view they’ve developed whereby the operation of various united fronts (mar dhea) is conceived as the path through which the party progresses. The CC, on the other hand, is cleaving much closer to a 1990s perspective whereby the party attempts to raise its own profile through agitprop, while operating fronts on a more ad-hoc and less permanent basis. This, by the way, is implicit much more than it’s theorised. Perhaps it will become more explicit as the debate rumbles on.
As I say, there’s no obvious right and wrong side in this. John and Lindsey had things their way for the best part of a decade, and to give them their due, they had the imagination to push outwards. (They also assembled a very talented team around them to give initiatives like Stop The War an impact previous campaigns hadn’t had. Where are those people now, I wonder?) They were much more open than previous leaderships in building links with the rest of the left. However, they also racked up a tremendous record of buggering up those relationships they had built and leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness behind them. It says something when Martin Smith, of all people, has to present himself as the smiling non-sectarian face of the SWP and try to rebuild those bridges they had burned.
From a Reesite perspective, the current CC must seem dreadfully insular, conservative and lacking in ambition. And such a critique could easily attract people who aren’t natural Rees groupies. On the other hand, many members must see the current regime of Democratic Martinism as quite a relief – certainly, spirits seem to be a bit higher these days. A steady-as-she-goes approach of routine party-building, broader initiatives on a more ad-hoc basis and professionalising some basic activities that had fallen into disarray – these things have an obvious attraction to party cadre whose heads have been left spinning from the party throwing all its energy into John and Lindsey’s various punts, year after year.
We also have the outworkings of the Democracy Commission, which I’m cautiously optimistic about. My instinct remains that a democratic revolution led by Martin Smith, Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos is almost by definition going to be a self-limiting revolution. But at least they have been willing to recognise there was a problem. As Molyneux says, neither Rees nor German, in their whole time as party leaders, expressed any sentiment that party democracy was less than perfect. They do now, but only by way of adopting the Jools Holland Fallacy. Viewers of Later will be aware of Jools’ theory that there is no piece of music that can’t be improved by the addition of some boogie-woogie piano. The counterpart of this is the theory that there’s no revolutionary leadership that can’t be improved by the addition of John Rees. I find both theories equally unappealing.
It may be that we’re just seeing John and Lindsey embarking on a path to political self-destruction, for which they would only have themselves to blame. But if they are intent on destroying themselves, let them do it themselves. Any short-circuiting of the discussion by administrative measures would cast the new friendly regime in a deeply unflattering light. To return to where we started, it’s a bit like the Personal Ordinariate. Whether the Anglican defectors number in the dozens or the thousands is probably less important than how much sensitivity the iniative is handled with. The Orthodox Churches will be watching keenly, as will traditionalist Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia. Likewise, one hopes that Martin realises that there’s a tension between putting on a smiling face externally and continuing with the old head-on-a-stick politics internally. If he’s forgotten, it won’t hurt to remind him.