Mark Steel has a good story about the Militant tendency. Like many of Mark’s stories, there is probably a little embellishment but there’s little doubt that the core of it is true. It goes like this:
Mark is walking down the street one fine day when he espies a black-and-white poster proclaiming, “The Round London Jobs March Is Coming To Your Area”. Mark thinks this sounds like a good idea, and at the appointed time is waiting for the march along with a couple of mates from the Croydon SWP who he’s press-ganged into this. When the march arrives, Mark walks up to the Militant fulltimer leading it.
Mark: We’d like to join your march.
Militant: Oh yeah?
Mark: Yes, I saw the poster and thought it seemed like a good idea.
Militant (pointing to SWP branch banner): Not with that, you’re not joining this march.
Mark: Why not?
Militant: This march has widespread trade union support, and I’m not going to jeopardise that by having an SWP banner on this march.
Mark: You may have widespread trade union support, but I can’t help noticing there are only four of you.
Eventually some deal was worked out, and Mark and his chums were allowed to join the march. The punchline was that, however bemused the commuters were to see seven people with two banners trudging along the side of the road, they’d have been much more bemused if they’d known four of those people were thinking, “This was a pretty good little march before the other three turned up.”
I cite this because it’s a great double-edged joke. When told to an SWP audience, it would evoke a great roar of laughter from people who would lap up any story of the Militant behaving like dicks. But half of the audience would be uneasily aware that they themselves had behaved just like that before, and doubtless would do again. It’s worth going back to that chapter of Reasons To Be Cheerful where Mark regales us with tales of the lunatic behaviour of left groups – as he says of Militant, either the 5000 rudest people in Britain had all spontaneously decided to join the same far left group, or they trained them to act like that – because it does have this double-edged quality. Mark was a member of the SWP at that time, and his criticisms of the party don’t go beyond talking about Cliff’s endearing eccentricities, but there is a pretty bloody obvious warning there for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Which leads me to something I’ve been pondering in terms of the most recent SWP ruckus. Andy has a good discussion apropos of Lindsey German, of how loyalty to the party can be reconciled with loyalty to whatever broader forum – a union, say, or a single-issue campaign – that the party member is working in. It’s a discussion worth having, but I want to concentrate on something much more basic – why the left, which is supposed to be fighting for a society based on solidarity and comradeship, so often behaves so badly. I’m not just talking here about sheer bloody rudeness on the blogs, but about behaviour in the real world too – the lack of face-to-face interaction in the blogosphere can encourage extra bad behaviour, but that doesn’t explain patterns of bad behaviour in the real world, much of it going back decades.
So, are we just scraping the barrel in terms of human material, or are there explicable reasons? I like to think it’s the latter. It’s not innate but a learned behaviour, traceable back to the left’s social isolation but also ensuring it can’t escape that isolation. There are issues about groups with fantastically grandiose perspectives – small far-left groups most real people have never heard of, but who aspire to overthrow every government in the world – but whose lack of impact in society at large means their posturing carries with it very little in the way of consequences. Allied to that is a cod-Leninism – which is really a cod-Machiavellianism without the merits of either Lenin or Machiavelli – which disdains personal probity as just bourgeois moralism, which preaches that the ends justify any means, and which carries with it a highly elitist view of leadership. There are many worse examples out there than Lindsey German, but when I hear talk about bending the stick, seizing the key link in the chain or the small cog moving the big cog, a shiver runs up my spine and I wonder who’s about to be shafted.
The theoretical justification for this, as far as the SWP goes, is in Cliff’s Lenin: Building The Party, which you will recall paints a portrait of Lenin as someone whose genius resided in his unique ability to see a situation clearly, grasp what action was necessary and single-handedly cajole the party into doing what needed to be done. One particularly remembers that section about the Bolsheviks after 1905, which argues that even though Lenin was completely wrong about the political situation, he was still right, because the course of action he was advocating would have been the right one had his perspective been right. If you think this portrait of Lenin closely resembles Cliff, you have hit the target, rung the bell and may collect a cigar or cocoa-nut according to choice.
So, Andy notes:
Cliff was a wheeler-dealer, utterly charming when you were useful to him, utterly ruthless and impersonal when he saw you as an obstacle; and given the mercurial changes of perspective he was inclined to, then you couldn’t predict your downfall coming! John and Lindsey have the same approach, but neither of them have the genuine charm of Cliff, nor his remarkable ability to maintain people’s personal affection even after he had shafted you.
Which reminds me of what Jim Higgins wrote about Cliff’s MO back in the 1970s:
The most difficult thing, and one in which nobody succeeded, was to convince Cliff that his latest idea was not some kind of revealed truth, in the pursuit of which everything else should be set aside. To get across the simple fact that the workers’ movement has certain norms of conduct and definite procedures that are there precisely because it is a collective movement, at its best involving all members of the collective, proved impossible. For Cliff the “brilliant” insights of an individual (himself) could be submitted to popular approval on two conditions: one; that they agreed with his proposal in double quick time, and two; that if they did not agree he won anyway. This cast of mind is one he shares with some trade union leaders. It drives most militants into paroxysms of rage which is why, whenever the bureaucracy is pulling a fast one, the Conference Arrangements Committee report at trade union conferences, is one of the most passionate debates. The existence of this phenomenon is one of the reasons why a genuine revolutionary party has, by definition, to include many experienced militants in its ranks because, among other things, they are the best guarantee against bureaucratic manipulation and capricious, high-handedness. The failure to grasp this simple fact of working class life is evidence of a fundamental and debilitating ignorance and an absolute bar to revolutionary success.
And here’s Andy again:
But the big issue that is raised here is whether this model of political organisation can ever be effective in advancing radical social change. There is an inherent contradiction between trying to unite in one party the widest number of self-confident and assertive activists and leaders, and at the same time seeking to reduce those self-confident activists into being cannon fodder for a centralised organisation that has its own institutional biases. The result is that the SWP is less than the sum of its parts; as it under-utilises the talents and potential influence of its members; while an internal culture of deference and self-denial, provides a perfect culture for bullying and rudeness to flourish.
Which brings us neatly back to the question of personal behaviour. Because, if the political content is problematic enough, it can be made infinitely more so if the person carrying it out insists on being a cunt about it. Or, more to the point, if there’s a culture encouraging such behaviour.
Allow me to be concrete about this. One thing that was highly controversial on the British left was the move to close down the Socialist Alliance and set up Respect. I freely admit that I was sceptical in the extreme about this. Granted that there were objections to Respect in bad faith, and objections for the wrong reasons – whether this was the Alliance for War and Liberalism on the right, or Students Power on the doctrinaire left – but it was possible to have concerns in good faith without either being crazily sectarian, or thinking that the SA was some unimprovable utopia. I was in favour of a socialist-Muslim alliance against the war, but sceptical that this could be carried through into an actual party. I had my doubts about Galloway, and what political content might have to be thrown overboard to keep him sweet. I would have preferred a more explicitly socialist profile to a populist one. And, while you can’t have an alliance without concessions, I was worried about whether the concessions that were being made were justifiable ones.
In retrospect, this might have been a sectarian position, but I don’t think it was an unreasonable one. The important thing is that while the Respect turn may have been the correct thing to do, even if you absolutely believe it was the correct thing to do there were obviously huge problems with the execution. I’m talking here about the steamrolling of people who did have reasonable concerns, often with some personal nastiness involved. It is simply untrue that those in the SA who didn’t follow through into Respect were all pro-war Islamophobes. With a bit more sensitivity and a bit less bold and decisive leadership, most of the reasonable sceptics could have been won over. Likewise, when Respect split – and this is regardless of whether you think the split was inevitable or who you think was in the right – it was surely the superabundance of bold and decisive leadership that ensured that the SWP lost the entire middle ground.
Moreover, once trust is compromised, it takes an awful long time to win back. I’m going to pre-empt Mark P by making a point about all the horror stories surrounding Militant. Most of these have a foundation in truth even if they’ve grown a little with the telling, but it’s notable that the hairiest stories are all located some considerable time in the past. Partly that’s due to a much smaller SP not being able to operate the way Militant used to, but there’s also a strong element of the SP having calmed down a lot and changed their MO. While it’s very easy to find the SP taking stances you think are wrong, and if you look closely it can’t be that hard to find individual SP members behaving like dicks, it’s been a long time since the SP as a body did something outrageously sectarian in the movements. This means that today the SP has a rather good reputation on the broader left, including among people who strongly disagree with it, for being sensible and constructive. But it took years to get there.
Finally, it’s not just a question of bad behaviour being tactically stupid. There’s also the question of it being morally wrong. Sometimes the means contradict the ends, and further, if we’re committed to the better society then that means trying to set an example, even if we fall short. Socialists should not need to be told that abusing people’s trust, or scapegoating them for other people’s mistakes, or stealing their labour, is flat out wrong. Socialists should not see as normal and unobjectionable an institutional culture of bullying, ostracism and denigration that would land any capitalist employer in front of an employment tribunal. Socialists should not preach about how every comrade is gold dust, then treat the socialist organisation as a personal bailiwick for the aggrandisement of the leader at the expense of the rank and file. Socialists should seek to build relationships on a basis of honesty and comradeship, and using the talents of the membership rather than building up their beer buddies or fuck buddies as the revolutionary general staff. These are things that shouldn’t even need to be said, but as John Rees used to say, sometimes you have to repeat yourself until the penny drops.
We have far too many people who want to be Lenin – or, in the case of the late Paul Foot, who wanted to be Shelley – but whose secular Thomas à Kempis act does not have much substance to fall back on. The lives of the saints are not there for us to re-enact their detailed actions, but to give us exemplars of the good life and to strive to improve ourselves. Perhaps I’m unusual in preferring Ignatius Loyola to Tony Cliff in such matters, but this isn’t the obscurantism it may seem. The Ignatian examen – the examination of the conscience – involves a serious reflection on one’s actions and desires, identifying one’s faults and working on them systematically, with the aim of drawing towards one’s higher self. It’s an approach with a lot to commend it, but unfortunately the left goes in much more for self-justification than self-criticism.
Just as a final point, it never hurts to make a meaningful gesture. There are ruptures – the Respect split was one, this current SWP fight is another – that provide an opening to make those gestures. In these contexts, admitting a mistake – even admitting that, while you still think you were right to do something, you could have handled it better – costs you little and may gain you some good will at least. The SWP say they have changed. That’s all well and good for them, and many members are saying things have improved, but for those of us who are a bit jaundiced, it’s not quite enough to replace the John and Lindsey double act with Martin and Judith and urge us to put our trust in Martin’s good nature. (Since the Jefe Máximo’s personal record is exemplary, and he has charmers like Bradley and Yunus backing him up.) For the other side, one would hope that the experience of being on the sharp end of the regime would lead to some reflection on the regime that was led by those people complaining about sharp practice now. One would hope.
Not wanting to belabour the point, but there is a broader movement containing people who have been left damaged and disillusioned by pocket Lenins playing silly buggers. There are plenty of people who must, on some level, have some conception that their actions have consequences, and who must know that a quiet word in the right ear would go a long way. We’re not talking public flagellation here, just some basic human decency. Go on, you know it makes sense.
 Slavoj Žižek’s take on Lenin is remarkably similar, which is why Alexander’s enthusiasm for Žižek worries me slightly.
 I know there’s an argument about the Scottish split, but I am absolutely not going to get bogged down in that one right now. Life’s too short.