The examination of the conscience (or lack thereof)

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.

[1] Slavoj Žižek’s take on Lenin is remarkably similar, which is why Alexander’s enthusiasm for Žižek worries me slightly.

[2] 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.


  1. johng said,

    February 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Funnily enough, inside the SWP itself, I really don’t get the sense of a shift from “Lyndsey-John” to “Martin-Judith”. I mean there is kreminology and kreminology. The weekly worker lot always made me laugh. Occassionally SS gets its right and one shudders (although I always thought Germans rather then Reesites was more accurate: the terminology being a function of the softness of an older generation of CC members IMHO-having been at the recieving end of absurd threatening phonecalls from one Mr Rees relatively recently its rather hard to take the man seriously, I mean, POLITICALLY). But this idea of a new Smithite orthodoxy. Nah. I don’t buy it. Really. The leadership is looking rather more collective then it has in a long time. And that of course is one reason why many of us are well disposed to the good citizen.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 18, 2010 at 8:56 pm

      I can understand you being inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’d prefer to hold fire before proclaiming the new regime of sweetness and light. If there’s anyone in the leadership who really rubs me up the wrong way it’s Jude, but that might just be an allergic reaction on my part to middle-class Protestant women called Judith.

  2. johng said,

    February 18, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Oh and I’d emphasis: Just don’t get the hostility to Yunus and Bradley.

    I mean really.

    Especially when its being stirred by far more offensive people. On every possible level.

    • andy newman said,

      February 18, 2010 at 11:59 pm


      have you ever met Yunus?

      • Alex Snowdon said,

        February 19, 2010 at 12:23 am

        We can safely assume the answer is no. I recommend johng talks to anyone AT ALL on the left in the North East before repeating that comment (unless he wants to look very silly indeed).

  3. De Northside Socialist said,

    February 18, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    For those not educated by the Jesuits,

    Jefe Máximo definition =

    “These recordings feature Alicia Calles’s reminiscences about her own father—Natalia’s great-grandfather—General Plutarco Elías Calles, a revolutionary general who became president of Mexico in 1924. In his time, Calles was called “El Bolshevique” and “El Jefe Máximo,” or “the foremost chief.””

  4. David Hillman said,

    February 18, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Yes. I suggested on Socialist Unity that we need a Primer of Proletarian Politeness. The problem goes deeper than getting the line wrong on one project – though there are those who think that if a vote goes against them its part of a conspiracy which can hypnotise the majoity to vote the wrong way. Its partly a really immature attitude that having a hard manner shows how commited you are. More fundamentally it comes of treating Marxist theory as a gnosis which separates you from the unenlightened. On the couple of times I allowed myself to get really angry in an argument to the point of abuse I discovered that I had mistaken confusion, which a friend sorted out, for provocative posing. We all make mistakes like that but the biggest mistake is to make a virtue of it.

    • ejh said,

      February 20, 2010 at 10:05 pm

      Yes. I suggested on Socialist Unity that we need a Primer of Proletarian Politeness

      Would it include any or all of the following:

      (a) respecting the decision of other comrades to keep their own internal discussions private, even if you personally disagree?

      (b) not publishing other people’s private correspondence?

      (c) not conducting one’s comments boxes as a shrieking match?

      (d) refraining from personal abuse as a mode of political communication?

      (e) learning that ethics starts with oneself and the desire to critique other people does not give one an ethical blank cheque?

  5. Dave Semple said,

    February 18, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Having read some of the oeuvre of Ted Grant and Alan Wood, I wonder if the difference in the behaviour between Militant and the Socialist Party has less to do with size and more to do with the jettisoning of certain personalities. Wood, for example, really took Marxism to the level of the revealed truth and this can be problematic because it reduces a group from equal interpreters of the world to being followers of one interpreter. Perhaps this is where the ills flow from?

    W.r.t. the SP, the discussions in student groups are the same discussions every student group has – but the branch meetings tend to be a bit more lively, and with local committees often being young and active (while the branches have older members not inclined to be ignored) this establishes a nice balance.

    Nothing I say here has universal relevance; just a few thoughts.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 18, 2010 at 8:58 pm

      Alan’s writing is often hilarious. But I don’t think it’s meant to be.

      • Dave Semple said,

        February 18, 2010 at 11:28 pm

        Yeah. Read Reason In Revolt. Couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry at the feeble-minded approach to science.

      • February 18, 2010 at 11:36 pm

        That’s the book which says that chaos theory proves dialectical materialism, amirite? I found it sweet, in the same vein as Posadas speculating that flying saucers must be piloted by Bolshevik cadre.

      • Jim Lowe said,

        February 19, 2010 at 12:24 am

        There’s an excellent demolition of Woods’ dogmatism in “Science, Marxism and the Big Bang” by Peter Mason.

    • David Ellis said,

      February 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      `…found it sweet, in the same vein as Posadas speculating that flying saucers must be piloted by Bolshevik cadre.’

      It is hard to imagine that a civilization based on private property could possibly have developed the necessary means of production, science and technology that would allow it to traverse the unimaginable distances of space without first having blown themselves to oblivion or turned their own planet into acid soup. Besides the scope of such a project would be beyond a society based on private property. Only a communist civilization could muster, organize and direct the overwhelming amount of social capital that would be required. Having said all that, the idea of such a thing as space travel up to the point of contacting another civilization ever happening defies rational science even if distant civilizations do exist.

      • David Ellis said,

        February 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm

        Just to add, I don’t think it was an accident that `alien anxiety’ started to take a grip in the US during the Cold War at the height of the fears that the USSR might catch up and pass them on the production front. Same anxiety with China today.

      • Dave Semple said,

        February 19, 2010 at 12:19 pm

        What nonsense speculation. We have no idea whether or not a system of private property could develop the capacity to develop space travel, especially if space travel becomes a means to make profit rather than a black hole for investment, but that’s not even the issue.

        The very idea of writing and publishing a pamphlet on Marxist UFOs is bloody stupid. There are no aliens flitting about over the earth.

        Of course it’s no accident that UFO paranoia was excited with the Cold War. It was also excited prior to World War One – since man grasped the ability to fly, it has been pretty common, and it becomes heightened with other tensions.

      • redbedhead said,

        February 19, 2010 at 12:26 pm

        Is this what’s meant by socialism from above?

      • David Ellis said,

        February 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm

        `The very idea of writing and publishing a pamphlet on Marxist UFOs is bloody stupid. There are no aliens flitting about over the earth.’

        Dave, when you’ve wiped your spittle-flecked lips perhaps you’d read what I wrote about the physical impossibility of aliens reaching earth. But you contradict yourself. You say it is quite possible that space travel resulting in contact with others could happen on the basis of private property but then that it can’t.

        But seriously, often aliens were used in the movies as a euphemism for communists and to warn people that this is what technologically superior people will do to us which is why they must be contained.

  6. Moreno Truth Kit said,

    February 18, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    While I couldn’t get past a few pages of Reason and Revolt due to the arrogance, writing style and clear lack of actual study, I also think that chaos theory proves dialectical materialism.

    I am not asking for Rosa to appear.

    • February 19, 2010 at 12:47 am

      Volunteers to take up the name of “Rosie Limburger” and go around the comments boxes pimping the glory of the Neo-Tech Post-Dialectical Objectivist-Marxist Synthesis (and cursing all those uninterested for being agents of the Lizard People), please!

    • NollaigO said,

      February 19, 2010 at 3:01 am


    • NollaigO said,

      February 19, 2010 at 3:03 am

      I also think that chaos theory proves dialectical materialism.

      Proves ??? !!!

  7. andy newman said,

    February 19, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Interesting article that didn’t quite go where I was expecting it to.

    I have been intending to write an artilce about gerry healy, and why left organisations tolerate really bad personal behaviour. That is where I thought you were going with this.

    But i see that there is still a gap in the market for my tuppence worth on that subject.

    • David Ellis said,

      February 19, 2010 at 11:00 am

      Centrism zig-zags wildly between the two poles of a dichotomized debate incapable of making a reasonable synthesis so it is flighty and the positions it settles on are ideological. Bureaucracy is by its nature self-serving and therefore arbitrary. Add those three things together centrist flightiness, ideological motivation and bureaucracy and you’ve got the rudest thing since sliced bread.

  8. andy newman said,

    February 19, 2010 at 12:03 am

    “or the small cog moving the big cog,”

    Incidently, this is one of Cliff’s plagiarisms, the frist poerson to make this point about the revolutionary party acting as a small gear moving a bigger gear was Raul Castro

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 19, 2010 at 12:11 am

      Raul evidently has a better grasp of engineering than Cliff did.

    • Phil said,

      February 19, 2010 at 12:17 am

      Drat, I was about to say that. I’ll add that, thanks to the vagaries of translating from Spanish, it’s not always a small cog, wheel or gear that gets described as moving a big one; very often it’s a small motor or a small engine. (The Red Brigades were very keen on the small motor and the big motor, for obvious reasons.)

      • Andy Wilson said,

        February 19, 2010 at 11:50 am

        Maybe Alexie Sayle could play Ricky Tomlinson to Rees’s Scargill:

        Ullo John gotta new motah
        Ullo John gotta new motah
        Me dog’s made a mess of the carpet
        Me dog’s made a mess of the carpet
        He’s an able telly presenter
        He’s an able telly presenter

        Ullo John gotta new mot-AH
        Ullo John gotta new mot-AH
        Ullo John gotta new mot-AH
        Hahahahahahahaha motor, motor, motor, motor….(fades out)

      • Michael O'Brien said,

        February 21, 2010 at 2:12 pm

        I distinctly recall Trotsky using a cog/gear type analogy in History of the Russian Revolution when he was comparing the greater mobilising capacity of the Soviets vs that of the Bolchevik Party

  9. jamie said,

    February 19, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    “The very idea of writing and publishing a pamphlet on Marxist UFOs is bloody stupid. ”

    True, but no stupider than all that transhumanism stuff that’s quite fashionable nowadays, though that tends to come from libertarians of the market persuasion. Pro-capitalist posadists are taken remarkably seriously.

  10. lenin said,

    February 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Slavoj Žižek’s take on Lenin is remarkably similar, which is why Alexander’s enthusiasm for Žižek worries me slightly.

    In fairness to Alex, he has criticised Zizek’s excessively macho, decisionist interpretation of Leninism (in which, iirc, Leninist leadership consists of taking decisions that are retroactively legitimised by the changed circumstances they bring about, thus mandating a tendency to create ‘facts on the ground’ that bypass the existing labour movement). Moreover, Zizek’s depiction of Lenin is not as consistent as you make it appear, being as it is a pastiche of some apocrypha (bigging up the Lenin-as-hard-man theme that Zizek warms to) and some rigorous new scholarship (which shows that Leninism’s better side was its radically democratic and spontaneist aspects).

  11. johng said,

    February 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    But is it? Where does he speak of the radical democratic side of Lenin? There does seem to me to be a gulf between the kind of work done by someone like Lih (I’m not suggesting I entirely agree with it) and the kind of arguments made by Zizek.

    Of course its nice to have leading intellectuals describing themselves as Leninists but I think there should be greater caution about bigging up the content of what they say then there sometimes seems to be in these discussions.

    Of course Zizek is a great laugh and can also be genuinely educational (kind of like Eagleton on amphetimines) but I do think he needs taking on in quite a serious way.

    If some of what he says about the need to get your hands dirty is quite apposite in terms of a certain kind of academic leftism, its surely also the case that some of what he says blurs distinctions between Lenin and Stalinism for example, in the same rather equivical manner one found in Deutscher’s work. Sometimes I think the fashion for longer words does not really lead to an improvement in the level of intellectual debate on these important matters. Which is surely what you look for in intellectuals.

    • ryutin said,

      February 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm

      There’s some truth to the bit about deutscher but he’s a much better political and historical analyst, actually seriously discussing property relations and development of the economy whereas zizek is just rather abstractly (from what i’ve read) talking about political leadership. Also deutscher is actually a pleasure to read…. But i guess they aren’t about the same thing and I went right off zizek when he wrote an introduction to ‘terrorism and communism’. Seeing as it was mainly sold on his new introduction it’s just a crime to introduce new people to trotsky with that…

  12. andy newman said,

    February 19, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    “I do think he needs taking on in quite a serious way. ”


    what impact does he have on the real labour movement, as opposed to academics?

    • neprimerimye said,

      February 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm

      Zizek has zero influence directly. But that is the case with many intellectuals including revolutionary thinkers is it not?

      But given that many active trades unionists these days will have been through the university system and will continue to read widely his influence might well be considerable. As wide as that well know demoralising influence Althussar. What a horrid thought! (Shudder)

    • Dan said,

      February 20, 2010 at 11:51 am

      He has a real purchase over radical students and young people. Some of these people are in the ‘real labour movement’, many of more of them might be.

  13. lenin said,

    February 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    what impact does he have on the real labour movement, as opposed to academics?

    Ideas matter. The ideas of academics can shape broader discourse quite profoundly. The idea that they just sit in an enchanted bubble, harmlessly theorising and riffing for one another’s amusement while the horny-handed sons of craft get on with the real world is a cliche of the right, and one that is belied by their conscientious efforts to control the production and dissemination of said ideas (cf HR 3077).

  14. February 19, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    The first far left group I actually joined was called the Revolutionary Workers League. At the time,1989-90, it was on the cusp of transition from fairly isolated Trotskyists imbued with all of the voluntarism of the 70s Party Building Movement to a cult that manipulated comrades’ personal lives and practiced a kind of psychological terror to keep the troops in line. I, and about 2 dozen others, left when the “leadership” wanted us to sell a paper with the headline “Avenge Iraq” after the first Gulf War (we had to sell “Victory to Iraq” during the war, he remembers with a shudder).

    I really don’t think that those of us who still sought to continue as activists after those events (there is much more to this history) would have survived politically if the younger folks (who were new to the RWL when it split) hadn’t seriously challenged the older folks (who had been leaders of the RWL) to explain how the hell things had gotten so crazy and take some responsibility for it. The younger folks were “guilty” in their way too. It was their enthusiasm for the rotten leadership that let those leaders act so rotten. And it was emulation that led to that enthusiasm. Bad practice exists in a relationship and if we young folks hadn’t aspired to the kind of political certainty sects require those Little Big Men would have just been little men.

    It wasn’t an easy process, but we were absolutely clear that what we wanted to do was no just remake a healthy RWL, we conceived of ourselves differently. What started as a demand to change in function developed into a change of conception. Granted, our small size (when that current still existed organizationally) allowed us much more collectivity in decision making and ability to hear all voices, but I know plenty of small groups that don’t function that way at all.

    All of this is to say that self criticism need not be some Mexican stand off where everybody loses because everyone is guilty. Everyone can win, when everyone is guilty too. Splintered is certainly correct though that there is a moral responsibility involved in all of this, but here I by guilt, I don’t mean morally responsible, but “civically” responsible. But this requires,at its base, a change in conception about your individual and collective role in the world and everybody certainly wont agree to that. So some sort of split is sometimes necessary, but If it is trying to be a better, more democratic self-appointed vanguard, it’ll end up repeating no matter how unwillingly, the same mistakes. The thing about looking at the world that way is that it means that the Party also has to have a vanguard within it (also self appointed and usually voted on as a slate).

    Incidentally acting as a, self-appointed, vanguard stops you from relating to the actual vanguard. For a Leninist (and not its caricature), it is a self defeating prospect. The “vanguard” is not a set of personalities or even a Party, it is a social layer and an orientation to that presupposes you ain’t it otherwise how could you meet? Sorry for the length of the comment, but these events with the SWP brought back some old memories.

    • February 19, 2010 at 10:50 pm

      RWL? The “Sollenbergerites” as the Sparts used to call them, right? It seems that all the fruits from the Spartacist tree are cursed with the same disease – I read an article from one ex-RWL cadre saying that his own party tried to get him locked up in a mental institution, in other words.

  15. Phil said,

    February 19, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    “Sex and the family, the condition of young people and women, emotional and intellectual repression, the marginalisation of the ‘abnormal’ are the concrete everyday reality in which the slavery imposed by capital, in the factory and in our lives, manifests itself … So, a new way of doing politics? Certainly. It’s necessary. Because it’s no longer possible to go on as vanguards talking to vanguards in the parochial language of political ‘experts’, knowing all the ABC—even the M and the L—of Marxism-Leninism without managing to talk concretely about ourselves and our experiences … [and] so that we can begin to create concretely the first beginnings of a different life, of a different way of being ourselves and relating to one another, beyond the roles which capital imposes in order to marginalise, subordinate and divide us”
    – from the dissolution statement of the Gruppo Gramsci, 1974. The group re-emerged within the ‘area of Autonomia’ in a more open & plural form, under the name of Workers’ Political Collectives.

    The level of struggle was a bit higher in mid-70s Italy than anything most of us have ever known, but it remains an inspiration.

    • harry monro said,

      February 19, 2010 at 11:09 pm

      what are they doing today?
      what was their strategy for preventing the rise of the neo-fascists and them entering government?
      As you say the struggle in Italy (and I’d add France) was much greater than in Britain, where did it all go? Perhaps the organizational form of small revolutionary groups was not the main factor in what I’ll call the Downturn.

  16. February 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    This is a very fine, candid commentary, and I used it as a starting point for my post on the subject over at American Leftist:

    Now, you will probably disagree with the anarchist direction of my perspective (one that does not, however, engage in the usual tired recriminations), but the subject of the continued viability of Marxist-Leninist organizational approaches is one that cannot be avoided.

    Consider, for example, this bombshell from Eric Hobsbawm in the most recent New Left Review:

    “Can you envisage any political recomposition of what was once the working class?

    Not in traditional form. Marx was undoubtedly right in predicting the formation of major class parties at a certain stage of industrialization. But these parties, if they were successful, were operating not purely as working-class parties: if they wanted to extend beyond a narrow class, they did so as people’s parties, structured around an organization invented by and for the purposes of the working class. Even so, there were limits to class consciousness. In Britain, the Labour Party never got beyond 50 per cent of the vote. The same is true in Italy, where the pci was much more of a people’s party. In France, the left was based on a relatively weak working class, but one which happened to be politically reinforced by the great revolutionary tradition, of which it managed to make itself the essential successor—and that gave it and the left far more leverage.

    The decline of the manual working class in industry does seem terminal. There are, or will be, plenty of people left doing manual work, and defence of their conditions remains a major task for all left governments. But it can no longer be the principal foundation of their hopes: they no longer have, even in theory, political potential, because they lack the potential for organization of the old working class. . . ”

    If the working class can’t be reconstituted in “traditional form”, doesn’t that strongly suggest that Marxist-Leninist is no longer a viable form of organizing an effort to transcend capitalism?

    • Dave Semple said,

      February 19, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      Hobsbawm is a moron, and a sell-out. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pulled the legs off his Forward March of Labour Halted Zombie…and still the Guardian republishes this rubbish. Seriously, if you’re going to evince an anarchist critique, a failed socialist liberal is probably not the best place to start.

      • February 20, 2010 at 5:50 am

        well, the Guardian didn’t publish it, the New Left Review did, and I didn’t start there, I ended there

        I am agnostic towards Hobsbawm, but his comment invites responses

        do people agree with his analysis about the fragmentation of the working class?

        if not, why?

        if so, is he still incorrect about the challenges of reconstituting it as a political force?

        maybe, it would be better if people started with something better than calling him a moron

      • lenin said,

        February 20, 2010 at 8:14 am

        Hobsbawm is a moron

        And that’s certainly not you being petulant or huffy, is it?

  17. johng said,

    February 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    If its not possible to re-constitute the working class as a viable force, its not possible to successfully replace capitalism with something nicer, as the slogan goes. However the problem with Hobsbawn’s piece is that it largely concerned an argument about it being impossible for Social Democracy ever again to win elections. It was in this context that Hobsbawn expressed hostility to ‘economism’ and ‘syndicalism’ as intefering with that goal. On the possibilities of social democracy winning elections: he was and is just wrong. On the changing nature of class struggle: He just wasn’t very interested.

  18. johng said,

    February 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    On Zizek’s Lenin, I thought this piece by Kellog was interesting.

  19. D_D said,

    February 21, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Very good piece on the left, SS. Another contribution to the eventual replacement of the politics you ably analyse. We are beginning to step away from bureaucratic sectarianism as our foremothers had to step away from social democracy and stalinism. It might be said that this ‘subjective’ analysis of sectarianism really needs an ‘objective’, class and socio-economic analysis to underpin it. But Marx did that for sectarianism from the beginning and then you can’t beat the stuff in…..’Party and Class’, still in print from the SWP! Nice to see Jim Higgins remembered. Plus ca change… There is now quite a body of work on a new alternative (or old alternative) way of organising. You can do no better than enter ‘Murray Smith’ into your search engine.

  20. February 21, 2010 at 11:48 am

    […] was the best times, it was the worst of times”….; United fronts or just fronts?; The examination of the conscience (or lack thereof). Odd how it brings out the erudition in bloggers with these […]

  21. martin said,

    February 22, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    On the theme of the crisis of the left you can read here:

  22. Ed said,

    February 22, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Glad to see the criticism of Zizek. His recent NLR piece on Lenin scared the living shit out of me. As I remember the argument was that while Stalin wouldn’t tolerate any form of opposition – even unarticulated unspoken opposition – Lenin didn’t mind you disagreeing with him as long as you didn’t publicly say so and agreed to go on a long river cruise exile. Otherwise you were shot. And yes I know this was all in the context of life or death civil war struggle. But Zizek, as indicated above, really loves all that alpha male macho swagger stuff.

  23. David Ellis said,

    February 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    I like Zizek.

  24. Binh said,

    March 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    The “Leninism” Cliff codified in his biography of Lenin and in the practice of the UK SWP, that was later exported to other parts of the world through the IS Tendency, was largely a product of Cliff’s personal experience. Cliff acted in the ways he did because 1) he was vindicated in many, if not all, of his criticisms of “orthodox Trotskyism” after WWII when the bulk of the Trots went off the deep end politically on very big issues and 2) he fought to preserve the fundamental ideas of Marxism for a very long time, in very small groups with little influence (1933 he became a Trot, 1950 was the first Socialist Review Group conference with 8 members, and by ’64 they had 200. I bring all this up not to denigrate his work but to illustrate my point).

    No one, not even Cliff (gasp), could have remained unscathed morally, politically, or intellectually over the course of 3 decades. I get the sense that he felt that what he was doing had of world-historic importance. Trotsky had the same feeling when he was the last man standing against Stalin, running for his life around the world, writing, exhorting, and doing his best to keep Marxism alive against an overwhelming tide of lies, persecution, isolation, and brutality that claimed the lives of just about every surviving Bolshevik (except Stalin, of course).

    That kind of grandiose self-importance (even if it is true) can easily lead someone to treat their comrades like dirt if it’s “for the revolution.” And it’s not something that was invented, perfected, or observed solely or mainly in Marxists/Leninists/Trotskyists. You can find people in just about every movement engaging unprincipled, hypocritical, and ultimately self-destructive maneuvers for whatever end it is they’re fighting for – anarchism, communism, whatever.

    The fact that the SWP is breaking apart is a real tragedy, but it’s also an opportunity to take a hard, critical look at Cliff, the UK SWP, and sort out what is and is not “Leninism.” It’s also an opportunity to have an honest and frank discussion of whether or not it is even still relevant, which is what I appreciate about posts like this, in addition to the “morals for leftists” aspect of it. One thing that I think Lenin deserves tremendous credit for is that he never seemed to have that sense of world-historic self-importance; revolution was his life’s work, but he never let it go to his head. I think that is a big reason why he is eulogized so much by people who want to repeat his political accomplishments, even though they make it all but impossible just by turning him into some kind of saint who was more than a man.

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