Stand in the place where you are

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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.

Ideologues and dissonance

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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.

The Cliff mode of ideological production

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So, pondering on the disorientation of the post-Cliff leadership of the SWP brings me to the way the party line used to be decided. There’s a fascinating dynamic here in terms of ideology, perspectives, the organisation and how they all intersected.

Firstly it’s worth observing that left groups vary widely between the more and less ideological, but generally ideology isn’t as all-important as the partisans of the different groups like to think. I myself would tend to put a lower premium on ideology than some other people I know, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I think it has its place, and its place is not one of total dominance. This is in fact how most groups function – there may not be the exact equivalent of what you used to find in the Communist Party tradition, where part of the party secretary’s job was to indicate to the branches whether the latest output from the ideology department was to be taken seriously or just worthy of lip service, but there are similar processes in most groups. There are of course some groups built by like-minded ideologues with an extremely high level of homogeneity – Workers Power springs to mind – but they tend to reach a certain point and then break apart on ideological grounds.

Now if you go to the Marxism event or read the SWP press, you’ll know that the Living Thought of Tony Cliff looms large, even though the precise relevance of State Capitalism or the Permanent Arms Economy to today’s politics is unclear to me, and most party members would be hard pushed to explain what they meant. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the movement was built very much in Cliff’s image, and having observed him over many years I can well understand why. Unfortunately, Cliff’s appalling autobiography very much tends to ascribe all the great intellectual breakthroughs to Cliff alone. This may have something to do with him having fallen out with or expelled most of his early collaborators.

In the early years, in the 1940s and 1950s, Cliff wrote a good deal. Mostly this was about the Russian economy, spun off into his work on the buffer states and his book on China (possibly the most boring book I’ve ever read). Look at the early issues of Socialist Review and you’ll see that Cliff writes virtually nothing on Britain. If he was a one-trick pony, though, it was a good trick. However, Cliff’s ongoing preoccupation was always building the organisation, and in later decades you would find almost everything he wrote was geared towards organisational ends, and even factional ends. (This is true even of works that don’t appear very factional: the Rosa Luxemburg book was a thinly disguised polemic against Healy, while the Lenin autobiography was aimed at the Higgins-Palmer-Protz opposition, and the women’s liberation book is a whole other can of worms.)

It helped immensely that the Cliff group also had some very serious thinkers who could add their own input, the best of these by far being Kidron. Kidron was not only a brilliant man, but, more to the point, he was less than inclined to take whatever emanated from the mind of T Cliff as tablets from the mountain. But there was a sort of modus vivendi arrived at where Cliff would have a flash of inspiration, sometimes an excellent one, sometimes less so. This would then be palmed off on somebody else to turn it into a workable theory – for a long time Kidron did the job, then the law of diminishing returns kicked in and you got Harman, Rees and Callinicos. There were some basic ideas underlying the various theories, but no great overarching structure of the type Mandel used to go in for, and new theories tended not to be integrated in a seamless way into the group’s politics, but hacked about a bit to make them compatible. This would account for what Kidron used to refer to as the makeshift nature of SWP theory.

Then you had the question of filtering ideas from the centre down to the rank and file. Because there was no imposition of orthodoxy and no real commissars – the fulltimers were a rather different case – this was done through the party press. When it came to theory, you could more or less take your pick, and comrades would often come to their own conclusions on these matters or on political matters that didn’t impact on the group’s practice. For example, I knew one long-time comrade who held a degenerated workers state position on Russia; I myself was supportive of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Disagreements of this sort were never really a problem – perspectives were a different matter, as an open disagreement with the perspective could be taken as a challenge to the leadership.

Perspectives would be arrived at in the same way as new theoretical ideas, but with a slightly different cast of characters. Likewise, you got a bit of a decline in quality as people who could have stood up to Cliff left the stage, and the old man got a little madder towards the end of his life. But you can’t really blame Cliff for his rushes of blood to the head – we all knew what he was like – rather, a situation where he might be working out a trade union perspective in consultation with someone who hadn’t set foot outside the centre in 25 years was bound to exacerbate his worst features.

Again, you had the problem of turning the slogan of the moment into a practical orientation. As the New Zealand SW comrades say – and this is a very important point – you can’t simply enunciate a principle and then deduce a set of tactics from it. This is where the idiot filter, alias the district organisers, would come in. Not to say that the organisers were all idiots – there were and are plenty of very talented people in those positions – but there were definite types. People in fulltime positions were often recent ex-students, which would make sense as they were used to living on peanuts. They were ferociously loyal to the CC that had appointed them as part of a complex system of patronage. They had assimilated the basics of group politics but didn’t have much life experience. They also often had arrogance bred into them by their status, hence the spectacle of an organiser hectoring a trade unionist twice her age on how to run a strike.

If you had a good organiser, the latest wheeze from the centre would be taken with a pinch of salt, and some care would be taken to make sure the new initiatives wouldn’t derail the long-term work of local comrades. If not, the perspective would be taken as a matter of loyalty, almost in a liturgical call and response:

Organiser: We must turn from propaganda to agitation!
Branch: We must turn from propaganda to agitation!

Needless to say, many organisers did show a real gift for the intrigue, backstabbing and clique politics that plays far too big a part in the SWP, and a new perspective could be a heaven-sent opportunity for shafting your enemies.

What’s much less forgivable is the export of this sort of politics into the Pomintern. International conditions vary so much, and the likelihood of a sensible perspective being arrived at from somebody making a guess at what’s happening thousands of miles away so remote, that you would need to handle the international tendency with an extremely light touch. At this point any readers in the American ISO will be starting to chuckle.

However, while clodhopping interference from London hasn’t done the tendency much good of late, what’s more depressing is the number of people, in places as diverse as Canada or Greece, who will pick up a perspective from Britlandia and simply adopt it mechanically. Not to mention Swiss Toni and his acolytes endorsing the Brits’ actions in the Respect split before it was even clear what those actions would be. As JP Cannon used to say, a party that can’t develop its own indigenous leadership is never going to lead anything. And I might add, a dominant group in an international current that can’t assimilate that lesson is, with the best will in the world, going to end up with a Spartacist-Mormon international that does nobody any good at all.

Sapir, Whorf and the categories of Irish political discourse

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We may all be Chomskyans now, at least at an abstract level, but I still hold stubbornly that Sapir and Whorf were onto something. To recap, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, simply stated, involves the idea that linguistic structures are an important force in ordering cognition. There is a political analogue to this, which is that you can’t switch your vocabulary or categories willy-nilly without there being an impact on the underlying ideology. This is in contrast to most politicos, who hold to the Stephen Pinker view that thought is independent of language.

The one person in Irish politics who grasps this instinctively is Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who may not be the first person you’d associate with theoretical linguistics. But if you get to hear Ruairí deliver a speech, you’ll be struck by how careful he is in his choice of words. This derives from the idea, quaint as it may seem today, that your words have an intrinsic meaning. And this, incidentally, is why RSF don’t contest local council elections in the North – while PSF candidates have merrily signed the mandatory anti-violence declaration, with tongue in cheek as Morrison said, Sinn Féin Eile refuse to sign a document they don’t agree with. It may be dogmatic, but it’s honest.

Now I want to consider the intrusion of liberalism into Irish politics, particularly as it’s affected republicanism and the left. I think we can take it that the first serious irruption of modern liberalism into the Irish body politic comes with the birth of the civil rights movement in the mid-60s. In its later manifestation as Humespeak, human rights liberalism has come to dominate discourse in the North, even being adopted in modulated form by the mad loyalists.

But I’m interested for the moment in its adoption by PSF, not universally by any means but being absolutely dominant with the more Sinn Féin Nua elements. Grizzlyspeak is not exactly Humespeak, just as PSF politics cannot simply be reduced to souped-up SDLP politics, but the categories are pretty much the same. The old republican touchstones have been replaced by a rights-based discourse, and even if those using this discourse retain republican opinions, it’s difficult to see how the shift in language couldn’t affect the underlying politics. It’s a bit like what happened to the old communists when they adopted the language of social democracy.

Actually, if I am right this is one of the few trends to move from North to South. For all the discussion of the D4 “liberal agenda”, and the concrete points of that agenda, the more nebulous ideological-linguistic element tends to go unremarked, except by Des Fennell. But it’s noteworthy that the Banana Republic has managed to reinvent itself as a model rights-based liberal democracy. This may or may not be a good thing in itself, but it’s worth remembering that human rights liberalism forms a discourse in itself, not only distinct from but opposed to the previously dominant discourses in the South, de Valera’s social Catholicism for most of the post-independence period and, prior to that, British parliamentary democracy. (A Burkean conservative would deduce from this that there is a tension between liberalism and British traditions, and he would be right.) These rival discourses go a long way to explaining why the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats have never really constituted themselves as an Establishment in the British sense, but continue to see themselves as in opposition to Irishness as hitherto constituted.

You get similar tensions on the further left, but expressed in a different way. It’s my belief that British Marxism is extremely heavily influenced by liberalism, and you would expect that to be replicated by its Irish branch offices. It’s a lot more obvious with the SWP, who rarely use Marxist categories to explain anything. If you go to the Marxism event, you’ll be struck by this – unless you specifically go to one of the few educational sessions on Marxist theory, you won’t hear much that’s outside the bounds of Guardian liberalism. Differences will be in terms of conclusions, not categories.

The Socialist Party is a rather different animal. I’ve had occasion to lash the Millies for their economism, but it’s only fair to say that a little economism is a good thing. The problem that Marxists face is that Marxism, while it’s very good on economic categories, is extremely weak in certain other areas – notably politics, law and ethics. (There have been useful contributions on these, especially from the old Praxis group in Yugoslavia, but they don’t cut much ice with British neo-Trotskyism.) The trouble with the Militant tradition, following Kautsky, is that it deals with these gaps in a vulgar materialist manner, by stretching economic categories to cover areas they can’t really cope with. Hence the reductionist element in Militant reasoning.

But it’s not an easy question, is it? If we find Marxism to be inadequate in a particular area, do we stretch Marxist thought to breaking point to try and cover it? Engels certainly had a few choice words for the sort of cranks attracted to the early Marxist movement, each searching the answer to his own hobbyhorse. Or do we fill the gaps with liberal nostra, even if they don’t gel especially well with Marxism? And it’s the same thing with republicanism, which has always been more ideologically eclectic – do modern conditions require the adoption of liberal discourse, or can answers be found within the old traditions?