Friday, March 29, 2013
We've been waiting five years for a coherent left-wing response to the recession. We've been waiting three years for a coherent left-wing response to the cuts. Two years ago, I was asked at a talk how we could communicate the socialist solution to the crisis; I said it would be nice if we had one. It would still be a step forward today. If the extant strategies, groups or alliances were sufficient to deliver this, we would have it by now.
As it is, the only interruption to our "pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity" was brief, if giddy - followed by the briefer tumult of the riots and the panicked reaction from the Party of Order. The trade union movement fought, not an expansive struggle allowing it to hegemonise a wider movement against the cuts, but a typically narrow 'economic-corporatist' battle for a pensions deal roughly equivalent to what a Labour government would have offered. The last year was one of uninterrupted, quiet defeat for the most part. Labour continued to adapt to forces to its right. The government promised more cuts. The left-of-Labour forces remained fragmented, with each group championing its own 'united front' project. As for a left electoral project, a look at TUSC is enough to die a little inside.
Why have things been so bleak? We continually hear that the system is in 'crisis'. This should be great news for us, surely? We hate the system. This should be the moment when the Left advances and begins to prise open the integument...?
We have a number of apparently self-serving, but ultimately self-defeating, consolatory lines about this. For example: the Left is weak, yes, but the system is weak, and so is the ruling class and its governments: their hesitating, divided response to the crisis shows us this. However, the Euro-American ruling classes, whatever divisions and uncertainties have inhibited them in their short-term, tactical orientations, have displayed extraordinary unity on the long-term strategy of 'austerity'. And such has been their success in colonising the dominant parties, that parliamentary opposition to this objective is negligible, and almost entirely provisional and technocratic in articulation. And as much as the resources of the bourgeoisie have been tested, they have yet to a lose a serious fight.
Another, subsidiary, example: an underlying weakness on the part of the ruling class may be inferred from the fact that 'they' attack us in such a ferocious and indiscriminate manner. The logic here is that if the government and employers have to launch a sweeping, frontal attack on the living standards of the whole working class, this itself proves that the system is losing its ability to support the traditional bases of consent. Okay: there is an element of truth in this. But a prima facie ground for distrusting this logic is that if and when 'they' attack us with anything less than full, sweeping force, that too is interpreted as a sign of weakness. The government's early complacency led many of us to underestimate its technical virtuosity. Yet there is no sign of a simple, indiscriminate attack. In fact, the attack is not so frontal; it is a phased assault, deploying a diverse array of techniques which affect layers of the population in an uneven fashion. This is more sophisticated than simply 'salami-slicing' the working class, and defeating one section then the next, and so on. It involves mobilising residual and active elements of discourse to constitute new social categories, who are targeted in discrete ways. Consider, in addition to the greedy union member with gold-plated pensions, and the skiving benefit scrounger, the new phenomenon of the bedroom scrounger, the welfare recipient who is under-using space in her flat and should be removed to a pebble-dashed cupboard in Thamesmead. There are also, let us not forget, 'our people', 'the strivers' who are opposed to 'the skivers', and who are being offered certain material incentives even as their overall standard of living stagnates or declines.
A third example is the idea that because the cuts "can't work", the project will begin to collapse. In a sense, this is true. If the objective is GDP growth, then in the short run, austerity will just keep undercutting investment and growth. And of course it is also true that, in the long run, even if a new source of dynamism is found, these measures will just store up further pathologies. As a result, we can presume that both Marxists and left-Keynesians are 'proven right' in a different way every time the economy starts to dip again: the cuts 'aren't working'. This will undermine the authority of elected governments, just as much as unelected central bankers. It will produce incredibly bitter class struggles which it would be prudent to anticipate in our strategies. Yet, we find that the government actually benefits, to an extent, from a 'crisis' mindset - linked to a set of articulations about deficit, overspending, living beyond our means, etc etc. We find that by invoking the crisis, blaming the scroungers and systematically lowering expectations - they aren't promising us high times, but years of grim belt-tightening before the good old days return - the government gives itself a very long leash. Like Mrs Thatcher, the coalition government says 'iron times', 'backs to the wall', etc., and achieves a degree of quiescence as a result.
All of this is hardly to deny that the system is in crisis, or that this crisis will continue to produce bitter class struggles. I have defined the current situation as one dominated by an 'organic crisis', meaning a long-term, structural, multi-layered crisis that calls into question the ability of the whole system to reproduce itself. However, it is to say that this much over-used term 'crisis' has been doing a lot of covert intellectual and propaganda leg-work, which obscures what is really happening. Let us dissect it a bit. What exactly do we mean by a 'crisis'? In terms of the capitalist system, the dominant image from mainstream economics and bourgeois social science is of a state system that more or less efficiently reproduces itself until some imbalance or bad behaviour causes it to have a temporary rupture. In most cases, this is plausible, because the recession passes, and dynamism resumes. But in periods like the present, it loses even this surface resonance. That is why attempts to conserve the status quo end up having to be projects for its fundamental overhaul and renovation.
There is an obverse view which is not much more useful. This is the 'fundamentalist' catastrophism according to which capitalism is always progressively moving toward its worst crisis yet. At the base of this is a valid marxist insight, which is that the elements of a capitalist crisis are not exogenous or heteroclite, but actually integral to the reproduction of the system itself. That is, the system is reproduced through class struggle and intra-capitalist competition, which are the basic antagonisms that, through various mediations, tend to result in crises. These are the antagonisms behind the so-called 'law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall', through which marxists explain the most basic drive toward crisis: put crudely, capitalists in competition with one another strive to cut labour costs and reduce prices; they overaccumulate capital in doing so; they also reduce the total pool of potential profit, so that while individually they might hope to maximise their market share and thus profits, in the long-run they tend to create a crisis of profitability across the system. In the 'fundamentalist' version of this theory, the successive stages of capitalist development show a marked tendency to 'sharpen' crisis tendencies; the 'resolution' of each crisis, unless it involves a truly cataclysmic destruction of capital, merely stores up more pathologies. At last, the concept of 'crisis' is stretched so that it comes to cover a certain stage of capitalist development. The whole system, since a certain threshold, has been in a permanent state of crisis.
Such an approach occludes what is truly relevatory in Marx's account of crisis, which is that permanent crisis tendencies are part of the system's health and its dynamism. Of course there will be symptoms of ongoing crisis while the system is booming! Of course it will be rotting away in parts even while it is engorged, hypertrophic, in others! Subsuming long periods of reproduction and growth into the concept of crisis erases its specificity. Linked to this approach, sometimes, is an economistic reflex according to which the resulting class struggles erupt first on the terrain of industry, the direct capital-labour relation, which then results in a straightforward feedback from an economic crisis into a generalised political crisis of the system. The result of such an approach is that, when a real crisis does occur, far from preparing one adequately to act on it, it produces an apocalyptic complacency: this is, if not the final crisis of capitalism, certainly one of the last death convulsions, which will produce many symptoms along the way. We can tick them off as they arrive: industrial militancy, political instability, the revival of left reformism, the rise of fascism, etc. Eventually, the 'contradictions' will be sharpened to the extent of producing a revolutionary situation. The task of marxists in such circumstances will be to assist in this sharpening, through propaganda and interventions, while trying to provide the political leadership workers will need as they progress to that final battle.
If you don't recognise the above (only slightly caricatured) sketch, by the way, you could conclude that it isn't aimed at you. But I assert that such fatal tendencies do exist and are discernible in the way that revolutionaries have responded to the current crisis.
I have argued in a previous post that the ruling classes are usually best situated to respond proactively to a crisis, and to take advantage of it. The obvious corollary of this is that the institutions of the working class, and the Left, are usually not so well situated. Stathis Kouvelakis made the point that a real crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the Left, both revolutionary and reformist. This is only logical. For while reformist parties get comfortable with governing in a particular way - maintaining a client base in office; cultivating their popular base by mobilising them against the government when out of office; sustaining their links with the trade union bureaucracy at all times - revolutionary parties get used to a certain method of self-reproduction, a certain routine, a certain balancing operation between different components of the party, and a certain set of perspectives that either guide their concrete actions or (as is often the case) soothe the symptoms of aimless drift and sharp, barely explained turns, with a general theoretical anaesthetic. A crisis upends all of that. The reformist party has to re-define its base, as traditional constituencies and political identities are shaken up; old methods of governance, be they welfare-capitalist or neoliberal, must be radicalised or abandoned. The revolutionary party likewise finds itself in need of new perspectives, a new base, a break with routines and entrenched dogma.
This brings us to the SWP. Must we? Yes, we must, and not for the last time. I have no desire to spend the rest of my political life writing about the party I have just left, but there is a necessary process of political clarification following such a break. I have until now defended the party's general lines and strategies, notwithstanding my Syriza heresy. But in the course of an acute crisis triggered by an unbelievable and unforgiveable rape cover-up, the contours of a chronic crisis linked to the lack of democracy, congealed dogma and strategic vapidity became clear(er). An accounting of this is called for, if the right decisions are to be taken now.
'It is no accident', as we used to say, that the SWP's protracted crisis has overlapped to an extent with the capitalist crisis since 2007. The credit crunch coincided with the manifest failure of an old method of leadership, and an old set of perspectives, and with a degree of turbulence in the party's base. The cuts are also going to exert a long-term impact on the party's means of self-reproduction. The SWP has one part of its base in an ageing public sector workforce, and another in an increasingly class-divided student body: austerity in practice has meant that the public sector workforce is going to be decimated, while a larger part of the student body is going to be made poorer and chained to debt. Given that the party didn't grow at all during the years of antiwar radicalism and constant discontent with New Labour, this is serious. An obvious response, supposing we are unable to prevent the cuts to massive neoliberal cull of the public sector, might be to ask how one builds in the unorganised working class, which is the overwhelming majority of it - indeed, it is one of the few growth sectors in capitalism right now.
However, austerity poses the more immediate dilemma: what do we need in order to reverse, halt or at least slow the cuts, and what can a revolutionary socialist party contribute to that? The current SWP leadership vaunts a 'rank and file' strategy in response to the cuts - although on inspection, one finds neither a 'rank and file', nor a strategy. The idea of a 'rank and file' strategy is based on the simple insight that, there needs to be a fight; the public sector unions have the means to lead the fight, but are always going to be betrayed by union bosses; and therefore we need to build a 'rank and file' network of militants capable of acting independently of and against the bureaucracy where necessary. In reality, what this amounts to is the creation of a party front that seeks to build influence over the left union bureaucracy in order to hopefully generate strike action, thus substituting (hopefully temporarily) for the initiative of the non-existent 'rank and file'. In theory, one could say that the appeals for action are formally directed at the union bureaucracy, but are actually addressed to rank and file workers, whom it is hoped will pressure the bureaucracy for action. In practice, it's probably more the other way about. Insofar as this produces results, one can cynically overlook the problematic character of relying on such operations. And indeed, some averagely intelligent people seem to have convinced themselves that the bureaucratic mass strikes of 2011 were effectively a fight between the SWP and the Tory government, in which the party was a tiny cog turning the massive cogs of the union bureaucracy. (I assure you, it's true.) All cynicism aside, SWP members played an important role in building support for such strike action as did occur - but as footsoldiers in a program of controlled confrontation devised by the trade union general secretaries, whose aim was to get the Tories to offer them roughly what Labour would on the pensions issue.
Aside from being a substitutionist strategy based on influence-peddling, which placed a ridiculous amount of prestige and authority on the shoulders of the man who could peddle such influence, the 'rank and file' strategy had other demerits. First, it left the leadership shrugging and mumbling vacuous generalities when it came to answering how the strategy hadn't delivered. After the sell-out of the pensions dispute, there was a long period of sobering defeat. But the CC's contributions to 2013 preconference bulletins offered no analysis of why. Of course, if the implicit answer was "the SWP isn't remotely the decisive factor in these struggles and cannot determine how the bureaucracy will behave", that would be true and sober: but such an answer would also sit uneasily next to the earlier triumphalism, and would evade the real question of why the strategy yielded nothing.
Second, aside from being substitutionist and elitist, the strategy was also an alibi of sectarianism. It was obvious early on that a unified anti-cuts movement was needed - a point I'll come back to. Many of the most effective challenges to the government were coming, not from the industrial coalface, but from the social movements, and it made sense to coordinate them sustain them beyond the immediate upsurge of rebellious frenzy. The party leadership knew this, and indeed claimed to be interested in helping build it. But, pursuing the 'rank and file' strategy, it actually preferred to maintain an ineffectual party front which could fill out a London meeting hall, but achieved little else. Partly this is reflects the pathology of splits: the party leadership obsessively avoiding the 'movementism' of the recently departed groups, and anything that smacked of it.
It was also obvious that there would be a space for some sort of radical left party, as Labour councils implemented the cuts and Ed Miliband shifted to the right. The party leadership sounded sensible notes on this. It responded appropriately to George Galloway's victory in Bradford, and lauded the Front de gauche. I recall the national secretary admitting, in a meeting set up by Socialist Resistance, that it wasn't enough to bang on about the struggle as if everything would be resolved on the picket line - we need a form of political representation, he said. It is true that the party newspaper reflected a sectarian line on Syriza, but not with any real conviction on the part of the leadership as far as I could tell. Even when I was lightly bollocked over coffee by Bishop Brennan and Father Jessup for my strident Facebook missives on the issue, they seemed far more worried about the offence to the Greek comrades than the argument itself, which I was permitted to spell out in more measured terms for the ISJ. Despite all this, the height our exertions on this terrain was TUSC - a misleading moniker insofar as it evokes anything other than a blunt instrument, and apt only so far as it recalls 'husk', as in 'chaff'.
Why did the party leadership plump for this hardly ideal situation, as if TUSC was the basis for anything? In part, I suspect this is because sections of the leadership opposed the whole idea of left realignment. But I suspect it is also because, to actually contribute to the process of realignment, the leadership of the SWP would have to deal with a massive lingering burden of mistrust. This pall resulted from our disastrously nuclear response to criticisms within Respect, some of which were obviously well-founded in retrospect, and the sectarian logic of our behaviour in the subsequent Respect break-up. It would have to be capable of demonstrating remarkable humility and good faith, which it was not. The party's official stance remained that George Galloway was overwhelmingly responsible, and we had at most made some regrettable errors in responding to reformist treachery. And it hadn't really broken with the 'punching above our weight' modus operandi that had led to the party's mistakes in Respect, the assumption that we should try to be in charge of everything. It wasn't capable of abandoning the dreary lash-up with the Socialist Party that was going nowhere, and striking out for something better, because that might involve accepting a subordinate position in a much wider formation, in coalition with forces that we would be unable to control.
This litany of complaint may seem overly harsh. In truth, when a struggle broke out in the last few years, the party acquitted itself reasonably well within its modest means. It did a good job of 'relating to' (a phrase for the stale cliches amnesty, perhaps) the student revolt. It was helpful in building support for mass strike action. It was also important that the party continued to take the right stance on the Arab Spring as it spread to countries that were the targets of US imperialism; but it also threw itself into the Gaza protests, for example. It stood up against a certain leftist moralism about the English riots. It has continued to take a hard line against Islamophobia, when some sections of the Left would be happy to capitulate to the Muslim-baiting under the rubric of a vulgar, idealist 'atheism'. And it carried out important work in UAF: in my opinion taking the right line on how to most effectively defeat the EDL in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. And I think the paper struck a good line on Assange in a piece written by Tom Walker, who is now despised by the hacks more than I am. But generally insofar as the SWP proactively sought to shape the response to austerity, it largely failed, and instead succumbed to delusions of grandeur. Members of other parties and groupuscules can explain their own failure, of course - they have to, if they want to participate in this discussion. But I can only speak of the SWP.
We need to change course, badly. To be more specific, I think we need:
i) an anti-austerity movement capable of mobilising a hegemonic majority against the cuts. The 'crisis' will not do our work for us. It will affect people and relations in all sorts of ways, but our opponents will be working hard to construct a particular 'lived relationship' to the crisis that favours them. There is an article in a recent issue of the thrilling Parliamentary Affairs about the 'Winter of Discontent', which you might want to read in order to see how this is done. It demonstrates how the Right operated on lived experiences of hardship, violence and social breakdown in order to produce the imagined experience of a crisis produced by union power, nanny-statism and tax-and-spend 'socialism'. Remember that this in an era when workers were suffering massive de facto pay cuts and the Labour government was cutting spending and embracing monetarism to appease the IMF. Many workers were won to the Tories on the basis of this mythology. The point is that the alignment of forces can by no means be taken for granted because of the assumed historical pattern of capitalist crisis: political subjectivities have to be constructed, assiduously, along the main lines of antagonism. In the UK at the moment, there is no generalised political, cultural, social or industrial counterpoint to the Right's efforts. That's one reason why it was so easy to demonise the riots: there was only a weakly entrenched narrative that the cuts were probably going a bit too far, but a far more deeply rooted narrative that there was not enough discipline in schools, too much immigration, too much easy welfare for 'chavs', and too much freedom for 'feral youths'. That's why the most dynamically growing force at the moment is UKIP. We need a campaign that prepares the terrain around existing struggles and ahead of coming struggles and outbursts, that explains them in advance as responses to unbelievable class aggression and brutal state violence, not as the criminal actions of social deviants.
I think we need a generalised, 'nationwide' campaign encompassing various levels of initiative. We presently have a series of localised fights, such as the impressive struggle in Lewisham over the hospital closure, and the heroic fight by Sussex students and staff against privatization, but by themselves these are not sufficient. The 'unevenness' of these campaigns reflects the unevenness of the effects of austerity, as well as the way in which the coalition is trying to isolate certain groups. This is obviously not good for us. Strategically, its a priority that we overcome it. Of course, we do not need a nationwide campaign with little or no democracy, where a general strategy is set by a small steering committee, and local campaigns have to accommodate it. The point of a nationwide campaign should be to federate existing struggles in a democratic way that is led by the grassroots. Any general 'line' that emerges has to come from concrete experiences of activism not from a coffee-flogging cognoscenti. For that reason, any such campaign probably needs a broad elected national leadership composed mainly of people who have earned the right to lead in campaigns, and a relatively federal structure with a great deal of autonomy for local groups. The slightest whiff of hectoring phone calls, back-room lobbying, finger-wagging from the lectern, presenting fait accomplis worked up behind closed doors, etc., will be the ruin of any organisation aspiring to be the institutional basis for an anti-cuts movement.
ii) a realignment of the left-of-Labour left. I think in this case we need a narrower form of organisation that is capable of concentrating the experiences and perspectives of anti-cuts activism in a way that a broader movement could not. An anti-cuts movement would probably have to be open to participation from right-wing Labourites who favour prudent, slower cuts, as well as anarchists who want to picket the offices of those same Labourites; as such its line could not be too defined. We need to popularise not just a moralistic rejection of the cuts, but an alternative analysis of the crisis and a serious, detailed set of solutions. These solutions wouldn't be based on a 'neutral' measure like how effectively they contribute to GDP growth. There is no socially neutral way of resolving a crisis. Not only do such solutions have costs which must be borne differentially according to class, race, gender, etc. They typically involve transforming, attacking, inventing, reorganising, or annihilating the institutional and relational bases of particular types of class power. A left-of-Labour party would have to identify a number of in principle achievable measures that would a) plausibly gain mass support, and b) alter the balance of class forces if implemented. For example, nationalising the banks and turning them into public utilities, would be a popular measure and it would also hit at an institutional nerve centre of the dominant form of ruling class power today. It would also, in principle, give any government tremendous leverage over the economy, a resource with which to plan green investment, job creation, etc. We do not have to kid ourselves that an elected government could just wave a wand and make this happen; the point is to develop an analysis and a set of concrete objectives would help the sorts of social struggles that would make it possible.
Now even if it were once possible, it is no longer realistic to expect the Labour Left to fulfil this role. It is recovering a bit, and will continue to do so for a while, but it is far too weak relative to the dominant forces in the party to be able to take a leading role in articulating a radical left response to austerity. As for the Greens, they have made it clear: they oppose austerity in principle, but will do nothing stop it if given control of a budget. Something else is needed. So, is this a recommendation for a 'British Syriza' or, worse, a 'Seymouriza' (as some bastards have suggested) or 'Sino-Seymouriza'? Yes and no, in that order. I am not in favour of abandoning the project of independent revolutionary organisation, as I'll explain momentarily. Further, as I favour Scottish independence, the 'Syriza' I propose wouldn't exactly be British. Nor would it look very much like Syriza, as the social and political forces available for such a project in the UK are totally different and reflect different historical experiences and different immediate challenges - we don't have to address the problem of the eurozone, for example, in a population that has generally been pro-euro. But everyone notices that the SNP, the Greens, George Galloway and any plausible alternative can take big chunks of Labour's base away at a moment's notice. We all know that Labour's electoral recovery is extremely tentative. It's obvious that the break-up and break-down of its base is part of a secular process in the neoliberal period that is also affecting European social democracy. So, if we're as smart as all that, we should be doing something about it.
The creation of a radical left party has been slower and more hampered in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. I do not believe this is because of the mistakes of the SWP. If you look at the constituents of some of the successful groups, I suspect you'll find a lot worse by way of authoritarianism, sectarianism and opportunism. Rather, as I've said in a previous post, it is because of the greater difficulties in generating a significant split in social democracy due to the serious defeats inflicted on the Left in the UK, and particularly the defeat of the militant wing of the labour movement. No other Western European labour movement experienced defeats like this. The result was Labour's wholesale capitulation to neoliberalism well before any other European social democratic party. After this, there was simply no general political basis from which the remaining rump of the Labour Left could mount a challenge to the leadership: they could oppose the policy consequences to New Labour's neoliberalism, but had no plausible alternative political-economic basis for their opposition, much less to lead a split as did Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. Only the 'war on terror' produced such a split in the UK, and that was too small and narrow.
Nonetheless, it remains a compelling fact that Respect didn't have to crash and burn in the fashion that it did; and that, even after the launching and crash-landing of previous left formations, small, committed and talented groups of people with sometimes gaping flaws seem to have been able to surprise Labour in its former heartlands. All it takes is a name, or a local campaign with resonance. Now, if left at that, they would simply be vanishing, 'last gasp' blips of resistance to the further neoliberal takeover of politics. But the current conjuncture is one that will be formative of a generation or so. Whatever stable political forces can be forged now are likely to last.
iii) a realignment of the forces of the revolutionary left, which are hardly in an optimal state of organisation. There is no historical or conjunctural need for the 57 varieties of revolutionary socialism to be distributed in twice as many sects, groupuscules and minorities of one. But to unite them in an effective organisation has never been a simple matter of stitching together the existing fragments. They are too committed to their trademarked orthodoxies, their turf, their routines, their hierarchies and their internal cultures. Any serious new party or formation would have to be heterogenous, open to heterodoxy and far less bureaucratically centralised than the existing revolutionary sects. Realignment requires the old fragments to be shaken up and, in a sense, radicalised: this is the potentially productive aspect of the crisis.
But let's be honest: such realignment will also require a discursive process akin to a Truth and Reconciliation commission. If we need realignment, it's because there has been a general failure. To a large extent, and self-righteous protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I think what is wrong with the SWP is also wrong with much of the wider left. It's not good enough for a bunch of revolutionary socialists to try to unite around the lowest common denominator of agreeing about the SWP's latter day treachery. Every participant, particularly if they come from an existing sect, would have to be capable of a minimum of honesty about why their own political tradition did at best no better in practical terms than the SWP. Those who aren't capable of that much honesty probably wouldn't get us very far anyway, whereas those who simply want to strip the carrion from the carcass may as well stay away.
Shall I start the ball rolling? What mistakes did I personally make as an SWP member? Not making my objections to our hosting of the antisemitic crank Atzmon, and the preposterous rationale for doing so, explicit - particularly when it was made clear to me that the paper wouldn't host a letter on the subject. Party members can attest that I and others took this up within the party, and that I trolled Atzmon's talk at Bookmarks, but it really wasn't enough. Next? Defending our stance on Sheridan uncritically, which meant defending Sheridan uncritically. I still think it was right to defend him against the state and News of the World, and wrong to cheer his being imprisoned. But surely by now we can admit it was wrong, whatever you think of the SSP leadership, to defend his right to bring this disastrous case in the first place? And then let him off the hook for lying his arse off, hanging Katrine Trolle out to dry, and contributing to fucking up the Scottish far left for years? Can we at least admit to an element of bad faith in taking such a stance, and then pretending to be strictly extraneous to the subsequent meltdown of the SSP? For my part, I was wrong to rationalise all this, wrong to defer facing up to it, wrong to cop out when the truth of the matter was obvious. What else? Defending the party uncritically during the Respect debacle on the basis of who I trusted, circulating unhelpful gossip, allowing myself to be a conduit for lies and misdirections coming from Rees's office, and living in denial when the latter started circulating slimy rhetoric about Muslim 'communalism'. Then only tentatively and gradually facing up to the truth once it dawned.
That will do for now: ball = rolling = now in your court. Also, to mix this metaphor in a properly Cliffite fashion, that court = surrounded by a glass house. If you have never, as a socialist activist, found yourself defending a line you later regretted, kept quiet about something you shouldn't have, rationalised away a feeling of unease, then you're either still deluded or a fucking liar. I know that sounds harsh, but this is the terrain. And the point of facing up to this stuff now, is that you don't want to repeat that situation.
Grim though this analysis may seem, there are three possible causes for optimism in the next year. First, a horrible scandal is also the occasion of a form of radicalisation on the left, particularly the revolutionary left, in which many people are literally re-evaluating their root assumptions. This percolation is itself indicative that people are wrong to simply assume this is yet another stage in the ongoing mitosis of revolutionary groupuscules. There's a feeling - don't you share it? - that as nasty and depressing and shaming as this crisis has been, something has been unblocked by it, and new possibilities have been created. Second, is the People's Assembly idea, which has achieved a lot of media coverage and has the support of sections of the Labour Left, the trade unions, celebrities, and obviously Counterfire. The People's Assembly is attracting some criticism for the fact that its big 'arrival' is marked by a celeb-driven rally in a swish Westminster venue at a cost of £25000, rather than a democratic conference where actually existing campaigns participate in decision-making. But it would be churlish not to get involved and try to change it in a democratic direction. And third, is the Left Unity initiative for a new left party, which I think has achieved 6,000 signatures thus far. (I have signed and, for what it's worth, I think you should too.) The fact is that if half of that many people joined a new party right now, you would have the basis of a reasonable sized radical left party. Clearly, there's a lot still to work out. It's still a nebulous initiative, and the basis for individual and group affiliation is not yet clear. Nonetheless, local Left Unity groups are springing up with plenty of support after just a couple of weeks or so. This suggests a degree of initiative and energy that hasn't been seen on the Left for a while.
There is your hope, if you like. It's about as far from bland, upbeat can-do puffery as it's possible to be, but it is hope.
Monday, March 18, 2013
A CC member, affectionately known to the party faithful as 'Bishop Brennan', was heard to say to the Central London aggregate, "If you can't argue the line, you should consider your position in the party."
This was several days after the leak, on Monday 7th January, of a transcript of the Disputes Committee session at conference. In one way, the leak was shocking. Certainly, documents had been circulated in hostile publications, email threads leaked, bulletins excerpted on blogs. Prior to conference, even some of the discussions of the Democratic Opposition faction had been leaked to the Weekly Worker. During conference itself, I noticed individuals in the online gossip mills who had demonstrated knowledge of the case, and even mentioned the r-word. But taping and transcribing about ten thousand words from a lengthy and emotional discussion took either resources or commitment.
In another way, it fit in entirely with an increasingly demented situation. Even before the leak it was clear that there was no way that this story wasn't getting out, and soon - and from there, it would spread. Not everyone understood just how far it would spread. I well remember trying to persuade even sensible comrades that the tabloids would indeed care about such a story. The trusty, consoling line that "most people aren't thinking about what the SWP gets up to" had been bandied about: a streak of bullshit that I remembered from the Respect debacle. But it was clear to anyone who had their eyes open that this was going to come out in some form. The question was how the party would carry it. And the answer, evidently, was by retreating to the bunker. As in, Archie Bunker.
Brennan was not alone in his dispensation. Other CC members had conveyed the same message. Generally, this was conveyed with the preferred imprecations of the CC member in question. So Father Purcell might remark that "Conference voted for an interventionist leadership, not federalism!" Sister Assumpta might claim that the accused had been 'exonerated', and no one would be suffered to say otherwise. Or Father Macduff might mention that people in the parochial house had been behind the factions, and it had to stop. Whatever: the coup de grace was invariably the suggestion that we might think about getting on with the important business we had to attend to in "the real world". Of which, evidently, the CC knew fuck all. Indeed, there were signs of Jesuitical distinctions being drawn on this front. One of Brennan's acolytes - who for the sake of consistency we'll call Father Jessup - was heard to have said that it was a duty of members to defend the line even in private relationships. The brittle defensiveness of the leadership's posture had evidently only been exacerbated by the leak.
There were some of us having email and Facebook exchanges. Our collective attitude was that we weren't going to waste a single breath trying to 'defend the line', or make life easier for the lunatics in charge. But each new twist of absurdity throughout that week produced another collective round of forehead slapping and despairing cries of 'fuck sake'. For example, it quickly became clear that 'Comrade Delta' was being finessed back into full-time politics. This, days after the Disputes Committee transcript had been leaked. Then it emerged that full-time party workers were being called into individual meetings with CC members, and made to swear loyalty oaths: you defend the party line, or you're out. Those who didn't either quit, or were sacked. Members who had supported the faction at conference were being isolated or treated like dirt in some branches. The two CC dissidents had decided to stay in the leadership rather than resign. Two affiliates to the international tendency had quit. The results of elections for the National Committee (NC), or the 'House of Lords' as it's known, came in: it was more dominated by loyalists than usual, and certainly didn't reflect the support the factions had achieved at conference. On top of this, of course, the two new entrants to the CC, replacing those who were dropped, were both ardent loyalists of the accused.
So we had a CC that was even more nuts than before, a slavish Lords, a purge of the full-timers, a fracturing tendency and, amid the leaking of the party's shameful business, an attempt to restore the accused to full-time work. Magic. Even so, most people didn't want to say anything publicly, and risk giving ammunition to the right-wing press. Such a decision would, anyway, simply entrench the 'circle the wagons' mentality that had already spread to sections of the party long before conference. I had personally told anyone who would listen that I wasn't going to defend this, and had words with worried comrades, who urged me not to get myself expelled. I didn't have to lie about my views if asked, but I should not make any kind of public statement either: this would require a long fight in the party, and we would have to dig in and maintain discipline. The perspective, even at this stage was, see if it would be within our rights to get an emergency conference, or see if we can legitimately form a faction.
Tom Walker's resignation statement changed everything. First of all, because it expressed concisely and eloquently what the rest of us had been thinking and saying to ourselves. Secondly, because within hours of publication, it had been re-tweeted by @pennyred to 56,000 followers. Articles were coming. The Independent's journalist was tweeting Andy Newman looking for a quote. Laurie Penny was writing. I spoke to China, as I had throughout the crisis. He had long since passed the point where he was willing to toe the line: to do so was to be a chump as far as he was concerned. The party name was already irretrievably tainted. Only open defiance could save it. He was ready to give a statement to Penny, who had emailed an enquiry. I read his statement; it was good. I passed it round to some friends; they agreed that it was good. China was ready to be expelled. I said that for me, the idea of maintaining a muted dissent without openly saying what I thought was becoming impossible. I would wait for a bit, because I wanted to see what others wanted to do, but it was a question of when, not if.
By the evening of Friday 11th January, when the New Statesman article came out, I and several others were already deciding what to say in response. The crisis had gone public; it was not because of us, and there was no way that we could avoid responding to it. But it was when the Independent's version, with its nasty line about 'socialist sharia courts', came out that the wider political stakes became glaringly apparent. This story was going to be about the SWP, certainly, but the conclusions people would draw from it could be much more general: this is what those Muslim-loving lefties are like; this is what political parties lead to, they're all the same, etc; this is what revolutionary socialists are like, stay well away, they're extremists... In contrast with the Independent piece, Penny's article was principled, left-wing and on the side of the party's opposition. So, we made definite decision, probably a dozen or so of us at first, to intervene in the public mess and back up Penny's version of events.
I wrote, furiously, but cathartically. It was a big kamikaze dive right into the cult's lair. An enormous relief descended, for about three days. I expected the expulsion email to come over the weekend, or by Monday at the latest. 'Fine: let them expel me for telling the truth. If it comes to that, I'll appeal.' Soon, however, it became clear that the leadership was paralysed. We heard that they were stunned, devastated, literally in mourning. And that meant there could be a fight for the party.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
The point of intersection posted by Richard Seymour
"From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms."
"Positioned by her race, Anita Hill had to deal with her harassment under constraints that white professional women do not face. She had to be a credit to her race. If her success came at a personal cost of enduring harassment, she had to weigh that cost against a more collective one: disappointing all those who counted on her success and who had supported her along the way. White feminists interpreted her long silence about the harassment as the consequence of the isolation and self-blame that many middle-class white women experience in similar situations. In so doing, they not only ignored the history of Black women’s understanding and awareness of their sexual vulnerability in the public world; they also minimized the particular dangers confronting Black women who publicly resist sexual exploitation. Black women’s representations in the dominant culture as sexually voracious and promiscuous threatened not only to discredit Anita Hill individually but to vitiate one very crucial purpose of her professional striving--to recuperate Black women’s image by refuting what everyone believes about the Black woman. Finally, her silence came out of a long history of racial solidarity. Thus, Anita Hill’s silence as well as her speaking out, the uses to which her speech was put by white feminists and the ways in which her speech was discounted by (mostly but not entirely) male spokespeople for the Black community, were emblematic of the difficulties as well as potentials of Black women’s location at the intersection of race and gender."
Friday, March 15, 2013
The reports weren't coming as often as we would have liked. What we were hearing wasn't good. It wasn't just that we weren't winning votes. We didn't expect to. It had been clear from some discussions before conference that even some of those who were on our side about the rape allegations were absolutely horrified by some of the discussions favouring radical changes to the party's structures. There was a fear of federalism, or of becoming a talking shop, of being so busy with internal discussion and voting and so on, that our ability to intervene in real struggles would be diminished. As a result, we were losing heavily even on relatively moderate amendments saying that, maybe we should discuss things rather than trying to shut everyone up. But even so, the margin of dissent was way higher than in most conferences. Clearly, the faction had helped stir things up to a degree, despite its very short life. More troubling was the attitude of some of the members supporting the leadership. Evidently, paranoia was running high. People really believed that there was a plot to wreck the party, stirred up by sleeper agents of the ISG or Counterfire. There were also a few physical threats.
Then there was the tone of the leadership's contributions. "The elephant in the room," a CC member had reportedly explained, "is what has happened to the student movement since Millbank. The students are turning inward because the movement has collapsed. The current debates are a symptom of pessimism arising from that collapse." This was a stunningly delusional and self-serving analysis, but it would be repeated in other contexts by other CC members. The emerging line was that the students had lost their way because the party had failed to take an 'ideological turn' after Millbank, and effectively argue the party's politics on women's liberation, among other things, in SWSS groups. This foreshadowed a series of doomed, miserable, finger-wagging SWSS events staged after conference.
Strikingly, there was barely a hint of discussion of the real subject, which was allegations of rape and sexual harassment, until the session about the findings of the Disputes Committee which investigated the allegations. Comrade W, whose complaint was dealt with by the Disputes Committee, was barred from attending this session. In this session, the details of the complaint itself were not discussed, nor was the accused, or any of the complainants named. The discussion was purely about how the complaint had been handled, and the chair intervened a few times to complain that speakers were bringing up details of the complaint itself - though in fact none of the speakers did. The leadership's strategy boiled down to a few main points:
First, all the main speakers in favour of accepting the Committee's findings were women. This was important, because some leadership supporters would emphasise the fact that the investigation was led by five women. With greasy insinuation, they would wonder how anyone could imply that these experienced female comrades were somehow dupes of the accused. Surely, they suggested, this was sexist in itself?
Second, the line was one of deference: all the people on the DC were experienced, trustworthy and politically principled comrades who would definitely have taken action if they thought the accused was guilty of rape. The implication here was later spelled out to me. The Committee was made up of experienced cadres who have a special "political morality" which means that they would not protect a rapist. Any imputation of conscious bias in favour of a colleague and political superior was unthinkable, while unconscious bias was highly improbable.
Third, when dealing with the complaints of the women about how they had been dealt with, the approach was one of 'false flag' denial. For example, they denied that the women had been asked about what clothes they were wearing when the alleged events took place, knowing that no one had said otherwise. Simultaneously they ignored the claims that were actually made, regarding the sexist and hostile questions directed at the women. The same tactic was later deployed by the CC in the single Internal Bulletin before last weekend's Special Conference.
Finally, while there was no explicit aggression against the complainants, those supporting the findings stressed that they had reached their verdict because they did not think the accused was guilty. Anyone looking for ambiguity in the fact that the verdict was 'not proven' was misguided. This foreshadowed the moves after conference to claim that the accused had been 'exonerated'.
Such a line raises the question: how could the accused have been 'exonerated'? Surely, 'not proven' meant that they had been unable to determine the truth between two contesting sets of claims? Surely in turn this meant, given our understanding that women generally don't make up claims of rape and sexual assault, that there was a strong possibility that the accused was guilty? Or had the Committee proved that the women were liars? Evidently, some people did believe the women were liars, because they had said as much. Certainly, loyalists of the accused had spread vicious rumours about the complainants. (One of these loyalists reportedly sat in the conference hall, while delegates heard tearful testimony about how the women had been treated, muttering the word 'lies'.) But was this a line which the party was prepared to officially defend? Obviously not. However, since the leadership wanted to defend the right of the accused to continue to work for the party and represent it in united front work, they had to insist that no trace of suspicion remained. Therefore, the official line would be the untenable one that both the complainants and the accused were 'comrades in good standing'.
We heard that the vote had passed narrowly in favour of the Committee's findings. This was agonising. The narrow vote was all the more remarkable given the abstentions. It was clear that the leadership had failed to win a majority of delegates to its position. Yet it had still just about managed to defend the indefensible. Delegates had left the debate exhausted, shattered, weeping. Most people had never heard these arguments before, and thus never understood what the debate was about. Would they go back to their branches and shut up? Would they feel that, whatever their own views, the debate had happened fair and square, and it was "time to draw a line under it"? It seemed extremely unlikely.
The shock of revelation didn't necessarily galvanise people to take a more radical position on other matters. The CC's chosen slate for the leadership, excluding two of the dissidents, won fairly comfortably. The vote on whether to accept the expulsions of the four comrades went harder for the CC than other votes. In fact, the voting figures suggest that a large number of delegates didn't attend the session, suggesting that it just didn't interest them. To me, this indicated that the vote reflected more than just reflex loyalism. Rather it was a manifestation of an informally hierarchical culture that had developed in the party. Had these comrades been part of the inner circle, their expulsion would have been controversial and the turnout would have been higher. Because they were seen, incorrectly, as waifs and strays, it didn't matter one way or the other what happened to them.
Moreover, there was a real sense of debacle around how some of the Democratic Centralism Faction had intervened in the conference. One of their members spoke both for and against his own motion. Another spoke against expulsions by denouncing those who had been expelled. When the leadership's chosen slate for the new Central Committee was endorsed by conference, they begged the two remaining dissidents not to step down as they had promised they would. I presume the reasoning behind this was that it was better to have a CC with a couple of bureaucratic dissidents than no bureaucratic dissidents. But resignations would have accelerated the crisis for the leadership, while the result of their staying was unimpressive. One of the two drank the kool aid - though not before spending some time bolstering his credentials as a top secret dissident. The other was forced to resign after it was clear that the leadership had already taken out most of his base in the full-time apparatus, and was coming for him.
At the end of the Disputes Committee session, the chair had urged people to avoid raising details of the session in their report-backs to branches and districts. The following Monday, Party Notes reported that conference had endorsed the Disputes Committee's findings, but also insisted that it had agreed that the case was concluded and should not be discussed again. This was not true. There had been no agreement to cease discussion of the subject. It was clear that, following the most polarised conference in the party's history, in which the CC won an extremely controversial vote by a tiny margin, they were going to try to shut down any further discussion. Yet this merely indicated the extent to which they were living in a bubble. Hundreds of delegates had voted against the leadership, not just on a particular perspective but on what to many was a matter of socialist principle. The idea that people would shut up, or leave quietly, was outlandish. There would be serious discontent in branches and districts. There would be resignations, and resignation statements. And there would be an article by Laurie Penny.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Finally, the CC split had become open. Two of the dissenting four had seemingly recanted their support for the expulsions. For this and possibly other reasons, they were dropped from the CC slate. The other two CC dissidents said that they wouldn't want to serve on the new central committee if conference voted for the new slate. So, the faction had actually started to do its job; it had helped prise open the divisions in the CC and activate its brewing crisis.
I was supposed to give a short speech, summarising the key themes and making some broad strategic points. I had written the following notes:
1) The CC want to legitimise the expulsions by winning majority support for them at conference. I think this is a sign that they know they're exposed and many people are concerned by it. But I just want to say this - even if they win that vote at conference that is not the end of the matter for us.2) We should utterly disregard the accusations of being inward-looking. There is no firewall between internal organisation and politics beyond the organisation. Such a claim is profoundly at odds with historical materialism. Democracy in the party is a political issue. For example, one of the few gains for the party in recent years has been the recruitment of a large number of students. This is what we should expect, because students were the first to get shafted by the coalition government, and the first to fight back. It was their revolt that gave confidence to trade unionists to start fighting for a mass strike. So why should it suddenly be that these very same comrades are now all too often under attack in the party, being bullied, taunted with the stigma of 'autonomism' and 'creeping feminism'? How could this party be ready to destroy one of our few significant gains? It is because there is a fundamental problem with party democracy, a fundamental problem with party culture, and a manifest problem of party corruption. And the student members were among the first to see that, and to be ready to fight it. That's why party democracy is a political issue.But while I'm at it, let me just mention my view that the CC is in no position to lecture about broader strategies and tactics. I think they're in a state of denial. Their first IB contribution claimed the government was struggling to get austerity passed - it isn't. It's being expedited by all three parliamentary parties, and to an extent the trade union bureaucracy. They think they have a strategy for building a rank-and-file fightback, and extol UTR to the heavens for its role in this. Let us not be churlish. UTR has some accomplishments, but a well-attended meeting in central London and 160 trade union branch affiliations is not the beginning of a rank-and-file recovery. There is no rank-and-file movement. And we have to ask why 2012 was such a bad year for the working class, why our strategy yielded so little, and why in general despite over a decade of radicalisation - so says the CC - the party hasn't really grown. The CC don't have the answers to those questions. Democracy is a precondition of having a proper debate about this, and facing political reality.3) In order to concretise our position in this fight, we have to advance some positive demands beyond opposing the expulsions and rejecting the findings of the Disputes C ommittee. It will enable us to be heard more audibly, giving definition to our queries about party democracy and culture. I suggest three things: a) issues affect us all year round, they merit party discussion all year round - we need regular intra-party communications, whether in the form of IBs or something else; b) issues and perspectives are apt to suddenly cause divisions at any point and their duration isn't fixed by an annual calendar. We should get rid of the ridiculous ban on factions; c) I don't know about you, but I'm long past the point where I could say, 'at least the slate system works'. Forget if you like the destabilising splits led by prominent CC members over recent years, the fact that after prolonged and bitter faction fights on the CC that were concealed from the members, we have seen dozens of members walking out behind a defeated faction. But just in this conference alone, we have an official slate that two of its proposed members don't want to be on! If it wins, they say they'll resign. Why? Because the CC is divided. Because the idea that the slate system secures unity, cohesion and accountability is a joke. Because there isn't an argument for the damned thing that doesn't proffer a bleak satire of the state of the organisation as it now exists. It's time to try something new.4) There is inevitably a lot of rethinking prompted by moments like this. And just as inevitably, there's a backlash against this rethinking, as a departure from consecrated orthodoxy. I think it's quite natural in many ways that radicalised students would be among those doing the rethinking, while seasoned full-timers would be its bitterest opponents. But not only do we have a right to debate and discuss these issues - it is an absolute necessity to engage in the debates *as they are happening today*. Whether the issue is feminism or something else, the discussion cannot be shut down by directing people to conclusions reached in thirty year old polemics. And nor can it be managed by talking reverentially about 'our tradition' - a living tradition is open-ended, developing, susceptible to adaptation. Only dead traditions are closed to development.5) The CC's response to us, from the incredibly crude expulsions to the statement put out yesterday, and all the slightly desperate editorialising appended to our faction statements, indicates that they think they can deal with us by 'smashing' the opposition. They triumphantly circulate their list of signatories. But we shouldn't be impressed by this. They didn't expect two dissenting factions; they didn't even expect one. The dynamism has been entirely on our side thus far. The crisis is theirs. But this doesn't mean we should be bullish or over-confident. Rather, whatever happens at conference tomorrow - and we may not win the votes we're focusing on - we have to be ready to dig in for the long haul. We have to be ready to fight. Don't think if we don't win tomorrow, it's all over - it isn't. And the CC should know that about us.
The crisis in the SWP: part I posted by Richard Seymour
On resigning from the SWP posted by Richard Seymour
As of 9pm this evening, I was no longer a member of the Socialist Workers' Party. I have resigned from the party with an initial 71 others. Further resignations are afoot. This explanation, for me, sums it up:
"We are not prepared to accept or abide by the decisions of the special conference. The conference is a bureaucratic victory which will only lead to the demise of the SWP. The reputation of the SWP in the movement is irreparably damaged as a result of the handling of these complaints by the Disputes Committee and the leadership’s determination to protect one member rather than to develop a clear perspective on rape and consent."
I will be writing a lot about what has happened: there is much to say. (It may surprise certain party members to read this, but I have actually been quite disciplined in the two months since I first wrote about the crisis in the SWP. I have held a lot back.) For now, I just want to say a few things.
First, I think the party is over. However, many members will stay on in the organisation and attempt to fight, even within the constraints of post-conference 'discipline', for a change in the party. These are among the most talented, committed and active people in the group. Some people weirdly think the current Central Committee is somehow irreplaceable. I think you could put together any random collection of people from the faction, in any number or combination, and they'd make a better leadership. (This isn't to damn them with faint praise.) Their decision to stay on and continue to fight, though I believe it to be mistaken, is very brave given the climate in some parts of the party now. Some members have already put up with months of abuse and stupidity: just off the top of my head, I can think of the insanely arrogant, self-serving statement by Sheffield apparatchiks that was included with the internal bulletin, slagging off the student members for their feminist deviations. Those same wised up hacks are already cracking knuckles and laying down arbitrary rules. People who are ready to stick it out in this context have my complete respect, even if not my full agreement. I stress this because some people outside the organisation, who don't understand what's happening, will rush to assume that every member who doesn't leave is tainted, agrees with everything that has happened, and so on. Don't make that assumption.
Second, in stark contrast, one is dispirited by the complete moral and intellectual degeneration in some quarters that has been occasioned by this crisis. The hacks, of course, surprise no one, because they have no moral or intellectual standards. Master dialecticians, they can defend any barbarity to their own satisfaction. They're still telling themselves, no doubt, that all this stuff about rape and sexual harassment is a pack of lies dreamed up to hurt the party: by MI5 agents, Bamberyites, Poulantzians, whoever. They're telling themselves right now that we can always grow more students, and that this whole thing has been caused by a hard minority of malcontents, the Sino-Seymourite conspiracy. But some seemingly normal party members, where they haven't simply started to sound like Scientologists, have begun to make arguments that should shame any socialist. And then there are those party sages who had a reputation for probity. John Molyneux! What happened to this man? His letter to SWP members about this crisis, eventually used as the basis for a motion to be submitted to the National Council, was stunning for its capitulation to bureaucratic irrationality.
Thirdly, one is simply astounded by how inadequate, corrupt, stupid, narrow-mindedly bureaucratic and delusional the leadership of the SWP has proven to be. It is not just that having covered up serious sexual allegations, and so disastrously failed at least two female comrades, they can admit no fault. It is not just the absurd, scholastic, apolitical explanations they give for doing so, or the tragic retreat into bunkered dogma that has accompanied this. It is not just that they lie with impunity. It is not just that they ducked a real debate, with their absurd rules limiting faction speakers at aggregates, and their gerrymandering of conference. It is not just that even now many of them are desperate to get the accused back into the leadership as soon as can conveniently be arranged. It is not just that their response to the most recent allegations by a female ex-member was to effectively dismiss her as a liar, without investigating further. It is that, having done a Jonestown, they think they've just triumphed.
Finally, as much as I admire and respect all of those who have fought for the party's soul from within, I also want to register my gratitude to those in the International Socialist tendency who supported the fight, and also to those outside the party whose solidarity has been genuine, and who have - despite real differences with the SWP - taken a principled position without using this simply to bash the party. I include 'the likes of' Laurie Penny and Owen Jones in the latter, despite their movementist, reformist or feminist deviations.