Sunday, February 05, 2017
"Hard arguments" posted by Richard SeymourI.
A boycott is just a tactic, like any other.
There was a fairly large protest against Trump in London yesterday, part of the ongoing wave of protests which is galvanising an otherwise despondent Left and giving it some purpose and direction. It's a good, hopeful sign that this is happening.
The catch? The protest was organised by a number of groups including, 'Stand Up to Racism', which is dominated by the SWP. And on that ground, some people sought to organise a boycott of the event. This post is about that tactic. Not the decision of individuals not to attend the protest, but the proposition that everyone should boycott it as a matter of policy, the context for it, and how that debate is handled.
You remember the SWP. The SWP leadership worked to cover up rape and sexual abuse allegations. Not only did they try to cover them up but, in the process, by way of rationalisation, they began to spout utterly barbarous things. They mobilised a creaking party apparatus and an army of 'living dead' members whose sole purpose in the organisation seemed to be to defend the existing leadership by the usual amusing expedient of packing out meetings. Individuals, especially women and younger members, who stood up to this were frequently bullied. The women who made the complaints against 'Comrade Delta' were bullied, and the most extraordinary, unbelievable bureaucratic manoeuvres pulled against them.
There ensued a nasty, poisonous fight. Lifelong friendships were torn up, relationships ended, some people were threatened, others suffered serious mental and (concomitantly) physical illness, many people gave up politics, and there were two major splits, with toxic spillover. Speaking for myself, I became physically ill, and began to fall apart right in front of those who knew me -- but I was one of many. All of this very British carnage was wrought for the sake of one man who represented something that the leadership valued over almost everything else, above all the rights of female comrades not to be sexually assaulted. What that something is, is hard to express in a few words without simplifying, but it could be put as their perceived right, justified by accretions of dogma and delusion, and a certain idea of revolutionary realpolitik, to preserve ownership of the organisation by whatever means necessary.
Those of us who left the party were simultaneously dazed by the experience, and left desperately trying to work through what it all meant. That this could happen, surely said so much. We had to go back to first principles, review our entire political tradition, rethink our attitude to feminism, read up, form new alliances, and digest all the emerging ideas about 'intersectionality' and 'privilege' politics. Above all, we tried to begin the process of rebuilding. The SWP was surely dead as a viable organisation, we reasoned, and so it should be. Something else -- more democratic, more intellectually open, more honest, more feminist, less bureaucratic, less defensive, less dogmatic -- would have to emerge. Why? Because the field of the British left, at that point, was not exactly crowded with effective, democratic organisation. And without something like that, the rump SWP, with its funds and discipline, would continue to dominate the terrain, even if not to the same extent. Some of us thought it was our responsibility to try to assemble the most forward-thinking parts of the left in a new organisation.
To that end, I was one of the founders of a small splinter organisation with (for me, at least) grand ideas about realigning the left. In that false spring, many many good people approached us, wanting to work with us, and maybe even be part of anything we might set up. There was an exuberant moment of 'unity' and hope. But despite our early bouyancy, we underestimated just how fucking traumatised we all were by the shock, and how difficult what we were trying to achieve was, how small the window of opportunity and how large the obstacles. And all we did for months afterwards was tear each other to pieces, often over imaginary or overblown offences and perceived political dangers. We had been united only by our common fight against the unacceptable: rape cover-up and the sexist apologetics propagated in its defence. Beyond that, we were pulling in radically different directions and we were shocked to discover how much we hated each other. And bitterly depressed to harvest nothing but ashes for our trouble. Some time after I left that splinter, I found out that it had its own rape cover-up.
I sketch out the rudiments of that experience and its afterlives, so that you understand the context for the current argument about a boycott, and also to illustrate two things very vividly.
First, not a one of us, to my knowledge, has any desire to revive the SWP. Some of us are more gung-ho about it than others. And we've often argued with what seemed to be bad tactics, especially the sort of ineffectual machismo that leads to people overturning SWP tables and so on. But no one is eager to give any new life to the zombie party, and most wouldn't go near one of the party's meetings or conferences. Speaking for myself, I take the issue of violent sexual assault very personally, and if this party has turned out to be less dead than undead, I consider that a defeat -- a byproduct of our failure to build a viable alternative. Second, experience illustrates that you can only get so far through exhortation, and being on the right side of the argument. Being right is no guarantee of success. That being the case, people who agree on a principle, have to be able to disagree on the tactic.
To return to yesterday's protest, as I said, the SWP played a leading role in organising it. And on that basis, there seems to have been a current of opinion formed around the idea of boycotting it. This would be, I think, the first time that a protest, rather than a meeting, has been targeted for a boycott for SWP involvement. I'm sceptical. Not hostile, but sceptical. Having for the last few years begged people not to speak at SWP events -- yes, effectively to boycott them, in the spirit of SWP delenda est -- I am hardly suggesting that we should cuddle up to the party. But there are a number of reasons why I think this particular kind of approach was never going to work.
I take it as read that there will always be public protests, strikes, occupations, and so on, where SWP members will be unavoidably present and sometimes even prominently involved, which we would be foolish to boycott. Even the Stop Trump march in two weeks time, preferred by today's boycotters, will have SWP members very visibly present. The issue in this case is not so much that SWP members will be there, but that the SWP has played a role in the organisation of this protest, and will try to claim as much credit for it as they can. There is also a worry about the SWP recruiting people who might then find themselves in an organisation that is not safe because it has committed itself institutionally to ideas and practices that effectively legitimise rape.
So who could argue with that? Well, the problem is that boycotting this protest wasn't going to stop people turning up. Some of us have spent a long time trying to persuade trade unionists, intellectuals and activists not to speak at SWP events or front events -- not always successfully, even with all the front page headlines and the stigma. But trying to persuade tens of thousands of random people -- who are itching to protest now, not in two weeks times, yesterday if possible -- not to show up to a public space because one of the organisers of the event is an SWP-dominated front organisation, seems inherently quixotic.
This is not because of the SWP's overweening strength. They have money, a disciplined cadre, and relationships with some leftwing politicians, trade unionists and intellectuals. However, even at the height of the SWP's influence in Stop the War, when it had far more clout and many more members than today, it didn't grow as a result. It stagnated, and declined. It went into crisis. I don't think the SWP is more powerful, attractive and dynamic today than it was back in 2003. Far from it, it is a degenerating organisation, whose ability to reproduce itself through the usual means of student and public sector recruitment is increasingly in question. It might be noisy and visible at protests, but I doubt it is recruiting very many people, and its tactics are by now stale and routinised. It is not capable of attracting the kinds of new members capable of making it an attractive organisation, even if one didn't know about its history. So, it's not the power of the SWP, but the weakness of the tactic, that indicated it would fail. Most people likely to attend just wouldn't be reached by a disorganised boycott taking shape on social media by left-wing Twitter celebrities or, if they were, persuaded not to go purely on that account.
You would thus be boycotting, not primarily the SWP, but a whole range of forces whom you probably want to work with. Of all the axes on which to try to isolate the SWP, this was surely one of the least precise, and least effective.
In the end, predictably, the protest involved far more diverse and numerous forces than the SWP. (Had it just been the SWP there, it would have involved a few hundred people.) Those who went, did so not to defend rape or cosy up to the SWP, but to volunteer for the fight against global Trumpism. And we should be glad that they want to protest: it's hardly their fault that the SWP made a cult of itself, and that we failed to replace it. And what did boycotting the protest achieve? It didn't separate the SWP from thousands of activists; it separated some of the SWP's notable critics from thousands of activists. It didn't stop anyone from joining the SWP, and indeed some of the people who might have argued with activists not to join, boycotted. And the SWP still got to say they organised a successful protest. Now people have every right to decide not to attend a protest without justifying themselves. But anything that is represented as a policy that others should support, has to be susceptible to critical scrutiny: so who won, and who lost, from that?
As I say, I'm sceptical of this tactic; I can't see how declaring a boycott in this case was ever going to work. I suspect that if we want to isolate the SWP, we're just going to have to do the hard work of building the alternative organisation and persuading people that it's better.
Note the sequel. Having mulled this subject over for a few days, and asked comrades about it, and watched the debate on social media, and been asked about it several times, I tried to sketch out this view on Twitter. I finally said that I thought people should probably go on the protest, ignore the SWP, and refuse to take their placards or literature. I said that I understood more than most why people would find the SWP problematic, but that this protest would be much bigger than the SWP, and I didn't think this boycott would work.
Trying to explain any point of view on Twitter is a perilous undertaking. Concision isn't kind to detailed arguments. There is always creative misunderstanding, people a little too quick on their high horse. There are the aggressively moronsplaining -- those who earnestly explain what you already know, without having any idea what they sound like. There are those who steamroller discussion with oblivious, unearned sanctimony, eyes closed, mouth open, without caring what they sound like. And there are those who are forever building vampire's castles in the sky.
But even bearing that in mind, the unseemly haste with which some people, who appeared to know next to nothing about it, started to issue ex cathedra denunciations was extraordinary. The gist of it was that I was supposedly saying: "ignore these silly women and their silly divisive issues, chaps, there are bigger fish to fry". In any other case, this would just be standard, high-handed, disingenuous, snarky Twitter bullshit. In context, it is jaw-droppingly oblivious.
But the symptomatically interesting thing was that many people, smart people, didn't want to admit that this was a tactical debate. In effect, they were saying, if you disagree with us on the tactic, you disagree with us on the principle. If you think this is a tactical mistake, you must not think the issue of rape apology matters. There is, by implication, no intelligent, non-sexist, non-oppressive way to disagree with the tactic of boycotting this protest -- notwithstanding that it predictably didn't work.
That is obviously not a position that can be engaged with, but it has a clearly defensive function: it says that it is disagreement with the tactic, not the tactic itself, that has to be justified. That reverses the usual situation, and it's a deflection that I've seen many times on the left. (In the argot of Trotskyist dialectics, I could never work out whether principles determined tactics, or tactics were independent from principles. It was definitely one or the other, depending on what ineffective tactic had to be defended -- by means of what was euphemistically called "hard arguments".)
And I think that's a position you get into when you're not entirely convinced of the tactic yourself, but don't really know what else to do.