“Meanwhile in London, things stay the same, the untenable must be maintained”… March 13, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left, Uncategorized.
…apologies to the Fatima Mansions for appropriating the post title from their “Blues for Ceaucescu” of which more soon.
At the heart of the travails of the UK SWP is the deeply serious issue of a rape allegation and how it was handled. As has been noted on this site before it is remarkable how it encompasses power relationships, structural responses and so on and how these have been approached and dealt with in deeply questionable ways. This comment by EC here sums up, I suspect, the way many of us feel as to the problems implicit in the handling of the allegation.
And you can’t preach left wing politics and social justice while treating a young woman like a pariah and your members like children.
The conference at the weekend in London didn’t resolve this, resulting in a split. And as noted in comments by smiffy here, the post-conference statement is notable for how in 587 words it manages to avoid mention of that central issue entirely.
But (as Soviet Goon Boy reflected upon here) that issue and more particularly the treatment of it has had a catalytic effect in relation to an even broader range of issues pertaining to the SWP’s culture, structure and practice (albeit issues that link directly back to the central issue). And as an external observer it would appear that for all the clear decency of many, one presumes most, SWP members in the UK, there are significant questions about culture and practice.
So in a sense the central issue had traction because of the other problems which were already extant. It has been a path to the expression of something that appears to me to be close to deep dismay on the part of many connected with the SWP (and it is worth noting again that Irish SWP members I’ve spoken too are are also dismayed – and it seems to me that the culture of the Irish SWP appears to be significantly different to that of its British counterpart for a number of reasons, including history, size and context, whatever about commonalities of approach in campaigning).
There is the obvious oddity of the present situation where what once would have been essentially secret – or at least less visible – is now well known and discussed far beyond the boundaries of the party – it was an interesting experience last week to read the some of the documentation – and educative, definitely educative. But we live in an hyper-connected age, and it is difficult to see anything short of societal collapse changing that soon – which of course makes efforts to ignore or circumvent that hyper-connectivity difficult to understand. It’s not just on Socialist Unity or wherever that one will find critiques of the recent events. Wiki and other information providers already have this noted and detailed with links to relevant sources. That’s not going to go a way either. And again, the issue of how members are treated comes into focus here again.
Though for all the talk of ‘the blog’ in recent discussions that seemed to ignore the reality that that is a symptom not a cause. But then institutional conservatism, as distinct from revolutionary rhetoric, is something that manifests itself across a wide array of organisations with little or no regard to ideology whether or left or right.
I’ve often mentioned how political formations are essentially voluntary associations. Granted, there are internal controls and constraints on the behaviour of members, but it is remarkable how uncodified these usually are. It makes one wonder how many political parties have anything similar to TU procedures in relation to sexual harassment or bullying or so on? None in my direct experience, and in the much looser formations I have been more recently associated with across the last decade it simply wasn’t considered an issue. In part that latter was due to their small size or fluid composition. Though barely veiled demands to do x or y remain a part of the process – demands that depend upon friendship, ideological or political bonds or even in some respects hierarchical positioning, to see them completed. But what of larger groups where such ties are much stronger? Actually that raises another issue as to who in the contemporary period is regarded as having authority and who isn’t.
And it’s perhaps precisely because they are voluntary that great structures of rhetoric have to be built within which to frame activity and to ensure it occurs. Because, for most people, I suspect it’s a process of reluctant enough socialisation into marching and selling papers/collecting money, attending meetings and so on and so forth (though I’ve got to admit to a certain admiration for the manner in which some parties and formations are able to deploy activists to protest and demonstrate seemingly more or less at will). And having been a part of that I also recall how they tend to colonise social lives as well (and here I have to admit to a considerable admiration for those who can keep that at arms length). And these function as a self-reinforcing dynamic, reflecting activity back towards the party/formation. That can be good, but it can also give rise to distortions and misperceptions.
The fire next time
From being positioned for quite some time now outside the party tradition I’m fascinated by the sense of imminence in a lot of the rhetoric over the years (found in documents and elsewhere), in terms of societal transformations occurring with great (and seemingly near-inevitable) rapidity. It’s quite alien to my own experience of socio-political activity – even back in the day, let alone whatever beliefs I have developed on foot of that experience or otherwise. That isn’t to say that that experience was superior in any respect – and the track record of those who took similar approaches is hardly stellar, but simply to say it was different.
But I find it interesting that some appear to believe that profound social changes would occur on foot of what seem to many like somewhat evanescent phenomena as distinct from a long hard slog across, years, decades – perhaps centuries – against forces that are societally embedded and with roots that are centuries old. But then, in this polity the heights to be scaled to achieve the outcomes desired are arguably greater again, at least in respect to the way in which the left and further left is so marginal, which has its own effect in terms of – perhaps – changing perceptions as to what and how rapidly something may be achievable. And that perception is not necessarily a bad thing, even if one would wish the context it were developed in were otherwise.
Speaking of which
Though that leads to a further point about the potential for revolutionary transformation – and just thinking about it I find it hard to think of a single point in my adult life where I’ve felt there was any prospect whatsoever for such a transformation. No surprise then that while the USSR still existed that was seen as a viable route, albeit the way forward was never really detailed to any great extent, by a significant enough fraction of those then politically active on the left. That the working class itself never developed any great enthusiasm for that approach was equally understandable. But the point being that actual as distinct from rhetorical means of achieving revolutionary transformations have been thin on the ground. To put it mildly.
A further problematic self-reinforcing dynamic, particularly evident on the further left, but not unknown elsewhere, is that of a sense of greater insight (to put it at its most benign) than all one’s opponents and rivals and – indeed perhaps the class itself, and all that flows from such attitudes. After all, if one’s raison d’etre is essentially the reshaping of the world and the repositioning of the working class one is not exactly being behind the door in terms of scale of ambition – or of finding the necessary justifications for more or less any course one might choose to achieve those goals.
A small global conspiracy
Another piece which struck me as interesting was this. Now in fairness it is not from the British SWP, but from the International Socialist Organization in the US – which has had a testy relationship with the SWP:
A TRAGIC development has unfolded on the British left–the destructive crisis of that country’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP). People have been hurt and humiliated, the organizational measures taken (and not taken) have aroused fierce controversy, there have been expulsions and resignations, after a narrow vote at a party congress there has been an unsuccessful internal ban on further discussion of the matter, and serious damage has been done to one of the most important organizations on the global revolutionary left.
That last sentence intrigued me, because while it was arguably correct in terms of the context it was presented within – yes, the British SWP is important in respect of portions of the global further left, it struck me how that wasn’t sufficient.
I’m minded to repeat the comment from the revenant SplinteredSunrise recently where he mentioned that:
Now, if the SWP has a grandiose self-image – remember that this is an organisation of a few thousand which aspires to overthrow every government in the world…
Within their own terms it and other groups are important. Within the confines of the further left they are important. But in the broader scheme of things? We obviously run into a problem.
That troubles the powerful hardly at all
Or let’s put it a different way, is it possible to imagine that the initials of the SWP or indeed any of the groups any of us belong to or identify with ever come up in discussion at the IMF, or ECB, or European Commission. Or at the Cabinet tables in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland.
It’s hardly unreasonable to suggest that they don’t. Not at all. It troubles their sleep not in the slightest as to the composition of the CC of this party or that party, the minutiae of this formation or that formation. Yet these are arguably the highest circles of advanced capitalism.
Now, Greece – well, that’s a different matter, albeit also a context with much deeper and stronger roots as regards protest. And there one suspect that SYRIZA (and perhaps at certain points the KKE) have been taken very seriously indeed – although importantly street protest has – so far – been successfully policed and it has been the electoral and parliamentary arena where the most important action has occurred.
But the point is not to lambaste the further left, or any party or formation in particular, but to note the problematic aspects implicit in such attitudes. That aspiration alone doesn’t convey any particular authority and that when the gulf between aspiration and achievement is so great then it is perhaps best to tone it down somewhat. Consider as a straw in the wind Mark Steel’s departure from the SWP over what he regarded as this gap – and that was in 2007, over five years ago and long predating the current problems (Steel has many pertinent thoughts on both this and the recent crisis here).
And that’s a crucial lesson to be drawn from this. Of course there is actual work being carried out by individual parties and members of same across this island and the one to the east which does have an effect and is important and will make a difference, it’s not just, often not even, rhetoric on the left – but there is a real danger that too great an attachment to what is effectively rhetoric can provide a specious justification for structural and cultural practices that are deeply noxious, or worse again can be used tactically to divert attention away from same.
Because not merely is it a case of aspiration and reality not matching up, but that that aspiration is in itself insufficient as a justification for a lack of self-reflection or for distorted responses to actions and events that – as we have seen – can have significant ramifications if not addressed properly. These can be banal, we saw something of that in the cosmetic calls for a ‘General Strike’ recently, something that a moment’s analysis will suggest is so far over the political horizon as an achievable aspiration as to be near counter-productive in raising in the present context. But it can be deeply pernicious too, as the events elsewhere suggest.
Is there a clear way forward from this morass? I’m dubious that there is. There’s an attachment to rhetoric and grand aspirations and gestures that is in its own way now part of the practice of some. There’s also, as we most of us know from direct experience – not all of it malign, an attachment to forms, to institutional coherence, to the pernicious confusion of the idea that a leadership is the party (though we could talk for quite some time about the depressing tendency for leaderships in further left parties to tend to ossify whatever their supposed specific ideological orientation).
I guess it is possible to see the defeatism of social democracy as being in its own way a response to that, and that of course is a danger from another direction – that of setting the bar, not too high, but far too low. And that is obviously unsatisfactory too.
So perhaps it is a case of arguing that about where we are and the problems that face us than attempting through lofty rhetoric to pretend the situation is something other than it is. Still an enormous challenge, but no greater than it would be otherwise, and arguably with the crucial benefit that it can be faced openly and honestly.
There is insufficient life inside the party, and outside it?
There’s one other thought. SGB made the point that:
…it isn’t a punishment to not be a member of the leadership. The party chooses who is an appropriate individual to represent it. This needs restating for the benefit of those comrades who seem to believe in a Divine Right of Delta.
Too true (and the thought strikes that in real terms even being expelled from a party isn’t that much of a punishment either – and I’m not trying to downplay the manner in which friendships and social and other networks can be ruptured, having myself an echo of that experience after enduring one split and a voluntarily departure from another party). But I’d go further. Consider again the point about political formations being voluntary associations. For all the reification of democratic centralism the reality is that people can’t be compelled to stay in a party. For the SWP it is 71 so far – and the context of the conference that alone is 7 per cent of those who voted. The faction itself had over 500 signatories – and in what appears to be a smaller SWP than even most sceptical observers will have calculated these aren’t irrelevant figures. There are probably more to come. And splits damage authority and credibility. Not least in relation to the need to provide justificatory narratives for what has happened. Moreover, when those who split can remain as a coherent body they provide counter-narratives and potentially a pole of attraction.
Whether this is true of what appears to now be a very significant split in the UK SWP only time will tell. Don’t ignore the many genuine socialists still within the SWP and it may be as time goes on they will assert themselves differently (I tend to the view that the party will continue albeit in diminished form). Indeed it may be that the leadership victory at the weekend conference proves to be purely tactical rather than strategic. The argument has been made time and again now that for any with the inclination to join and curious enough to google the formation there’s a real education to be had online, and – while I’m never one to overestimate the power and reach of ‘the blog’ in whatever form – that has to have an effect. And this is a time – rightly – where organisations of whatever stripe have to be seen to face up to these issues, not pedal furiously away from them. That’s where the damage lies, in the comparisons that are being made with other groups that have obfuscated or ignored reality, such as that one based in Rome or the BBC or… and the list grows ever longer. As to the apostates, well, there’s so many of them these days, from the new group-to-be, the slightly less recent Counterfire and so on.
Quite some stretch of this road left to go one suspects.