Tuesday, 26 December 2006

PhD Thesis: Why SP and SWP?

Big post warning!

In the comments section on my original post about my PhD, Eddie Truman writes
It seems very strange to me that this research should exclude many thousands of people who are in neither organisation but who have decades of experience in UK left politics. The very foundations of your research appears flawed from the start.
No need to pull your punches comrade!

The general email I send to prospective respondents reads,
I am focusing on SP and SWP members because they continue to be the most influential, visible and successful organisations to come out of the British Trotskyist tradition. Both parties are active across a large number of campaigns and often play key mobilising and leading roles.
Let me elaborate on this.

In part I'm addressing a huge gap in the academic literature on social movements. When researchers engage with this field of study the empirical cases tend to be around community/environmental campaigns, NGO social movement organisations, direct action groups and the anarchist/autonomist milieu of what can loosely be described as the anti-capitalist movement. In British case studies the role of Trotskyist organisations in mobilising and sustaining campaigns are usually passed over in silence, or when they are touched on it is usually to rubbish their contribution. The point is without the SWP would the Stop the War Coalition and before it the Anti-Nazi League have been as high profile as they are/were? Same too with the SP, is it or is it not true that Militant provided the necessary organisational backbone the Anti-Poll Tax Federations required? The same applies across a large number of campaigns. From my own experience in the struggle against this year's spate of NHS cuts it is the SP that has often taken the initiative in forming groups where it has activists on the ground - yet the anti-cap/NGO milieu privileged in the literature have been largely absent.

My other interest is with the question of persistence. The academic left has since the 80s bemoaned/celebrated the decline of class and the labour movement and have generally predicted radical politics would become fragmented around identity and/or marginal interests. Hence (in my opinion) the academic focus on disparate and fragmentary protest and social movements. These appear to be an empirical confirmation of the post-industrial/post-fordist thesis. And yet Trotskyist parties - supposedly relics of the past - continue to play the roles I've outlined above. Nevertheless post-fordist doom-and-gloom mongering is correct, upto a point - the labour movement has declined in terms of influence and active participants. How have the SP and SWP responded to this political crisis? Or rather, how have active members come to grips with this change? Have the parties facilitated a turn to new forms of activism or is it a case of business as usual? How has the practice of long-term members who were radicalised during the battles of the 70s and 80s changed, if at all? Are the issues they find particularly salient shared with newer and/or younger members?

So far this doesn't really answer Eddie's question. True there are thousands of socialists who adhere to no organisation. Just look at the UKLN, the majority of contributors are independent activists. But my overall objective is to shed light on the intersection of organisational and individual political identities. We all know there is a relationship, how often have we taken political attacks on our respective organisations as a personal affront? Speaking for myself there have been plenty of incidences over the years when a critique of the organisation I happened to be involved with at the time really got me going. But our parties are more than that - they offer a network of like minded comrades with a set of common political objectives. This can be an incredibly powerful resource and influence, and is something not unique to the far left.

It just so happens the SP and SWP retain the bulk of organised Trotskyist activists in England and Wales. As I'm concerned with making an intervention in current debates in social movement research, no one can deny their respective weight. I would have a far harder time justifying my funding and research if I concentrated on the various micro groups who only are hardly visible. Pretty much every academic active in this field would have heard of the SWP but few of Workers' Power, for instance. Another problem I have is lack of finance - for cost reasons I'm sticking with comrades in the West Mids and North West, and here the SWP and SP absolutely dominate in terms of far left membership and influence. I'd venture to say there were more people at Stoke SP's social the other week than there are organised Trotskyists outside the 'big two' in the entire West Midlands.

The thing to remember is this project cannot be exhaustive. I am undertaking in-depth interviewing with 20 comrades remember, but I hope what will come out of it is a number of useful conceptual tools that can be used in other contexts to ask questions about adherence to organisational identities. For instance I've been long fascinated by how and why managers (in the main) come to identify with the companies they work for - it cannot be solely down to the better salaries and perks they get (though of course these will play a part).

If anyone else has questions please feel free to ask.


Jim Jay said...

Well, I think this a very reasonable answer to a very good question.

In terms of your PhD I think this is eminently justifiable - logistically feasible and with fairly clear parametres.

However, a few of the things you've said here are not necesaarily quite as clear cut as you appear to think.

For instance, without the SWP would the StWC been as successful? Well let's look around the world where the SWP is a very minor player. In Spain and Italy not only have there been as large and larger mobilisations against the war they have also been able to get troops withdrawn from Iraq (if not Af.)

Australia and the US have seen the largest ever demonstrations in history in those countries over the war. Arguably the US movement, with a higher mountain to climb, has achieved far far more.

It is not self evident that the presence of the SWP in the UK was a decisive feature. I do think that a left leadership can fuck up a movement, which the SWP did not do, but they equally did not conjure the movement against the war out of the air.

The StWC may not have existed, but the anti-war movement certainly would have.

I suspect something similar may apply to Militant and the Poll Tax too. It's undeniable that they were the left group with the deepest implation in this movement (although they were not alone) and it's also true that Militant members were very valuable and many (not all) of them should be rightly proud of themselves... but can we really say that the mass non payment campaign and exciting marches would not have been possible without them?

Personally I'd be cautious about a leap from acknowledging someone's presence and contribution to saying they were "required" for the movement to be successful, even if they were pivotal in ensuring the dominance of a particular unifying campaigning organisation.

Phil said...

Yes I do agree with you Jim. Another case of doing a Cliff and bending the stick, as they say.

But I would contend that in other parts of the world where the SWP is a minor player on the left, other organisations have played an analagous role. While it is true to say the anti-war movement in the US would have developed without the input of the far left, nevertheless people like the US WWP (via ANSWER) played a key mobilising role in what did develop.

What I need to do is not exaggerate the roles played by both organisations, but give them their due place, which the literature has so far yet to do.

Anonymous said...

Well of course the most striking thing about demos in the 1990s was that everyone used to carry an SW placard, but with the SW banner at the top torn off.

Tells you all you need to know about the relationship between Trots and the faddish movements they are parasitic upon, doesn't it?

Phil said...

In a word ... no.

Jim Jay said...

The thing I liked about the Socialist Alliance placards is they had the name in the middle (under the flag) so there was no point in tearing it off as you'd destroy the placard in the process.

Clever design or what?