Thursday, 29 November 2007


Never afraid of flogging a dead horse, yesterday I presented my short paper on some problems of partisan social movement research again. I've summarised the main points in an earlier post, so I'll dwell on perceived problems that came out through the questioning, questions that are likely to resurface wherever the research is presented.

The first question was on the decision to look at the life histories of Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party activists. If my research is supposed to be an intervention within the academic social movement research field, then to what extent can both organisations, as rather small groups, be considered relevant movement actors? Second, why go for Trotskyists when other fringe groups, such as Islamic radicals like Hizb ut-Tahrir command greater attention? The third question addressed the problem of validity - given the small number of people who took part in the life history interview process, to what extent can any arguments based on the data be generalised?

Responding to the first question, as well as producing research that hopefully will reflect well on British Trotskyism as a whole, there are several issues within the social movement literature that the work seeks to address. For example, historically a lot of attention has been paid to the origins and mobilisations of movements, but typically these theories operate at the level of collectives. As the late social theorist, Alberto Melucci, often noted, this typically meant treating collectives as discrete units of analysis without any thought going into how collectives themselves are constituted. So one objective is to look at the existing models of mobilisation in light of how my sample lived their radicalisation to get a finer conceptual grip on this process. The second objective is to contribute toward a dynamic model of commitment, which again requires breaking from the kind of thinking critiqued by Melucci. The SP, the SWP, and their forerunners have more or less had existences spanning roughly 60 years, and my sample have a collective membership in excess of 160 years. But this continuity cannot be taken for granted. Given the ups and downs of the left political environment  plus the tendency of their memberships to historically have a high turn over, how do the organisations perpetuate themselves and how do long term activists retain and live that commitment? The life history data in my interviews are full of examples of lifestyle shifts, decisions that needed to be taken, and so on, which in conjunction with not dissimilar work on environmentalist, 'official' communist, and feminist activists could help flesh out existing conceptual work on the topic.

Strictly from the perspective of academic social movement research, British Trotskyist activists present an interesting case study. But this is not the only reason for selecting the SP and SWP. In the case study literature, it is often the weird and wonderful anti-capitalist/anarchist activist fauna that have, since the initial ritual mobilisations against World Bank, IMF, G8 etc. meetings, been commanding most attention. But not only are Trotskyists an important, if overlooked contingent on these actions, both the SP and SWP can and do play significant roles in other mobilisations. These roles are not immediately apparent because they are "hidden" to an extent. Also, most public activity appears to consist of Saturday stalls and paper sales, which further obscures their true contributions to movements of various kinds. An accurate appreciation of SP and SWP activity requires sustained contact and in-depth study. Trotskyists might not command the kind of media attention Militant once attracted, or the panics surrounding domestic Islamic radicals, but they do occupy an important place in the British social movement landscape.

The final point, validity. Like most work of qualitative sociology, owing to the character of the data gathering process (in this case, two 90 minute interviews and a further session lasting 45-60 minutes per respondent) large sample sizes are not practical if there is a single researcher. Secondly, qualitative sociology is well aware making generalisations based on its rather specific findings is problematic. The work makes no claims to speak of Trotskyist life histories beyond the project's volunteers. The problem of validity here is different. Any scientific claims rest not on the wide applicability of the findings, but on the content of the interviews. How are we to know respondents didn't seek to portray themselves or their organisation in a favourable light at the expense of the truth? Of course, there is no real way of knowing, though consistency in accounts and revisiting particular topics are a good indicator. Also, if a rapport is established between researcher and researched and respondents are convinced of the project's utility, the truth claims of their narrative are more likely to be stronger. Finally, accounts can be checked against those of other contemporaneous activists engaged in the same struggles and mobilisations. 


Dave Riley said...

While I can't comprehend the format of your research and I'm not sure as to your methods -- I find it a bit confusing as to what you are seeking to explore.

Lifestyle? Attitudes? Culture? Demographics?

Nonetheless I can imagine that a worthwhile niche probably exists. In my experience of the cadre life (on and off for 35 years) it frustrates me that it has not been given a consideration aside from the memoirs of activists in later life.

Here in Australia that was a cottage industry in the eighties and that was matched by an oral history in the form of interviews with participants in long gone campaigns -- the 30s and 40s..

But inevitable hindsight so often clouded the retelling of the historical narrative.But made for some great autobiographies and inspirational the hands of some very skilled writers.

But what strikes me as relevant to the sociologist is the question of the 'circle spirit' and how that plays on the ability of these activist cadre to actually achieve what they set out today and their minds.

There may be a bohemian lifestyle to live and passion and excitement and other things mercurial -- but there's a toll registering for being on the margins that no amount of theory can alleviate.

Thats' the crux of an issue that is so seldom explored because it is brutally relentless and it carries a hefty price in the modus operandi of the people concerned --such as this divide between SWP and SP participants in regard to your affiliation.

Madam Miaow said...

There's a form of party loyalty now dominating the left (or has it always been that way?) that seems more akin to support for a football team than a reasoned thought-out drive to make it best for the purpose. It is not the most inviting environment for the people it is meant to be attracting.

"My party right or wrong" means sinking your personality into an unindividuated mass, the opposite of what socialist thinkers have said was necessary; namely that the development of the personality of the class is necessary to counter the bureaucrats. And we know where they lead us.

An orchestra is only as good as the individual players within it. A healthy movement should be raising the consciousness of its individual members to make an effective collective. Otherwise it stays small and festers.

Whether 1,000 or 6,000, if all you can do essentially after years of expending energy is run a paper sale or a weekend walk and hardly touch the lives of milions, then you are not an organic part of the class you are trying to organise. You are something separate from it.

If that's where we're stuck, then something is wrong and we should have the humility and honesty to examine it properly. Only then can we start to grow - in every sense.

Good luck with the PhD, Phil.

Phil BC said...

Hi Dave

It probably sounds confusing, because it is! There's a lot of material I'm looking at simultaneously, but in short the main axis is how someone became radicalised and how they've stayed the course. When it's all done, I hope at least two books will come out of it - an academic tome based on my thesis, and a book where I either write up the biographical narratives of the activists or edit them as a collection of interviews. The latter will be aimed at an activist audience.

@MM - On the 'football supporters' question, it is a tricky one because as we all know, organisation affiliation is very much bound up with leftist activist identity. This is very rooted indeed if this is the only organisation a comrade's been in, and the tendency is the longer the membership, the deeper the party identity goes. That's not the case with all, but I'd say with most. The left does need a more actively critical culture, but as ever saying and doing are two different things.

Dave Riley said...

Thats' an excellent project then. Reminds me of Brecht's poem on the stayers...

But there's a key element that is so often missed because I note a strong difference between the 'loyalty' and staying power of old communists -- from the Stalinist tradition and todays' stayers fostered under various Trotskyist banners.

Lenin had a handle on it here in Left Wing Communism:

The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.

And in regard to these core features (and "discipline" can just as easily be substituted with 'loyalty' or "staying power") theres' the problem of reality bearing down on the would be bolshevik.

So what this new left does, in my estimation, is exaggerate the programatic question regardless of its actual connection with whatever is going. "Continuity" is so often just about what you say and not what you do.

Thats' what makes for secthood --and every party and every individual member of these parties are prone to it.

So on one hand it is handy to suggest that comrades 'survive' by dint of true grit regardless of their actual political experiences day to day. On the other other unless the experience fulfils some of the markers Lenin notes, that survival is going to be a tad perverse and warped.

So every time there's an attempt to circle the wagons or return to the bunker -- staying the course can be at a massive political price as well as personal one.

I'm not saying it is better to stay outside the party process but I note a challenge that is so seldom addressed.

Our collective problem in our imperialist countries is that there is always a life after rev politics. Thats the big gun bullets on offer from the bourgeoisie. And as we know -- it is so very easy to 'spend' cadre.

Lenin also said that rev politics was a great consumer of men. You bet --and women! But so too is any movement we care to mention. We also know that the only way to carry yesterday's activist forward over time is to train and sustain them within the cultural umbrella of a party process.

Other activists of yesterday's campaign are but a blip -- but the main game is to snaffle what you can from each rise in struggle and hang onto them.

So it has to be party question.

Madam Miaow said...

"... organisation affiliation is very much bound up with leftist activist identity"

I thought I was affiliating to the movement but through the org best able and equipped to advance its cause. Isn't the inability to criticise one's own party re how it serves the movement a sign of overall degeneration?

How do we counter that?

A few of us who are outspokenly critical of the orgs, from direct experience, met recently and we realised that none of us had gone to university. We did wonder if we would be thinking as independently if we had gone to uni, when "The Party" (whichever one) becomes your entire social life and your family.

bluenose said...

Any idea if the SP and Respect Renewal are talking? I just wondered as now there is no SWP control freakery or block voting, there could be some progression.

I know there is the issue of Galloway and the workers wage, but could this not be debated in a more constructive way now?

If the SP is unlikely to join Respect Renewal is there anything to prevent their individual members from doing so?