Tuesday, 30 September 2008


A while ago I was chatting to Brother T, who'd spent a few days checking out a prestigious annual education event run by a well-known far left organisation. He enjoyed most of the sessions as well as giving me a few titbits to moisten my sectarian palate. He told me of overhearing a young full timer giving a more junior activist a few tips on how to recruit during the week. Her words were something like "just get them on a standing order and worry about the rest later". Evidently the political consciousness of new recruits wasn't particularly high on her agenda. But this wasn't too surprising. A young gentleman of intimate acquaintance was once cajoled into signing on with said unsaid organisation despite professing anarchist principles and being opposed to Leninist politics.

I mention this because the West Midlands region of the Socialist Party has undergone a flurry of recruitment of late. And Stoke branch is continuing to benefit from this upturn in the fortunes of our party too. I'm not breaking any confidences to say things have been slow over the last 18 months but these last two months recruitment has really taken off. Contacts have been coming in and a pleasing proportion have turned into active members, which has made a nice change. Plus we've just held stalls at the Staffs and Keele freshers' fairs. So it seems a precipitous time to reflect a little bit on recruitment, the recruitment process and the experience of recruiting people to a revolutionary socialist organisation.

For anyone with a passing familiarity with the far left, they will be aware recruitment is always a key priority. There cannot be an active leftist in Britain who hasn't, at some stage in their activist career, been asked to 'join the socialists/communists/revolutionaries by one or more of the varieties of British Trotskyism. And it is understandable. When I think about the range of activities Stoke SP has been involved in since I joined, the mind truly boggles. Solidarity activities, election campaigns, mass leafleting, organising, helping organise and taking part in demonstrations, broad-based campaigning, public meetings, student interventions come on top of the staples of street stalls, paper sales and contact visits. And I'm sure there's plenty I've missed out. We have been able to do these things because we have a stable number of core activists. But there's only so much we can do. More members enable us to extend the scope of our work and better make the socialist case more widely.

Unfortunately, here lies the first problem with recruiting to the SP, and I'm sure it's something leftists from other backgrounds are familiar with too. Earlier on in the first Keele Socialist Students meeting of the semester, one question that was asked was what do we do? I rattled off our record for the last year and talked a bit about the things the local SP branch has done as well. What I didn't realise, on reflection, was how daunting this may sound to a first year student who's just left home. And I should know - I remember how scary the prospect of doing stuff was for me when I first got involved with the left. But on the other hand there were other younger comrades who were champing at the bit.

How do you strike the balance? It's a tricky question. You don't want to scare prospective members away, but you have to be honest about what membership can entail. In recruitment discussions, I've always encouraged new people to do as much as they feel comfortable doing. I do not push people into situations and actions, but neither am I afraid to ask. Generally we find as new comrades get used to the branch they gradually assume some sort of role. It is better to allow people to grow organically into activism than foisting it upon them. Because of this I've known no one overcommit themselves and burn out.

Recruitment may be difficult but it can be very gratifying. To get someone involved, or, to turn up to branch meetings and see new faces, can give you and the rest of the group a real lift. More than money raised and papers sold it can boost morale as much as a particularly successful action or campaign the party has been involved in. It goes without saying that in the absence of the latter, new members help boost confidence even more, especially when a relatively large number join within a very short space of time. When you know a steady stream of people are joining up and getting active, it certainly helps keep you going on those rainy, windy stalls ...

Locally, regionally and nationally the SP is on the up again. The difficulties of the nineties are well behind us and our reputation as a small, but serious force for independent working class politics has grown in recent years. So if you're a socialist without a home or new to left wing politics, why not join up?


Dave Riley said...

Well that's the enigma, aint it? How does one recruit to the re-re-revolutionary party? A steep learning -- and talking curve-- is involved. Elsewhere the same folk sign up to the Greens or what have you on impulse as a good idea at the time.

I don't mean to suggest that a qualitative significant leap of 'consciousness' is not involved (or required) with signing up to an outfit like the SP (or the DSP here) but I've shifted on the question a bit.

The standard protocol usually is one built around ideological -- even patented -- franchises, as though it's a left emporium and one outfit's consumables are supposedly better than another's.

'Tis it's own Marxian market place.

This may, of course, be true -- but the real issue, according to none other than Vladimir Lenin isn't just what the party says -- it is,rather, what it does.

And that, in a very material(ism) sense, is the main marker. As Trotsky pointed out, we socialists believe "that in the beginning was the deed; the Word followed as its phonetic shadow."

And that's the problem with all the far left groups: the fetishisation of ideology...and program.

It obscures so much of "what is be done".

I'm not downplaying theory and the art of 'being correct' -- but at some stage no amount of theory and prattle is going to substitute for living and engaged activity -- and embeddedness -- with the struggling you know whats.

And in that sense, that's why recruitment to our rather small groups can be so difficult and complicated ..and often rather rare.

That's the far left's major conundrum -- a challenge it prefers to ignore for the sake of copyrighting their slice of the cognitive universe.

It's also Trotsky's legacy of self justifying sectarianism: we're revolutionary and you're not! (He was talking about Stalinism but the judgement has lingered on and deployed against all Gentiles).

I think it is so terribly un-Leninist to so proceed and there has to be another way to do business.

Consider then Olivier Besancenot's impact in France
and this surely suggests that maybe there's another way .

I don't hold with a shallow platform like Respect either. I prefer the SSP template -- the strongly socialist marker -- akin to Besancenot's own party.

But my own experience here in Australia suggests that it does enrich, enliven and foster the growth of a cadre core because it enables many different people to work with you in an ongoing partnership and see through their own shared activity that the rev party perspective is, or maybe is, a-OK and the way to proceed.

Many don't of course -- but that doesn't mean you mark them down or don't value their contribution or activity...or drop them from the working collective. This afterall is a ongoing partnership between a rev party formation and others -- coalesced around a banner of struggle and socialism.

[Of course we'd prefer a partnership between Marxists broader than simply the DSP. Not on unfortunately.]

In the final instance it's about a different approach to politics that transcends the sort of fishing or surfing expeditions that is so much the bread and butter of the left groupuscules.

It's about winning respect, I guess rather than being seen to be (untrue though it may be) -- as simply an ideological tendency.

In my locale, as an example, the DSP functions as a tendency within the broader Socialist Alliance.And while comrades join the DSP through that experience there is a swag of others -- loyal SA members -- who we work with on day to day basis, and who see the SA as their's (even if some of these people are still members of other electoral party formations -- like the Greens of the ALP).

And we're finding -- and this is very relevant to Stoke, I think -- that the SA really prospers in those centres, often regional, where the programatic prattle of the far left has not obscured the key focus on getting things done.

It's about winning respect, you see, not one-upmanship.Of doing very concrete things in the day to day struggle with others on an equal footing of respect and consideration.

As Brecht wrote of Communism:

It is the simple thing
Which is so hard to do.

ian said...

Good post Dave.

Renegade Eye said...

In Minneapolis, the main thrust of your tendency, has been youth at high school age. To do that has meant, having meetings devoted to making drums for demos or puppets. At times it seems as the youth lead the leadership.

OT: In Minneapolis this week, the CWI had a speaker from Lebanon and Nigeria. Very good events.

Anonymous said...

What is perhaps a more interesting question is how small propaganda groups (as all the British left groups are despite many of them calling themselves workers parties) go about fusing themselves with the vanguard of the working class.

This is something the left seems to get wrong - it focuses on what Bolsheviks call agitation rather than propaganda - it focus is on board work within, and often outside, the working class - no matter what their consciousness is. Trotsky, as I recall, seemed to offer a different solution for propaganda groups - that we should win the most advanced, vanguard, elements of the working class to our transitional programme though struggle - breaking any faith they have in the ideology of alien class forces, the petty-bourgiose trade union leaders, etc. The vanguard will then influence the rest.

What most of the left seem to do is however far removed from the strategy Trotsky developed and implemented with far greater success in the twenties and thirties than the left has done since his death. This isn't for the lack of objective conditions. It is internal problems with our method. Mass agitation is not the task of small proganda groups, even ones that claim the name of the 'socialist' or 'communist' party. It will only lead to them modifying their programme for the more backward workers they encounter - only a concentration on work of winning the vanguard through the lessons of struggle to a transitional (and from this a revolutionary, for state power, programme) can Trotskyists remain Trotskyists.

-- Anon. Trotskyist

Miles said...

Interesting stuff.
Recruting to the union is similar - though usually, of course, people feel they don't have to do anything in such big organisations.
And they are sometimes wary about attending branch meetings because they are intimidated by the old hands.
I once had cause to attend an evangelical church (long story) and people went out of their way to be nice and give me a cup of tea.
I felt much more welcome than I have done at many events with comrades.
I stole a word off the evangelicals - fellowship - and tried to incorporate it into activities when I was a union organiser.
That's why socials are important.
Bowling anybody?

Dave Riley said...

But who wants to remain a Trotskyist? The raison d'etre died with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adherents choose so often to wallow in sectarianism.

As for this:"What most of the left seem to do is however far removed from the strategy Trotsky developed and implemented with far greater success in the twenties and thirties than the left has done since his death." You are simply historically incorrect. You can easily refer to the communist parties as achieving very much more in that regard than was ever mustered by the small Trotskyist groupings -- Third Period or no.

Whats' this, nostalgia for the good old days when there was one Trotskyist group rather than fifteen?

At some point you have to step back and ask what on earth do we think we are doing? To some degree you need to also recognise the new opportunities that beckon .. and then make the most of your options.

Because the far left does have options. It has a choice as to which way it could proceed.

My intervention was that I pointed out that the way the groups recruit was formatted by the way the groups function. If you want to so proceed -- by dint of the "primitive accumulation of cadre" then socialism has no future nor has its party adherents. It is a cul de sac -- a marginal, ideological existence drowning in propaganda.

In the case of Militant/SP it has rejected one Trotskyist tactic -- that of entrism -- for the sake of a standalone existence outside the LP.

I think there's a lot to be learnt from their experience then and since.

But my argument was about dealing with the brutal reality that recruitment in ones and twos is insufficient to the strategic tasks we set ourselves.

We should at least accept that limitation. That's the first step to dealing with reality -- the first step to the getting of wisdom. To NOT deal with that will only lead to a ongoing thread of demoralisation in our own ranks and a perpetual sentence to being marginal.

After all, "our day" may never "come" if we simply wait for it.

Them's the facts. But this aint the fifties Cold War nor is there some other force claiming to be socialist under CPSU direction.

Today its' us and social democracy staring at one another and our major handicap is size and influence.

The rise of the Greens reflect that void and variously the Green party movement is -- as Rudolph Bahro said -- the last hesitancy to socialism.

So it's no good harking back to the inter war years and crying out for replication. The world moves on.

My point is , I guess, that it is possible to have your cake and eat it too. I'm not arguing that we throw the Lenin baby (or if you like -- infant Trotsky) out with the bath water.

The problem is that the left groups are in fact an active obstacle to a further advance because they prefer this sort of political comfort zone engineered during the 20th century. Its' the circle spirit preference.

That's the main obstacle at the moment: groupuscule-think. Tragically, aside from a few instances in Continental Europe I fear the far left is incapable of transcending that.

But here we have this major economic and environment crisis bearing down upon us and all these outfits are capable of is grabbing their share of what few fruits that fall their way. As our blogger host said in the post -- things are looking up, the local SP recruited some instead of the usual none.

Nonetheless I'm not promising a bumper harvest because things aren't that linear. I'm talking about tactical placement and retooling. I'm also learning that a cultural shift is also required. It's a head space thing.

How you proceed is totally an indigenous thing and I'm sure there are no formulae. I guess a certain empiricism has to rule according to the Lenin/Napoleon principle of "fight, then see."

But to return to the question of the working class and the trade unions -- my experience suggests that there can be no advancement in that theatre of activity without a political solution being engineered to the disease of social democracy. So there's this conjuncture that challenges us.You cannot have one without the other. You cannot consolidate a leadership in the working class without also promoting the vehicle that will draw militant workers -- in large numbers --to your banner.

That's not the SP , nor the DSP or SWP or what have you. It ain't going to happen while we have holes in our collective bums.

So at some stage you have to go beyond talk and do it -- regardless of the costs and consequences or how rocky the road may be.

And the road is very rocky indeed and is not for the feint hearted.But as the bearded men said, you have a world to win.

Nick Fredman said...

Very interesting. I'd like to read your PhD when finished, from both academic and more directly political interests. I've just finished mine on Australian left nationalism, part of the data for which came from focus groups of Labor and Greens members. I would have liked to tease out more from them about their activity and social networks etc. There seems little sustained research on the political role of ordinary party members of any sort, as such (though maybe I haven't looked enough, as it wasn't my main thing).

Politically, I've gone through some ups and downs building a revolutionary group and a broader Socialist Alliance in a regional university town. In a such a place there's a pleasing lack of a "left zoo" as Dave relates, but serious problems of a lack of a critical mass of struggle and activists to build out of, and a largely transient student population.

And while we need to cohere the broad vanguard of experienced activists, attracting committed young people, to something vital and inspirational, is essential to survival for a revolutionary group.

This is also the case for any broader left formation. The Greens are quite moribund here, despite this being a historic centre of environmental activism (the world's first forest blockade occurred in 1979 at Terrania Creek, northern NSW, about 30km where I'm sitting in Lismore). By the mid-90s leading forest campaigners here turned both to lobbying and to being part of the emerging Greens. There's virtually no connection to extra-parliamentary campaigning, in contrast to some extent to the Greens in some larger centres, where there's more involvement from ex-Labor leftists, ex-Communists and white collar unionists. Here there's a whole cohort of 30-something ex-blockaders who might dutifully hand out for the Greens at election times, and do nothing political besides (and in many cases little inspiration to do even that).

And do you really call each other brother and presumably sister?

andy newman said...

NIck: "Australian left nationalism"

Sounds interesting, have you published anything on this?

Nick Fredman said...

No, haven't had a chance and the detailed bits, on the Howard period, are a bit dated now. I'm going to try to adapt some for Links, but I can send you a PDF of the lot or the longish theoretical and historical chapter if you like. Actually 3 Green Left articles cover a fair bit:

The free trade agreement and Australian nationalism

West Papua and self-determination

Their values and ours

My basic argument is not blindingly original but interesting in details I think (I make a spirited defence of the 'Stalin pamphlet' I think). Nationalism is understandable and inevitable for some time, and progressive values can be refracted through it, but the left, including social democracy, has in recent times definitely lost out when it tried to compete with conservatism on nationalism directly (Rudd has pointedly avoided this, for example). I show this via debates around 'history wars', Iraq and security, a free trade agreement with the US, and 'values'.

ajohnstone said...

When it comes to signing up members , you , of course , know that the SPGB praactice is to ensure prospective new members know and understand its case for Socialism through the means of a knowledge test . How many other groups vet candidates for membership in such a way .

Nor do we as a party make interventions in the democratic procedures of the trade union movement .

Perhaps the Left should heed William Morris when he spoke from his experience.
"We had better confine ourselves to the old teaching and preaching of Socialism pure and simple, which is I fear more or less neglected amidst the said futile attempt to act as a party when we have no party"

Vicky said...

'He told me of overhearing a young full timer giving a more junior activist a few tips on how to recruit during the week. Her words were something like "just get them on a standing order and worry about the rest later".'

This is so revealing of everything that is wrong with so many groups on the left. What a thing to overhear!

Dave Riley said...

A test? I'd assume there is some input by the party body in way of setting material to be tested.

The DSP in Australia joins people initially as provisional members -- who have speaking but not voting rights. The member's name is placed before the branch meeting and the local membership votes to accept that person as a provisional member.

Then later, after that new recruit has completed provisional membership classes -- built around the DSP's program and a bit of study on organisational principles --and settled into some form of party routine -- the person can become a full member.

So there's a period of a few months between fist joining and then being accepted -- again by a branch vote -- as a full member.But it's an each way thing in regard to deciding to voluntarily accept and be accepted for DSP membership.

In contrast the Socialist Alliance has no set membership criteria as the formation has very little in the way of regulations. That reflects the open nature of the project and the fact that it is still in a rather undeveloped organisational state. (In fact there's precious little authority in the SA as it tends to proceed by consensus and any attempt to impose a 'line' on the SA without very broad membership support would surely stymie it as a fledgeling party formation.)

Our major legalistic headache are the extremely undemocratic electoral regulations in this country which require electoral parties to comply with some very strict organisational guidelines -- in regard to nominations, accounts, and membership lists. We not only have to register the SA nationally but separately in each state under, in each case, different electoral acts. This is why the SA is only registered in three states so far and not all of them.

This is also why, for instance, candidates standing for the local CWI franchise here must stand as Independents as SA candidates do in those states where we aren't registered.

In all states you have to have a set membership number before you can be considered for party registration, and that is often 500 members that can be vetted by the governing state electoral commission. And they do vet and review each registration at regular intervals.

You should note that the DSP describes itself as a "Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance" so it generally carries out its political activity under that umbrella. This isn't entrism as the SP would have experienced it in the British Labour Party as the DSP is the leading current in the Alliance and drives its engine room.

The other feature of the existence here is Resistance which is a youth group (under 26 years of age) which works in political solidarity with the DSP and, although it is affiliated to the SA, has its own separate and public existence.

In practice the DSP's recruits come variously from Resistance, the Socialist Alliance and to a much lesser degree, directly to the party. I'm not sure of the exact figures at the moment but about the same percentage of DSP recruits are drawn from the SA as come from Resistance. The DSP has always oriented to youth work and was in fact formed in the first instance by Resistance.So the youth group preceded the party and gave birth to it, so to speak.

At any one time only a minority of Resistance members are DSP members.

Similarly, the vast bulk of the SA membership is outside both Resistance and the DSP. I'm not sure of national figures at the moment, but in my area the combined SA membership is three times the DSP membership.

The SA also works closely day to day with a few migrant/ethnic party political organisations and a couple of these may soon formally affiliate to the Alliance.

The other far left groups who helped to form the SA in the first instance (such as the ISO and AWL)have all left the project. And of course, the DSP has suffered a recent split primarily over the question of its Alliance orientation.

andy newman said...

Yes plase nick - can you send PDF to office@socialistunity.com

Andrew Coates said...

Viky at least you don't do 'flirty fishing' to recruit members!

Phil BC said...

So much stuff and so long after the last comment I don't know what to reply to, so I'll respond to something that is a burning issue in the labour movement. Nick asked:

"do you really call each other brother and presumably sister?"

No, not everyone does, but I do. Not really. Just think of it s an endearingly original feature of this blog.