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. 

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Union Renewal

Brother S forwarded me this this morning after having a rant about social movement trade unionism yesterday over coffee. Union Renewal is a new blog based in the Netherlands and carries stories from across the globe as well as promoting the idea that trade unions need to broaden their range beyond the workplace. I urge everyone to add this new site to their blogroll.

Dear colleagues,

I would like to invite you to visit our new weblog, Union Renewal. If you would like to receive the weekly email newsletter, please register at the right-hand column of the weblog.

The trade union movement needs to organise new groups such as young people and minorities and to find ways to deal with developments such as globalisation, outsourcing and decreasing job security. In various countries, there are examples of unions that have found innovative ways to meet these challenges. Sometimes, they are surprisingly successful.

The FNV has collected examples of such successes in the booklet Innovative Trade Union Strategies, that was presented at the ETUC Congress in Seville. However, we do not want to leave it at that. In order to promote the exchange of successful examples, we have now launched a weblog on union renewal.

The weblog offers news on issues including: What is the trade union movement doing to organise young, minority and flex workers? How does it cope with globlisation? What are its activities at the local level? How does it put social justice on the agenda?

Please help us further develop this weblog:

* Give us feedback. Do you think this is a good initiative? How can the weblog be improved?
* Do you have suggestions or contributions? Please send them to or
* Do you know other people who might be interested? Please forward this email.

Thank you very much,
Yours truly,

Agnes Jongerius
Netherlands Trade Union Confederation FNV

Tuesday 27 November 2007

In the Tracks of the Ecological Citizen

Another day, another Keele seminar. The latest I attended was a presentation by two Swedish researchers, Sverker Jagers and Johan Martinsson. Theirs was very much a declaration of intent rather than a presentation of findings (though it did involve this). Their ambitious aim is to put empirical flesh on the abstract bones of an increasingly important concept in green political thought: the ecological citizen.

What is an ecological citizen? This concept has come out of the work of the well-known green theorist and Keele-resident, Andy Dobson. At the risk of doing some violence to his work, his idea of the ecological citizen is someone who is motivated by green values and a concern for social justice. This can be manifested in many ways through political practice and/or personal behaviour. Jagers and Martinsson have taken upon themselves is to try and operationalise this concept to see if the concept has any analytical purchase.

Jagers began by describing his previous work. His completed PhD thesis was on liberal democracies and sustainable development, where he argued for their potential to adopt comprehensive environmental policies, but enacting them is dependent on institutional development, political will and public support. His second major piece of research looked at the popularity or otherwise of green policy instruments. Unsurprisingly, punitive tools such as Sweden's carbon tax were not popular whereas measures such as subsidised green fuels or an expansion of public transport were more preferable. However, Jagers pointed out that of the sum total of Sweden's taxes, the carbon tax was more popular than other forms of taxation. But if taxation in general is unpopular, then the funding of a greener transport policy is called into question.

This is the context in which Jagers and Martinsson want to go hunting for (Swedish) ecological citizens. They intend to produce a battery of questions for web-based surveys with the aim of identifying this constituency, and start to build an understanding of how their values affect their behaviour. Common ideology, lifestyle, socio-economic status, and education will all be looked at to determine what the key factors are that help explain why some people become ecological citizens. The survey design will also measure levels of altruism, awareness of the consequences of one's behaviour, willingness to adjust behaviour, and openness to environmentally-friendly policy instruments.

Martinsson then moved on to consider research on Swedish environmental attitudes and their relationship to media coverage. The first study he cited indicated a strong relationship. Since 1988, the number of Swedes who perceived the environment as a vitally important political issue has declined from around the 40% mark to approximately 10% ten years later. Here it bumps around this percentage for six years, until 2003-2006, when it jumps from 6% to 13%. It's also worth noting that 1988 was a peak figure, growing from a very low base in 1979. If you compare the recent growth with media coverage of environmental issues, the number of newspaper and magazine articles jumped between February 2005 and January of this year. But is there really a correlation?

A very recent piece of research they've done on the shaping of green opinion by media coverage suggests a very weak relation. In May this year, Sweden saw a major green awareness media campaign featuring regular slots on TV and radio, and presumably a good deal of press coverage. It took place over the space of a week. Through phone canvassing before and after the event, they recorded the following results from their sample. Interest in green issues went from 16-20%, willingness to pay environmental taxes climbed 14-18%, and concern over climate change grew 36-44%. Compared with the massive quantity of green media content, all these increases are quite small. They also found those of a higher educational background, with high political interest, and women generally were most responsive to the coverage. For the old and those with no political interest, there was no measurable effect. The conclusion therefore was the media is not as powerful an instrument as is commonly supposed, and somewhat frustratingly achieving behavioural change was easier among those with positive environmental attitudes already - in other words, the ecological citizen constituency.

There followed a series of questions concerning methodological issues, and particularly what set of attitudes can be said to approximate ecological citizenship. One participant proposed Jagers and Martinsson should perhaps look into a scale that measures ecological citizenship traits, which could go some way to capture the different and complex ways it can be thought and practiced. One example is the tension between intentionality and behavioural outcomes - the "doing good but thinking wrong" problem. For instance, in Sweden many people routinely recycle and pay their carbon taxes without consciously being ecological citizens. Can they therefore be regarded as such? Another problem that was highlighted were how people felt about their capacities to change things - would people do more if they felt what they did already achieved something?

There are some problems from my point of view - not least the way liberal democracy has been abstracted from its capitalist context and an uncertainty whether ecological citizenship can be reconciled to a system amorally concerned with profits - but the research has every chance of putting the definition of 'green constituencies' on a firmer footing. Also, the media findings were particularly fascinating, if a little gloomy from the standpoint of radical politics. But then again, green, like any other political conclusions, tend to be an outgrowth of experience, which to their credit is what Jagers and Martinsson seek to quantify.

Monday 26 November 2007

Getting Anal About Books

When I nipped into my email account yesterday, waiting for me was a message from my old mucker, Madam Miaow. In it, she challenged me to have a go at the sort of literary atrocities her and brother Splinters have been inflicting on leftyblogland. As the comrade puts it:
The challenge: to tell the story of the tragic demise of the Respect party through satire and vulgar abuse of the literary classics or whichever other cultural medium floats your boat.
As much as I'd like to participate, I'm afraid I'm far from qualified to do so. Whereas some comrades are deeply steeped in literature and verse, I couldn't begin to tell the difference between an iambic pentameter and a haiku. In short, I am too much of a Philistine.

That said, I have been endeavouring to affect the appearance of a cultivated literary type. Nearly five years ago, I started reading genres beyond my then usual staple of sci-fi and academic works. I even joined a book group run out of the local library, where we consumed such classics as Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, The Old Wives Tale, etc. So, keen to see how my progress from a canonical point of view was going, I recently picked up 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Leaving aside the arbitrary and problematic nature of producing a canon, this at least was compiled by figures heavily involved in the literary field. There are some dodgy entries (Ardal O'Hanlon, anyone?) but at least there isn't any Jeffrey Archer. You can see the entire list here.

I'm partly satisfied to learn I've worked my way through 111 of the books, so still some way to go before I can effortlessly perform any kind of literary atrocity. How many have you read? If you want to retain your modesty or are ashamed, the comments box is open to anonymous contributions ...

Friday 23 November 2007

New Labour, New Capitalism

On Wednesday, Keele's Industrial Relations dept hosted a talk by Robert Taylor, a well known freelance journalist who has worked as industrial correspondent for a whole host of mainstream papers. The theme of his paper was the legacy of New Labour.

He prefaced his discussion with how Labour has come to embrace the very things it spent time railing against in the 1980s. Its neoliberal love affair with markets, privatisation of public services, swingeing cuts in the social wage, the proliferation of PFI schemes, and so on have been the social policy side of the monetarist coin. Economic policy has seen the maintenance of a deregulated and hitherto relatively stable climate for finance capital, not least assisted by a complex web of tax loopholes. As a result, the global super rich have migrated to London in droves. The IMF lists London along with the Seychelles and the Cayman Islands as a top international tax refuge.

At a 10th anniversary/legacy tour lecture in Manchester last April, Blair argued such outcomes were achieved because of the different policy focus of New Labour from previous Labour governments. According to Blair, the latter were mainly concerned with the state and institutions, whereas New Labour's priority was work. The government's job was to provide the education and training necessary to equip Britain with a labour force that can compete in the global economy. For Blair, this was an emancipatory vision. Workers would be empowered not through legislation guaranteeing workplace rights, but by making them through training more powerful in relation to the marketplace. Decoding the Blairspeak, the idea was to make employees so marketable they could pick and choose where they sell their labour power, and with a highly skilled and motivated workforce British capital could not fail to benefit. What did Blair use as evidence to back up this era of individual emancipation? The obscene growth in inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

For Taylor, this was an post-facto theorisation of the New Labour mission. The neoliberal "achievements" of Blair/Brown were more or less pragmatic responses to the free market climate rather than the result of a coherent programme. This can be shown by a cursory examination of the 1997 manifesto. Though accepting the primacy of the market as the engine of wealth creation, the first government nevertheless implemented a windfall levy on the privatised utilities, a minimum wage, (weak) mandatory union recognition, and signed up to the Social Chapter. Therefore, Taylor argues this was a broadly pro-worker platform. But nevertheless, in 1997 and every general election since, Labour have circulated a special manifesto for business to reassure them of their economic competence, and how any ostensibly pro-worker measure will be watered down. After that first election victory, as if to underline Labour's pro-business credentials, No.10 refused to see any TUC delegations for the first six months but made clear its door was always open to business leaders.

This has meant despite the meagre crumbs thrown to the working class in 1997, the last 10 years have been a grim experience. Not only has the government attacked state benefits to the most vulnerable sections of the class as a crusade against dependency culture, the continued impotence of the unions - often hiding behind the anti-union laws - have seen workplaces become a breeding ground for bullying managers and long hours. Small wonder absenteeism and ill-health have become increasingly serious problems.

But in one respect, New Labour has been off-message. Taylor argues there has, in congruence with the Blair/Brown 'empowering employees' vision, been a real extension of individual rights for workers on paper. Unlike rights around collective bargaining, the CBI has been forced to concede the provision of maternity and paternity rights, compassionate leave, and so on because, in an untypically honest moment, it knew it would have a hard time arguing against them.

In conclusion, though Blair and Brown have consolidated and extended the grip capital has over British society, from the standpoint of the New Labour vision the project has been a failure. Productivity is not increasing, education and training are no better, and the numbers of NEETs are growing. And despite the language, neither is New Labour particularly modern. Blair and Brown have jettisoned social democratic politics and returned to a time before the working class made its weight felt in political systems. But now, in a global situation characterised by increasing turbulence, New Labour is passing over from Hubris into Nemesis. Its days are surely numbered.

Among the batch of questions Taylor took, the first asked about the relationship between New Labour and the Democrats. He responded there were mutual influences around the uses of rights and responsibilities rhetoric when Clinton and Blair's administrations overlapped. But since the ascension of Bush and neoconservatism, New Labour's adoption of neocon positions has gone beyond a hawkish foreign policy. A key influence on Blair and Brown has been the right wing economist and Murdoch stooge, Irwin Stelzer. His message of more deregulation and more privatisation of public services have fallen on very receptive ears.

I asked a question about the Conservatives. As the Tories have traditionally been the organic party of capital, has New Labour been successful robbing it of this role? Taylor replied there can be no doubt that it and big capital in general are in cahoots. The Tories, for their part, are now overwhelmingly the party of small capital, of small business. Furthermore and despite Cameron's attempt to Blairise his party, the issue of Europe runs like a crack down the middle. Its submerged Europhobia constitutes a major problem from the standpoint of big capital, so it is unlikely to back the Conservatives as a whole in the near future.

Given the talk was mostly about the adoption of right wing ideas by the government, another questioner asked if there was any influence on its practice coming from the parliamentary left and the unions? Taylor's response was to what extent can we speak of a left now? The mobilising capacities of the unions are very different today than 30 years ago, and the conditions that gave rise to this combativity them are gone and are not coming back. For example, most unions do not have even the potential strategic muscle they once had. It is pointless blaming the various leaderships for this state of affairs. They are pragmatic beasts who are governed by what they perceive to be the ability of their members to fight.

The final question ended on a gloomy note. The questioner observed that while New Labour might be on their way out, neoliberalism appears to be sticking around for some while longer. Where can we expect opposition to come from? Taylor replied that if we were looking to the unions, then we have to recognise they are in crisis across the developed world. The only places where they are holding on to their memberships and positions are the Nordic countries, and possibly Australia. The situation in the global south is different, where unions are important actors in broad social movements. For this situation to change, the context must change, but this will be difficult.

There were very few reasons to be cheerful, but there's no point trying to fall ourselves about the power of capital or the state of the labour movement. The question, as always, is what we can do about changing the present state of affairs.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Socialism 2007: China

Entitled 'Can China Save World Capitalism?', Lynn Walsh began his lead off by noting how one cannot treat China as a discrete unit of analysis, Its development must be placed in the context of a global economy, which at the moment revolves around the axis of US-China trade and capital flows. The relationship between the two states is so intimate that it has become a structural feature of both economies, but it is increasingly a structure prone to instability and decomposition.

What is the character of this relationship? China has become the workshop of the world, producing commodities from textiles to high value technical goods. Their low global market prices is sustained by Chinese industry sucking in vast amounts of cheap labour power as peasants and the "old" working class are displaced from the land and closures of state enterprises. Unsurprisingly, the US trade deficit with China stands to the tune of $300bn/year. The burden of this debt, strangely enough, is sustained by Chinese banks. As the USA remains industry's primary export market (despite the growing importance of the EU), , Beijing has a strategic interest in effectively subsidising the US consumer market to keep its economic growth on the road. However, the debt cannot be financed indefinitely and has only really been possible for so long with the proliferation of cheap credit. With the contraction of the US housing market and rising oil prices, conditions are changing, and over a period of time the relationship will prove to be unsustainable.

The development within China itself has been extremely uneven. The coastal Special Economic Zones combine some of the most advanced industry with the more backward interior, a backwardness not helped by the flow of peasants and workers to the more prosperous cities. The sharp contradiction between (coastal) town and (landlocked) country is but one aspect of the inequalities development has thrown up. Quoting estimates from the boss's rag, Forbes Magazine, 200 of the worlds billionaires are Chinese citizens. This sits side by side with peasant and worker struggles over land seizure, closures, environmental despoliation, and rapid rusting away of the iron rice bowl. However, the state has ridden out these struggles so far thanks to their localisation and economic growth. If a downturn comes, it wouldn't be surprising if the instruments of repression are ratcheted up.

Turning to the class character of the Chinese state, Lynn argued this was no academic question because it has programmatic implications for any revolutionary movement that may arise. At the moment, the Beijing Stalinists pretend to socialism, but all that really remains is the repressive command and control apparatus of the bureaucracy. What planning exists is geared toward the managed reintroduction of the law of value, and with it the transformation of the bureaucratic elite into a fully fledged bourgeoisie. Therefore China is a state in transition - what exists is a messy hybridised mix of private, semi-private, and state capitalism speedily moving away from the bureaucratically planned economy of old.

Summing up, the comrade outlined two scenarios. The first is premised on continued stable global economic growth, and is therefore in his opinion, least likely. But if it comes to pass, the whip hand of the market would be strengthened in China and with it continued (uneven) development. With this, the spectre of an increasingly coherent and articulate working class with its own set of democratic and economic demands, appears. But in the more likely event of a downturn, the state could move to reassert more control over the economy and concentrate on a more rounded internal development. However, a return to planning of the "classical" Stalinist variety is not on the cards.

Responses to the lead off came in two varieties, reflecting his remarks on political economy and characterisation of the state. Comrade Neil opened by noting how already Chinese capital is keeping away from Wall Street thanks to the sub-prime debt crisis. Pete offered the observation that in the event of a downturn, possessing a non-exchangeable currency, the absence of capital markets, and the role of the state puts China in a good position to insulate itself from crisis. On the other hand, the export sectors are heavily integrated into the world economy and cannot escape any global recession. Another comrade looked at the contradictory position it occupies in international relations. On the one hand, the Chinese working class needs defending from imperialist capital flowing in and hammering their living standards, while on the other Beijing's investment projects in the semi-colonial are similarly exploitative.

On state characterisation, Robert of the IBT made a typically dogmatic contribution. He claimed the Chinese state remained a deformed workers' state and not some transitional half-way house as its fundamental property relations remained "proletarian" (an aside, surely proletarian property *relations* can only ever pertain under conditions of workers' control, where political and economic relations become fused and any distinction between them is rendered meaningless. Surely the comrade meant proletarian property *forms*, but in China as in other Stalinist regimes these were as much a legal fiction as equality before the law is in developed bourgeois states). He then went on to point to tensions within the Chinese bureaucracy, and an unease among peasants and workers over the restoration of capitalism. He concluded with an attempt to score sect points over the CWI's intervention in Russia in 1991. Pete replied that the complexity of the transition can only now be adequately grasped by assigning China a transitional status, and then filling the category with data and analysis. To regard it as a deformed workers' state under present conditions is divorced from reality. Ben from the Sparts provided some entertainment by attacking the IBT's position on Yeltsin, and ranting about the crimes of their guru, Bill Logan. But like their mini-me, he believed the gains of the 1949 revolution remain, and now it is being encircled by imperialism, and therefore requires defending from counterrevolution from within and without. Cloud-cuckoo-land stuff. Dan argued neither of these arguments look at the content of the remains of the plan, which is a plan for restoration, and is of a different character to that in Cuba, for example. Ross also took the ultra-lefts to task for lining up with the bureaucracy - the precondition for revolution, under capitalism or Stalinism, is the political independence of the working class. This is what the CWI sought to achieve in Russia in 1991. As for tensions in the bureaucracy, he challenged the IBT and Sparts to identify who exactly in it was defending planning? The task for revolutionaries is not to cheer lead a section of the bureaucracy, but to connect with the working class and peasantry.

Responding to the discussion, Lynn agreed that state-led investment is the core driver of development, but exports remain crucial because this is how it acquires the foreign currency to purchase the capital intensive goods and plant essential to its plans. On China's class character, he agreed the deformed workers' state category was far too doctrinaire. The ultra-lefts pointed toward state planning, but in the USSR itself the plan became a political fiction as it broke down in the 70s and 80s, and state firms were forced to barter with one another. China experienced similar problems, and the bureaucracy was faced with the decision to either move towards capitalism or be consigned to history. It's therefore nonsensical to defend Stalinism with reference to "the plan". As for the state, one must remember that as different forms of capital operate in bourgeois states, the same is true in China. State vs private capital, national vs international capital, manufacturing vs service and knowledge-based capital - these are increasingly the social bases of the state, and the plan is there to facilitate their contradictory interests. The transformation of the state into a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" becomes ever more likely ... unless the Chinese masses march onto the stage of history and inflict a mortal blow on capital everywhere.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Socialism 2007: Rally

There were a fair number of comrades at Saturday evening's Socialism rally, and it was difficult to say whether attendance was up or down on last year. No matter, most were there to listen to what the speakers had to say rather than count heads.

The evening's star turns were provided by comrades Brian Caton of the POA, Matt Wrack of the FBU, and Mark Serwotka of the PCS. Brother S has promised a considered reflection on their comments, so I'll confine myself to offering yet another impression of what they said.

Brian Caton spoke first and thanked the Socialist Party and his comrades in the trade union movement for their support of the POA's recent action. He also mentioned that even if socialism has been abandoned by the Labour party, it is not the case with him and many of his members. He also mentioned the stupid ultra-left leaflet handed out by the IBT. He said facts had to be faced, as long as society has laws it will have prisons and people will be required to run them. It isn't an easy job, and the POA is well aware there are those who abuse their positions in its ranks. Unsurprisingly, I agree with the comrade. But he needn't have worried too much about the IBT, thankfully SP comrades tend to have a more secure relationship with the real world.

Matt Wrack spoke about the cuts in the fire service, and angrily condemned the neoliberal New Labour speak being foisted upon it. Apparently now, those unfortunate enough to require a call out are to be referred to as "customers". He also took the opportunity to pay his respects to the four firefighters who recently fell during the Warwickshire warehouse fire.

Mark Serwotka's speech was most tantalising, but ultimately disappointing. Don't get me wrong, his was the usual barnstormer but the content was frustrating. He spoke of his invitation to speak at four conferences on the day and managed to speak at three, and then went on to show how the different conferences underlined the need for left unity. At this point, it appeared he was limbering up for a significant announcement that could bring the process along, such as a union-sponsored initiative on political representation or some such, but it wasn't to come. He did advance on his previous speeches in calling for a left alternative to the Labour party but didn't talk about what role the unions could play in founding it. The comrade is a canny operator and knows a new workers' party will, at this moment in time, require that impetus. Maybe next year, Mark?

The rally also heard from Mel Mills of Huddersfield Save Our Services, who've won a partial victory over a rapacious neoliberal council who came for three nurseries, and were forced to limit their cuts to just one. Sadiq Abakar, a SP comrade originally from Darfur spoke in moving terms about the Home Office's repeated attempts to deport him, where he can expect a fate similar to that of his brother, who was murdered by the state-backed janjaweed militia. An anonymous Stoke postie then provided a bit of light relief by outlining the incompetencies and peccadilloes of the wannabe Hitlers who run his/her depot.

Peter Taaffe wrapped up the speeches with a talk about the political situation in Brazil, from where he'd recently returned. He also replied to Mark Serwotka, who unfortunately had left the hall. The comrade said left unity cannot just fall out of a tree because of the very real differences that exist between the SP, and the SWP. He noted how in this hall two years previously it was predicted Respect would come unstuck, not least because of the SWP's inability to work in genuine partnership with other leftists. And unfortunately, this has proven to be the case. He said the SP would be prepared to work with anyone in the labour movement, but not on the basis of diluting our socialist politics.

Lois Austen then took the mike for the annual Socialism fundraiser. I recall one of the SWP comrades I interviewed for my PhD asking me if we still did this, as she found it quite cultish; but I have to say I've always rather enjoyed the spectacle. Lois began asking for large donations to be given in, and gradually the totals asked for got smaller and smaller. It was very pleasing to see so many branches handing over in excess of £1,000. Stoke's contribution was no where near, but thanks to our Engelsian turn, I'm sure we'll have a pretty penny to hand over next year. In all, over £20,000 was raised.

Comrades then heard a speech from a Brazilian comrade, followed by a short film commemorating the October Revolution, and of course The Internationale. But by this time, I was outside flogging shirts once more. Overall, it was an excellent event, and once again we'll be pulling out all the stops next year. Building for Socialism 2008 starts now!

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Socialism 2007: Some Impressions

This is the first of several posts on the "forgotten" event of last weekend, the Socialist Party's Socialism 2007. In other posts over the next few days Brother S and a few guest comrades will be reporting back on their experiences. In addition to this one, I'll be making posts on the Saturday evening rally and Lynn Walsh's excellent session, 'Can China save global capitalism?' For a visual impression of what went on, you can view a video diary of the weekend here.

The vanguard contingent of Stoke branch arrived around Saturday lunch time and were the first in the boozer just up from ULU for curries, fish and chips, and pints. Then we hit the union to sell the T-Shirts printed up by comrade N as an Engelsian way of raising branch funds. I don't know what this says about me, but as soon as I saw the shirts on the table my inner Del Boy was unleashed, I went from solid bolshevist to petit bourgeois huckster in the blink of an eye. Having found my calling in life, I wasn't seen very far from the stall all weekend. We had to face stiff competition from centre-sponsored 1917 shirts, and the enterprising Shropshire comrades did a roaring trade in badge sales. Late on Sunday, our paths again crossed at Northants service station and a nefarious fund raising plot was hatched. I would tell you what i was, but then I'd have to kill you.

I digress. The first session I sort-of attended was 'Who were the Bolsheviks?' with Alec Thraves. His lead off focused on the unfolding revolutionary process between February and October 1917, while the discussion for the most part dwelled on what we do in the here and now. Bob Davies (wearing a Steve Freeman hat?) of the cpgb made a sensible contribution on raising political demands, such as the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, while not minimising the importance of economic demands. Other comrades looked at the state of the working class in Britain and how it is slowly groping towards struggle. Unfortunately, I didn't take any notes so can't really remember much beyond that.

After a stall stint before and after the rally, I found myself with brothers N and G in Euston Street Station's Burger King. I there suffered my first whopper (tm) meal in years, and though the experience was repeated on the way home, I won't be indulging again in a hurry. But I cannot fail to mention comrade G, who kept us entertained with some of the most disgusting jokes I've ever heard. What is it with socialists and black humour? But these were truly foul. Communist morality prevents me repeating them on what is a family blog, but if Satan was a comedian, these would be in his stand-up routine.

About 11 we hauled ourselves into the Euston Flyer and managed to get ourselves served in record time (less than half an hour!) Everyone had a bit of a mingle and a gossip, though methinks some comrades were up for a scandalous old time. Before long we headed to the much loved (de)Generator, and for me and brothers N and F, and sister A, it was time we rested our weary bones. It fell to comrades TP and G to keep Stoke's hardcore creds in the black. They got themselves kicked out the Generator bar at three in the morning, and then went for a wander around central London for an alternative watering hole. They homed in on such an establishment several miles away, but balked at paying a fiver for the privilege of consuming overpriced drinks for half an hour. It seemed the bracing November air addled the comrades' brains, and they confessed to splashing out £20 on a 6 mile taxi ride back to the hostel. The cabbie must have seen them coming.

The following morning we were up bright and early. I grabbed my coco pops from the communal cereal dispensary, G moaned about "feeling like filth wrapped up in shit", and we were off to the morning session. First up was the China one, which will be dealt with separately. I was able to have a short chat with Mark Fischer to see if he had the low down on the other left meetings. Apparently the cpgb had a hostile reception at Respect (SWP) - what a contrast to ours where they had no problem getting a stall *inside* Socialism. But then many comrades have been predicting a return to sectarian type, so this comes as no surprise. As for the LRC, he didn't find it the most inspiring of events, just very business like but lacking a bold strategic vision.

In the afternoon, I went to the debate between Hannah Sell and Adam Lincoln of the IWW. Unfortunately, he didn't show so Hannah was forced to shadow box with anarchist ideas. Luckily, a Socialist Student comrade from York who described himself as an anarchist was able to take up most of Hannah's points toward the end. He argued anarchists are not opposed to organisation per se and supported workers taking power into their own hands and constructing a new society on that basis, but he had major problems with the hierarchical character of parties and their tendency to encourage situations of power abuse. I had to duck out at that point.

I missed both the closing rallies because of T-Shirt duty, but because I was always doing something instead of hanging about the weekend went incredibly fast. It seemed no sooner we arrived it was time to pack our stuff away, switch on the bangin' old school hardcore pirate radio station, and race our way back up the M40.

Friday 16 November 2007

Branch Meeting: Economic Blocs and Money

At Thursday night's branch meeting, comrade F gave a short lead off on the history of money, financial crisis, and what would happen to money in a socialist society. I hope the comrade won't mind if I skip over his comments on money's history, and proceed to the issues that provoked discussion

F raised a few pointers about the tendency within global capital toward the setting up of regional blocs, of which the European Union is the most advanced example. He showed how the Euro is intrinsic to the EU project, and is breaking a path for the African Union, and to a lesser extent, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and NAFTA. It is also likely the dynamics of global capital may encourage further centralising processes. Global economic bodies could assume even greater influence than is wielded by the IMF and World Bank now. One interesting point F also picked up on was the linkage between state forms and currencies - as the Euro was as much the offspring of the EU proto-state as it was of the coincidence of continental capital's interests, moves in this direction by other economic blocs will proceed side by side with the growth of cross border bureaucracies with their own supranational, albeit regional, aspirations. This being the case, after capitalism has suffered its permanent and irreversible defeat at the hands of the global working class, is it likely that money will wither away with the state?

Beginning with the withering away of money, D thought this was likely, though J added it very much depended on the concrete circumstances in which socialist revolution takes place. For example, as we saw in the case of Russia, a moneyless society cannot be constructed within the borders of a single, internationally isolated country.

P flagged up the contradictions of the EU and AU projects. On the one hand, the EU bureaucracy is a neoliberal tool in the hands of capital, but the centralisation of political authority and capital across the Eurozone territory could open up certain political opportunities for deepening the internationalism of the European labour movement. In the case of the AU, a centralised bureaucracy and currency could open up developmental processes that have not been possible due to the continent's history of weak, semi-colonial states.

A disagreed. Whereas Marx and Engels welcomed the development of nation states in the 19th century as agents that facilitate development, broadly speaking that was in capitalism's progressive phase. From the early 20th century and the division of the world into imperialist spheres of interest, that was no longer the case. Turning to the Euro, A felt it would not be taken up by other countries because of the contradiction between the conditions inside the Eurozone and outside it. In fact, it is possible the reforms that made the Euro possible could head into reverse. So far, continental capital has reaped the benefits of a period of stable accumulation, but if that was to change, the national interests of German, French, Italian, etc. capital would reassert themselves and the financial unity symbolised by the Euro and the European Central Bank torn asunder.

Replying to this, P argued if the Euro continues to strengthen internationally and Britain's trade with the Eurozone remains on an upward trajectory, the more attractive entry will be to "our" ruling class. Up until now, what has prevented Britain from doing so is the centrality of finance capital to the interests of the British bourgeoisie, which is very much bound up with the City of London remaining at the centre of global finance capital. The second key variable is the widespread opposition of the British population to monetary union. On economic crisis, P was doubtful the Euro would fragment back into national currencies. He suggested the ruling class would find other ways of insulating themselves against any crisis, such as accelerating EU expansion to allow flows of cheap labour from the East and Turkey into the metropolitan heartlands. This itself would have certain consequences, such as anti-immigration sentiment, and, ironically, the progressive integration of the European working class. The key is socialists must have a flexible response to crisis.

The remainder of the discussion was taken up with the discussion of the moneyless society, where comrades contrasted how we fight for socialist politics with the SPGB, despite our identical objectives. Summing up, F reiterated that you could not move from a society premised on the accumulation of capital for accumulation's sake to one based on production for need overnight.


It's a big weekend for the left in England and Wales, so AVPS will be having a nap. Currently, there's three posts in draft stage on last night's branch, yesterday's paper, and a few reflections on the latest Harry Potter (is there anything that can be said about it that hasn't already? I think there is ...). Next week this blog will be cluttered up with stuff about Socialism 2007, and maybe, if I find willing victims, there will be guest posts about the other main left events.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday 15 November 2007

Some Problems of Partisan Social Movement Research

Nerves, I've had a few, but they were completely absent when I gave the aforementioned paper to Keele Sociology dept's semi-regular dinner time forum.

In summary, I presented a few reflections on the difficulties I've had with my research. Using Pierre Bourdieu's work as an interpretative frame, I explored how the tensions between the organisational/political fields cohered around the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party affected my attempts to get interviews with SWP activists. These efforts were complicated by my membership of the SP, and only knowing one SWP member personally and being vaguely acquainted with a handful. Using extracts from SP interviews, I showed how some comrades participated because I was a member *and* they had either heard of me or seen my face about at various events and actions. About half of SP comrades said they wouldn't have taken part if I was an SWP member, an independent, or in one of the 57 varieties. I have no reason to believe SWP comrades would be any different, though I hasten to add, I'm sure if I had known more SWP'ers or been seen about by them, rates of participation would have been higher.

The second part of my discussion looked at the tension between the larger far left political field the two organisations share, and the academic field. In other words, the contradiction between producing work socialist activists might find interesting and useful, while simultaneously meeting the requirements demanded of a PhD thesis. Here, I sketched how the presentation of my findings as sociological knowledge can harm the interests of the activists who took part, via a brief discussion of my concept of liberal surveillance. This refers to the knowledge effects of social science work on marginal groupings and social movements. I came up with the concept while reading Bourdieu on the scholastic point of view, and after hearing a paper on Hungarian anti-capitalists where the author failed to ask basic questions about why sociologists should study radical social movements, and who benefits from putting the knowledge out there. I quoted from transcripts where I asked comrades what they felt about liberal surveillance, about how public access to sociological knowledge built on their experiences of Trotskyist activists could be used by friend and foe alike; and the possibility they've provided me the scaffolding around which I could build a career in academia. There was a near consensus that enemies such as the state or the far right wouldn't get much from data of this character, and provided I was sensitive toward the life histories they had provided me with, no one saw any real problems with the data being used to play my disciplinary game.

The question and answer session was not unlike a meeting of left spotters anonymous at times as people were interested in the historical differences between the two organisations, their opinions of the USSR, relationships to other lefts, and attitude to Trotsky's legacy. I was also asked about my comparative intentions if volunteers from both organisations had reached parity and what will I be doing now meaningful comparisons cannot be made. One other interesting question touched on the gendered and racial dimensions of comrades' experiences. As my sample was all white, I didn't even bother speculating about the latter, but as for gender, the one thing that immediately sprung to mind were the relationships comrades were in. Female interviewees in relationships were, without exception, partnered up with a comrade. However, this wasn't the case with the men, so what does this say about our activist culture? Is 'being a socialist' more gendered than outward appearances suggest, or, is it a property of bourgeois relations generally? Can even a meaningful analytical separation be made? All this will have to be investigated in more depth when I start really pouring over the transcripts.

Overall, it was really useful to get a good grilling from my peers, and in my gratitude I promised them all a get out of the gulag free card come the glorious day!

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Another Abstract

Yours truly is giving a paper on the below topic tomorrow, as part of the Keele Sociology crew's rolling programme of seminars. Here's my (very short!) abstract.
Some Problems of Partisan Social Movement Research

Participatory research produces a range of difficulties that have been well documented by the sociological literature. These problems are especially acute when the research is taking place in charged political fields where the axis of partisanship goes beyond adherence to a set of radical political beliefs and is tightly fixed to a particular organisation. Thus the researcher must confront and negotiate two potential sites of tension, that arising between activists from rival organisations, and a more generalised contradiction between the objectives of the political field and the academic, a negotiation rendered all the more problematic by the researcher owing their political allegiances to one of the groups. This paper explores these problems through original life history data on contemporary Trotskyist activists.
Decoding the academese, basically what I'll be looking at is why nearly every Socialist Party member who was asked to participate in my project did so, and why so few Socialist Workers' Party comrades did, despite being honest and open about the aims of the research. And some other things too. I'll write about how the presentation goes at some point.

Monday 12 November 2007

Socialism 2007: A Taster

This weekend sees four gatherings of the far left taking place. Millions of key strokes have been spent on "official" Respect and Respect Renewal, and discussion lists haven't been able to move for the constant adverts for the Labour Representation Committee. In this melee, the Socialist Party's annual event, Socialism 2007 has been somewhat overlooked. This is a shame as chances are this will be the biggest gathering of the four, and will feature debate on practically every issue under the sun. It comes as no surprise that AVPS endorses the weekend without reservation. If you're planning on attending one of the others, because we're spread over two days, you could always attend on the Sunday. Still not convinced? Well, I've appended an old and slightly edited report I posted on the UK Left Network last year on Socialism 2006. Enjoy!

I've been asked to contribute my thoughts on the sessions at Socialism 2006 to tonight's branch meeting, so I hope comrades won't mind me sharing them with the good folk of the UKLN.

The first session I attended on the Saturday afternoon was Robin Clapp on materialist dialectics. About 30 comrades listened to a short lead-off aiming to demystify some of the crap that has congealed around dialectics over the years and set out in easy to understand terms what it's all about. The ensuing discussion was quite varied touching on the 'spontaneous' dialectics of scientists working in the field of 'hard' sciences, the relationship between dialectics and historical materialism, and whether there can be a place for morality in a world view that rejects outside interventions from deities, ghosts and aliens.

The second meeting was Sunday morning's question and answer session on the BNP with Alistair Tice. Well it was billed as such but what really took place were a series of short debates around a number of questions - can the BNP still be described as fascist, is the state an anti-fascist ally, is no platform still the best way of tackling them, and what can we as socialists do to fight them. All contributors to the debate agreed that the BNP remained fascist, but that it had adopted a right wing populism in an attempt to draw a simple demarcation between the white working class on the one hand and the New Labour state, the rich, and minority populations on the other. There was also broad agreement the state cannot be used as any repressive 'anti-fascist' measures it adopted would invariably rebound back onto the left (though one comrade offered a dissenting voice). Most debate however came over no platform - some argued it was out of date and no longer reflected the strength of the BNP on the ground, while others suggested it need be enforced by the workers movement wherever possible. However during the course of the discussion both positions showed some flexibility and I would suggest a consensus began to emerge around viewing no platform as a tactic requiring skillful application if we are to undermine the BNP's support. Also, Unite Against Fascism did not come in for blanket condemnation. Though it was criticised for its liberal anti-fascism comrades from SP branches not in a position to contest the BNP at the ballot box argued it was sometimes necessary to support UAF campaigns, depending on the character of their interventions. A comrade from Cumbria made this point, arguing his local UAF branch comprised a number of experienced militants.

The afternoon session saw Tony Saunois and Peter Tatchell take the platform on homophobia and LGBT liberation. As the Tatch was late Tony gave an overview of the distance LGBT issues have travelled over the last 25 or so years but also drew attention to continuing inequalities and discrimination LGBT people still experience. He also condemned those who've sought to label Tatchell as a racist for having the temerity to raise LGBT issues in relation to some Islamic countries and Jamaican dance hall music. I can't remember what comrade Tatchell said in his opening (lack of caffeine got the better of me I'm afraid) but I think he covered the same general ground. From the floor comrades raised a number of points about homophobia, but for me two questions stood out. One comrade raised the issue of biphobia and transphobia within the gay and lesbian scenes and asked what cde Tatchell thought about it. Thomas House (in a lengthy contribution ;)) challenged Tatchell about his membership of the Green party. The comrade cited the example of Brighton where Green councillors had voted for the housing stock to be taken into arms-length management. This measure would have the effect of making the material circumstances for LGBT residents less secure and therefore less able to challenge homophobia. Unfortunately I had to leave before the end so I never heard his replies (it would be interesting if comrades there could fill me and the list in).

The final session was the mighty show down between SP comrades and the massed ranks of the International Bolshevik Tendency. The provocatively-titled meeting, 'Why the Socialist Party is not Socialist' quickly assumed the trappings of an event destined to go down in the annals of sectarian lore. At first it seemed we could look forward to farely dull polemical fare, four SP comrades vs the eight or so IBT'ers, but then it soon brightened up. Five or six cpgb's and some supporters piled in, then some more SP comrades no doubt attracted by the blaze of publicity this meeting had on the UKLN and elsewhere. And then the piece de resistance - the Sparts turned up. After the collective groan had subsided Barbara Duke opened the meeting. Michael Wainwright outlined his reasons for leaving the SP, which pretty much followed his critique carried on the CWI's website. For those who haven't read it this turned around the PCS pensions issue, the character of transitional demands, the enabling act slogan, and the demand on democratic control of the police. This 'reformism' and 'centrism' was despite the 'revolutionary subjectivism' of many SP comrades, he argued. Alan of the IBT (and also self-confessed UKLN lurker) came next and recapitulated pretty much the same criticisms. Tina Becker from the cpgb spoke first from the floor touching similar points - the necessity of a revolutionary minimum-maximum programme, and so on. However much to my surprise most of her polemical fire was aimed at the IBT, criticising both cde Wainwright for the manner of his limp exit from the SP as well as hopping on board an organisation with a lot less internal democracy! Spart legend Eiblin McDonald came next with a few tame criticisms of the SP before really laying into the IBT. Needless to say no Spart intervention would be complete without an off-beam contribution, which she duly supplied in bucketloads. I can't remember much about what she said except she finished off by noting how IBT guru Bill Logan was expelled from the Sparts for gross moral turpitude (chortle). Given the Sparts' famous abusive internal practices this was really pots and kettles stuff, something not missed by guffawing SP comrades. Paul Hunt's contribution met the Wainwright/IBT critique head on. Once again cde Wainwright was criticised for not bothering to conduct a political struggle in the SP for his views. Then cde Hunt defended the SP's approach to transitional demands by noting the importance of relating them to the existing consciousness of the class. He suggested the types of r-r-revolutionary slogans the IBT favour (of the 'smash the cops' type) hardly constitute a skillful application of the transitional method.

These 3 contributions more or less set the tone for what was to come from the floor. cpgb's Phil Kent and Simon Wells spoke, the former suggesting 5 minute contributions weren't long enough to get a proper dialogue on our politics going, while cde Wells (fresh from his SWP expulsion) argued for the necessity of the rank and file to hold their leaderships to account. Another Spart chimed in, deciding the actions of the IBT at a 1,700 strong Mumia Abu Jamil rally in New York several years ago was an appropriate contribution to make at a meeting ostensibly about the politics of the SP. Colin for the SP responded to some of the points raised and IMO gave a good account of what revolutionaries should be doing in 21st century Britain. A couple of IBT'ers joined in too but I have to apologise to these comrades as I can't remember what they said. I managed to make my two pennies worth, drawing an analogy between the origins of the IBT from comrades who had left the Sparts without a political struggle and cde Wainwright's gravitation toward them after a similarly unserious exit (the Sparts loved that one - am I the only non ICL'er to have ever been applauded by them???). I also asked how the IBT implemented their unique understanding of the revolutionary method in the here and now, and how they managed to square their not participating in the Campaign for a New Worker's Party or before it the Socialist Alliance (which they denounced as 'left-populist') with their earlier entry into Scargill's SLP.

After this I had to leave. However I hear that in response to criticisms cde Wainwright argued he had "too much work on" to conduct a struggle for his views (he still found time to plunge into Militant's archives to dredge up quotes from 1981 and 1985 editions of the paper!). Also apparently Alan made an angry reply (swearing 3 times forsooth!) to the polemical mugging the IBT got. All hilarious stuff.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Debating the Russian Revolution

90 years ... and one day since the October Revolution, Keele Socialist Students organised an evening with Dave Griffiths of the Socialist Party and Pat Deutz of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to debate the events and legacy of the Russian Revolution.

Dave heralded the revolution as one of the greatest events in human history. It signalled the first attempt to wrest control of the blind social forces that had hitherto operated as if behind the backs of the human race, and as a species we stand a head higher for the experience. Dave then gave a short account of the revolutionary process in 1917. With the outbreak of the February revolution, the Russian masses entered the stage of history. The condensation of contradictions arising from peasant and workers' grievances, the continued Great Power oppression of nationalities, and the devastation and dislocation of the war saw the masses dispense with the autocratic senility of Tsarism. But the second act in the revolutionary drama, October, was not pre-ordained. History is not a script. The process culminated in the transfer of power to the soviets as a result of political struggle and the experience of the masses - the Bolshevik programme was the only one that met their aspirations. It must also be remembered that 90 years on, the Bolsheviks were quite aware Russia was far from ripe for socialism, but the revolution could be the harbinger of a Europe-wide socialist revolution - which it very nearly was. It's also worth remembering that the initial phase of the revolution saw universal suffrage, the parcelling out of lands to the peasantry, and a cultural flowering never seen before or since in Russian history. As we know, this revolutionary democracy was snuffed out by civil war exigencies, general backwardness, and bureaucratisation; but we can never pretend the alternative to revolution was a parliamentary democracy with Kerensky at its head. The brutality of the counterrevolution gave an insight into the alternative, an alternative of massacres, pogroms, and dictatorship.

Pat laid out her what the SPGB stood for, which is socialism and nothing else. The only route to socialism is for the overwhelming mass of the working class to understand what it is and be prepared to start organising society around their interests. So, returning to the Socialist Standard of August 1918, that issue pointed out 80% of Russian society was composed of the peasantry and by contrast, the working class was tiny. So setting aside the question of consciousness for the moment, was Russia ready for socialism? As Marx and Engels believed socialism could only be built on the foundations of the most advanced capitalism, Russia could not become a socialist society. True, the masses did enter the stage of history between February and October, but they were not and could not be pursuing socialist aims. This suited Lenin and the Bolsheviks fine because they held workers were capable only of trade union consciousness and therefore needed a revolutionary elite to lead them to the promised land. Unfortunately, this promised land could only be state capitalism. Other parties were banned by the summer of 1918 and the institutions of radical democracy were displaced as the imperatives of state capitalist development assumed priority. Such state-led authoritarianism laid the groundwork for Stalin and with it, the identification of his regime with genuine socialism. Herein lies the tragedy of the whole experience.

The floor opened to comments and questions. A number came up concerning the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism, the role of unions in the revolution, why Stalinist regimes tended to be extremely brutal, what concrete advice - if any - did the SPGB offer the Bolsheviks, and what does the Russian revolution mean for us now fighting for a socialist society in 21st century Britain?

Responding directly to the SPGB position, S, from India, said she'd heard many times how Russia "wasn't ready" for revolution. But then, who is ready for revolution? If capital has to be mature, are the USA and UK any more ready for socialism? She then when on to ask if backward countries are the weak links in the world chain of imperialism - if they are to break, who are we to decide whether a country is "not ready"? M, of KSS, defended the SPGB's position, noting socialism has to be international. Also, because wage labour had existed in the USSR (implying the expropriation of surplus value by the bureaucracy, acting as 'collective capitalist') meant capitalism was alive and well there under Stalinism. A of Stoke SP argued that the Bolsheviks managed to condense the anger and experience of the Russian working class, and showed his exasperation how Pat could dismiss them as "not conscious" after going through 10 months of revolutionary upheaval and struggle. If they weren't conscious, how did the one avowedly revolutionary socialist party succeed in winning the mass to its banner?

After the debate, Pat responded first by pointing to Russia's backwardness and reiterating her point that socialism requires material abundance. She also picked up on M's point on wage labour. As surplus value was being realised throughout the Soviet Union's life, the overturns of 1989-91 were not a restoration of capitalism. Furthermore, under Stalinism the bureaucracy had effective ownership and control, despite what the constitution and the statutes said. Top bureaucrats could access special shops for the elite and could pile up several salaries akin to the common bourgeois practice of possessing several part-time directorships at once. In sum, nationalisation of the means of production cannot mean socialism. Turning to the question of revolution in Britain, she evoked the SPGB's strategy of winning a parliamentary majority for socialism to mark the passing of power from the bosses to the workers, and inaugurate the beginnings of the new society.

Dave's reply looked at the nature of the revolution. He argued revolution is as much a part of social evolution as piecemeal change. But whether a revolution assumes a peaceful or violent character depends on the balance of class forces and the extent of working class organisation. The latter is really crucial - where the balance has been fairly favourable but the class isn't sufficiently organised and united, such as Germany, China, Spain, France, Iran; at best the class is defeated, at worst the revolutionary process is drowned in blood. Responding to Pat and echoing S, Dave argued the SPGB were guilty of trying to fit the revolution into a pre-conceived schema. When it didn't fit, they withdrew support. He also disputed the continuity between Lenin and Stalin - the red terror was an outcome of civil war necessity, whereas Stalin's crimes were committed in the pursuit and consolidation of power. Finally, turning to the fate of the revolution, because it ended in Stalinism and eventual capitalist restoration, need the Russian workers have bothered? The SPGB answered no. What this amounts to in practice is revolutionary abstention from struggles that don't meet its strict criteria. To finish off, Dave called on all present to study the revolution themselves and recommended Trotsky's three-volume history as an excellent place to begin. As Churchill's condemnation put it, "never has evil been so dazzlingly presented", stands it in good stead.

From the chair, I then rounded off the meeting with a revolutionary call ... to attend the postgrad bar, where comrades continued the discussion deep into the night.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Putting Sociology in its Place

There are a few loose threads dangling from my last post on public sociology, concerning disciplinary identity, the interests of sociology, and the position of the researcher.

Just to recap, the tendency toward public sociology as a political and ethical turn in the discipline (a tendency that aims to link sociology to mass publics outside the academy by seeking to assist progressive causes directly, or producing research that could attract a large audience), is potentially problematic for Fuller. In the rush to be popular and/or useful for others, he asks whether sociology risks losing something distinctive along the way. Is there a danger of 'the sociological' being annexed to whatever political project the public sociologist is pursuing?

It is a valid question to ask. For example, some in the public sociology camp appear to have embraced the problem Fuller identified. To take one example, Randy Stoecker in a 2005 paper, 'Rethinking Public Sociology' makes the case for a radical public sociology that eschews traditional practices, where research questions, methodological decisions, writing up, and dissemination were the purview of the researcher. Instead, sociology should empower by changing the relations of knowledge production. The top-down pedagogical model needs to make way for participatory research where the key decisions are made by the participants themselves, thereby building their understanding of their socially constituted circumstances and capacity to change them. Hence participatory, or organic, public sociology cannot avoid being about social change. Going further, this orientation requires a wholesale transformation of sociology. Students are not empty vessels to be filled with the nuggets of sociological wisdom, they must learn through role play and reflexive, experiential learning. One's attitude to fieldwork dispenses with instrumental and should be about building alliances with communities, community organisations, and other social movements. And most controversially, it means turning one's back on many aspects of the disciplinary field currently constituted - such as ending sociological stardom, and the practice of building careers on the back of colonising knowledges.

Whatever one thinks of such a programmatic turn, Fuller is right in so far as the sociological position is subordinate to the interests of research participants. Of course, Fuller is not the first to have highlighted this problem. A number of sociologists entirely hostile to public sociology have discerned this implication in Burawoy's original document, and have shamelessly indulged in often crude red-baiting in their attacks on him. But none are so blind as those who refuse to see. Unsurprisingly, Burawoy's critics have very little to say when the neoliberalisation of the academy puts pressure on a section of sociologists to undertake policy research for institutional and/or corporate clients. Do questions around outside interests and the subsumption of disciplinary identity not apply in these cases? Does research-for-cash guarantee scientific outcomes, while research out of political and ethical commitment results only in opinion? Motes and beams spring to mind.

That said, Fuller certainly doesn't fall into this camp, just because he's concerned with the autonomy of sociology. Returning to last week's talk, his argument was that to be an effective public intellectual in sociology, one should concentrate on the sociology and not allow the bright lights of punditry become the be-all and end-all. The notion of autonomy held out by Fuller implicitly follows that articulated by Bourdieu and adhered to many in the anti-public sociology camp. That is, autonomous sociological practice allows for truth-telling: the revolutionary quality of the enterprise lies in its laying bare social processes and power relations abstracted out and therefore shorn of the mystification wrapped around them in the everyday. For Fuller, what guarantees sociologists the ability to do this is tenure. Unfortunately, the decline in tenured positions in favour of the short-term contract seriously undermines autonomy, and therefore the opportunity to engage in sociological truth-telling. The competition for jobs combined with the Research Assessment Exercise forces all academics - not just sociologists - to play their disciplinary games. The whip hand of funding render more explicit one's interest in the "disinterested" pursuit of sociological knowledge, and its shaping according to the logics of the field.

Clearly, Fuller believes sociological autonomy is a good in itself, but what is this good? The fact this good exists is a supposition shared by all sides of the public sociology debate. Even Stoecker's vision of organic public sociology rests on an unspoken premise that the sociologist is autonomous and free to pursue the agenda his envisages. However, as Fuller has noted the decline in tenure narrows the opportunities for the bulk of sociologists. Perversely, the freedom to do participatory research is only really an option for those in commanding positions in the field. So this good is a rare resource, a key objective that career sociologists must aim for. A second and related question is do sociologists have a real interest in autonomy, even if it is a core stake? How is it distinctive from other interests outside of the discipline, and can it work to mask the interests of others inside sociology?

We've already noted how defenders of academic/professional sociology tend only to get excited about outside interests when the question of excluded/marginalised publics are raised. The policy work carried out, which takes place in the absence of their raised voices, is unsurprising when you consider sociologists occupy coordinates in social space Bourdieu terms a 'dominated dominant' position. This is to say that as part of the academic apparatus and by virtue of the privileged place it occupies in the education system, it affords position holders certain cultural and economic advantages compared with the population at large. But as dominant positions go, sociology is subordinate in the academy to most other social science disciplines (psychology, political science, and economics spring to mind). Its endeavours do not enjoy the same profile and its work lacks the same sorts of policy influence, even when commissioned by institutional actors. However, these material circumstances the discipline finds itself in have become internalised as part of the natural landscape of the field - the subordinate position of sociology, the with-strings funding ties, are more or less accepted as part of the rules of the game. To decry the role of funding elites is to kill the goose who lays the golden egg. On the other hand, some in sociology have reacted unfavourably to marginalised interests precisely because they do not appear with the same immediacy or effect on the operation of the disciplinary field.

In this regard it's useful to examine the notion sociologists do have distinctive interests not tied to elites or other groupings. Burawoy has argued that because sociology is about the study and theorisation of social relationships, we have a real material interest in defending the social from commodification and attempts to displace them by administrative systems. Sociology therefore stands or falls with civil society. For example, there is a correlation between there not being a Saudi Sociology Today or Korean Peoples' Journal of Juche Sociology and a lack of civil society in both countries. In my opinion, though one can abstract such an interest, there is nothing particularly distinctive about the need to preserve civil society when you observe the practice of community groups, trade unions, campaigns, NGOs, political parties, the media etc. demands the same thing. Rather there is an homology of interest.

What the public sociology debate has done is succeeded in laying bare the interests that structure the sociological field in stark fashion. Sociological autonomy, a key stake in this debate, can no longer be presented as a mystical ideal. While it is clear that from the standpoint of the individual sociologist the autonomy of tenure gives one a freedom to intervene and engage with a variety of issues, one can be under no illusion that autonomy means freedom from interests. Even the position of refusing to take a position remains a position, and is very much tied to certain interests.

But sociology need not be the plaything of interests from either above or below. Whether explicitly public or unashamedly academic, sociology needs to be conscious of the biases and the conditions in which the construction of sociological research takes place. It needs to be open about the interest a sociologist has in pursuing a particular research trajectory and the relation they have with the objects of the research. And it must also be aware of the likely knowledge effects of dissemination - the question of who gains? Do participants gain? Does the knowledge constitute a public good? Do hostile groups and/or elites benefit from it in some way?

This kind of reflexivity, or what Bourdieu termed 'the sociology of sociology' is something I've tried to accomplish in relation to my own PhD research, and how this pans out as the thesis finally emerges from a mountain of transcripts, scribbles, and confused thoughts will be returned to somewhere down the line.