Saturday, 2 October 2010

Hyperbole Watch

In what might become a semi-regular feature, I'll be casting my eye over the exaggerations and official optimism that frequently peppers the left press. For example, who can forget Gerry Healy's classic predictions that the ruling class would shortly be readying concentration camps ready for trade unionists? How about the SWP's claim that the 90s was like the "1930s in slow motion"? That apartheid could only be overthrown by socialist revolution. Or Workers' Power's stubborn refusal to recognise Russia as anything but a workers' state for some years after the collapse of the USSR? The SP/CWI's "Red 90s" is another never-to-be-forgotten gem. And of course the week-in week-out predictions of capitalism's imminent meltdown and the overblown reporting of sparsely-attended demonstrations. Silly shibboleths and self-serving short sightedness are the hallmarks of what passes for Marxism on the left.

Hyperbole Watch's first outing was spoiled for choice by this week's issue of
The Socialist. The Socialist Party has a well deserved reputation for sobriety and seriousness: that was one reason why I found them attractive as opposed to the fly by night SWP. And despite producing a paper so dull that the bulk of its regular readers are party members, it is usually a level-headed read. I say 'usually' because issue #640 carries a couple of whoppers. The editorial's claim that the high number of spoiled trade union ballot papers in the Labour leadership election is most likely due to an absence of anyone pushing "radical socialist policies" (a more mundane explanation here) almost clinched, if it wasn't for Peter Taaffe's latest essay on the cuts.

Enticingly titled 'Britain on the Brink', he argues that the working class will be made to pay for the crisis unless a socialist alternative barges onto the stage of history. Pretty much uncontentious stuff. But then the prospects of mass opposition allow the comrade to get carried away and his pen goes off the deep end. Following an (unattributed) quote of the head of the German Institute for Economic Research, Brother Taaffe writes "... a remarkable confession of bankruptcy. In effect what is promised is a civil war against everything the British working class has built up through struggle.
It is a replay of the 1930s on a much higher level." [my emphasis]. Yes, that's exactly what the British working class is facing. The 1930s.

Many congratulations to Peter for winning Hyperbole Watch on its launch in the face of stiff competition from his own comrades. I'm sure the award will be winging its way to you again in the not too distant future.


Danni said...

Unattributed quote? Erm; "the head of the Institute for Economic Research in Munich said: "We are in the second Greek crisis... it is impossible to cut wages and prices by 30% without major riots".

This applies not just to Greece but to Britain as well if this government proceeds to confrontation over the public sector. This esteemed banker says: "This tragedy does not have a solution""

Unknown said...

Boffy points out Portillo's admission on This Week that, if as is likely, the cuts impact on consumer spending and thus growth in the UK economy, then the coalition will U-turn. But, as he notes:

"Once you have a bike up to speed it takes less effort to keep it there than if you let it slow down, and have to get the speed back. Capitalist States poured huge amounts of Surplus Value into stopping the system collapsing after 2008. They largely succeeded, but those economies hadn't speeded up enough for momentum to take over. Stopping the stimulus would be like stopping pedalling just before you could get into top gear. If those states screw up by cutting now, the system may not have sufficient resources to prevent a serious crash this time round." (

That's my analogy of the week.

On comparisons with the '30s:

"Andyou need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it’s real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs,and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when electronic — government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

“And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours — come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m. But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.” (

Next Left said...

The SP/Militant has never done history and historical parallels well. I discuss its utter misrepresentation of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland during the 1960s here:

But, ultimately, the lack of correspondence between some of the SP’s political rhetoric and complex historical realities is not really the point.

In his book ‘Trotsky, Trotskyism and the Transition to Socialism’ Peter Beilharz argues:

‘Trotskyism functions as theodicy or eschatology, the purpose of which is the intellectual recruitment of the audience through language…Trotskyist arguments remain fundamentally teleological: they tell us something about the desire for socialism, but little of its conditions of possibility.’

Of course, Taaffe’s article is worthless as a form of serious political-historical analysis.

However, to the already converted, to those who want to believe, and to those whose political inexperience renders them vulnerable, it works as a powerful piece of political exhortation.

It is intended to compel, motivate and inspire. Those who insist on the facts are pushed to one side and condemned as ‘academics’, ‘petit-bourgeois’, ‘pessimistic’, ‘cynical' and so on.

None of this is about serious analysis. It never has been and, for most Trotskyists, it never will be.

Ken said...

How about the SWP's claim that the early part of the 00s was like the "1930s in slow motion"? That apartheid could only be overthrown by socialist revolution and how Russia remained a workers' state of some description years after the collapse of the USSR?

Surely some mistake: the SWP that you're talking about (the one we all know and love) holds that the USSR was state capitalist from about 1928 to the end.

As far as I know, the claim that Russia remains a workers state is still upheld by the SWP of the US, which has no relation all to the SWP in Britain.

There are a few small groups and individuals who still think that, but you have to be a really sad person to know about them.

More seriously - I'm not sure hyperbole is the right word for the problem you quite rightly identify. Hyperbole is an over-statement not intended to be taken literally, as your English teacher no doubt told you millions of times.

Phil said...

Unattributed in the sense that the quote had no source. I could write "David Cameron said ..." but without a source I could be accused of putting words into his mouth.

Phil said...

My clumsy framing is to blame, Ken. The workers' state position is of course beloved of Workers' Power in the years before their split.

I don't know - I think hyperbole can be an unconscious thing.

skidmarx said...

And it was the 1990s not the noughties: 'The 1990s are like the 1930s in slow motion.'
Congratulations to Phil for winning Misrepresenter of the SWP of the Month, against some stiff competition.

Liat said...
But I guess the Telegraph is also to be attacked for not providing a source as well?

Also, if you'd take the quote in the context it was put it's pretty clear what Taaffe is talking about it a repeat of the 1930s in terms of attacks on the working class and public services - and not a repeat of the living standards of the 1930s as you seem to be inferring.

Then in terms of the leadership contest, Ben Norman is right in saying that if John McDonald or someone of his nature in the PLP had managed to be nominated we would undeniably seen a higher turnout of voters. You made this very same point in your "After Diane Abbott" blog:
"the manner of Diane's entry into the contest alienated a lot on the hard left who were banging the drum for John McDonnell. And as the campaign progressed hers failed to become a point around which left-wingers could rally."
Before going on to list the various routes left wingers took in the election - missing out on one which a lot of people would have taken of refusing to vote.

Phil said...

Forgive me for getting an aspect of the SWP's lunacy wrong. It's still total codswallop.

Coral said...

Better some hyperbole than the soothing lullabies of the social chauvinists and reformists. Though of course perspectives should be intelligent and applied with political skill and not simply empirical or routine or propagandist.

No government in modern history has physically cut budgets. Not even the Iron Duke who had bankrupted Britain fighting Bonaparte or even the Iron Lady who would not be turned. Previously inflation and growth have been the preferred methods of tackling overwhelming debt in capitalism's youth and maturity. In the 30s the richer imperialists used some of their massive accumulated wealth to buy time before profitability could be restored by that great enterprise known as World War 2. The Tories are provoking class struggle because there is nothing left for them to do. British capial would still be lined up behind New Labour if it had not ceased to be the temporarily coherent expression of its needs. No doubt they have their fingers crossed and are relying on a fair wind, printing money like its gone out of fashion and the collaboration of the Labour chauvinists and trade union bureaucrats to get them through so they can impose mass homelessness, mass unemployment, mass migration and generalised hunger, even starvation, amongst the poor and unemployed and new conditions on those still working. This is no iron government however. More putty in the hands of the detached and delusional banker class and monopoly capitalists squeezing the life out of not just the working classes but the middle ground too.

Make no mistake, this is the end of capitalism. It has entered its dotage and is corrupted with diseases of every kind. It is frail and senile. Fascism, which rises organically out of capitalist crisis is flexing its wasted muscles throughout Europe once again. The collapse of Rome and the great slave empires led to a 1000 years of barbarism known as the dark ages. We should be so lucky should capitalism not be replaced by socialism while the working class still has its organisations intact this time around. Not to worry. Capitalism is decrepit and so are its political satraps in the petty bourgeoisie. There are no new ideas, no quick solutions, just mistake after mistake after mistake. We however are rich in experience and must assimilate it fully and critically to be able to confront the new reality with confidence that we speak for the future.

Please accept this as my entry for next week's hyperbole watch contest.

jgw said...

In what sense is getting your analysis wrong "lunacy"? If everyone took that attitude, then nobody would dare suggest a new idea for fear of getting it wrong.

As it happens, I am both a member of the SWP by persuasion and an economic historian by profession. I disagreed with the characterization of the 1990s and "the 1930s in slow motion". if had thought it was lunacy I would have left the SWP. As it was, I thought that it was a description that was incorrect, notably because the 1930s began with a major economic crisis of capitalism while the 1990s was a period that was leading to a major economic crisis of capitalism. While somewhat confused, I didn't - and don't - see the SWP position as leading to a seriously incorrect attitude to how the day-to-day struggle should have been conducted. It was just a minor flourish that I could reasonably ignore. On the other hand, if it had lead the SWP leadership to proclaim that the 2008 financial crisis didn't happen - because it had already happened - then that would have been lunacy. In that case I might have left the SWP and joined the SP or whoever. But they didn't so I didn't.

And, while we're on the subject, how do you manage to describe an organization that has been in existence for 60 years as "fly-by-night"? What sort of time scale are you working on here?

While looking at errors of analysis made by revolutionaries might be a good source of humour for those who don't take these things seriously, a better and more important task might be to expose the errors made by the right - such as, for example, Tony Blair's insistence, transformed into his new Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution, that the capitalist market is "dynamic". These sort of errors fly so far in the face of reality that it's difficult to know what planet the perpetrators think they're on. Unfortunately they insist on making the rest of us behave as though we aren't on planet Earth, In comparison to this, the throwing of occasionally crazy ideas into the ring by the left pales into insignificance.

Anonymous said...

Patrick has written some stuff on these issues over at our place:

Anonymous said...

Sweeping Statements Watch

First prize to Next.

"The SP/Militant has never done history and historical parallels well."

"the lack of correspondence between some of the SP’s political rhetoric and complex historical realities"

"Of course, Taaffe’s article is worthless as a form of serious political-historical analysis."

"None of this is about serious analysis. It never has been and, for most Trotskyists, it never will be."

Was this the case a few years ago, when Next penned a couple of articles for Socialism Today?

Next Left said...

Re: Anonymous

I have given a concrete example of how weak Militant's historical analysis can be in the context of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland:

I don't think the articles I wrote for Socialism Today contained historical inaccuracies or wild hyperbole about the short-term prospects for socialism.

But if you think they did then make the argument.

modernity said...


Maybe you could do a weekly slot, Far Left Reality Check and invite contributions?

The first one could come from comrade jgw, entitled "Mistakes we never made"

followed by

"The SWP and how successful we've been in the last 30+ years..."

I am sure any historian would love to cover that topic :)