Tuesday 6 August 2013

Splits and the Socialist Party

The Socialist Party has recently run into some difficulties. There was the dispute of a few months back over allegations of sexual impropriety, assault and the apparent lack of tact with which it was handled. There's been a parting of the ways in Ireland after senior members left. And there is the nonsense concerning the party's inability to manage a critical debate about its rehashing of FT articles contributions to Marx's critique of economics. So, as Howard Fuller puts it, are the Socialist Party heading for a split?

When I was first interested in the Weekly Worker crew about 15 years ago, for a period of time they ran a featurette on the theme of the 'Socialist Party in Crisis'. If memory serves what sparked it off was the suspension of about 50 members involved in the Merseyside Committee of the organisation. The Executive Committee (i.e. Central Committee) was of the opinion that they had become tired, routinist, complacent and had mishandled finances. The Merseyside Socialists (as they became known) counter-argued that the party was tired, routinist, complacent and had mishandled finances. Coming quickly on the heels of this was the virtual UDI call of Scottish Militant Labour (the SP in Scotland) with the announcement of its intention to found the Scottish Socialist Party with its partners in the Scottish Socialist Alliance - in opposition to the London-based EC. The WW also - incorrectly as it turned out - divined a burgeoning split between the SP in Coventry around Dave Nellist and the rest of the organisation due to the former's enthusiasm and the latter's sceptical attitude toward the development of Socialist Alliances across England and Wales.

We know what happened. The Merseyside people decamped and quickly disappeared as a discernible organisation. The Scottish comrades formally split with the SP's Committee for a Workers' International in 2001 (leaving only a small loyalist rump), and the split became open warfare in 2004-6 and since thanks to the Tommy Sheridan "episode". And, of course, the SP walked away from the Socialist Alliance in autumn 2001 because they would not countenance it becoming a plaything of the SWP. Which is exactly what it did become thanks to their withdrawal.

But overall, while the 90s and early 00s were a difficult period for the SP it emerged intact and was able to spend the remainder of the last decade catching up on lost ground. The tendency to split, which is built into the DNA of all Leninist groups thanks to their small size, relative isolation from the class they seek to lead, and brittle understanding of what democratic centralism is has proven less pronounced in the history of the SP and that of its forerunners. Why?

One conceit of the organisation was its self-described earthy, proletarian composition. Militant and the SP are more 'serious' because it takes routine trade unionism and community activity seriously. As such, its recruits tend to be drawn directly from the milieux that participates in that sort of activity. From my experience this was only partly true. The SP placed just as much emphasis on getting the students in, but unlike the SWP who would excite its students with superficially radical activity, the SP would inculcate its new charges in routine work and that famous Millie virtue - patient explanation. The work undertaken by Stoke branch while I was a member was all designed to appeal to and assist working people - campaigning work like cuts at the local hospital, closure of Hanley Post Office, solidarity actions with Burslem postal workers, launch of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, North Staffs Shop Stewards' Network, Youth Fight for Jobs, and electoral work. And to the SP's credit, as much as I now disagree with their outlook, their strategy, and their tactics; they have continued to push on the issues they think matter to working people. Compare this with the SWP's bandwagon chasing of get-rich-quick issues. This orientation, this routinism gives the SP a fundamental stability, a strength. But it is its chief weakness too.

Politics, in as much as it can be described as an art, does require flexibility. If you're a Marxist and you think you're building the latter day equivalent of Lenin's party, strategic direction has to be married to tactical flexibility, as determined by the analysis of the situation. Or, to translate it into the vernacular, the dialectic of theory and practice. This has broken down in the SWP. Their faddishness is conditioned by a cavalier attitude to theory. They have no strategy, and its journals are given over to critical commentary to the latest fashionable theorist. Good for getting the postgrads in, not good for building a revolutionary socialist party. The SP has the opposite problem. It has no time for trendy wankers - it was 122 issues of Socialism Today before Antonio Gramsci merited a mention, and a further 25 before his ideas received a commentary. No, the SP's interpretation of Marxism is practically colourless: no one has written anything worthwhile since Trotters met his untimely demise 73 years ago - apart from, of course, the SP's key thinkers. They do take their theory seriously, as a guide to action, but positions arrived at are not routinely subject to critical analysis - they are passed on as revealed truths; which probably explains why no one outside the SP at all takes their contributions to Marxism, if they can be called that, seriously.

Ossification of theory has characterised the SP and Militant from the start. It's not a property of Marxism itself but rather the culture of the organisation that subscribes to it. Unlike the SWP, the SP is more democratic - formally and in practice - than its rival. But there is a certain homogeneity that is subtly promoted from top to bottom. Firstly, for the overwhelming bulk of active members the SP is not just their first Trotskyist organisation but their first exposure to socialist politics, full stop. The process of radicalisation can be and often does feel like an act of liberation, of having the the blinkers taken off and seeing things as they actually are. As you start understanding the basics of Marxism and working class history, tied in with that are the policies and prescriptions of the SP. Its views about everything from the restoration of capitalism in China, the treachery of the trade union leaders and the need for a new workers' party are more than just 'positions' - they are key foundation stones of the outlook a new activist inculcates. And more than that, they become as bound up with one's sense of identity as the identification that is developed toward the party and the working class. Having made the leap from the mainstream to the revolutionary fringe, having questioned everything you previously knew and finding yourself in the company of the like-minded, it is unlikely that questioning attitude will continue toward the new ideas you have taken on - especially as they appear to be confirmed time and again by the SP activity you undertake.

Then there is a certain sense of theoretical discipline. Long-time readers will know that Stoke branch discussed an array of issues, thanks to my blogging about them at the time (see this, this, this and this, for example). But what I often didn't mention was how, nine times out of ten, our most senior and longest-serving activist would chip in at the end and lay down the line. This was always done in persuasive, measured tones but it was done nonetheless. The same was true of regional meetings and conferences - especially if Peter Taaffe himself was the "star turn". There was also a curious deflection of bringing dissent or "awkwardness" into the annual conference. A year after joining, I submitted a discussion piece to our branch on Scotland and constitutional crisis for consideration at conference. As SP-watchers know, it's not too hot on republicanism and true to form the annual (and barely changing) British Perspectives document had omitted the issue - this in the year the SNP were set to sweep Holyrood (but, amazingly, didn't). Anyway after the following meeting I was taken outside by the city organiser and asked if I would consent to "my motion" being remitted to the National Committee. This was, apparently, because the leadership like to use conference as an opportunity to explain its thinking to the membership. I agreed and not long afterwards, this appeared in the magazine. I thought this was a one off but apparently not. I subsequently discovered other members who wanted to bring issues forward for debate by conference were regularly asked to remit their motions to the NC. Hardly Stalinism, but not quite the stuff "freedom of discussion" is made of either.

Tied up with this is a culture of reverence. This was nothing like the cultishness exhibited by the SWP, or a forced system of deferring to one's betters. It was more a system of genuine respect and affection between long-term, seasoned members and newer comrades. How can relatively raw recruits join a party and from the off critically scrutinise the activity of the branch and local full-timer when they've been at it much longer than anyone else? In the case of our branch's 'anchor cadre', he'd been in since the Miners' Strike and kept the party going in the very leanest of periods. With that comes a tremendous amount of political authority. And so too was the case of cadre who'd been around for years working full-time for the party. And Taaffe himself. 49 years as Militant's and then the SP's general secretary without a break, he must be the longest-serving political leader in the Western world. But as senior cadre and long-serving members have collaborated for a long time, comradely ties become something deeper. Small wonder ideological homogeneity permeates the organisation.

Lastly, there is the SP's practice - which has remained largely unchanged since 1964. There are two things here that need separating out. As a small political party with grand aspirations, it seeks to intervene in the struggles of working people to lead, influence and recruit from them. And it can never be otherwise, really. And then there's the sort of work that provokes derision, jibes and lampoons: paper selling. When I was a member it was virtually expected to take a subscription out to The Socialist. I say expected because it would never win a readership on its own merits. Dull doesn't cover it, and many a week went by when the paper was "accidentally" left on the bus untouched. Far from feeling guilty, many a comrade would find inventive ways of losing it. I'm sure it still happens now as it remains as unreadable as ever. Nevertheless for our branch, faced with a turgid, unsaleable and (then) awfully ugly newspaper we were able to "sell" at least a hundred a week by petitioning on a sexy - usually local - issue and giving copies of it away when punters signed the petition and threw money into the can. On the scores of stalls and thousands of papers I sold during my membership, hand on heart only three or four people ever came up to specifically ask for a copy of The Socialist - and one of them was the local Workers' Power chap who we'd regularly swap literature with!

In a way, however, the SP's circumstances forces them into undertaking paper sales. With an unimaginative web set up, no "celebrity" members, and zero media and political profile stalls and sales are crucial for visibility and fundraising. If the SP, SWP or any other group with a regular publication didn't do this it would be difficult to maintain their bloated full-time staff and printing operation. This activity, which elsewhere I've called 'basic reproductive work' is so ingrained that it is rarely questioned. And when the most basic of basic work escapes critical scrutiny, especially as it is the primary means of meeting new people and canvassing opinion, it's small wonder wider disputes are few and far between.

Therefore, given this culture when differences do emerge they are handled in the most pedestrian and plodding way possible. Despite the promise of regular Members Bulletins, I'm sure I only saw one or two during my four-and-a-bit years of membership. But rather than encourage debate, the MB contrived to shut them down. No critical comment appeared sans a verbose, EC-sanctioned reply. While the SP does republish past internal documents, debate is circumscribed and confined to internal channels. The educational potential of discussion is curbed by a perceived need to protect ideological unity, although that unity is very tight for the reasons already described and is unlikely to burst asunder because of a difference of opinion.

Returning to the question that started this off, whether a split is in the offing, the answer is 'unlikely'. Well, certainly not of SWP proportions anyway. The SP - like the SWP - serve a small constituency that is constantly refreshed by a layer of workers, young people and students who, for whatever reason, are not integrated into the established way of doing politics. And while Leninism - understood here as the project to build a revolutionary party, not a particular interpretation of what democratic centralism is - is a busted flush utterly inappropriate to modern British politics, the SP and its bickering rivals will remain a permanent fixture on the margins, split or no split.


Facing Reality said...

Good stuff - a bit more worthwhile than my first blog-post, using cut & paste to write the report of NSSN conference before it actually happened, because the predictability of some of the left is a problem.

Phil said...

Ah, but yours was much more amusing!

British Perspectives was always a curious document that seemed like a waste of time. I'm really not kidding when I say it barely changed from year-to-year.

Jason Hill said...

This is a good analysis of the inherent weaknesses of the SP. One thing that you appear to have missed out is their sectarian inability to work with other forces on the left. The SP walked out of NorSCARF in 2004, and do not appear to have done any serious anti-fascist work since. The SP nominally support North Staffs Against the Cuts, but, in practice, do not involve themselves in NSAC activities, preferring instead to do their own thing. Their sectarianism has even, sadly, reached the level of making personal attacks on other members of the left. I would commend to the SP these words of Helen Keller, written a hundred years ago: "It is well to disagree and discuss our differences fully and vigorously. But it is stupid to make the issues personal. If the points of controversy are ever so weighty, they are not so great as to justify the mischief which springs from the quarrels of comrades. How can the workers, whom we urge to unite, look to us socialists for guidance if we fail to unite".

Phil said...

You're right Jason, it was a major omission. With TUSC going from strength-to-strength and the uneasy relationship it has with the foot-dragging Left Unity initiative, I'll visit this issue when it's more pertinent to do so.

Re: anti-fascist work, it was folded into electoral work. Of course, it can be debated how effective that was but every SP campaign I was involved with was based on door knocking and talking to BNP voters.

Another curious observation - those in the local SP who were more interested in working with others than its received sectarian attitude have, without exception, decamped to Labour. At one point there was me and six other ex-SP people in our constituency party!

Phil said...

On reflection, perhaps that's why the SP is not so keen on working with other lefts.

Anonymous said...

You comment on the SP not being as undemocratic as the SWP. But the control system is essentially the same. By using the slate system and ensuring homogenity of the 'dominant culture', the emergence of any opposition is isolated and blunted. In consequence there is a conservative (small 'c') continuity of the ruling elite within the organisation and a clear stagnation of that elite.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. As a former member it rings very true.

It can be difficult to relate the highly distinctive internal culture of the SP to non-members: the curious co-existence of full rights to criticise and oppose the leadership, with a membership that almost never exercises those rights in a sustained and organised manner.

The positive spin on this is to say that the leadership and membership both fully understand and agree on all the main theoretical and political issues.

The less positive spin is that there is a sharp division of labour between the leadership and membership: akin to the division between the industrial and political wings of the wider labour movement.

The members are mainly concerned with the pragmatics of grassroots organising, recruitment, campaigning and selling papers. This effectively (if not intentionally) delegates questions of theory, analysis and broader political strategy to the full-time leadership.

When I was a member the effects of this division were demonstrated in many internal meetings.

A leader would do the big picture political-theoretical analysis. Contributions from the members would almost always be limited to reporting on particular workplace and community campaigns.

These contributions almost always made the same point: workers in my workplace/community are suffering from govt/employer attacks, the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders are failing to offer 'real' leadership, hence the prospects for the Socialist Party to build and lead are great.

After 10 or 15 members had made roughly the same point, the leader would note that everyone agreed on fundamentals and that the reports of workers' struggles were 'inspiring' and showed the potential for the SP to grow. And that was that.

None of this was forced, choreographed or rehearsed. It was the the result of an internal political culture where most members had little time, interest or opportunity to develop capacities for theoretical analysis and debate that may have led them to challenge the leadership.


Phil said...

It is an interesting culture. Yes, there is a division of labour. One of the comrades I was friendly with once analysed the number of contributors to Socialism Today over a period of time. It was pitifully low.

But at the same time the culture of our branch was one that encouraged members to read. Sure, it was what a book shop had - the classics plus bits of Grant and Taaffe - but beyond branch lead offs there was very little thought on wider applications. Our members were always encouraged to write something for the paper, not the journal.

To add to the confusion, I have sat and listened to at least a couple of Taaffe-led sessions where he said he and the EC should be criticised internally and held to account. If he is serious and that wasn't just lip service, it would be interesting to learn why the EC thinks its members are quiescent - especially when that was never the case in the Bolshevik party.

Anonymous said...

I was once at a Militant social event and listened to Ted Grant talking to a small group of fellow Militants about the importance of internal debate.

After, a few of us shared our bemusement at Grant's comments. Grant was one of the worst people at dealing with criticism. He answered opponents in the most dogmatic, hyper-critical, and bullying manner.

I think there is probably a generational aspect to this. To older generations of Trotskyists, conducting debates in the style of Lenin v Trotsky circa 1903 is simply assumed to be the way Marxists should do these things. It is, of course, profoundly counter-productive.

I do think that the leadership sometimes worry about the lack of sustained internal debate. But they don't seem to realise that they are largely responsible for it.

In part they have to break with the tradition of treating nearly every internal meetings as a means of 'inspiring' the comrades. There is a culture of avoiding open disagreement because this will allegedly be bad for morale or might alienate potential members.

There is also a deep anti-intellectualism which is very suspicious of theory that cannot be traced directly to Lenin and Trotsky. In particular, texts by academics which challenge SP orthodoxy are often dismissed in the most phillistine manner.

Phil said...

Indeed they are. I remember at a debate between Judy Beishon and Derek Wall (then Green Party male speaker) at Socialism 2005 where she dismissed John Bellamy Foster's forensic study of materialism from Epicurus to Marxism as something that should come with a health warning. A foolish comment if there ever was one.

Re: debating culture, I think the SP has the opposite problem to Lenin/Trotsky-style polemics. Positions in internal debate are written in a turgid, long-winded style that lacks all colour. Rather than wanting to engage you're left wanting a snooze. This is partly why the current "debate" about the falling rate of profit is spiralling into a big deal, because the small group of members challenging received wisdom are writing in a prickly, provocative way.

Anonymous said...

And they will continue to be prickly and provocative. They will also grow in scope and importance because they have materialist roots.

Phil said...

For a materialist observation, that sounds awfully like an article of faith.

Anonymous said...

Italian translation here: http://marxistinordest.org/2013/08/11/crisi-nellestrema-sinistra-britannica-riflessioni-sul-socialist-party-uk/

Phil said...

Cheers for the translation - most unexpected!

Anonymous said...

Really when Wallace went off topic to discuss neuroscience he basically attacked it from the point of view of a social worker schooled in idealist philosophy.
His fixation with the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is anti dialectical. He ignores the fact that the capitalist is driven to increase constant capital and hence decrease the rate of profit by overproduction. It is overproduction caused by the inability of the workers to buy back the full products of their labour that lies at the root of crises and the class struggle.