Sunday 23 June 2019

Obsolete Politics and the Socialist Party Split

It's not only Theresa May who's preparing her departure from the political scene. At the time of writing, the Socialist Party is on the verge of the most damaging split in its history. On the one side you have Peter Taaffe, the organisation's general secretary of 55 years and counting. Backing him is the majority of the membership in England and Wales, the Scottish "section" and, um, precious few others. Arrayed against the loyalists are the majority of the international organisation - the Committee for a Workers' International - including its most successful section, the Socialist Party in Ireland. And as with all splits in politics, which Change UK have recently reminded us, there are good reasons and there are real reasons. If you care to avail yourself of the leaked documents the different players have exchanged (and leaked), for Taaffe and his comrades this is the struggle between proletarian politics, as uniquely elaborated by the SP's particular brand of Trotskyism, vs petit bourgeois contagion and the importation of identity politics into the organisation.

The full gist is a critique of recent successes achieved by the Irish organisation in the women's movement. This is elaborated in more depth by Coatesy and the Weekly Worker here and here. One can't help but be struck by the coincidence of Taaffe's critique of an organisation that has made political headway, versus the almost total collapse of the SP's position in the Public and Commercial Services union where, in a very short space of time, they've gone from virtually running the shop to a couple of seats on its executive committee. And that's before considering the significant losses of cadre and possibilities for recruitment to Corbynism, that has been the SP's lot these last four years. You might be tempted to think Taaffe should account for his leadership's blunders before attacking others for not having the right kind of success as per his Marxism-by-numbers.

The politics, however, are an excuse for a reassertion of authority against other sections in the "international" showing too much independence of thought from the London mothership. And so we have declarations of ludicrously wordy factions (Taaffe's, as it is formally a minority in the international, is 'In Defence of a Working Class Trotskyist CWI'), a roughshod disregard for the procedures of the organisation, expulsions, departures of entire sections and, interestingly, the declaration of 127 England and Wales comrades - approximately a third of the activist membership - signing a protest letter. Woe betide any full-timers who dare disagree with the eternal general secretary or they will find their "careers" disappeared, as has happened to the editor of the ever-dreary Socialist.

As night follows day, their former comrades around Socialist Appeal have weighed in. In their open letter to current and former members of the CWI, they argue the bureaucratic thuggery dispensed at Taaffe's behest is reminiscent of their own departure from Militant (as was) in 1992. For those not around at the time or for the not terribly interested, the Taaffe-led majority wanted to decamp from the Labour Party for the sunlit opportunities that they thought existed outside, whereas the minority around their guru, the unimaginative and plodding Ted Grant, argued that they should stay the course. The minority went on to publish Socialist Appeal, hence the name, but nevertheless retained and built a fairly substantial international (in Trotskyist terms) roughly comparable in size to the CWI. Its highpoint was having the ear of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and its low was its own catastrophic split at the turn of the decade. Nevertheless, they suggest the degeneration of the CWI lies in their rejection of Grant's work and Labour Party entryism. Though, to be fair to the Taaffe position, being burrowed in Labour has barely increased Appeal's membership nor brought it influence over the development of Corbynism. They are just as isolated from where the socialist action now is as the SP themselves, despite being embedded in Labour like a limpet.

The real crisis for the SP is exactly the same reason why all self-styled Leninist organisations around today are in crisis, and that's because they are engaged in sect-building projects. Even at its height, for all the trouble and sleepless nights Militant caused Labour Party bureaucrats, even following its initial period of success at Liverpool City Council and the role played leading the Anti-Poll Tax Federation - achievements the SP ritually trumpets some 30 years after the fact - it amounted to no more than 8,000 members. And most of these vanished in the blink of an eye. These are issues shared with the disgraced Socialist Workers Party, who once boasted of having 10,000 members, and other moderately sized sects elsewhere. The SP and SWP are the lucky ones. Much smaller outfits never take off, despite differing politics and strategic orientations. Anyone been troubled by Workers Power since they wound themselves up and entered the Labour Party en bloc?

The biggest difficulty all revolutionary socialist projects face is pushing what are essentially insurrectionary politics in societies in which workers' organisations have long been institutionalised, pacified and integrated into the smooth(ish) running of things. And where democratic habits of mind have been the common sense, at least as far as the UK goes, for well over a century. Yet the UK remains a capitalist state overseeing a capitalist society, class struggle hasn't gone away, and still Trotskyist outfits are sidelined and irrelevant. The problem the SP has specifically is the class subject they orientate towards and seek to shape is completely obsolete. It's more than an issue of the SP's notorious economism, of its dismal reduction of class struggle to saving jobs, stopping cuts, and protecting services, but of an old hat approach to what class is.

This is inadvertently highlighted in Taaffe's recent and dishonest article, In Defence of Marxism, ostensibly about Trotsky's posthumously published In Defence of Marxism. Dishonest because this is less a commentary on the book and more another tedious big-up of Militant's record. Indeed, you might say Taaffe is the Nick Cohen of the Trotskyist movement. Regardless of the occasion or the subject, the same article is always produced. Rather than take on his opponents directly in open political argument, we get this:
At the same time, we have to combat and defeat all ideologically petty-bourgeois political trends which seek to divide, to introduce separatism into the workers’ movement. Under the signboard of ‘identity politics’, the US bourgeois first use their ‘ideological factories’, the universities, to spread their pernicious doctrines in order to divide mass opposition to them and their system on separatist lines – race, gender, caste, etc. While Marxists support the rights of all oppressed minorities, we always emphasise and strive for the maximum unity of the working class.
If Marxism was a programme of research and a guide to action for Taaffe as opposed to, say, a dreary justification of his six decades of political activity, this kind of nonsense - a left spin on Jordan Peterson-style anti-PC ranting - would not pass muster. As explained on a number of occasions, what is often misnamed as identity politics is a central characteristic of contemporary class politics. Not because of bourgeois conspiracies but because it is a property of capitalist political economy, and one that is increasingly important. As the production of intangibles - knowledge, services, experiences, care, subjectivities - depend on human brains and our social being, the character of exploitation changes. The vector of surplus value extraction in the advanced countries has grown more off the back of rentier-style relationships, vs the "classical" and "invisible" production of surplus value as the difference between the value of labour power vs the value of goods it produces. It means that, in the long-term, capital is less able to deskill workers as it has done historically because it cannot replicate or own the brains cognitive capitalism requires. Instead, capital now tries harnessing the spontaneous creativity of masses of networked but largely atomised workers to sell stuff, to surveill behaviour, and to try and generate the kinds of human beings more likely to accept the prevailing state of affairs as normal and natural.

Ah, but how does this explain the absurdities identity politics can descend into, where one identity is valorised and used to exclude other identities? Well, just as Lenin once observed that in and of itself everyday trade unionism was the bourgeois politics of the working class, limiting what, for the sake of brevity, you might call identity questions to issues of representation and recognition is the equivalent. Without a critique of capitalist political economy, trade unionism tends toward accommodation and reformism. Ditto, minus an understanding of the production of identity in intangible production, identities can appear to be off-the-peg cognitive structures, and exclusive spaces - even if their root is in oppression. Without grasping the relationship between identity production and capitalism, it naturally tends toward a liberal pluralism, which is a million miles away from intersectional politics: the only class politics worth the name.

I suppose this is beyond Taaffe, for whom Marxism stopped when Trotsky's book - probably his worst book, incidentally - was published. But it nevertheless demonstrates the hiding to nothing his politics is doomed to pursue. The SP's politics makes certain assumptions about the workers they address: that they are trade unionists, are motivated primarily by economistic concerns, and see themselves as workers above all else. This sounds suspiciously like a liberal identity location that claims a special privilege for itself, while dismissing other experiences of capitalism as ephemeral and in some way inauthentic. The SP used to talk about how the labour movement was in crisis in the 90s and 00s, and how consciousness had been thrown back. All true, but its solution was and remains an attempt to jumpstart a class politics of a simpler, easier time. Of when industrial workers commanded the field, workplaces were huge affairs, and a basic class consciousness could be taken for granted. Taaffe's template of class is not what it is, but how he wishes it to be: the so-called mass worker that dominated the labour movement imaginary of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Small wonder the SP aren't going anywhere. They're chasing the past.

The same, however, cannot be said of the Socialist Party in Ireland. While also wedded to a sect building model, which has limited their development over the years and will no doubt present more difficulties in the long run, their more sophisticated understanding of class and identity politics - if not in thought at least in practice - has enabled them to build influence and intervene in the struggles around abortion and reproductive politics. Issues, in case Taaffe and co need reminding, that are crucial to how the system reproduces itself.

Sadly, a reckoning between the SP's antiquated politics and the realities of 21st century class politics are overdue, the result, as with all splits, will see dozens of socialists give up on politics altogether, their fingers burned by the hothouse pressures of sectarian struggle. I sincerely hope that is not the case. Plenty of former SP members made the leap into Corbynism while their former organisation pratted about on the fringes of the labour movement and, in some instances, tried sabotaging it. If you happen to be in this position, don't give up and retire into private life punctuated by occasional Twitter ranting. Corbynism is an expression of the new class politics, warts and all. Its importance cannot be overstated, which is why we need your experience and your commitment.


Anonymous said...

There are many problems with the SP's approach to class politics, but the more likely cause of a mass retirement into private life is the experience of a Corbyn government.

Corbynism is a form of revived left labourism - with the trademark parliamentary cretinism and policy voluntarism that made listening to Tony Benn speak such a predictable and dispiriting experience.

If Corbyn wins and actually attempts to put his core economic policies into practice, the simple refusal of capital to co-operate will reveal his politics for the empty wishful thinking it is. The already fragile coalition around him will fragment within months or even weeks. And we will become accustomed to seeing John McDonnell on TV every Sunday morning explaining why he can't simply deliver the increased spending that every public sector employee had been led to believe was entirely possible by Corbyn's vacuous Bennite rhetoric.

The disillusion will be quick, sharp and deadly. And it will go more to disperse support for socialism than a thousand splits on the Trotskyite left.

Sam said...

Which Trotsky book are you referring to as his most well know but worst, out of interest?

Phil said...

Hi Sam - it's In Defence of Marxism, the book Taaffe's article is ostensibly about.

And Anon, nothing is inevitable as far as Corbynism is concerned. What is unique about it is how it has learned from the experience in power of other social democratic and reformist currents, and has wargamed them. Hence the stress on building Labour as a mass movement, and of Corbynist politics being something other than the top-down we-are-your-saviours positions typical of Labourism.

Mark James said...

As a SP member who is tearing his hair out over the crisis in the organisation I suppose I might be taking my membership a bit lightly by posting publicly. Well tough. I largely agree with the analysis that Phil has put up but I am not so sure about Corbyn. In my city Sheffield there was a community based dispute that illustrated all the shortcomings of Corbynism and particularly of Momentum. The Sheffield trees dispute was one that irrespective of any theorisation the SP did get involved in. Members were out defending trees, wrote articles in the Socialist and attended all the major demos throughout the campaign. Most of the rest of the Sheffield left dismissed the campaign as petite bourgeois nimbyism or as a diversionary irritant. We did not. Rather we saw it as another example of the Labour Party being unable to challenge austerity and fight the cuts. nearly 50 activists were arested during the campaign, one Green councillor nearly ended up in jail and there were several wrongful arrests, some of them under anti trade union laws. This was community based campaigning on a huge scale that has been largely ignored because it challenges all the traditional tropes of the left, most of all Labour. We in the SP had our ears to the ground and though we were not central to the campaign we were supportive, we listened rather than told and tried to tell a slightly different story to the Labour Party and the rest of the left.. This involvement lies in the greater tradition of Liverpool, the Poll Tax etc and points towards how revolutionary organisations might work in the new social movements of the future. Irrespective of how the faction fight pans out those issues will not go away. In practice grassroots Socialists will have their ears to the ground as we did have in Sheffield . The abstract theorisation of much of the contemporary left is driven by the social distance of the much of the left from working class communities and that applies to the Sheffield trees protestors as much as the miners who were arested at Orgreave.

Phil said...

Very good points, Mark. The Sheffield trees dispute was ridiculous, and the fact other left groups wrote the struggle off as petit bourgeois says more about them than anything else. The Sheffield dispute brought in issues around democratic accountability, the contracting out of services, and the fight for a clean, green environment - all of which are class issues.

Derek Wall said...

Mark, appreciate your account of Socialist Party support for tree campaign in Sheffield, thanks for your comment.