Following up ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’, Mark Perryman provides his own back-history to suggest the need for accounts of life inside and outside the Left if we are to remake what our politics have become.
In an earlier post, Crawling From The Wreckage, I suggested that in the process of mapping out a space for the Outside Left it is vital to find the means to have an honest and open account of the journey which has take so many of us outside the organised Left, or the experiences which explained why we never attracted to being a part a closed membership organisation to define our politics at all. This may appear too tentative for those who desire the thrill of the rush headlong towards another chapter of reorganising the chairs on the deck of the good ship Socialist Titanic, but I prefer this mood of doubt and uncertainty that is required in the cause of meaningful renewal.
This isn’t a case of establishing a left culture of the confessional for the sake of it, although the maxim ‘the personal is political’ should retain its vitality and relevance today as much as when it was first coined over 30 years ago by socialist feminists dissatisfied by and alienated from Left organisation and practice. One contributor to the Crawling from the Wreckage discussion, Alan Gibbons, illustrated extremely well how in providing an autobiographical account, we can begin to map a different future. Andy Newman has also quoted Alan’s contribution in his own recent post Explaining the SWP Paradox, yet Alan’s contribution is so poignant to the issues, it is worth quoting again in full;
I joined the SWP in 1974. I left in the mid ninety nineties. I worked on Socialist Worker for a time. I was a member of the National Committee for many years. Most of the experience was positive. I was around at the start of the Right to Work Campaign, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. I can still look back with pride on those years. I was a shop steward in a factory in the north west when we broke the 10% pay freeze, winning our members a 16% pay rise. I was President of Knowsley NUT. The SWP taught me working class history and fired me with a conviction that women’s liberation, internationalism and anti racism were at the heart of the fight for socialism.
Over time I started to become disenchanted with some elements of the organisation’s practice. On a number of occasions I excused things I thought were inexcusable, but never anything like the alleged events that have emerged recently.
After being harried for some years as a ‘syndicalist’ and becoming the victim of some very underhand, unpleasant and dishonest behaviour I hung on because I subscribed to most of what the SWP was saying. It wasn’t exactly ‘my party right or wrong’, but it wasn’t far off. Eventually that became untenable and I quit. My resignation letter featured two issues: party democracy and unrealistic perspectives.
Like a lot of other exes, I did not stop being a socialist just because I left an organisation. I have a great affection for much of the party’s tradition and am close friends with many SWP members. I find myself looking on aghast at recent developments however. I am now an independent socialist and a prominent library and anti cuts campaigner. I am in a party of one and there are disagreements! I work with SWP members, Socialist Party members, Respect, Counterfire and Labour Party members and others, but mainly with people in no party, trade union and community activists and ordinary members of the public who want to save what is left of the public services.
What strikes me is that much of the Left is demoralised and inactive. I organised the 200-delegate Campaign for the Book conference. How many organised socialists attended? None, but it was successful. I helped organise the Speak up for Libraries lobby of parliament. How many organised socialists attended? None, but it was successful. I helped organise the SUFL conference. How many organised socialists attended? Two, and yes, it was a success.
So why am I posting this comment even though I find the tone of much of the debate gloating and distasteful? It is because many of the best people in the Left are in the SWP, the SP, Respect and other grouplets and often keep a watching brief on this forum. It is also because I now feel that the baleful legacy of a a distorted concept of party and democratic centralism is making them ever more passive, hog-tied or irrelevant or both.
Tony Mulhearn’s candidacy in Liverpool was very creditable. He got a decent vote, beat the Tory and I spoke at a 450 strong rally. Events like this, Galloway’s victory in Bradford and others can be part of the recovery of the Left but no one grouping can insist on its papal superiority. That idea is redundant. If a Left outside the Labour Party is to be rebuilt it has to be democratic, principled and open. It has to tolerate difference without being paralysed by division. It has to conduct itself in a way that is consistent with a desire to achieve women’s liberation and socialism. A creative regroupment of the Left is essential and overdue. I haven’t given up hope that it can happen. Like thousands of others I would not touch any kind of party membership card with a bargepole at the moment but, given the right circumstances, I would energetically throw myself into a new formation that is capable of learning from the past.
I would only add that the account Alan provides, while it is framed by his experience inside and outside of one organisation, IS/SWP, retells a story that connects to life in and out of so many other organisations, and none. This is what provides the poignancy.
The confessional in my view also needs to ecumenical to be effective. ‘The ecumenical Left’ is something deeper than simply being non-sectarian which is usually organisation and framed by convenience in one sort of front or not. The ‘ecumenical’ is about being wilfully open to a variety of ideologies and traditions of the Left, and sometimes beyond too. Combine this with a confessional practice and the words and the values seem almost foreign to being on the left, what does this tell us? But however difficult this process is worth having, not to indulge in point-scoring, revisiting often arcane, at best, historical differences, exploring our political navels disconnected from any kind of wider picture. Rather we must remember that while the numbers who exit the organised left to find a place like Alan that is anything-but-a-wilderness are reasonably significant in the smallish world we occupy, most Left Outsiders have never been ‘insiders’ at all, ever, so we tell and learn from those tales in order perhaps to understand why.
Last year I wrote a chapter in a collection After The Party subtitled ‘Reflections on Life Since the CPGB.” My piece was like Alan Gibbon’s an attempt to understand what those years of membership of an organisation meant, what good remained from them, what was bad too, the activism I found after leaving, how these experiences helped shape what I still hope will become a Better Left, on the Outside but making a difference.
The chapter The Revolution is Just a T-shirt Away is now available, with thanks to the publisher Lawrence & Wishart, free as a download here.
The piece isn’t definitive, none of these kinds of contributions could claim to be, nor is there a single template, but I do hope as the Crawling From The Wreckage began to suggest might become possible it can offer as an encouragement to others to contribute their experiences and in a similar spirit of helpful and honest intent. Open-ended but with some kind of purpose in sight.