by John Molyneux
Response to Neil Davidson
I warmly welcome the appearance of Neil Davidson’s major article in [SWP Pre-conference Internal Bulletin] IB3. It is clear from the contents of the IBs as a whole that a significant democratic upsurge is taking place in the ranks of the SWP and I regard this overall as a positive, not a threatening, development (regardless of my agreement or disagreement with particular contributions) in that I believe this discussion and debate can help the party improve its understanding of the situation we face and our ability to operate politically within it. At the moment the CC being internally divided cannot close down the debate, but I hope that once its internal divisions are resolved it does not succumb to the temptation to try to reimpose the old conformity.
Two things are crucial here: one is the CC internal united front against dissidents, which has meant that differences within the CC are kept hidden from the membership while any critic is met with an overwhelming rebuttal. I will give a personal example (unimportant in itself and it happened to many others) just to make clear what I mean .Some years ago, at a Party Council, I questioned the estimation and figures given for a demonstration (the Birmingham demo against the closure of Longbridge). I was immediately replied to by five members of the CC, but, of course, given no right of reply to them. The other, less important but still of significance, is tone. Critics can be replied to politically and strong arguments put, without making the victim feel like they never want to speak at an SWP conference or council again. Such practices, once prevalent, have dramatically declined recently. They should not be brought back.
In this context Neil’s article plays a very useful role in helping to kick start and focus the debate. In particular the question he raises about the SWP’s failure to grow substantially over thirty years is important and needs to be addressed. However I do not agree with his answer to it, or at least partially disagree. Neil notes, correctly, that ‘since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism,’ but then basically agrees with the CC saying ‘One can accept that conditions have not been uniformly conducive to growth, but clearly the objective circumstances have not posed an insuperable barrier either. As it happens, I think the CC was right most of the time about the opportunities,’ and concludes by quoting Shakespeare to the effect that ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’
I disagree. I think that the root of the problem lies in the objective circumstances. I take this view for several reasons. First I have a general historical materialist bias towards to objective explanations that take as their point of departure the economy, the class struggle, mass consciousness etc. I am emphatically not a fatalist who wishes to deny the role of the subjective factor but I want the subjective factor to appear as the final link in the chain of explanation rather than the first. Secondly it is clear from history that when the circumstances were favourable all sorts of would be radical organisations, with politics and organisational practices FAR worse than the SWP (Maoists in Nepal, for example) have been able to grow far more successfully than us. Moreover the fact is that in Britain NO left political party has been able to do better than us on any sustained basis. Indeed, as far as the revolutionary socialist left is concerned, this is more or less true internationally.
There are, in my judgment, three main objective reasons for our lack of growth which are staring us in the face. First the state of the economy: however severe the crisis may be now and however much this may vindicate the fundamental Marxist theory of capitalist crisis, the fact remains that the years 1992-2007 were years of sustained growth in which the British economy did better than we expected or predicted. Second, these were also years of exceptionally low industrial struggle, in which serious or large scale strikes (apart from 1-day affairs) all but disappeared. By 2005 the level of strikes had fallen to one tenth of what it was when Cliff analysed the ‘downturn’. This collapse, which I believe had structural rather just circumstantial causes (lack of confidence, the failings of union leaders etc) was the most important constraint and it profoundly shaped the third factor, which was the state of mass consciousness. This is a subjective factor as far as the masses are concerned, but an objective factor in relation to a small party like the SWP.
At various times since the late 80s there was mass opposition to the government of the day over the poll tax, the sacking of the miners, the criminal justice bill, and above all the war; there was also widespread generalised hatred of the Tories, massive cynicism about politics and politicians, and a degree of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate feeling, but all this NEGATIVE oppositional consciousness was never matched (even partially) by a corresponding POSITIVE pro socialist consciousness. On the contrary the defeats of the late seventies and the eighties, particularly the great miners’ strike, the general weakening of trade unionism, the decline of Bennism, the Labour Party’s move to the right and, above all, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes were taken by the large majority as signifying that socialism was finished. This should not surprise us: working class self emancipation is the heart of socialism so a long period in which working class struggle was weak was bound to affect the level of socialist consciousness, as well as weakening the confidence of conscious socialists.[One side effect of this was the decline in student radicalism As someone actively involved in student work in the late sixties and through the seventies and then a lecturer in the eighties and nineties I thought the change was palpable but could never get any acknowledgement of this from the party leadership. But if we recall that in the early seventies the common slur against IS was that we were all just students, and that Marxism began as a student event and, on occasion we had specifically Student Marxisms with about 1000 attendance we can see that the decline must had a real affect on our recruitment possibilities.]
These factors set real limits to the growth we could achieve, limits which were often more restricted than we ourselves realized (especially during the onwards and upwards period of the 90s). Could we have done better? Yes, certainly we could. Did we make mistakes? Of course we did and it is necessary to identify and analyse at least the main ones. In my opinion these were as follows: 1) an ultra-left attitude to the miners strike committees and their food collections (fortunately corrected just about in time), 2) a sectarian position on the poll tax struggle ( again corrected just about in time for England , but not Scotland), 3) the split the branches into ever smaller units strategy of the 90s, 4) the attempted mass recruitment on demos and attempts to browbeat people into membership at Marxism and elsewhere, which led to a substantial layer of ‘phoney’ members on the Centre’s books. The first two were probably mainly side effects of the ‘circling the wagons’ strategy adopted to deal with the downturn. The second two were a result of impatience and voluntarism, an attempt to push or even bully the party into growing faster than the objective situation allowed.
The worst mistake however was the failure to admit or correct mistakes even after they had long become evident (this applies much more to 3 and 4 than to 1 and 2). A couple of examples. Somewhere in the anti-nazi struggle of the mid nineties there was a splendid South Wales Against Racism demo which mobilised several thousand people. On this demo we ‘recruited’ 107 members (the figure is etched on my brain). Two weeks later, after intensive phoning, visiting etc, no more than a handful, if that, remained ‘live’. It was time for the penny to drop, for a reassessment, especially as this was only a dramatic case of an experience that was being repeated round the country. But it didn’t happen. It was the same with the small branches. I don’t blame the leadership for trying this – in certain favourable circumstances it would be a good way to build. But when there was abundant evidence of it failing it was persisted with, almost to the point of destruction. And the combination of these mistakes led to the grievous situation where the leadership were misleading themselves, the party, and the world about the real size of our membership.
Obviously all this leads straight back to the question of the party regime, structures, democracy etc. What SHOULD have happened in the above examples is that the members should have insisted on the reality on the ground as they experienced it, and called the leadership to account, but as we know it was extremely difficult, in those years, to speak up. Which is why I very much welcome the current debate about the membership of the CC, the Davidson document and others, and the proposed Commission. Hopefully they will all contribute to a shift in the culture of the party so that comrades feel more able to speak their minds.
However the emphasis I place on the objective constraints on our growth does affect both my assessment of the SWP’s record over the last thirty odd years and the question of what we do now. Clearly we could have done better, but given the difficulties we faced we have not done that badly and compared with most of the left we have done very well. Much of this can be attributed to the brilliant political legacy we inherited from the likes of the younger Cliff, Kidron, Hallas, Harris, Harman etc as well as the activist tradition forged particularly by Cliff, rather than the sagacity of the more recent leadership (including, I would say, some aspects of the older Cliff). Nevertheless the party has, right up to the present, remained focused on the external world and responsive to the demands of the struggle, hence our very positive achievements in terms of the Anti- Nazi League, the anti- capitalist movement, Stop the War and Respect for a period.
In so far as a lot our problems seem to have been internal – failure to retain membership, alienation of some members etc – they have been rooted in either an overestimation of the objective situation or an impatience with it, which in turn has led to attempts to forcibly grow the organisation hot house fashion (splitting and abolishing the branches), followed by increasing impatience (on the part of some of the leadership) with the members, when this didn’t work.
This impatience also led, I think, to some comrades seeing Respect as, perhaps, a short cut or even an alternative to building the revolutionary party. This was most obviously the case with the likes of Kevin Ovenden, Rob Hoveman and Ger Hicks, who abandoned the party project for Respect Renewal, but also seems to have been a factor with Paul Holborrow and his co-thinkers, who didn’t want to resist Galloway. Moreover, I think, something similar lies behind the idea, currently circulating among some comrades, that the main way to build the party, now and maybe always, is through the united front.
Care needs to be taken not to fetishise the concept of the united front or we will make mistakes both in relation to the past and the present. Many of the discussions about whether or not particular campaigns and organisations are united fronts or ‘united fronts of a special type’ seem based on the idea that somewhere there is a Platonic ideal of the true united front to which current initiatives should roughly conform. It is worth remembering that the term united front was never used by Marx or Engels and did not appear in the Marxist movement until after the Russian Revolution. It owes its its position in the classical Marxist canon to two episodes: first its adoption by the Comintern at the behest of Lenin and Trotsky in 1921-22 in opposition to the lunatic ultraleftism of the German CPs March Action; second its advocacy by Trotsky in order to combat the rise of fascism, in opposition to the even more lunatic ultraleftism of the Stalinist ‘third period’ and to the betrayals of the Popular Front. In both cases it was a particular tactical/ strategic response to particular instances of what is a permanent problem, which was addressed by Marx and Engels as far back as the Communists and Proletarians section of The Communist Manifesto, namely how to combine maximising the fighting unity of the working class with maintaining the political independence and clarity of the revolutionaries.
I think there are serious problems involved in trying to construct a national united front in response to the recession, especially one that in some way follows the model of Stop the War. The basic difficulty is simply who to unite with. One possible set of candidates is left journalists, economists and academics such as Larry Elliot, Graham Turner and Paul Mason. These people are undoubtedly useful for the platforms of meetings and rallies, but they have no forces on the ground and this weakness matters much more in relation to the recession, where we need industrial action and community resistance than it did over the war where it was mainly a matter of getting people to demos. The other possible candidates, who do have real forces, are the left union leaders, but we know that when it comes to strike and other industrial disputes these people are likely to waiver or sell out and we will be forced to oppose them. It is much easier to have a united front with Tony Woodley (or Billy Hayes) over the war (or the BNP) where all they have to do is make statements than it is over the recession where leading real resistance is required. (For those who like historical precedents this is an issue that goes back to Trotsky v Stalin over the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and the General Strike).
For these reasons I agree with those on the CC who are against going big on a formal united front of notables in advance of the development of the struggle from below. This absolutely does not mean ‘rejecting the united front method’, still less being reluctant to work with other people outside our ranks but it does mean that at present we have to remain flexible and experimental, taking and supporting various initiatives on the ground, using the organisational forms that fit locally ( which may often be the Charter but may sometimes be something else) until a clearer picture of the shape of resistance emerges. As comrades will know I have long been an advocate of a more democratic and open culture in the party but one reason why real but fraternal debate is essential right now is precisely so that in the coming weeks and months we can thrash out these issues and collectively arrive at the best way forward. Some comrades find this uncertainty disturbing but I think it is better than trying to preempt the movement on the basis of a solution imposed from above. Some comrades may yearn for the smack of firm leadership but I am not one of them.
This relates to the question of recruitment. I understand the argument put by Neil that it is not possible to build a mass party by individual recruitment and that this was not, for example, how the parties of the Comintern (especially the German CP) were built. But there are many steps between where we are now and the construction of the truly mass party necessary to overthrow capitalism and fortunate or unfortunately we are a long way from the situation in Europe in 1919-23. In the present circumstances I think our best option is not to cast about for a shortcut to mass recruitment but to engage in individual recruitment as best we can, so as to be in as strong a position as possible when the opportunity for mass recruitment opens up. Frankly I prefer to grow by ones and twos or threes and fours, and retain people than lose people hand over fist pursuing a grandiose but unrealisable perspective.
This response has not been written in a spirit of polemic. I have set out my disagreements at some length not to reject Neil’s document but because I hope they will prove pertinent to the current debate in the party in which neither I nor, I suspect anyone else, possesses a monopoly on the truth. Moreover it seems right to end where I began by expressing my agreement with Neil and his various co- or similar thinkers on the need to open up debate in the party and improve the state of our democracy, to which end I support the proposal for a ‘democracy commission’ to be established by conference and hope we can use it to reform our structures and practices in a positive way. If we do this, while it will not be a panacea or a substitute for correct politics, I think it will increase comrades’ pride and confidence in the party and raise the level of retention and active involvement.
And to John Rees
Just as I was completing this response to Neil Davidson, John Rees’s ‘Where we Stand’ document has appeared. It will be clear, I hope, from what I have already written in reply to Neil (especially on the united front) that I do not agree with JR so I do not intend to offer a point by point or comprehensive critique. Also a good deal of JRs article refers to happenings within the CC to which I have not been party and therefore cannot confirm or refute his account. Nevertheless since I am MORE in disagreement with John than I am with Neil it seems necessary to say why – albeit as briefly as possible.
‘Where we Stand’ is not an unimpressive document but I was opposed to John reelection to the CC before I read and after I read it I was even more strongly opposed.
My reasons for opposing John were primarily that he made a series of serious mistakes in the handling of Respect. It was the accumulation of these errors, not any one, that was decisive for me. They were:
1. Even when Respect was going well we got too close to Galloway. It became very difficult in the party to criticise GG at any but the most abstract level . John has a particular responsibility for this: there was far too much of the John-and-George double act, with joint standing ovations and the like which set a bad example to the party, and made it more difficult for us to deal with the split when it happened.
2. An extension of point 1, we should have been more critical of GG inside Respect over Big Brother. Perhaps we allowed ourselves to be blackmailed by threat that this was a man who would walk if he was criticised.
3. In the split in Respect we managed to lose most of the middle ground and a chunk of our own side. These people were politically mistaken but was it really necessary to lose Ken Loach, Victoria Britain, Alan Thornett, Linda Smith, Salma Yaqoub, Nick Wrack, Rob Hoveman, Ger Hicks and, almost, Paul Holborrow and Jan Neilson? I remember a conference speech by John in which he explained to us all in general, and to some hapless branch in particular, that the art of leadership in a united front consisted of maintaining the ground for the broadest unity and at the same time DEFEATING (JR’s word) your allies on key questions of strategy and tactics. In Respect he did neither.
4. The acceptance of the OFFU cheque. I don’t accept the parallel with Morrissey and LMHR but that’s by-the-by, the OFFU cheque was a mistake and it wrecked OFFU , period. If I had been John I would have resigned from the Respect/Left List secretaryship over this.
5. The disastrous election results, especially in London. Obviously this was not mainly caused by John but this area of work was his responsibility. If I had been him I would have again offered my resignation.
6. The debacle over the Tower Hamlets Councillors. First, the defection of one of our ‘left’ councillors to the Tories (!) which was preceded the night before (!) by an email statement saying he had been spoken to and was staying loyal. John did not cause the defection and the email was anonymous but this was his area of responsibility and somewhere, to put it mildly, the plot had been lost. Then Oli Rahman was made National Chair of Respect/ Left List and shortly after he and the other councillors defected. Again John should have offered his resignation. Instead he had to prized out of his position in a bitter internal battle on the CC.
7. The NC of Left Alternative at which JR, LG and CB announced their resignations. I was present at this meeting and the key question is not whether or not a technical breach of discipline occurred as the appalling impression and affect on the meeting that was caused by the melodramatic behaviour of our three leading comrades (it was the way they did it !) .
Enough! This list may not correspond exactly to the reasons given by the CC majority but they are my reasons. The strongest part of John’s defence is where he says that at various stages these matters were pronounced resolved by the CC majority, especially Alex saying they were not proposing removing JR from the CC at the NC meeting in September. I thought that was a mistake at the time. Why didn’t I say so? Because I supported the CC majority and didn’t want to get my head cut off for sticking it out too far! Probably that was a mistake too but I’m sure comrades will know how I felt.
Anyway pressure has built up among rank-and – file party members (eg in Sheffield) and this has pushed the CC into action. I believe it is the right decision and judging by the pre conference aggregates it is supported by the large majority of the membership
John and his supporters say that he is being scapegoated and that this is personalised and unfair. These are inappropriate terms. Obviously John is not the only one responsible for the difficulties in Respect/left List/ Left Alternative etc . In one sense the main responsibility lies with Galloway and co. In another sense it lies with all the CC, and in another sense with all leading party cadre. Nevertheless he was the CC member responsible for this area of work and this carries with it certain consequences when there are a series of mistakes, as I’m sure John, Lindsey, and Chris have had to explain to many a failing organiser in the past. Of course it is ‘personalised’ (in the sense of someone’s personal political record not their personal life) because the election of the CC is about the election of specific persons to lead the party. Fairness doesn’t come into it. No one has a right to be on the CC. The only right involved here is the right of the party membership to elect its leaders and it must elect the people who will serve it best, regardless of ‘fairness’. It might be ‘fair’ not to elect Lindsey or Chris B or Chris H or Alex or Martin and so on (they’ve all made mistakes) but it would damage the party so we shouldn’t do it. I stood for the CC – I was not elected, I wasn’t ‘scapegoated’. Sheila McGregor, Andy Strouthous, Julie Waterson, Sean Vernell, Pat Stack, Maxine Bowler among many others all left the CC and became rank- and- file members – they were not scapegoated.
On recruitment I do not accept John’s arguments at all. First I don’t accept that this is what the argument is really about. I am sure that when Sheffield, Tower Hamlets and Newham, Hackney, Birmingham, Glasgow, Portsmouth and Southampton aggregates came out for the CC majority the issue of recruitment had nothing to do with it. Second if I had been on the CC at the time I would have been opposed to Lindsey’s recruitment campaign proposal. This is not because I am against recruitment (I’ve recruited six people since Marxism 2008) or recruitment campaigns when the time is right (in the past some have been fruitful) but because I think a campaign with organisers and targets etc would have been counter productive at that time.I would have judged that a lot of the members were fed up with such campaigns from a few years ago, especially when there was no proper accounting for them. I remember one such campaign in the late nineties when it was boldly proclaimed that every branch should recruit five members in the next month (If that could be done by order each branch would grow by 60 in a year and we’d have had a mass party long ago) only for it to be silently dropped when branches manifestly failed to do so. I also remember when splitting and ‘abolishing’ the branches effectively derecruited large numbers of members and I seem to remember John having something to do with that. In short I think it was better just to get on and do it rather than have a formal campaign and also I think that since Martin Smith has been National Organiser the state of party branches has improved and real recruitment (with proper figures given) though modest has at least been taking place.
As far as the united front is concerned what I have written in response to Neil covers the main points, but I would just say that I did not agree that the problem was that not enough party members were won to the united front perspective. It is probably true that not all the members are ever won fully to any perspective but I do think that almost every member participated to some degree in Stop the War, mostly with great enthusiasm. What I object to here is the element of ‘it’s the backward membership’s fault’ which was precisely the concept used by some in the leadership to avoid facing up to reality in the 90s. This brings me to the aspect of the document which I most strongly disagree with and which most reinforces my wish not to continue with John on the CC.- this is John’s attitude to leadership and democracy.
Despite the odd nod in favour of democratic debate John makes it clear that really he is opposed to the idea of the ‘democracy commission’, while I strongly support it. John has never seen anything wrong with the state of democracy in the party and neither as far as I can tell have Lindsey or Chris B or Chris L . This may be true of other members of the CC as well but they at least seem to be shifting their position – John is not. John also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently. Nor is this just a question of personal arrogance, I also think John holds an elitist theory of leadership derived from Lukacs’ concept of the party as bearer of working class consciousness (but perhaps that is a debate for another time). At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.
12 December 2008