Divisions over unity
Squabbles in the British anti-Trump campaign say much about the forces involved, reckons Paul Demarty - and little of it good
Owen Jones: unity with Lib Dems is fine, but not with SWP
I have written often of America’s colourful (in an orange sort of a way) new president in these pages: indeed, with four-odd years to go, I am beginning to get tired of him already.
In doing so, I have repeatedly expressed caution about the sort of forces lining up to depose him, not all of whom (to put it mildly) have the best interests of humanity at the core of their vision of the beautiful, good and true. This is a danger somewhat more present for the American left than it is for the British, however; for, while a number of do-gooding celebrities, bourgeois journalists and mainstream politicians have professed their disgust with Donald Trump, both the state core and government seems to acknowledge that the United States is an indispensible sponsor, no matter who occupies the White House, with such choppy diplomatic waters ahead.1
Thus the left has been allowed a freer hand to pitch in to the anti-Trump activity in this country, with the Tories mostly absent and the Liberal Democrats (more of whom anon) still at a low ebb after their well-deserved 2015 humiliation. The British establishment’s anti-Trump faction is weak enough to need the tireless activity of the left to make things happen - just about. Thus it tolerates the Socialist Workers Party placards, the prominence of Corbynite die-hards, and so on.
The left, however, is the left, and so divisions must inevitably open up. These divisions are, from our point of view, not without interest.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Our story begins a month or so ago, when - in the midst of the chaos of Trump’s travel ban - a London demonstration was called by various organisations of the left via their respective single-issue front campaigns, on February 4.
Conspicuously not attending was a certain Owen Jones, the rightward-tumbling journo-activist, who announced to his vast and increasingly restive Twitter following that he objected to the leading involvement of the SWP (through its Stand Up to Racism front): “a cult which covered up rape”.2
We do not intend to recapitulate the details of the SWP rape case here (briefly, for neophytes: in 2012 the organisation took the disastrous decision to hand over a rape charge against a long-time leader to its internal disputes committee, with the result that evidence was trampled over and the ‘defendant’ ‘acquitted’ by an obviously biased ‘jury’, leading to a protracted political and organisational crisis.) It seems a little unfair to call the SWP a cult, since it lacks a charismatic leader, although it has cultish features. Jones is otherwise - alas - a little too close to the truth for comfort.
He is nonetheless being cynical, since he has demonstrated in common with the SWP many times in the intervening four years since the SWP scandal broke. What has changed is ... Owen Jones. For the reality of the leftwing capture of the Labour leadership of which he dreamed for so long has dawned; and he is now busying himself with who-knows-what games to make the Labour Party ‘electable’, at the cost of its leader if necessary. He is, in short, wholly captive to the political mainstream at this point; his far-left past3 and associations were useful to him in his period as officially designated voice of the radical youth, but retain utility today only inasmuch as he can disavow them for effect, as he did here.
If SUTR is not to lead the anti-Trump tidal wave, however, then what is? Jones’s answer at that point was ... another demonstration (quelle surprise!), titled ‘Stop Trump’, on the day (February 20) parliament was to debate the visit. That demo has now spawned its own front organisation, the Stop Trump Coalition.4
If that name sounds familiar, then it probably should - plainly the model in a certain sense is the Stop the War Coalition (ironically, a co-organiser of the protest boycotted by Jones), which was founded after 9/11 to resist British involvement in Afghanistan and achieved its apotheosis a year and a half later, with the millions-strong march against British involvement in the then looming Iraq war. Comrade Jones and I, alike, are of the ‘Iraq generation’ of British leftwingers - yes, we were there, in various stages of late adolescence, in Hyde Park.
All’s Farron love and war
The concordances go further, as a perceptive article by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge in The Socialist notes:
The list of names Owen has gathered for his coalition includes Tim Farron MP, now leader of the Lib Dems, which formed the vicious Con-Dem government with the Tories ...
In 2003, then Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy spoke to the millions-strong February 15 anti-war demo. But it has since been made clear that neither he nor his pro-capitalist party was anti-war. Against the objections of the Socialist Party representatives on the Stop the War Coalition committee, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its allies unfortunately pushed the decision through the committee to give a platform to Kennedy without any public criticisms.
They also refused to allow any speaker on behalf of a socialist organisation. This undoubtedly helped to build up the Lib Dems’ ‘radical’ image, contributing to Cleggmania and the formation of the Con-Dem Coalition.5
This is all well-observed. The appearance of a Liberal Democrat anti-war policy certainly contributed to the Lib Dems’ young-skewing popularity in the mid-to-late aughts, though they had - as a ‘sensible’ bourgeois party - essentially suspended all practical opposition after British forces were actually engaged.
Are we in a similar situation now, with a similar profile of political risk? The answer, on the face of it, is no: the Lib Dems went into 2003 with a sizeable parliamentary party, who could plausibly hold the balance of power if the Tory vote seriously revived (as it did in 2010); and the divisions in the ruling class, though sharp, were essentially tactical, whereas today nothing less than the global hegemony of the United States is at stake, immediately (and incredibly!) due to the voluntary action of the US itself, and more generally due to the long-standing decline of US power, like Britain before it.
Though Trump’s new era is yet to spill much blood, there can be no doubt that the era is new, and these are dangerous times. The outcome of February 15, even to us naïfs who were on our first or second demonstration, was clear - either we would stop the war, or we would not. What bizarre consequences would ripple out from Trump’s impeachment or resignation? What will follow, even, if he stays? We need not fear the consequences if we set out in good order to shape them; the trouble with handing the leadership of the movement over to Tim Farron (or, frankly, Owen Jones) is, in the first instance, that it is an abdication of responsibility for the consequences.
Yet does the SWP/SUTR really differ from Jones on this point? It so happens that Tim Farron has pitched up with Jones, but would the SWP turn him away? Not on the historical evidence (as comrade Sachs-Eldridge reminded us earlier, it was the SWP that got Charles Kennedy his prime-time slot in 2003), nor on more recent evidence either. Here is ‘Kevin B’, in the SWP’s February 6 Party Notes bulletin, reporting on the anti-Trump demo boycotted by Jones:
Speaker after speaker called for unity against Trump. This is important in general, but particularly so in light of the attacks on Saturday’s demonstration made by Owen Jones. The lesson from history is clear. If the anti-racist movement fails to unite, it’s the racists who win.6
We note, inter alia, that this is the sole mention of Jones’s views in the bulletin - the fact that the “attacks on Saturday’s demonstration” were specifically against the SWP was apparently beneath notice to the SWP’s mere members. Yet the real point is clear - the unity of the ‘anti-racist movement’, taken in its full breadth, would unite Maoists with corporate HR departments, Whitehall ‘diversity’ consultants, and certainly Tim Farron. Only such unity will stop “the racists” from winning, so diabolically powerful are they!
Comrade Kevin does not bother to name the historical precedents on his mind, but, since everyone is so fond of throwing words like ‘fascism’ around these days, it seems pertinent to revisit the most notorious disunity of ‘anti-racists’ in history - that which preceded the triumph of Hitler in 1933. The Communist Party of Germany typically cops the blame for this, captured as it was in the scholastic fantasy that there was no meaningful difference between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Nazis.
There is no doubt that the KPD deserves the contempt of posterity for its shameful role in this calamity, yet the SPD all too easily escapes criticism, being thought of as merely the victim of a lunatic trend in world communism. In fact, it equally despised the idea of unity with the communists, pursuing instead an alliance of parties loyal to the Weimar constitution, to defeat Hitler and avert any revolutionary overthrow on the left. That policy, we must be clear, was equally disastrous, for it was the very ‘allies’ sought by the SPD that put Hitler in power. Their loyalty to ‘democracy’, even in the degraded form of the Weimar polity, was highly conditional. At bottom, it was conditional on class interests, as they manifested at a time of acute social and political crisis.
Nothing so awful as a new Hitler regime is immediately before us; but (sorry, Kevin) the lesson from history is clear. Unity is valuable only if it is unity for something useful. Capitalist society, in its particular present convolution, produced the atomised resentment which in turn produced the election of Trump. Truly defeating Trump - which is to say, defeating him without bringing forth another Bonapartist creep in his place - is impossible if we lash ourselves to the parties who defend the system from which such degenerates spring.
1. The counter-example here is Christopher Steele, whose Russia dossier excited so many in January, but has rather been outstripped by events - Après Chris, le déluge ... We have no way of knowing how close he remains to MI6, except that he did not leave through the same door as Kim Philby. Regardless, the overall picture is one of discretion overcoming valour.
3. Jones first became known to our good selves when, as a very young man, he would turn up to Communist University assuring us that the revolution could only come through the transformation of Labour Party apparatuses into soviet-type institutions, after the fashion of his teacher, Graham Bash; he popped up all over Labour’s Marxist far left before he published Chavs and found himself - as much to his surprise as anyone else’s, we assume - a media darling.