Treating people like toy soldiers results in frivolous politics
Alex Callinicos is trying to talk about strategy and patience, but his tongue is tied by his organisation’s disastrous errors, argues Paul Demarty
Writing about the Socialist Workers Party’s insubstantial front group, Unite the Resistance, Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty observed: “Five three-quarter truths, piled one on top of another to reach a conclusion, make a conclusion which is only three-quarters times three-quarters times … true. Or 24% true. Or three-quarters false.”1
We are reminded of comrade Thomas’s generally weak article upon reading ‘Thunder on the left’, a lengthy document by the SWP’s ‘intellectual leader’, Alex Callinicos, published in the current issue of International Socialism.2 It is a most peculiar chimera of an article - a perspectives document, stapled onto ruminations on various theoretical ephemera, glued to a reply to the SWP’s critics. It is not, word for word, Callinicos’s finest work (and there are very many words - some ten thousand of them, excluding footnotes); rather, it is a snapshot, from an oblique angle, of the mess the SWP has got itself into.
Its defining characteristic, to borrow comrade Thomas’s assessment of UTR, is its reliance on half-truths - along with a distinct seasoning of telling omissions. The less charitable among Callinicos’s critics will call this systematic dishonesty; but I have read too much Freud for that. The silences are symptomatic, not directly mendacious; the misrepresentations of SWP history are now thoroughly internalised. What is exposed here is the level of collective self-delusion now required for the SWP to believe it is the vehicle of the revolution.
The ostensible aim of the article is to illuminate the problem declared at the outset: “The paradox of the present situation is that capital is weak - but the radical left is much weaker … less because of mass ideological commitment to the system than because of the weakness of credible anti-capitalist alternatives.”
There’s a whole truth for you, although it is pretty banal - it is the picture painted by Richard Seymour in his recent book, Against austerity; by this paper; indeed, by most self-defined propaganda groups (the Spartacist League, for instance), since things generally have to be pretty bad for a self-described Trotskyist to resort to ‘mere’ propaganda. Indeed, the silver lining of the left’s present political confusion is that it at least, now, comes with some self-awareness about our collective weakness.
Comrade Callinicos sketches the history like this: from the end of the 1990s to the mid-2000s, there was a period of general “good feelings for the radical left”, epitomised by the alter-globalisation movement and its later evolution into the anti-war movement after the September 11 attacks.
In parallel, there was the emergence of “a cluster of new left parties” predicated on the “rejection of social liberalism”: his examples are “Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, Respect, the Unity Coalition, in England”.
After this development, along with the rise of the left in Latin America, we are slammed into reverse gear - some organisations split (Respect, the SSP); some are electorally wiped out (Bloco de Esquerda), others both (Rifondazione). This fragmentation began before the current crisis, when “George Galloway launched his attack on the role of the [SWP] within Respect in August 2007”, but has continued, more or less uninterrupted, since. In Britain, ‘unity projects’ multiply farcically; ‘the movements’ (against university fees, for instance, but also the Arab spring and Occupy) produce short-term spectaculars which burn out quickly. Despite an explosion in electoral support, the “left-reformist” Syriza “has marched firmly onto the centre ground”.
It is hardly remiss to pause here and hike an eyebrow - Respect seems rather to be a gatecrasher in the list of leftwing advances, as it never represented significant forces beyond the SWP and some extremely light-travelling allies among the south Asian petty bourgeoisie, nor garnered significant votes without access to the latter’s patriarchal networks or the celebrity of George Galloway. Nor was it founded in response to the march of social liberalism, but as an attempt to turn the anti-war movement into a popular-front party.
Indeed, presenting things this way is misleading for many of the entries in the list. Rifondazione was formed in 1991 as a split from the ‘official’ Communist Party, which was transforming itself into the Partito Democratico della Sinistra - not as a response to social liberalism.3 Syriza and Die Linke appear to have emerged according to this schema, but in reality the largest components and spinal cores of both are also products of the early 1990s: the Eurocommunist Synapsismos - formerly, more or less, the Communist Party of Greece (Interior) - and the former ruling party of East Germany, the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS). All three are not products of a reaction to ‘social liberalism’, but of the earlier collapse of the ‘official communist’ movement.
This second misrepresentation is in service of the first: putting Respect in the company of serious - if, by historic standards, hollowed out - contingents of the traditional workers’ movement aggrandises its importance. Yet mentioning it here requires still another mangling of the truth. It was not Galloway, but the SWP who manufactured the split in Respect for more or less wholly cynical reasons.4
Right all along?
The slightly tricksy nature of this passage is emblematic of the task Callinicos has set himself here. It is unignorable, even within the SWP, that society has drifted rapidly to the right in recent years. Yet this truth must be acknowledged without implying that the SWP has made any serious mistakes.
Thus the SWP was right to get very excited about Seattle; was right to build the anti-war movement in the way that it did, and to try to convert that into electoral support with Respect. The successive reversals since can be put down to either suddenly and mysteriously inclement political conditions, or the perfidy of individuals (an implied reference to John Rees’s and Lindsey German’s “shameful” leadership of the Stop the War Coalition in its recent pro-Assad, pro-Putin guise, shows up in the footnotes).
The same dilemma afflicts most of the rest of Callinicos’s survey of present thinking on the left. We cannot deal with everything in his guided tour - although we note the overrepresentation of the International Socialist diaspora in his polemics. It is worth examining his comments on ‘feminism’ in more detail, however, both as an exemplary case of ‘right all along’ syndrome and as a window into what is really going on here.
Introducing the subject, comrade Callinicos declares his interest: “This is a sensitive subject both because the SWP’s crisis focused on rape allegations and because the claim was made by successive oppositions within the SWP that the leadership responded by targeting ‘creeping feminism’.”
He continues: “This was entirely false. We would never dream of treating feminists as enemies. The SWP indeed can be proud that it identified early on the ‘new sexism’ characteristic of the neoliberal era, where the objectification of women’s bodies is represented as ‘empowerment’, and welcomed the emergence in response of a new wave of feminism.”
Again, this is half true: the SWP did indeed rail against what Ariel Levy called “raunch culture” (it slotted in very nicely with the SWP’s then alliance with east London Muslims, who have their own difficulties with exposed female flesh). It is, however, simply a matter of record that the SWP’s initial response to rebellion on the Delta issue was to target, quote-unquote, “creeping feminism”.
Callinicos goes on, regardless, to survey various contemporary feminisms, and many of his comments are correct as far as they go. He notes that the rising influence of certain feminist currents today is part of “broader anti-capitalist radicalisation”, which we may more or less accept - despite its deep political problems, there can be no doubt that the intersectionality ‘movement’ revels in radical rhetoric, or its growth among many who were participants in or sympathetic observers of Occupy, the student movement and so on.
Just as those movements have been limited, however, current feminism is limited by “the context in which it has emerged” - firstly, in a period of defeat, its demands have a “defensive character”; secondly, “one effect of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s is that lip service to feminism … has become institutionalised in the state and the business world”; thirdly, the “entrenchment” of esoteric feminism in the humanities. All of this “leads to an approach to politics in which moral critique takes priority”.
What disappears is the class dimension - modern feminist theories “have very little to say about capitalism” - a product of the 1980s eclipse of Marxism in the academy, in which figures who would previously have identified as both feminist and Marxist became the one and not the other. Today, with “the lack of a strong forward thrust provided by an insurgent working class”, this theoretical legacy looms large.
The result - “privilege theory and intersectionality … legitimise a hunt for differences among the oppressed themselves”. The way out is through the agency of the working class, and “classical Marxism” - meaning, naturally, the infamous interventions of Lindsey German and Chris Harman, plus an approving reference to the social reproduction theory pioneered by Lise Vogel.
Whither the SWP?
Much of this material, while hardly especially acute, is agreeable (if we ditch the German-Harman references, at any rate). The same might even be said for Callinicos’s conclusion, which sounds some of the same notes we do. However bad things are now, the historical tendency is not against us:
The past few decades have seen a global expansion of the working class thanks to the spread of industrial capitalism to parts of the global south, but also because the neoliberal restructuring of the advanced capitalist societies has intensified processes of proletarianisation. The problem is that this vast reorganisation has broken up the existing structures of the workers’ movement, and building new structures amid the storms of crisis and under constant pressure of capitalist attack is proving a difficult and protracted process …
The present crisis [of the left] is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible. These parties represent decades of concentrated efforts by thousands of militants to develop credible revolutionary alternatives. They are not to be thrown away lightly.
He quotes Chris Harman to the effect that “revolutionary patience is the order of the day. It is the only alternative to either allegedly ‘transitional’, but in reality reformist, palliatives that suggest that something other than the self-emancipation of the class can deal with the crisis of the system, or to running off in pursuit of ephemeral ‘new movements’.”
It is unfortunately necessary not to take the comrade at his word here. The reason is simple: his conclusion, and indeed his discussion of feminism, form one pole of a contradiction. The other pole is … the SWP, as it actually is, and as it actually does politics. Who turns to the SWP for a dose of “revolutionary patience”? The notion is self-evidently laughable. Callinicos’s conclusions are implicitly an argument against the character of the organisation he leads.
This bitter irony permeates the article. “The economic class struggle during the present crisis has nowhere been sustained on a sufficient scale or assumed the offensive form required to break with the pattern of fragmentation and defeat,” writes Callinicos; meanwhile, Socialist Worker mindlessly gees up its readers for July 10. Or on the women’s question: “one reason why we suffered such a severe crisis was because we take combating sexism so seriously”. Another half-truth - because the SWP’s operative approach to these issues, and most others, is shrill moral outrage, its former comrades had very little distance to travel before they washed up as intersectionalists.
An incidental, weasel-worded attack on Lars Lih’s research, which firmly places Lenin in the tradition of western European social democracy, contains the grumble that “Lih’s work can be used (irrespective of his own intentions) to deny any legitimacy to the project of building an independent revolutionary Marxist organisation”. Very true: there are many liquidationist projects that abuse Lih’s research to pretend that the Bolsheviks sought a fluffy broad party in favour of nice things.5
If you want a masterclass in the instrumentalisation of theory, however, you must turn to the SWP: we have mentioned the writings on the women’s question, which concluded that working class men do not benefit at all from women’s oppression. An obviously fanciful notion, but one which could be justified in the context of a grubby bureaucratic manoeuvre against a more avowedly feminist faction of the SWP in the early 1980s.
And so it continues - for every sober argument Callinicos raises here, his organisation yells an idiocy through a megaphone. For every counsel of realism, there is a Socialist Worker article urging us to believe the hype: one last push, comrades!
And finally, there is the cynicism embedded in a sentence we have already quoted - the adverse situation “makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible”.
Indeed, Alex: it is irresponsible for a leader of an organisation to fail to account for the loss of half of its active membership, except with hand-waving and generalities. Comrade Callinicos consciously decided to double down when opposition arose to the handling of the Delta case, again and again. His irresponsible provocations led hundreds of members to tear up their party cards in disgust.
It is more than his personal role in the SWP crisis that is at issue, however - look at the fate of those who left the SWP. Adverse ideological pressure is a permanent background hum of bourgeois society - indeed, all class societies. The point of a Marxist organisation is to provide an alternative pole of attraction, to teach comrades to smell bullshit, to spot the “embryo of a reactionary idea in a revolutionary phrase” (Martov).
That this article, which consists mostly of Callinicos shadow-boxing his own erstwhile factional opponents, should have to devote so much attention to cretinous post-Marxist fads and the lunatic fringe of identity politics, is the ultimate testament of the SWP’s abject failure to play this role. By wrenching its people this way and that, deploying them like toy soldiers, it has taught them to treat politics frivolously.
In the absence of genuine self-criticism, it is quite inconceivable that an SWP led by Callinicos ever will be capable of making sturdy revolutionaries. We hope comrade Callinicos will take his own conclusions seriously enough to realise how disastrous his contribution has been during these last few years.
1. M Thomas ‘The SWP on industrial strategy: five three-quarter truths’ Solidarity February 12.
2. International Socialist Journal No143, June 2014.
3. See T Abse, ‘Failed refoundation’ Weekly Worker October 18 2012.
4. See P Manson, ‘Two Respects, two dead ends’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.
5. A representative example can be found here - inevitably, from a splinter of the IS tradition: http://externalbulletin.org/2014/06/21/the-great-lenin-debate-of-2012.