Keep on keeping on
Mark Fischer enjoyed himself at Socialism 2014
The annual school of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, held this year over the weekend of November 8-9 - was different in one important aspect. The mood at this event was far more buoyant than in recent years, when the routine assurances of big times just round the corner rang pretty hollow. There was a palpable sense of confidence and optimism from many of the comrades you spoke to and a feeling amongst them that the coming period was going to be one of substantial growth and political successes.
Undoubtedly, the numbers at the event were up. The brief report on the organisation’s website - suggestively titled ‘Socialism 14: infused with a contagious confidence’1 - states that “over a thousand” attended. This is accurate - and a refreshing change to have a left organisation honestly report the real attendance at one of its events.
The two rallies on the Saturday and Sunday in the Camden Centre in London’s Kings Cross were a useful gauge of Socialism’s size. True, SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell was a tad on the lavish side at the Sunday gathering, when she claimed that there were “over 1,000 people at this rally” (the Camden Centre has “a licensed capacity for up to 1,000 people”, according to its website, and there was a noticeable number of empty seats). However, this was more than compensated for by the overflow at the Saturday rally in the same venue and by the fact that, come late Sunday afternoon, many participating comrades were having to leave to catch trains and buses home.
Comrade Sell told us that we had been part of “a little bit of history” by attending this year’s Socialism. It had been a “qualitative step forward” and was “very clearly the biggest Socialism we’ve organised”. The second statement here may well be true: the first is clearly not. Numerically, comrade Sell’s “over 1,000” is not a qualitative improvement on what SPEW has been organising for quite some time now. (For instance, the report of last year’s school told us that “around 1,000 people” were there.2 Exactly the same phrase pops up in the coverage of the 2012 event.3).
Was there a “qualitative” change in the social composition of the school? Well, despite a noticeably larger percentage of younger comrades milling around (see below), clearly not. The majority participation was still from the older generation - the fundamental make-up of SPEW’s ranks has not been visibly transformed by an influx of new forces either from youth or the working class itself.
Which leaves us with the politics, of course. And here again it was very much business as usual, unfortunately. Aside from the rallies, the school consisted of 33 sessions. In these there was a smattering of non-SPEW speakers, but these activists were mostly from anti-cuts, low-pay and similar campaigns, or were billed according to their particular unions (of course, these comrades could also have been members of SPEW or its international grouping anyway4). So, as in all previous years, we had an intensely insular event in political terms, where leading members talked to other members and supporters about how really, really good SPEW politics are.
Inevitably, a culture like this on today’s left produces sects defined by a set of ideas that have ossified into dogma and a politically and theoretically passive rank and file. This year, I thought this problem was quite neatly illustrated by the CPGB’s decision to invite Lars T Lih to one of our London Communist Forums, staged in a nearby venue, an hour or so after the final rally at Socialism. It was shame that no SPEW comrades attended - for many, no doubt, it was a meeting too far after what must have been an exhausting weekend. For others, however, it was clearly a reflex act of sect patriotism. One CPGB comrade reported handing a leaflet advertising the LCF to a young SPEWer who, after spotting the name of the speaker, said, “Ah, that’s the bloke Peter Taaffe doesn’t like” - as if that settled the question.
To be fair to the young comrade, Taaffe did not have that much more of substance to offer by way of critique in his relatively lengthy article on Lih in the organisation’s monthly journal earlier this year.5 However, in it he tells us that the reason he bothers to pen the hatchet job at all is a response to the fact that some on the left - recoiling from the crude characterisation of Lenin as “a brutal dictator” - are “[turning] to Lars T Lih”. This is in the context where there is “an element of the reappearance of the 1960s” in academia - something to be encouraged: “The enormous radicalisation of students and academics which developed then was a reflection and, to some extent, precursor to the mass movements of workers in the 1960s and 1970s.”
In this fluid situation, the crude character assassinations of Lenin clunked out by the likes of Service, Figes and Pipes no longer suffice: a “more ‘subtle’ approach is required, given the protracted crisis of capitalism, which has seen a renewed interest in socialism and Marxism”. Step forward, Lars T Lih, who, while he is “more sympathetic to Lenin”, attempts to gut the man’s ideas of their revolutionary context and paint him in the colours of “some kind of woolly liberal”, as the (naturally) partisan intro to comrade Taaffe’s piece puts it.
So the need to counter the ideas of Lih is hardly a trivial one, then. In fact, one might expect comrade Taaffe to be all the more keen to cross swords with this “subtle” corruptor of Leninism, given there have been some dissenting comrades in his very own organisation who have turned to Lih in the recent past to interrogate their tradition and, as Paul Demarty put it in these pages, “[blow] apart the pseudo-Leninism of the bureaucratic sects”.6
However, it simply would not feature in the mental landscape of the SPEW leaders to actually invite Lih to the major educational event in their annual calendar; to give him a platform to expound and defend his views in an extended exchange with his critic and to give the audience the opportunity to interrogate both Lih and Taaffe on the details and nuances of their stances - and perhaps arrive at totally different theoretical conclusion to both of them.
No, no, no! This is not the purpose of SPEW educational events at all! As a leading member once told us when we were discussing the relative merits of The Socialist and Weekly Worker, this sort of thing would simply “confuse” the poor, benighted rank and file.
I use this example not as special pleading for the ideas of Lars Lih. As I mention above, the terrible fact is that there were no debates with contending Marxist views in the movement at all at this year’s Socialism. Rather, I raise it to contrast the SPEW leadership’s method to a genuinely rigorous and scientific approach to the body of theory that constitutes Marxism - a contested, constantly refined arena of conflicting ideas and perspectives. Not a finished dogma that it is now simply necessary to learn.
A partial qualification to this criticism is the fact that - again this year - the session chairs had no problem about bringing CPGBers and members of other groups into the debates following the main openings; they were generous with their interpretations of the five minutes allocated for contributions and even, in some meetings, thanked our comrades for sparking debate and highlighting differences in the approach of our two organisations. This culture also found reflection outside the meeting halls, where our comrades did pretty brisk paper sales, found a willingness to take and read our leaflets and got into some interesting discussions and comradely arguments.
Clearly, this is a confident organisation that feels it has weathered the storms of the late 80s and early 90s and seen off its most serious rival. The travails of the Socialist Workers Party are a definite contributor to SPEW’s upbeat assessments of its immediate future and its robust morale. For instance, a number of more experienced cadre agreed with my suggestion that at least part of the (still small) influx of youth that the organisation has had is composed of comrades who might in different times have gone to the SWP. Nowadays, of course, even a cursory internet search will quickly reveal that sect as tainted goods following the Delta debacle.7
However, SPEW has persevered rather than genuinely developed. Tenacity is an admirably quality and this trend in the workers’ movement has shown plenty of it in its time - but it is no substitute for genuine thought and there is a worryingly unreflective, uncritical view of the organisation’s history. Small organisational successes in the here and now are not conclusive proof of fidelity to political principle in general or that the crises that badly mauled SPEW and its forerunners in the past are now simply history.
This is a characteristic sect myopia that the comrades unfortunately share with the SWP. The latter organisation seems to have learned nothing from its recent series of political and organisational disasters - disasters the SWP leadership now seems absolutely determined to repeat.8
Similarly, in the Socialism session on the Scottish independence referendum, for Socialist Party Scotland national secretary Phillip Stott the killer vindication for the ‘yes’ position was the claim that large sections of the working class and youth - especially in the major conurbations - wanted independence. The ‘yes’ campaign was dubbed a “working class revolt” in this session (while in another session on ‘Trotskyism in the 21st century’ Peter Taaffe referred to it as “a proletarian revolt”). So, apparently, the job of Marxists is to tail such nationalist sentiments when they appear in the class - certainly not to confront it and launch a critical dialogue with those who embrace it. Then to give it a little ‘transitional method’ glitter by raising the demand for an “independent socialist Scotland” - even though socialism in one country is not simply a theoretical impossibility, but a recipe for Stalinist-style horror, as we were told by a leading SPEW comrade in a simultaneous session in the same building.
Likewise, we were told that - while everyone in the Sunday session on ‘Ukip, Europe and immigration: a Marxist approach’ of course supported open borders - the method of Marxism apparently precludes you from actually saying that publicly, as the majority of working class people do not agree.
Examples of the advocacy of this approach from the Socialism weekend were legion - as they are, to varying degrees, across the whole left unfortunately. It is a hopeless, non-Marxist method, comrades. Again in the event’s closing rally, comrade Sell correctly observed that today “socialist ideas are not popular”, but she was apparently confident that “more and more people will take up socialist ideas” - spontaneously presumably, without those who honour themselves with the title of ‘Marxists’ arguing for them, even if they start in a small minority.
This ‘path of least resistance’ politics can, as we have seen in the cases of both SPEW and the SWP, win some short-term popularity for the sect - perhaps even more for the front it operates behind. However, because it is not a unity forged around the open fight for a principled Marxist programme, it inevitably sows the seeds of division and decline pretty quickly - as the leaderships of both organisations should have the gumption to recall.
Personally, I cannot help remembering Rob Hoveman, then a minor SWP luminary, implacably listening to me criticising his organisation for a list of similar sins, while we relaxed in a pub after a Socialist Alliance meeting, on the eve of the SWP decamping to what it imagined to be the greener pastures of Respect. The comrade waited patiently till I paused and, with a tolerantly amiable smile, said: “Well, it works for us, Mark” - before ambling away to find someone much more important to talk to.
I wonder if he still thinks so.
2. The Socialist November 6 2013.
3. The Socialist November 7 2013.
4. The Committee for a Workers’ International, whose website claims to have “parties, groups or individuals in over 45 countries around the world”.
5. Socialism Today February 2014.
6. Weekly Worker February 20 2014.
7. Reflecting the slightly skewed importance that SPEW gives to the recruitment of younger comrades, Hannah Sell called on the audience in the final rally to draw in new comrades “in their school, their college, their workplace” - even though the majority of people present were clearly not ‘youth’.
8. See Peter Manson’s reviews of the SWP’s first two Pre-conference Bulletins in the October 9 and November 6 issues of the Weekly Worker.