Looking to the right
Andrew Byrne reports on the impressions of the target audience and the centre-stage given to Gilbert Achcar and Jeremy Corbyn
To some the return of the Socialist Workers Party’s annual ‘Marxism’ school marks little more than a post-Covid ‘getting back to normal’ and is a reflection of the wider thawing-out of the left after lockdown. However, this event comes at a time of acute crisis - not only for capitalism, but also the left.
In this piece I will therefore not focus on the same old errors and hypocrisies of the Cliffite sect to which readers of this paper will be familiar. Instead two particular areas stand out in their importance: the state of the SWP itself; and the criminal response of so-called Marxists - SWP included - to the war in Ukraine.
Numbers for Marxism 2022 were high and it clearly remains the largest such event on the organised left in Britain - not that that is saying much! At any one time sessions were being held in six small lecture rooms, as well as the People’s Palace Great Hall and a large Momentum-style ‘culture tent’ in the courtyard. Most were packed and talks were being live-streamed online with mixed technical and numerical success.
The targeted demographic remains the same and serves to feed the infamous life-cycle of the organisation’s membership. Idealistic and activist-minded youth and students are put through introductory taster-style talks, hooked through ‘radical’ slogans and a perceived revolutionism. The experience of most, however, is a mere flash in the pan - a few years of student activism and then back to normal bourgeois life. With only a small percentage of recruits staying longer than the length of their degree, and even fewer becoming serious cadre, the nature of this membership churn requires a constant influx of new personnel.
Both the ‘comrade Delta’ rape scandal and Covid’s crashing halt on campus and demonstration activity have clearly left their mark on the ranks. The SWP old-timers must have breathed a heavy sigh of relief then when they saw a new batch of fresh faces streaming through the gates of Queen Mary University once again. In the past year the recruitment numbers for the group have been on the rise again, as the Delta scandal fades into memory.
The militant sectarianism of the SWP is well known. Members are trained not only to be hostile to the rest of the left, but also to act as if other such groups simply do not exist. They manage to go beyond the realms of most cults that claim an entire monopoly of truth - even they recognise that there are those who are not ‘of the book’! On this occasion, this actually worked in my favour for writing this report.
As party members were on strict orders not to converse with the ‘alien elements’ to their left, this actually made it easier to talk to newbies and unorganised young leftists alike, who were discovering the SWP for the first time. This unique perspective was quite telling. Both myself and other comrades all caught on to a common theme amongst this all-important cohort: it was all very underwhelming.
Obviously there are those who do not know any better and fall for the act, but most young people, particularly the students that the SWP hungers for, are not stupid … after all, they are at uni for a reason. Sessions lasted for an hour and a quarter in total, with short openings and the three-minute contributions that the left has - criminally - become accustomed to. General, broad-brushstroke theory was combined with (barely even) skin-deep analysis.
One cannot draw a full prognosis of the long-term future of a political organisation from a single event, but, on the other hand, it is evident that things are far from rosy.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused an already fractured left to be pulled further apart, as the existing political trajectories of various groups accelerate towards their logical ends. As this is an immediate issue, where Marxist principle is being openly disregarded, all the more time should be devoted to study and debate and in particular challenging the unprincipled left.
The CPGB has taken a bold step in devoting the entirety of its week-long summer school, Communist University, to the question of ‘war and peace’ - but the SWP has made no such effort. Despite the clear importance of the issue, only two talks directly taking it on featured in the timetable (‘Ukraine: new frontier of empire?’ and ‘Debating the war in Ukraine’), as well as a few more general theoretical overviews (‘How do we turn imperialist war into class war?’ and ‘The new age of catastrophe’). This is a meagre showing for a school of nearly 80 separate sessions.
It is in this context that we turn our attention to the debate between Alex Callinicos and Gilbert Achcar. Readers will remember the fawning exchanges of letters from Callinicos to those arch-apologists for imperialism, Achcar himself and Paul Mason, in March.1 Then Mason was greeted with “Dear Paul” and complimented for his “excellent” new book on fascism, but now there is trouble in paradise - leaked emails showing collusion with state forces in an attempt to destabilise the anti-war left through a targeted campaign of misinformation came to light.2 All of which only confirms what anyone with two brain cells could have put together - Paul Mason is moving rightward faster than a bullet.
When it came to setting forth the party line, Callinicos was clear: socialists must take up the position of Lenin and Luxemburg in opposition to ‘our own’ bourgeoisie, while invoking Liebknecht’s slogan of “The main enemy is at home”. This certainly puts the SWP on the more principled wing of the left, but more principled does not mean consistently principled. The dual-defeatist leanings of the SWP, when it comes to Ukraine and Russia (if you ignore the Cliffite orthodoxy about ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ and Russia as an imperialist power), is all well and good. However, back in Blighty it becomes problematic: after all, its strategy amounts to promoting social-pacifism in the name of building a broad front anti-war movement.
This can be seen by the star billing given to Jeremy Corbyn to wax lyrical about non-violence and “heroic” conscientious objectors like Keir Hardie. (No, Jeremy - he wasn’t a class hero: he was a class traitor!) Yanis Varoufakis, Gary Younge and John McDonnell fall into the same category. The SWP anti-war campaigning in practice amounts to nothing more than promoting and tailing the mushy Stop the War Coalition. Fostering illusions in a utopian capitalism without war and demands for peace negotiated and enforced under the authority of the United Nations amounts to tailing the anti-war section of the capitalist class in yet another (un)popular front lash-up.
As far as Gilbert Achcar was concerned, there was no room for “any discussion between Marxists on the nature of present-day Russia as an imperialist country” - not a hard pill to swallow if you are the SWP. The key point of departure came from his rejection of the characterisation of the war itself as an inter-imperialist proxy war. For Achcar, the situation in Ukraine amounts to a “just war of self-defence” in the face of an invasion motivated by “great-Russian chauvinist ideology” with a clear “colonial-imperialist dimension”.
Such an analysis purposely omits the role of declining US hegemony and an overtly offensive Nato, which seeks to dismember Russia as a stepping stone to conflict with its only realistic future economic and military rival: China. Painting Russia as the big-bully ‘evil empire’ and the sole aggressor is not only dumb: it allows Achcar and his ilk to arrive at a formulation reminiscent of social-imperialism in 1914, championing ‘poor little Belgium’: “The Ukrainian resistance is legitimate, it is defending its country, its people, the sovereignty of its nation and this is something that we as leftwing, as Marxists, as radicals, we support.”
A false dichotomy then follows - either we line up behind the Nato war drive or we line up with Moscow and support Ukrainian obliteration. As he put it, “To say that we are against [Ukraine] receiving weapons from Nato, that means that we are for their surrender … I defend the right to get weapons from whichever source they can get.” The fact that this statement was greeted with applause from a significant portion of the room beggars belief!
Achcar sees no contradiction between his naked support for Nato imperialism as a response to a “concrete situation” and his professed Marxist commitment to that “old principle of the workers’ movement”, universal disarmament.
Contributions from the floor - whilst very muddled and so limited by time that saying anything of substance was nigh impossible - were not buying what Achcar was selling. A particularly impassioned comrade overtly called out Achcar’s past support for a no-fly zone in Libya - that went well! - and his perennial support for western interventions on the basis of such ‘concrete situations’. All this indicated some sign of healthy shoots of thinking, but why then Alex’s call for Achcar to “rejoin the anti-imperialist camp”? I think it is safe to say that Achcar’s ship has sailed long ago.
The story is not so simple for the SWP, however. Its analysis of imperialism is not without major faults, but at least some of the time the organisation puts forward a principled, anti-imperialist line. The trouble, as we know, comes in the form of crass economism and a strategic commitment to blindly tailing ‘popular’ movements, which pushes the said principle to breaking point. The result is not proletarian revolution at home, but “Tories, Tories, Tories - out, out, out!” - a slogan that Sir Keir would be more than happy to support! Callinicos’s other session, ‘Age of catastrophe’, and Michael Bradley’s ‘Turn the imperialist war into class war’ suffered from exactly the same limitations.
socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/ukraine-and-anti-imperialism-gilbert-achcar-and-alex-callinicos-de; and socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/ukraine-and-imperialism-alex-callinicos-replies-to-paul-mason.↩︎