I was amused by a little incident following the February 10 LSA rally for the Lambeth and Southwark constituency. It brought together nearly 100 people to hear the routine statements of local activists and candidates from the LSA slate. Afterwards, many drifted downstairs for a drink and - typical of the left at the moment - actually started talking politics.
I got involved in an exchange with a distinctly peeved SP member. Nothing new in that, of course. Given the SP's hopelessly contorted positions and its seemingly inexorable decline, its tenderised loyalists generally give the impression of having a huge, sullen huff on with everything and everybody. However, this comrade actually attempted to justify why he regarded the CPGB and all its works as beneath contempt.
Addressing the other people on his table, he began to loudly berate an issue of the Weekly Worker he had once been sent. (He did not address his remarks to me, of course. He would not talk to me ... so there.) Do you know that in this paper, he blustered with wide-eyed incredulity, the CPGB actually had the temerity to criticise the democratic credentials of the SP ... and yet the same issue had a double-spread centre page feature "defending the Moscow trials!"
Poor man. The issue of the paper this hapless SPer was referring to was from November 12 1998. On the front page, we featured the dissident SPers from the organisation's former political citadel, Merseyside. These comrades had been summarily ejected from the ranks with no right of appeal. We commented that, "Comrades in the movement should treat with some contempt any subsequent SP leadership professions of 'democratic unity' ... or claims to have always practised 'full freedom of discussion, genuine, comradely and fraternal debate' in its ranks". The centre pages did indeed carry a defence of the Moscow trials - but not by us. The authorship of the article - headlined 'In defence of Stalin' - is clearly attributed in an introductory passage to "Harpal Brar, member of the national executive of the Socialist Labour Party": that is, Arthur Scargill's man in London, who received the votes of the SWP in the June 1999 Euro elections. Who did the SP vote for? Anyone with even a passing knowledge with our politics would thus understand that we were carrying an exposure of the politics of a section of the leadership of the SLP. We had actually held over this text in order to use it outside the November 1998 SLP conference. It was timed to provoke the maximum discomfort and outrage against Brar's article.
It is hard not to feel sorry for someone who makes themselves look so foolish, no matter what their politics. But there is something more here. The comrade clearly read the issue closely, to the extent that he recalled it in some detail two years later. How then is it possible that he could have got it all so hopelessly wrong?
Fundamentally, it is question of culture. The SP, along with the bulk of the left, produces dull newspapers without a hint of controversy or debate. Letters pages are lifeless wastes of space clogged with mundane anecdotal corroboration of whatever is the current line, or by the personal experiences of raw, atomised individuals. The monthly Workers Power newspaper actually advertises its brain dead state by the complete absence of any correspondence.
Thus the clumsy faux pas of our unhappy SPer is perfectly explicable. For these types, if it is in the paper, by definition it must be the line of the organisation. Unfortunately, it is as crude as that. The comrade's walled-off group, the boorish sect culture he inhabits, simply has not given him the mental vocabulary to understand an open, democratic paper that regularly features lengthy theoretical articles which the elected leadership does not agree with. His assumption was that the CPGB - like the unabashed Stalinist, Harpal Brar - must defend the Moscow trials.
If this were just the stupidity of an individual, then it would hardly be worth commenting on. In fact, it is an example of a generalised political cretinism. This lowbrow atmosphere facilitates the bureaucratic manipulation of members by the various leadership cliques that head the sects. The best guarantee against the bureaucratic degeneration of any organisation is a well informed, politically knowledgeable, and articulate rank and file. The blind sect loyalty that Taaffe and his ilk inculcate produces comrades who can be inured against the arguments of others only by rumour, gossip, and innuendo. Thus, our SP comrade recounted his tale in practised manner, indicating it was his stock anecdote whenever our organisation came up as a subject of conversation. The clear implication would be - 'Don't take their ideas on democracy seriously. They're just a bunch of Stalinists!'
Of course, the delicious irony in this is that the controversial Harpal Brar piece displays exactly the same philistine methodology in its treatment of the struggle against Trotsky, the united opposition, and other dissenters in the Soviet party in the 1920s and 30s. They were defamed, slandered, and politically rubbished through an amalgam of half-truths and crude falsehood. For example, Trotsky was against the popular front. So was Hitler. Ipso facto, Trotsky is in league with Hitler. Brar's arguments - both in this article and in wacky books such as Trotskyism or Leninism? are no more sophisticated than that.
In this context, conscious lying or theoretical carelessness is not the point. Members of sects such as the SP become so expert in sincerely believing what is expedient to maintain their world view that simple mendacity is unnecessary. Untrained in Marxism and without any genuine independence of thought, they can believe in nonsense lightning quick and jeer at the truth for decades precisely because it is a requirement to maintain the sect belief system to which they are loyal.
Seen in this way, it is clear that the ludicrous views of our bar-room SP expert on the 'Stalinist' CPGB is a only a small link in a chain whose largest components are constituted by the interlocking series of false perspectives, bureaucratic intrigues and contempt for the democracy of the workers' movement displayed by Peter Taaffe, his particular leadership clique, and most others.