The Olympic ethic - being best, being top - seems to have been reflected in some very ugly forms lately. Premiership footballers topping each other’s insults, a bankrupt killing his children and then himself, and a neuroscience graduate stepping into a cinema to lay low as many people as he can. In a society where winning - being the winner, the boss - is increasingly lauded but only available to a few, we can expect a lot more ‘losers’ to go off the rails. Brain problems and tragedies of early childcare exist, but their effect can be intensified by an increased need to be ‘boss’ - even if only as some joker with a gun.

There are times when we respect winners, indeed go crazy over them - Bradley Wiggins for example; creative scientists, writers, people good at things in all fields are acclaimed. But when winning is rationed (even if only in a satisfying job, a life, recognition), chasing superiority (what made the financial sector what it is) can become a deadly rage.



Peter Manson’s reply (July 19) to my letter (July 12) makes three points: first, my objections could be applied to “just about any definition” (he gives the example of “opportunism”); second, that my “rough formulation” describes the symptom rather than the cause; third, that we have to use words in the way other people do in order to be understood.

The third point is most fundamental, but also most mistaken. Peter’s use of ‘sectarianism’ is orthodox Trotskyist, but it is not the predominant current usage on the left. The predominant current usage is that a ‘sectarian’ group is one which (a) pays attention to the political differences on the left, one which ‘talks to the left rather than talking to the masses’; and (hence) (b) one which gives space in its press to public criticisms of the current leaders of the ‘real mass movement’ like George Galloway or, on a larger scale, Hugo Chávez.

Hence, from the point of view of the majority of Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and Communist Party of Britain comrades, the small groups to their left are mostly sects, but they themselves are not; because even where the SWP splits violently with Galloway, this is not reflected in political criticism in Socialist Worker. This usage is derived ultimately from Dimitrov’s speech on the united front and the people’s front at the 7th Congress of Comintern, via ‘official’ communism.

To use ‘sectarian’ in this way in accordance with “constant employment in a particular context” is to fall into a political trap, because the usage carries with it support for the whole fucked-up practice of the far left, complete with the apolitical and pseudo-political splits of the SWP with Respect, and of Counterfire and Chris Bambery with the SWP.

So we have to fight for an alternative to the common left usage. This is not the only field where we do so: the political and media agents of the capitalist class have made ‘democracy’ into an expression for plutocratic minority rule through ‘rule of law’ constitutionalism. For both the broad masses and much of the left, ‘communism’ means the USSR and similar bureaucratic regimes. In both cases, we fight to persuade people to change the meaning given by “constant employment in a particular context”.

Peter’s orthodox definition is, in my opinion, not a usable alternative. The reason is that it generalises on and abstracts from Marx’s usage to the point at which it comes to lack any operational content which can distinguish the Spartacists from the Labour Party or the Aslef union - the Labour Party also puts the (apparent, short-term) interests of a section of the working class (‘British workers’) ahead of the interests of the class as a whole; Aslef can from time to time be accused of putting train-driver interests ahead of the interests of the class as a whole. Neither the Labour Party nor Aslef could be called ‘sects’ without departing much further from common language usage than I wish to.

To turn to his first point, I simply don’t accept it. My criticism of the orthodox definition is that it started from a usage by Marx which referred to a specific sort of politics. The ‘sectarians’ rejected the organisation (a) of trade unions and (b) of parties based simply on independent political representation of the working class as such, in favour of particular schemes (Fourierist phalansteries, Owenite cooperatives, Proudhon’s People’s Bank). This sort of politics is now marginal and the multiple Trotskyist, Maoist, etc groups - even the smallest and most dogmatic - are not ‘sectarian’ in the sense in which Marx used the term. In order to make the term applicable to small left groups more generally, the ‘orthodox definition’ generalises on Marx’s usage to the point at which it becomes so broad as to be content-free. I do not in the least accept that this criticism is true of any definition at all.

To take the particular example of ‘opportunism’, the commonplace usage of ‘opportunist’ in the Second International, and descended from there to communism and Trotskyism, means merely ‘on the right wing of the workers’ party’. This is odd relative to mainstream usage, but not without content.

Peter gives a distinct definition which is closer to mainstream usage: ‘engaging in unprincipled action for short-term gain’. I would amend this to: ‘engaging in action which is inconsistent with your own declared principles for short-term gain’. On this basis, Miliband is opportunist when he joins with the Tory right to kill Clegg’s House of Lords reform in the hope of destabilising the coalition government. But if there were communist MPs, for them to join with the Tory right to kill House of Lords reform would not be opportunist on this definition, because we want to see the Lords abolished, not reformed (and this proposed ‘reform’, though broadly consistent with Labour Party policy, would actually make the constitution less democratic).

This is why I say “your own declared principles”. To kill Clegg’s House of Lords reform proposal is in the objective interests of the working class, and in that sense principled. But for Miliband, who doesn’t share our views on this question and is acting merely for short-term gain, it is opportunist.

I have explored this point at length to illustrate the point that definitions need not be so general as to be content-free. Moreover, the problem is not in itself that the working class has objective interests and that we seek to pursue these interests. The problem is that by tying words like ‘sectarian’ and ‘opportunist’ to the issue of the objective interests of the working class in an unmediated way, we turn the words into mere terms of abuse.

Peter’s second point is that “Mike’s alternative ‘rough formulation’ describes the symptom, not the cause. It is also unsatisfactory in other ways. For example, where is the dividing line between ‘partial common ground’ and overall disagreement? Is it not possible in some circumstances for there to be sound reasons for rejecting ‘united organisation and common action’ despite ‘partial common ground’? Am I a sectarian if I reject ‘united organisation and common action’ with the Sparts by refusing to join the International Communist League?”

I agree that my alternative “rough formulation” - that “sectarianism is the rejection of united organisation and common action where it is possible on the basis of partial common ground” - in a sense arguably describes the symptom and not the cause. It was, precisely, a “rough formulation” which needs further development. However, as I will come on to shortly, the problem is that Peter’s conception of the ‘cause’ short-circuits a real problem.

My alternative formulation certainly does not imply that we are sectarians if we refuse to join the ICL: I say, where it is possible. Their commitment to bureaucratic centralism makes it impossible even for those generally committed to broadly Spartacist ideas to unite: witness their splinters.

Peter says that “Mike and I both agree that the existence of rival anti-cuts campaigns results from the sectarianism of the sponsoring leftwing groups, but surely he must also agree that their ‘rejection of united organisation and common action’ results directly from their putting the interests of the part before those of the whole. Why else are they refusing to unite?”

The immediate answer as to why they’re refusing to unite is that each group wants to retain control of the broad front and not to be placed in the position of having to operate as a minority. But is this in the objective interests of the SWP, SPEW, etc, as groups? The answer is that it is not.

Suppose that the objective interest of the whole British working class is immediately a single anti-cuts campaign, as soon as possible a single Communist Party, and ultimately a single independent workers’ party not (unlike the current Labour Party controlled by the capitalist state and media). In all these cases what is needed (and the only way effective unity is actually possible) is unity in diversity with open expression of differences. Why is that not also the objective interest of the SWP, as a group, as a whole? Assuming the SWP’s supposed sect shibboleth - ‘classical Marxism’ as instantiated through Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism - was right, wouldn’t unity provide the most favourable possible conditions for SWP policy to become the leadership of the mass movement, which is the SWP’s strategic goal?

There is perhaps an interest involved, which is the interest of the small group of leaders and the full-time apparatus (in the SWP rather over-sized relative to the size of the group) in retaining personal control, and, in the case of the full-timers, their jobs. But, to be frank, this is a pretty weak interest. Bureaucratic control in the mass parties and trade unions is backed by the class interests of the bourgeoisie and the operations of its state. In ‘official’ communism it resulted from the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic centralism and its sectarian accompaniment in the far left looks more like my failure to give up smoking, which is against my objective interests: a habit, which is opposed to the objective interests of SWP (and so on) members, but which they are hooked on.


Last resort

I was interested in, and yet deeply disappointed with, a part of Moshé Machover’s essay in last week’s Weekly Worker. The statement I find contradictory and, ultimately, more left-Zionist than revolutionary socialist is the following: “Thus, we did not advocate a so-called ‘two-state solution’ in a repartitioned Palestine, nor a ‘one-state solution’ in a unitary Palestine. Instead, we envisaged incorporation of the two national groups - the Palestinian Arabs and the Hebrews (so-called Israeli Jews) - as units with equal rights within a socialist regional union or federation of the Arab east” (‘Standing the test of time’, July 19).

While this sounds good, it is, at best, a mechanical and scholastic solution - and, at worst, it tramples on the rights of the oppressed people in question, the Palestinians. It seems that Machover’s starting point is not either the Zionist entity’s existence or what this represents for the native, indigenous people, pushed off their land and seeking the right to return, under Arab majority rule. Machover places an equal sign between Arabs and Israelis, as if the expulsion of a majority of Palestinian Arabs never occurred and could, academically, be solved with his ahistorical solution.

To start with, Marxists do not, ever, place an equal sign between the oppressed and the oppressor. We always start from the point of view of the oppressed peoples in question and place this in a world-historical context of decaying capitalism. Machover does not do this. Instead he appears to come up with a solution that attempts to please both sides and, of course, only really appeases his own ambivalence.

The ‘socialist federation’ slogan/demand/call is always the last resort of those who, wedded to that equal sign, can’t come down squarely on the side of Palestine and the right of the oppressed and disposed Palestinian people to their land and nation. By placing the oppression of Palestinians on the same level as the presumptive rights of the settler-colonialist Jewish Israelis (no-one in the world calls Israelis ‘Hebrews’) the ‘socialist federation’ demand, or precondition, denies the right of the oppressed first to organise and seek solutions to their national oppression through self-determination.

It asks that we all agree on socialism first, and only then, somehow, we can address national grievances. This is ahistorical and the opposite of a truly socialist solution. It is only by recognising the rights of the oppressed nationality first that we can begin discussing, within the democratic framework of Arab majority rule in a unitary state, under the convocation of a revolutionary democratic institution, such as a constituent assembly elected by all the residents of Palestine, the democratic resolution of the ‘Jewish’ question. It is only by siding with the oppressed that the idea of a ‘socialist federation’ can truly be posed.

The position Machover advocates is identical to that of the Stalinists in South Africa, which they imposed: the preservation of white settler South African rights as a precondition for ending the formal part of apartheid. Thus, they pushed the preservation of all ‘national’ rights for ‘whites’, including the most important: namely the right to their ‘property’ and, most notably, their land. Thus, black majority rule was never achieved except within the formal parameters of a limited capitalist democracy.

Last resort
Last resort

Racist defender

In response to Harley Filben and his article, ‘Football through the looking glass’ (July 19), I am somewhat surprised to see a communist defending racism in football and describing it as macho. The British National Party took the same line in their publication. Racism is unacceptable wherever and however it raises its ugly head.

Consider this. For players the football stadium is their place of work and for most of us so is the factory or the office. If a worker calls another worker a ‘f***ing b***k c**t’, they would rightly be suspended from work until a disciplinary hearing and would almost certainly be dismissed for gross misconduct.

Of course, what this case stinks of is that professional football is all about making huge fortunes for clubs and players, no matter what the cost, and we as communists should be against this, whether there is racism or not. But we must be totally opposed to racism without question for no other reason than that it divides our class.

We certainly do not need to defend rich soccer players who have nothing in common with us and are so arrogant that they think they can do anything they like without suffering consequences.

On top of this, what about supporters of colour - do they need to hear this abuse? I am certainly glad I wasn’t there with my mixed-race grandson.

Kick racism out of football and kick racism out of society.

Racist defender
Racist defender


It was with considerable interest that I read the report by comrade Edward Crawford of the recent educational conference of the US International Socialist Organization (July 19). The report is generally positive as to the development of the ISO and its growth into a modestly sized revolutionary socialist organisation located in the very belly of the beast. Particularly pleasing was the discussion of the ISO leadership’s view that discussions of politics within the organisation must become the property of that section of the radical public that is interested in such matters.

More amusing was the playful discussion by the comrade that adherence to the theory of state capitalism was no longer a criterion for membership of the organisation as it once was in practice, if not in theory. Evidence of this is, as is widely known, membership in leading roles of figures such as Joel Geier, who adheres to the bureaucratic collectivist heresy, and Paul Le Blanc, who similarly adheres to the degenerated workers’ state heresy - my choice of the word ‘heresy’ being recognition of comrade Crawford’s playful reference to these various ‘theologies’, as he describes them.

Indeed the comrade has a good point, in that these competing interpretations of the class nature of the former USSR were once wrongly seen as lines of demarcation. Yet in point of fact, despite holding to the defencist or degenerated workers’ state position, revolutionaries in the non-Stalinist countries have consistently rallied to the support of those rebelling against the tyranny of Stalinism, regardless of whichever theory they formally held. Of course, for the adherents of the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist theologies the dialectical arabesques that the defencist tendencies had to perform were unnecessary - but that, as they say, is another story.

In passing, I note that Leon Trotsky too was convinced that all revolutionaries, regardless of their assessment of the Russian state formation, belonged in the same party - that is, as long as they agreed on the need for a revolutionary party, a criterion that would exclude the many latter-day advocates of a multi-tendency party.

Theological or not, comrade Crawford passes over the importance of state capitalist theory - that is to say, its use as a tool for analysing contemporary capitalism. In this sense it is and will remain central to the development of revolutionary theory for the good reason that capitalism and the state are more intertwined today than they were during the heyday of Stalinism. Or should we ignore the statification of private debt and the increasing integration of the state with capital in general? I suspect that in this sense the comrades of the ISO, of all theological tendencies, would agree as to the continued importance of state capitalist theory.



In Simon Wells’ review of my book, An agency of their own: sex worker union organising, he stated that my “understanding of sex work does not come from first-hand accounts: he has not gone out and conducted interviews or issued questionnaires” (‘Solidarity, morality and sex’, July 12). This is incorrect - I make clear in the book on pages 9-10 that one of my major sources of data was interviews with sex worker union activists in Australia, Britain and the United States.

I stress the point because, while it is up to the researcher to interpret the views of these interviewees, it is essential in any robust social science to interview those very people who are the subjects of the research and not to rely on others’ interpretations of what they do or do not believe and have or have not done.

However, owing to lack of language skills and funding, I was not able to do the same for the other countries in the study (like Argentina, France, Germany and the Netherlands), so I was reliant upon triangulating sex worker union reports with other sources and media (mainstream and left).



I didn’t see the Weekly Worker for two weeks, so I avoided the display of libertarian misogyny which currently passes for socialist ‘analysis’ of prostitution in Simon Wells’ article and John Smithee’s letter (July 19).

Given the evident wilful ignorance of the true nature of the ‘sex’ industry, it is instructive to read the views of women who have now exited prostitution. There is no shortage of these accounts, which is unsurprising, given the overwhelming numbers who want to leave, but are unable to do so. Oddly enough, I have yet to read an impassioned plea advocating their ‘right to choose’ printed in the Weekly Worker.

Here’s just one example: “I rage at each and every so-called feminist who called it sex work. They give themselves the image that the sex trade must be liberating and empowering to women - just small changes in the conditions; they push for indoors prostitution in the false belief it is safer and can be made women-friendly ... I rage at each and every leftist who make excuses for the continuance of the sex trade, or said it is okay for leftwing men and women, but bad when the right consume the sex trade. They … think using indoors prostitution is fine - just put in fake unions run by pimps and punters” (Rebecca Mott).

We have, in Simon’s article, the judgement that the Scottish Socialist Party adopted a policy based on “class-collaborationist feminism” rather than class struggle. It is considered irrelevant if men are abusive or prostitution degrades women, as unionisation will still provide a progressive solution. This is a phenomenally illogical statement. It is far from irrelevant; unionisation would represent a ludicrous attempt to sanitise sexualised violence as a regular job, incorporated into and validated by the labour movement. Class struggle is considered as a struggle between different ideas, disembodied from actual people, and thus we end up with such interesting formulations as the idea that a visit to a sex club is a ‘private’ matter, and therefore not subject to political consideration. Surely, a commercial club of any kind is by definition a public space? A personal decision to visit it does not make such a decision ‘private’ and beyond political analysis.

The SSP’s position is: “Those prostituted women who believe that they are freely ‘choosing’ to sell sex are not criminalised by the SSP’s position, but can access the resources they need to stay safe and reduce ill health. Therefore, there need to be resources in place so that all prostituted women can access the required resources they need without fear of reprisals or criminalisation. The SSP has taken a ground-breaking step. While our internal discussions were going on, the Scottish executive was also debating the issue through a public consultation. While all of the submissions highlighted the vulnerability of prostituted women and the dangers inherent in the industry, the premise of the final report was that the duty of the state was to manage prostitution. In contrast, we believe that the paid abuse of women is intolerable and, far from being ‘managed’, must be eradicated.”

The idea that prostitution represents independence from the institution of the family is laughable. As is immediately apparent, prostitution is entirely dependent on the bourgeois family, which provides both its training ground and its marketplace. The average age for entry into prostitution is currently 13, down from last year’s estimated average of 14. Marriage and the family guarantee sexual access to women’s bodies in the private domestic sphere, defended by the right (marital rape was only criminalised in 1991; ‘consummation’ by penis-in-vagina sex provides a baseline definition of legally valid marriage), while prostitution provides public access limited only by ability to pay, defended by the left.

About 80% of prostitutes were subjected to sexual and emotional abuse as children within their families. About 90% of punters are in relationships with women. The money spent on prostitution is therefore legally the joint property of the punters’ female partners. The wives’ views on this situation are (curiously) unrecorded; sometimes the punter wishes to include both his wife and the prostitute in a re-enactment of some favourite pornography, in which case many wives are uncooperative, and some prostitutes report discomfort with involving an unwilling participant. Thus the obvious effects on the oppression of women more generally, not only the individuals directly involved, and on relations between men and women are made clear to all but the most determinedly blinkered. Prostitution is nothing but the commercialised inequality and sexual abuse experienced by women and children in the traditional family.

The continued reliance on liberal, libertarian ideology to defend prostitution with no semblance of socialist content, as could be easily derived from Engels’ formulation of the oppression of women, should give us a clue about the vacuous nature of Simon’s and John’s position. The use of words such as ‘morality’ and ‘sex’ reveals the wholly superficial understanding. The objection to the ‘sex’ industry is that prostitution is precisely not sex, any more than rape is. It is not to be analysed as a question of morality, but of politics.

What is the problem that prostitution solves? The only reasonable answer is that it provides a reliable supply of women and children (less commonly men) for an overwhelmingly male clientele to use as wank socks. Why is this regarded as indispensable? Weigh up the pros and cons - if Simon and John are right, it would be a pointless deprivation for men to pursue their self-pleasuring without the paid assistance of some of the most abused and damaged individuals society produces, ably defended by the tiny proportion of self-described ‘sex workers’ who really are ‘paying their way through a PhD’.

If I’m right, grown men won’t be allowed to pay to rape 13-year-olds with impunity. Which one of those two options do you find more palatable?



As light relief, it was interesting to note Yassamine Mather’s anecdote relating to the farewell meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Chou En Lai in Moscow, November 1961 (‘Sealed trains and class traitors’, July 19). The Soviet party boss had earlier boasted of his humble origins; they said farewell, accepting great political differences between them, each implying their opponent’s policies were ‘anti-working class’. However, Chou, whose class origins were far from proletarian, believed he scored a ‘final victory’ in bidding farewell to the Soviet premier, remarking: “We also have something in common - we have both betrayed our class!”

Long before the days of the 22nd Soviet Congress, where Yassamine sets her scene, this anecdote was frequently told in Communist Party gatherings - I remember hearing it often at Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in the 1950s (sometimes it was me telling it!). But the punch line was always delivered to Ernest Bevin, then foreign secretary in the post-war Attlee government. There were at least four versions to the story: possibly the earliest being an encounter between Bevin and foreign minister Molotov, in Berlin, 1946; the second an exchange between Bevin and Vyshinsky, following a prosecution at one of the infamous Moscow trials, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow (there are pictures of their meeting on the web); thirdly, an encounter between Bevin and Vyshinsky at the United Nations HQ in New York, following the death of Stalin; and, finally, at the Berlin conference, 1949. All four versions are easily found on the internet.

No doubt, following Yassamine’s update, there will be five versions awaiting today’s researchers!