In our exchange about the definition of ‘sectarianism’, Mike Macnair says: “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” (Letters, July 26).
This led me to do a little research into the employment of the term by the Socialist Workers Party in particular. Here are three examples.
l The late Chris Harman, writing in 2004, talks about “a ‘sectarian’ approach of standing apart from struggle” and “a sectarian practice that involved standing aside from [mass] movements”. In contrast to those like the SWP, who know how to correctly engage in such struggles, “sectarians … do not understand the importance of a limited programme which can draw in the widest number of activists” (International Socialism autumn 2004).
l Chris Bambery, in a 2005 article, states: “The Socialist Workers Party wants to be part of a mass movement in which we can win a mass hearing for revolution. The main danger facing the left today is sectarianism. New movements and a new left are emerging, globally and locally. Revolutionary socialists cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, but need to be at the centre of the debate” (www.socialistworker.co.uk/archive/1751/sw175111.htm).
l Joseph Choonara (2009): “A serious revolutionary organisation starts from what unites it with workers who are fighting back ... So which party should you join? The one least interested in petty squabbling on the left and most capable of engaging with the struggles of those fighting back. The Socialist Workers Party may disagree with other left groups, but it does not churn out tracts denouncing their sins. Nor does it look for blemishes in every movement simply to justify standing aloof from it. It is only once you get stuck into the struggle that real political debate about the way forward, rather than sectarian lecturing, can be on the agenda” (Socialist Worker April 4 2009).
It is clear from these examples that SWP usage defines sectarianism as standing “apart”, “aside” or “aloof” from the movement. In fact this usage is rather similar to Mike’s “rough formulation” - that “sectarianism is the rejection of united organisation and common action where it is possible on the basis of partial common ground”. But in the hands of the SWP this of necessity means toning down your own revolutionism by focusing entirely on that “partial common ground” in order to (eventually) “win a mass hearing for revolution”.
So, yes, the SWP generally refuses to engage in debate with other left groups and it is very diplomatic in its criticism of its allies to the right. But it is incorrect to imply that it never engages in public criticism, however muted, of those allies. It did criticise George Galloway at the time of the split in Respect and, for example, it has more recently reported on its disagreements with Mark Serwotka on the timing and extent of public sector protest strikes.
But, once again, to point to the refusal to debate differences on the left, or the toning down of criticism and of its own revolutionism, is merely to point to the symptom. The SWP engages in these practices because it believes they facilitate “united organisation and common action”, which in turn is necessary to pursue the interests of ‘the working class as a whole’.
The fact that the SWP draws particular conclusions about the way in which the first must be facilitated or the second must be pursued does not in itself call into question either Mike’s definition or what I believe to be the more precise one: ‘putting the interests of one’s own organisation before those of the working class as a whole’. Neither definition carries with it “support for the whole fucked-up practice of the far left”. Neither is “so broad as to be content-free”.
The SWP actually demands that “united organisation” must be advanced on its own terms. So it calls on everybody to join Right to Work or Unite the Resistance and not the rival “united organisation” promoted by the Socialist Party in England and Wales or Counterfire.
Mike says: “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.”
Well, he has inserted the word “objective” before “interests” in order to deny that the groups mentioned are pursuing separate and rival perceived interests (you could say that communism it is in the objective interest of every human being and that therefore the contesting classes have no real rival interests). In fact the SWP et al want control in order to win a bigger influence, gain more recruits and strengthen their own sectarian projects at the expense of the others. Yes, that is in the interest “of the small group of leaders and the full-time apparatus”, in that they wish to retain “personal control, and, in the case of the full-timers, their jobs”. But those leaders usually manage to persuade their membership that the interests of the leaders and those of the organisation itself are identical.
Finally, Mike raises a new objection to the orthodox definition of ‘sectarianism’: “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.”
In my view this criticism is completely insubstantial. Surely it is a given that terms like ‘sectarianism’ and ‘opportunism’, as employed by Marxists, are used specifically to refer to the failings of groups and individuals on the far left? In case of ambiguity, however, we could always say: ‘putting the interests of one’s own revolutionary organisation before those of the working class as a whole’.
In What is to be done? Lenin comments: “… you all can go into the swamp, but I am not going to follow you.” Was Lenin a sectarian or was he a principled Marxist who refused to adapt to opportunism?
The most important part of comrade Macnair’s comment is on the nature of rank-and-file groups. As a non-Socialist Party member on the steering committee of the National Shop Stewards Network, I agree with his conclusion. At one time the NSSN was composed of two main political groupings, the SWP and the SP, together with various non-aligned syndicalists and anarchists, but some years ago the SP majority engineered a split and the SWP walked out of the organisation. It is now largely dominated by the SP.
The SP is a left reformist organisation moving rapidly to the right and they have cultivated relationships with bureaucrats like Crow and Serwotka in the trade union bureaucracy. They organise big conferences with over 400 workers attending, occupying the ground that the Communist Party’s Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions once occupied. That is why I think it is important to resist the reformist outlook of the SP and battle inside the NSSN.
The SWP, of course, are anti-communists and flit eclectically from one position to another. In the recent pensions dispute they and the SP consciously aided the right wing of the trade union bureaucracy. Counterfire and its Coalition of Resistance is a rightwing split from the SWP and have no serious role, as far as I am concerned. Comrade Macnair is right: these splits and the refusal to adopt a common programme - what a difference that would make - produce a disorganising effect.
The unification of these disparate organisations is still the task we need to set ourselves - but on a principled basis, not cosying up to the trade union bureaucracy, whether it be left or right.
State cap retort
I would like to take issue - well, mild issue anyway - with Mike Pearn’s attack on me in regard to the theory of state capitalism (Letters, July 26).
It is true that Trotsky held that different theories of the nature of the Soviet Union were not bars to belonging to the same party or organisation. What enabled people to do so was their programmatic agreement on what to do in Russia, Britain and elsewhere. But that is not how older comrades such as myself remember it, as far as all 57 varieties that claimed to be Trotskyist were concerned in the 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. The International Socialists took a hard position against the others as ‘degenerated workers’ statists’ and the IS/Socialist Workers Party were denounced as the ‘state caps’ - that defined them for many otherwise very sane and highly intelligent individuals, such as my late comrade, Al Richardson. True, I think he was softening a bit towards the end of his life, but until then it was felt there was a secret James Burnham/Max Shachtman class traitor inside Tony Cliff.
In fact it seems to me that the words ‘state capitalist’ are used in two distinct ways. One, to which Mike refers at the end of his letter, relates to the particular way in which the state has intertwined itself - or rather has been intertwined - with capitalism, whether in the UK, the USA, present-day Russia or China, let alone Egypt, Iran and most of the other countries of the world. This has occurred both nationally and internationally in many, many markets - commodity, financial and labour ones. Nigel Harris has written brilliantly about this and the way in which large masses of capital are breaking down the authority of the national state.
The other meaning was the Soviet system, where no market production of any sort was allowed, where there was a high degree of autarchy and often incredible economic inefficiency, and where a monstrous tyranny was imposed, so that all institutions were state ones, as in North Korea today. In all the other cases there was a stock market, however monopolistic and corrupt, and some room for institutions outside the state, but this did not appear to be the case in the Soviet Union. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect circle and I am sure comrades will point to exceptions to this, but there was surely a very great qualitative and not merely quantitative difference between the USSR, on the one hand, and Mubarak’s Egypt, Putin’s Russia or present-day China, on the other. With the disappearance of the USSR, the problem no longer exists as a practical one except perhaps in North Korea (I know Harris would see the USSR and all the others as part of the same continuum).
It is, of course, a very interesting historical question - what was the USSR? So powerful, yet so fragile, perhaps a very peculiar, temporary blind alley, in which the first workers’ state found itself. Was it a one-off (sui generis to Latinists) that will be unrepeatable? Should it have died 50-70 years ago, but outlived its time? What it was not was a new mode of production. In order to annoy everyone, I think I would see the USSR as once originally a workers’ state, with a totally state capitalist economy, run by a despotic collective of bureaucrats with disastrous consequences for the world working class.
But I have no wish for theological disputation (having lost my faith at the age of 16 while doing the reformation at history O level and finally deciding that it was all a load of bollocks a few months after my confirmation in the Anglican denomination).
What is surely important is the nature of the programme that we have to elucidate for the present times, the sort of organisation (party?) that we must build, the nature of the links between different national movements that we must forge and what we can learn from the past about all these things. I suspect Mike would not disagree with me about any of this in broad terms, though not always in the details. In relation to these questions many aspects of the American International Socialist Organization today struck me as very positive.
State cap retort
State cap retort
David Walters proposes to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by instituting “Arab majority rule” (Letters, July 26) - an obvious echo of the call for “black majority rule” during the struggle against South African apartheid.
His advocacy of inequality of national rights, and of redressing the national oppression of the Palestinian people before the idea of a regional socialist federation can even “truly be posed”, amounts to seeking a bourgeois nationalist resolution of the conflict, prior to and unconditioned by a socialist revolution.
But the analogy with South African apartheid is false and misleading; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot have a bourgeois nationalist resolution. To understand why, and to find a rebuttal of his other objections, David Walters should read my recently published book, Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution, especially the penultimate chapter, ‘Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a socialist viewpoint’. See also my article, ‘Breaking the chains of Zionist oppression’ (Weekly Worker February 19 2009).
I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with an article as much as Jim Creegan’s obituary of Alex Cockburn (‘A radical for all seasons’, July 26). I am truly shocked that a revolutionary socialist paper could print Creegan’s utter garbage. I have no doubt this was an honest mistake, but the paper should issue a profound apology.
Cockburn was not an anti-Zionist and made common cause with Gilad Atzmon and a whole galaxy of Atzmonites and other fake progressives. I have done a quick Google search on the Counterpunch site and it lists no less than 304 Atzmon articles - no doubt some of them are duplicates. Cockburn was part of that reactionary gaggle of conspiracy theorists who, not understanding capitalism, reached back into the cesspit of pre-capitalist society.
What is worse is that the garbage site called Counterpunch has constantly reprinted the articles of the medieval anti-Semite, Israel Shamir, who believes in the ‘blood libel’, whereby Jews murdered non-Jewish children to use their blood to make matzot (unleavened bread) for Passover. Countless Jews died the most horrible deaths, victims of Christian-inspired pogroms at Easter, because of this. Julius Streicher, the Nazi editor of Der Stürmer who was hanged at Nuremburg, revived this blasphemy in his pornographic paper.
Or perhaps more to Jim Creegan’s taste is Israel Shamir’s ‘Dreyfus case, revisited’ which Counterpunch printed. “Was he really a victim of anti-Semitism?” Shamir asks about the royalist-military frame-up of the Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus. It was precisely the defeat of these reactionaries that led, 40 years later, to the resistance to the Nazis and the remarkable survival of 75% of French Jewry in the holocaust.
I also have a personal-political axe to grind. When Mary Rizzo, Atzmon’s collaborator (before she found out he was a misogynist) printed a particularly virulent attack on me personally and Jews Against Zionism, Roland Rance and myself replied. Cockburn not only refused to publish it, but he refused, despite many emails and phone messages, to acknowledge it (see www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Politics/Counterpunch.html).
If his father, the redoubtable Claud Cockburn, had seen what and who his son had aided in the cause of ‘anti-imperialism’ he would have turned in his grave. That Alex Cockburn started off as a radical is not doubted, but he died a reactionary racist who believed that conspiracies explained all.
The latest circular to Unite bus workers tells us that “on June 22 thousands of Unite bus workers came together in a historic act of unity”, that “every bus operator in London was forced to negotiate in one room with Unite for the first time” and that there were “over 2,000 new members joining since the start of the campaign”. It asked: “How can anyone say this isn’t a total victory?”
It is true that from zero offered at the beginning this represents a victory, but a very minor and limited one. It was achieved by strike action and can be built upon if we correctly assess what has been achieved. But this is only a small part of the story. A 29% minority voted against this deal, which concedes an Olympics bonus of £27.50 per completed duty, amounting to a maximum of £577 before tax. But those off sick, on holidays or having rest days will lose out.
And there is no mention of the use of court injunctions during this dispute, granted to three companies by anti-working class judges (are there any other kind?) on the most spurious grounds. Before that last day’s strike was called off, seven more companies had applied for injunctions. There was no question of Unite defying these laws, which declared illegal a 96.7% vote for strike action in Metroline, for instance. Until these laws are defied in a mass way and the laws repealed as a consequence, we will see the democratic right to strike effectively abolished by these injunctions.
The bonus claim was also correctly seen by many as a diversion from the central attacks on bus drivers over the last three years, since the abandonment by Unite of the equal pay campaign in late 2008. Since then wage settlements have been below inflation for all drivers. A two-tier workforce has been introduced by the companies across London with not even a token show of opposition from Unite. And this has escalated recently - for instance, Metroline introduced its new starter rates on January 1 2012 without even bothering to consult the union. That amounts to effective derecognition.
Because there is now such a two-tier workforce then it is obviously in the best interests of all companies to get rid of the higher paid ‘senior’ staff, so the rate of disciplinaries and sackings has enormously increased, with final written warnings awarded for brushing another bus mirror and sackings for three reports of missed passes for passengers who could have boarded by the back door.
Of course, a strike during the Olympics on the above might have won us back all we lost in recent years. And this is what makes this Olympics bonus “total victory” such a bittersweet pill to swallow. Drivers all across London know that Unite could have done so much better by its members on the issues that really matter if they chose to fight on them.
In July 2008 regional secretary Peter Kavanagh said: “If we don’t get parity across London by the time the Olympics starts, no-one will get to the starting line.” Not only have we not got that across London; we do not have it now within single garages themselves. At Arriva in Watford they pay £7.80 for starters. There is now total silence on the “race to the bottom” that they all condemned so vociferously in 2008.
Unless the rank and file can rally against this bureaucracy we will get nowhere.
What a brilliant article by comrade Ben Lewis! (‘Doing it better than our enemy’, July 26). I’d like to suggest some practical starting points for workers’ sports as part of the party-movement - not as its own separate ‘worker sport movement’. Various sport services can be provided in the here and now with little initial ‘investment’, particularly with regards to facilities: chess and checkers groups, hiking groups and such.
Linking this to the theoretical, the standard definition of tailism is one where the class-conscious workers are merely behind the struggles of less conscious workers. I have entertained the neological concept of ‘revolutionary tailism’, whereby the class-conscious workers would educate, agitate and organise with the express purpose of pushing workers ahead, but then realised that tailism is tied to workers already on the move.
The position of coach, however, is one that is behind the bench during a game, perhaps on the playing area during practices and in the locker room during intermissions. So what about ‘coachism’ then? Sometimes the authoritative coaching might have to be as strict as that of Soviet hockey authoritarians Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov (I’m a hockey fan), but ultimately the players themselves bask in the glory of the sport.
During my recent brief membership of the Labour Party, I tried to get the local party to actively promote the selection of women candidates for the 2013 county council elections, without any success.
All leftwing groups, perhaps with the exception of Socialist Party in England and Wales, have very few female members either at rank-and-file level or in the higher echelons. This, in my honest opinion, is a big mistake. The way to win male members is to first recruit large numbers of female members. It is no accident that the Young Conservatives and the Young Communist League (during the 1930s) were both known as marriage bureaus.
Even the TUC understands what I am getting at. The general council has nominated a woman as the next TUC general secretary, who will be approved by the TUC Congress this September. The general council fully understands that 55% of trade union members are now female. At the same time, the cutbacks in the public sector are disproportionately hitting female workers.
Over the past weeks we have received countless statements of solidarity relating to our exclusion from the Linke Buchtage book fair in Berlin, including from Ken Loach, Moshé Machover, Saree Makdisi, Moshe Zuckermann, Ben Watson, Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, Tariq Ali and Ilan Pappe, to name but a few. We would like to use this opportunity to thank all signatories for their solidarity with the LAIKA publishing house.
This solidarity has served to reinforce our publishing policies. We consider it a gain for us all when groups that hold formal identities but lack political substance are confronted with their own limitations. However, we must be clear that they are merely extreme manifestations of a lost left identity, using substitute themes to compensate for barely recognisable class-struggle content.
Today we are a long way off from a new internationalism. Defining the substance of the old is exhausted as a source of strength. Many struggles in the world are limited to immediate interests and fail to develop a social or political dimension that points beyond them. This makes a critique of these struggles legitimate, yet it does not legitimise the social relations that give rise to them.
We must not fail to identify really existing injustice, and we must have the courage to name its perpetrators and stand in solidarity against them. Solidarity with the oppressed, such as those who live in the occupied territories of Palestine, is never illegitimate. Only the rule that cements human misery is illegitimate. If we can no longer stand in solidarity against real and evident injustice, and if such solidarity takes the back seat to mutual political agreement, then we are betraying ourselves and opening another door to Guantanamo.
No war of the ruling class is our war.
With thanks and regards to all those who do not allow themselves to be driven mad by the desolate state of things.
Davie Guy, president of the Durham National Union of Mineworkers, died of cancer on Wednesday July 25.
I am heartbroken. Davie was a close friend and comrade of mine, he was loyal and could always be relied upon to support any and every event I ever put together. We shared so many platforms on so many issues and agreed on all but details about the problems that confronted us.
Davie’s style of debate and argument was unique. He turned things over slowly and systematically like a man digging his garden. His style was so calm and relentless, building a force of fact and logical progression, and his honesty shone through in every sentence. He was quite the most transparent and honest man in the NUM. He was neither cowed by threat nor charmed by guile. I don’t think Dave had an enemy in the world, though not everyone treated him with the respect he so richly deserved.
People perhaps do not realise what an impact he and Davie Hopper had on the whole movement. They transformed an entire NUM area from the dotage of moderation into a militant and vibrant campaigning force again. They swung that area behind the 1984-85 strike and kept it solid for 12 months. Their impact on the North East area was legendary. They brought fresh air and vigour to a region which had almost given up and brought it marching back to claim its battle honours and place in history.
The Durham Miners Gala - the ‘big meeting’ - was over, we all thought, when the last Durham pit closed in 1993, the soul was ripped out of our communities and a general state of anomie fell on the region like a plague. Under the leadership of the two Davies, and with the still restless spirit in those communities, the Gala and everything it stood for refused to die. For the last two years it has gone from strength to strength, with 100,000 people, proud of their working class culture and roots, back on the streets and searching for political answers. This year was the first year I think Dave has ever missed a gala and we all know how ill he must have been not to be able to get there.
Dave’s fight with cancer was awe-inspiring. He simply refused to let it dictate the terms on which he lived and intervened into life. The treatments Dave was receiving were horrendous, painful and draining, yet he stood his corner and always believed he could beat this. Last year I was speaking at Sunderland University on the 84-85 strike to a crowded audience of students and Dave had promised to attend to back me up if necessary. He arrived five minutes late, but what I hadn’t realised was that he had come straight from hours of punishing chemotherapy. His jaw set, his face drained, he had made a promise and, even though it was such an unimportant event and such a small commitment, he turned up, true as his word. It sounds silly mentioning it, but I think it marked out what sort of a brave and dedicated man he was.
I know he was going through hell, and I confessed I didn’t think I would have the bottle to do it in his place. He assured me: “For them grandbairns, Dave, you would - and I will.” He fought for every added day, turning out on platforms and political events, when other, lesser men would have laid abed.
Dave was a bliddy hero, I shall miss him dearly.