SWP crisis: Professor Callinicos and the dark side
Finally a member of the SWP central committee attempts to defend its conduct. Paul Demarty wishes he hadnt bothered
By the time you read this, it will be the 11th hour - the eve of the bureaucratically imposed deadline for conference recall motions in the Socialist Workers Party, a diktat which has no basis even in the SWP’s abortion of a constitution.
In order, presumably, to placate wavering elements and reassure them that the organisation is on course for a bright future, Alex Callinicos - almost the last intellectual on the central committee - has produced a defence of ‘Leninism’ for Socialist Review.1 Entitled ‘Is Leninism finished?’, it is being rammed down comrades’ throats with some enthusiasm, circulated via email to all members.
If it does not have the exact opposite effect to that intended, then you really have to fear for humanity as a species. A more fatuous, dishonest and flatly delusional exercise in arse-covering has not been seen for some time. Bringing Lenin into this sordid self-justification is an insult - to the much-calumnied leader himself, and to any notion of intellectual integrity into the bargain.
Callinicos’s article has a somewhat schizophrenic quality, taking up a number of threads which are frayed taken on their own, and do not bind into anything resembling a coherent whole - unless one reads between the lines. We have an argument for the continuing relevance of ‘Leninism’, which is the ostensible aim of the whole exercise; evasive references to the SWP’s crisis, which are the real aim; and a pretty confused account of working class political history from 1968 to the present, whose purpose is something that needs to be unpicked in itself.
On Lenin, it is the same old rubbish that the SWP has been touting since the International Socialist days; the Lenin of Cliff’s eponymous four-volume study, memorably described by John Sullivan as resembling “a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ”.
Callinicos writes: “What [revolutionary success] involved was the Bolsheviks acting as what is sometimes called a ‘vanguard party’. They represented for most of their existence before October 1917 a small minority of the Russian working class.” How were such long odds overturned? “The Bolsheviks collectively intervened in the struggles of the Russian working class. In doing so, they put forward proposals that would help to advance the struggle in question. But they simultaneously sought to encourage workers to recognise that they had to fight for political power and, to achieve this, to support the Bolshevik Party itself.”
The first statement is, at best, misleading. It is true that - as any young organisation will inevitably be, especially under a regime of terror - all factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party were small for the first period of their existence. Come 1905 and that is simply untrue and from then in after. The 1912 duma elections, for example, saw the Bolsheviks sweep the board in the workers’ curia. They went into February 1917 as a mass party (as did the Mensheviks). The majority they and their allies won over the year was achieved through exhaustive effort and vehement political struggle, yes - but they did not come from nowhere. They were not a sect of 1,000, dressed up as a party of 7,000.
The second statement is platitudinous, and therefore slippery. Taken at face value, the idea that any political organisation that wanted working class support would not attempt to ‘advance struggles’, let alone encourage people to take up membership, boggles the mind. Of course, the Bolsheviks were no exception; but neither were the Mensheviks.
Suggesting that this somehow constitutes the essence of Bolshevism is, in fact, mapping the SWP’s self-image back onto the Bolsheviks. This, after all, is the SWP’s basic modus operandi as such - raise demands that you imagine will advance the struggle (that is, get people excited); beyond that, tell them to join the SWP, so they too can try to get people excited, and tell them in their turn to join the SWP ...
As a description of the Bolsheviks, this is facile. Comrade Callinicos might consider the enormous mass of paper and ink his supposed Russian ancestors dedicated to arguing about the character and content of their programme. Both things are the stuff of horror to any good SWP hack - wasting time arguing, and arguing about a programme, which can only ever serve to hold an organisation back from making the necessary about-turns! He might consider the ferocious arguments of Lenin against those whose whole political horizon consisted of exposures of factory conditions, just as SWP politics consists of a series of threadbare litanies against bad Tories, bad bosses and bad Nazis.
Packing a punch
Much of the rest of the article is taken up with what is ostensibly a polemic against Owen Jones and ‘Donny Mayo’, a recent SWP defector to Counterfire. This takes the form of a whistle-stop run-down of post-war history according to the SWP; an ‘upturn’ from 1968, a ‘downturn’ from 1979, and then a long hiatus of nothing much until the Seattle movement of 1999. This history, we are told, has led many to doubt the role of the working class in revolutionary transformation altogether; for such people, obviously, ‘Leninism’ is surplus to requirements. “One consequence of the form taken by the present radicalisation is that the centrality of workers’ struggles in the fight against capitalism is less obvious than it was in the past.”
This leads Jones, on the one hand, to dedicate his efforts to pushing Labour to the left and turning it into an anti-austerity force; and the likes of ‘Mayo’, on the other, to venerate the post-Seattle movements as such. The latter is mistaken because, as Callinicos correctly points out, such movements are ephemeral. As for the Labour Party question, any attempt to transform it is doomed to failure - “the very nature of the Labour Party defeats its leftwing challengers. It is geared to the electoral cycle, so that discussion of policy and support for struggle are subordinated to the effort to win votes on terms set by the Tories and the corporate media.” (This is a pretty weak critique of Labour, but we cannot go into it here.)
So why the SWP’s ‘Leninism’? It has to be said that Callinicos is being very, very crafty here. By only explicitly taking on forces to his right - whether Counterfire’s soft movementism or Jones’s Labourism - he can present the SWP as the last alternative standing. Evidence for this hypothesis is that even Jones admits that the SWP “punches above its weight”; Jones cites the millions who came out for the biggest Stop the War march, a little less than a decade ago, and - bizarrely - the “rout” of the English Defence League in Walthamstow by Unite Against Fascism, which bravely held a counter-demonstration after the EDL march was, er, banned by the police. (At least Jones was not stupid enough to cite the great “success” that is Unite the Resistance, much to Callinicos’s annoyance.)
‘Punching above your weight’ only gets you so far, however. It was our own modest operation that got the SWP crisis into the bourgeois press, after all - but modest we remain, and so does the SWP. An eight-year-old kid may defeat a 10-year-old in a fight. But I don’t think he will do very well against one of the Klitschko brothers.
Worse than Stalin?
The truly devious aspect of this argument has to do with the third thread - his attempt to deal with the SWP opposition. These people never appear in person. He does not take on Richard Seymour, or China Miéville, or any of the other critiques which have surfaced. In some places, his shadow-boxing efforts are simply self-parodic.
“One thing the entire business has reminded us of is the dark side of the internet,” he writes pompously. “Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated - unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.”
The internet has given this argument its due respect, and leftie social media is full of Star wars stills with Callinicos’s head Photoshopped over Mark Hamill’s - fighting “the dark side of the internet”. Yet this is part of his cheap rhetorical strategy. He is not, of course, accusing the SWP opposition of spreading ‘gossip’ - but he is not exactly not accusing them of it either.
And that, ultimately, is what the business with Jones and ‘Mayo’ is about. He presents the SWP opposition as a single facet of a great amorphous attack on “the party”. He presents the only political alternatives to his own view as Reesite liquidationism (which he tolerated and encouraged for the best part of a decade) or Labourism, and leaves the reader to draw the conclusion that this is a comprehensive characterisation of his critics. Callinicos is fighting dirty; he is misrepresenting his opponents; he is doing everything he can to avoid a straightforward debate with them. To do so, after all, would be to concede that allowing debate outside of a defined three-month period does not necessarily lead to disaster - and thus he would already have lost.
This is because he is not a Leninist. Nobody with even the most superficial acquaintance with what Lenin actually wrote in the 1903-17 period - never mind his open clash with Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov in spring 1917 - could find the smallest justification for the political practice, let alone the internal regime, of today’s SWP.
A strong collective response2 to his document (with a whiff of comrade Seymour’s style about it) from the International Socialism bloggers spoofs Callinicos’s title: “Is Zinovievism finished?” they ask. That is closer to the mark, Zinoviev being a short-term ally of Stalin in 1923-24 and writer of the proto-Stalinist History of the Bolshevik Party - but again it is unfair. The ossification of the Bolsheviks in this period, and the errors of Comintern, cannot be laid on Zinoviev’s shoulders alone, and indeed were not simply subjective ‘errors’; and he was an on-off participant in the factional struggles against Stalin until his execution in 1936.
So is Callinicos more of a Stalin, then? (He certainly picked up the nickname ‘Stalinicos’ among embittered Americans around the time of the SWP’s split with the US International Socialist Organization.) He has not resorted to rounding up and shooting his opponents. Yet even in this ballpark, unflattering comparisons are possible. It should be noted that the SWP regime is less tolerant of dissent than the Stalinist CPGB of old. In the latter organisation, it was common enough in congress season for some kind of oppositional voice to be given more than a few pages to express an alternative view in the party press, in a confrontation designed to give the leadership the last word on whatever was at issue. District full-timers were elected rather than appointed from the centre.
The ‘official’ CPGB was a stitched-up, bureaucratic monstrosity - but the SWP, somehow, has developed worse internal norms. Dissent and disloyalty are completely identified. Full-timers are paid enforcers for the self-perpetuating leadership clique. The overall set-up is something like a mutant cross between a cult and a Mafia family.
To suggest that something like this is somehow an adequate organisation for making a revolution is worse than a joke. There is a reason why the Bolsheviks survived - and even grew - in times of the worst adversity to reach a point where they mattered when things opened up, while the SWP has waxed and waned strictly along with the times. There is a reason why the SWP, in fact, has been thrown into disarray by a few unproven allegations of sexual abuse.
The reason is as follows: the Bolsheviks were a strong organisation, not because they were a ‘party of a new type’ or any such nonsense, but because they took hard-headed and long-term perspectives, steeled them in fierce polemic and tested them in the class struggle. The SWP, on the other hand, is fragile. It is fragile because its regime does not adequately deal with dissent - and thus tends to become apolitical. It is fragile because it adopts short-term perspectives, to be simply ‘forgotten’ when they do not pan out which breeds cynicism. It is fragile because the line is not won among the membership, but imposed by what amounts to hired muscle - which breeds rank-and-file resentment.
All this can be summed up with one more citation. Callinicos once again wheels out the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and the Fourth International as an example of what happens when you allow permanent factions - “members’ loyalties [focus] on their factional alignments rather than the party itself,” he warns - again implying that this is holds for the SWP opposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. The NPA imploded because of what it has in common with the SWP: its short-termism, its opportunistic obsession with narrow tactical questions, and so on. It could not cope with lean times, and neither can the SWP.
As for the democratic opposition: what is striking is how much ‘party patriotism’ its comrades possess, in spite of the bullying, the evasions and innuendos and lies; in spite of the litany of political disasters of the last decade; in spite of everything. We may fault them for many things, but not ‘disloyalty’. Callinicos and his cronies do not deserve them. On the evidence of this article - this feeble, flatulent insult to Bolshevism - he certainly does not deserve to lead a revolutionary socialist organisation.
1. ‘Is Leninism finished?’ Socialist Review January 2013: www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12210.