Socialist Platform: Politics of prejudice
The fear of political groups and impatience with political meetings on display at the Socialist Platforms first national meeting are deeply linked - and politically pernicious, argues Paul Demarty
It will suffice to start with a couple of anecdotes from the national meeting of Left Unity’s Socialist Platform on Saturday.
There is, first of all, the unfortunate case of comrade Susann Witt-Stahl, a Hamburg-based journalist and member of the Assoziation Dämmerung. She has widely reported Germany’s Die Linke - for many a model for Left Unity, and for others a warning. As she happened to be spending the weekend in London - as a guest of her friend, and CPGB comrade, Maciej Zurowski - she expressed a wish to attend the Socialist Platform meeting as an observer. Uncontroversial, surely? Alas not - the mood was already tense upon her arrival, and ‘group of four’ comrades Nick Wrack and Soraya Lawrence refused her entry.
At one point, as comrade Maciej was explaining the situation in German, Lawrence snapped at them to “speak English”. I am willing, for my part, to write that up as an unfortunate slip of the tongue. It demands explanation anyway: what on earth made the Go4 comrades so alarmed at the unannounced presence of a leftwing German journalist with no horse in the LU race at all?
I fear it has nothing to do with her at all - nor to do with the most ridiculous excuse offered, that if she was allowed in, then that would have to apply to the comrades outside from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who were handing out leaflets. As if their presence was somehow intolerable! No, it is to do with us in the CPGB: it is hardly any secret that we had fallen out with the Go4 in the week before the meeting, and comrade Susann’s presence was presumably interpreted as part of a devious plot being hatched by the CPGB.
This quite irrational fear of our good selves reached fever pitch when Dave Church, a long-standing activist from Walsall, upped and left when it became clear that - quelle horreur! - we would be acting as a disciplined bloc, and were not prepared to hide the fact. He repeatedly demanded that we engage in the meeting as “individuals” - as if “individuals” voting and speaking in the same direction was somehow less threatening than a formally constituted group doing the same. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” a comrade heckled from the floor, when Dave was finally moved to leave. Well, no, it is not - in the crudest possible reading of the CPGB’s motives, we presumably want to influence people, which is all the harder if they are on the train back to Walsall and so out of earshot.
Comrade Church’s position is the more peculiar, the closer it is examined. He was effectively demanding that we lie to him, by assuring him that we were not acting as a disciplined organisation (the CPGB’s John Bridge was heavily prompted by comrade Lawrence to use the appropriately ‘diplomatic’ phrases, which amounted in reality to not using the first person plural). Comrade Church claimed to be familiar with the “tactics” of “the groups”, but was more or less expecting us to behave like the Socialist Workers Party, whose members almost invariably turn up to meetings in the guise of one or another front organisation.
Of course, this ‘group phobia’ has a basis in reality. Let us be blunt - disciplined groups have an impact beyond their numbers because organising collectively is a more effective means of winning the day. If (say) 15 votes out of 50 are guaranteed to go your way, you have only 10 more to find. This should be no surprise to anyone involved in the workers’ movement (try organising a strike without a union), and there is only one way to make sure a group does not drown out your ‘individual’ voice - join a bigger or more influential group.
For all the paranoid twitchiness about the perfidious CPGB, which is perpetually up to something untoward, it should be noted that the Go4 comrades and their immediate allies were acting as a bloc when it came to any vote that mattered. The Independent Socialist Network, not officially a disciplined organisation, nevertheless caucused for the best part of an hour beforehand.
The organisers were clearly prepared for a showdown; their miserable arguments about the ‘democracy of those not here’ were backed up by a letter from somebody ‘not here’, a comrade from Cambridge, copies of which were distributed for no discernible purpose other than providing Wrack and co with feeble factional ammunition against the CPGB. It should be said that the Go4 comrades did not openly express any anti-group sentiment, and it is reasonable to suppose that, on the whole, they are not prone to it themselves. They failed to criticise any comrades from the floor who expressed this kind of petty bourgeois prejudice, however.
There were other petty bourgeois prejudices, too, that were sadly more universally held. Chief among these was the disdain for formal meetings. It was more or less decided by the end that holding yet another meeting of the platform would be an intolerable burden, despite such a meeting being trailed in advance as a sweetener for the absurd decision to reject substantive votes ‘for now’.
Frankly, for many present, even this meeting seemed to be one too many. This sentiment was to be found on the lips of different shades of attendees too. One comrade complained that he was a busy man, a practising musician no less, who did not have all the time in the world to discuss politics. Soraya Lawrence equally objected to fine-grained discussion of insignificant matters such as communism and the withering away of the state; there was, after all, so much more to do, and you cannot expect ordinary people to take an interest in such rarefied discourse. Even Ruth Cashman of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who has presumably sat in many meetings in her time, was heard grumbling about such things.
There is an element to such thinking which is in a small way admirable - no, none of us got into this game for the sole purpose of haggling over the wording of this or that statement of aims, and impatience to get stuck into struggle hardly springs from bad intentions. It is, however, straightforwardly philistine. It is quite simple: if you do not take the meeting seriously, if you waste the meeting’s time by arguing that meetings are a waste of time, then you will fuck up the struggle. You will rely on that most unreliable guide - your gut, which is to say, your unexamined prejudices.
The peculiarity of this attitude is that it flourishes most openly where it has already been victorious. Let us put this bluntly: for all the huffing about endless meetings, there are not actually very many meetings going on. This is because there is equally not a great wave of sharp class struggle going on. There is nothing from which the meetings are distracting you - sure, this or that local campaign, a slight uptick in days lost to industrial action, but we are not talking the miners’ Great Strike, let alone Red October.
Consult a history book on October 1917 - of the ‘10 days that shook the world’ the average Bolshevik leader seems to have spent 11 in meetings. Trotsky is reported to have gone three whole days without sleeping, going from one to another. There were, equally, no shortage of mass meetings to attend in the trade union struggles of the 1970s and 80s. In such times, moreover, the hostility to them is almost completely absent; precisely because the decisions made in the union branch or the political campaign have an immediate relevance - no matter how ‘abstract’ the points of contention might have been - to the struggle at large. The nature of the bourgeois state does not appear to be a matter of angels dancing on the head of a pin when you are planning an insurrection.
The hostility to meetings thus only has meaning as a philistine intervention in a meeting (or in one of our modern-day substitutes, such as web forums and social networks). It only works as a fantasy of the important things you could be doing out there. Often, as soon as you are out the door, the crushing reality returns that you have nothing more important to do than darn your socks.
It is no historical accident that there should be relatively little struggle to busy oneself with, however. The workers’ movement is at an organisational and political nadir. The unions are battered and cowed. The ‘official’ Communist Party, which once provided serious industrial mobilising capacity, wound itself up shortly after the fall of the USSR; the Labour Party was free to canter steadily to the right.
All of this has been done, moreover, precisely in the name of the prejudices at work here. The ideology of the anti-trade union laws is the defence of the ‘silent majority’ against the ‘extremists’ who unfairly pack union meetings and intimidate them into going on strike. The push for secret postal ballots, the increasing judicialisation of industrial struggles - all were done in the name of the ordinary person ‘out there’ who did not have the time to waste in endless meetings, nor any interest in little groups of reds and their interminable theories. The very same logic was used to justify the sharp and apparently endless right turn in the Labour Party, the ossification of its own structures, even the need for Ed Miliband to paint himself as ‘his own man’, floating loftily above Labour ‘tribalism’.
All variants of this mindset are essentially petty bourgeois; there is an unbroken continuum from small affinity groups of highly actionist, libertarian communists, through the likes of the Socialist Platform, through the Andrew Burgins and Kate Hudsons of this world, and the SWP’s get-rich-quick schemes, to … Blairism. The impatience with meetings, with left groups and their insistence on political clarity, is not a way out of our present weakness, but a capitulation to it.