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Sussex: Autonomists in 'feelgood' attack on SWP

Tom Munday on the turning over of an SWP stall and the burning of their papers at Sussex university

Hurrah for the autonomists! Hurrah for the comrades bringing revolution to the campuses of Sussex last week, felling the dastardly Socialist Workers Party and purging its bilious propaganda with fire! Also there was some kind of political rally going on ... which was obviously really boring so nobody cares about that.

So goes the story of the December 10 Sussex 5 demo, the third staged in protest against the suspension of five University of Sussex students (the clue is in the name) for the mortal crime of being a mildly annoying pain in the backside for the university authorities. That the suspension was revoked after a public outcry did little to reassure the student body that it was not in fact on the frontline of the creeping clamp-down on universities across the UK and their subsequent slow mutation into white collar dogsbody factories.

There have been three Sussex demonstration in close succession: December 5, 6 and 10. However where the demonstration on December 5 had apparently been fairly relaxed, participants on the second demonstration arrived to find that, much to the chagrin of some, the SWP had decided to show themselves. If that was not bad enough, it was their presence on the smaller demo on December 10 that really took the biscuit. (Just to bring any baffled comrades up to speed, the SWP are not at the height of their popularity.) Painfully aware that many could not conscionably march alongside an organisation that had played host to an alleged rapist, the Sussex Autonomous Students Network decided to speak for the silent majority and forcibly dismantle the SWP’s stall and all of their assorted demo paraphernalia. Not content to rest on their laurels, the ASN had an epiphany. The silent majority needed to see the SWP set on fire. Naturally they did the honours there too, sending all those ever-so-readable copies of Socialist Worker down to newspaper hell.

When the smoke cleared the ASN realised it was time to call for sombre retrospection, something they did by curiously encouraging a collective gloat. For those of you who don’t speak autonomist or can’t get on the web, allow me to translate: speeches were boring, got bored of boring speeches, fancied a few yuks, smashed up the dying vestiges of a spent political force, went on an adrenaline rampage, wallowed in the glory. Sanctimonious aggrandisement aside, this certainly seems to be the gist of things to me, comrades. Even more worrying, there appears to be a fairly severe irony drought. I’m just speculating, I’ll admit, but then this is the only logical conclusion that can be made about a group which sees no issue with arbitrarily smashing and burning its way towards safe spaces and which responded to the outrage of the SWP ‘hijack’ by building a bonfire and staging a breakaway march. I must confess that I’ve never hijacked a protest myself, but burning reading material whilst people shout ‘Nazi’ at you is a good place to start. Not politically, of course - no time for that politics and debate nonsense - but it can certainly do wonders for your ego. Alas, ex-SWPer Tom Walker’s Left Unity front of “revolutionaries, reformists, feminists, greens, anarchists and autonomists” is looking even less feasible now. After all, with friends like these, who even has time for enemies?

Before going further, it is probably worth making clear that I am, shockingly, no fan of the SWP. The organisation was rotten to the core long before it nosedived into the Delta scandal. Its handling of that situation was horrendous, particularly because it was symptomatic of their internal structures, near-permanent estrangement of the rank and file from leading ‘comrades’ and its general detachment from the world outside their own bubble. The myopic arrogance needed to crown yourselves judge and jury, and then to stamp on any dissent from internal critics, is breathtaking even now. The antipathy towards the organisation’s leadership is well earned and long may it last. That student activists of every left stripe are uncomfortable with the presence of the SWP at protests is perhaps understandable, not least because the SWP of recent months has blossomed into a veritable anti-Midas; everything they touch is tainted (which people are fed up with, incidentally). There is a sense in which their inability to keep their own house in order makes us all a target of criticism, and people are - to use that limp turn of phrase - ‘very angry’.

But if ever there was a time when words would have spoken louder than actions, it would have been in Brighton on that day. Exposure to a photographed front page of the Socialist Worker, regardless of whether it is on fire or not, is still exposure. In fact my general Socialist Worker exposure shot up several times higher than normal in the following days - rather jarring for me, as - I’m sure you can imagine - I do tend to try and keep that to a flat zero. The facts are that proper engagement with SWPers - or even cold-shoulder disengagement - would have been a much better use of everyone’s time. Who knows, maybe the ASN could have whittled away their membership with well reasoned argument about why they should all abandon ship before it is too late. But no, clearly that was never going to be the order of the day when there was a bit of fun to be had. Never mind that the blows landed by this type of attack are only the most superficial (a few papers and a wallpaper table? There’s plenty more where they came from ...). But the ASN stunt is more than likely to have the exact opposite effect to the one intended: hardening embattled SWPers into adopting a siege mentality - it is impossible to talk to leftwing people out there, best to stick with Kimber and Callinicos.

That all said, I must allow myself a certain degree of schadenfreude at watching the SWP so gloriously disembowelled by what is characteristically their own sword. The reaction of the ASN represents only the most recent incarnation of a morality culture fostered by groups like the SWP. What we effectively see here is the most facile aspects of Blairism regurgitated as ‘socialist’ doctrine. The very notion that all the injustice and violence of the world can be willed away with good intentions and a true heart is fanciful to say the least, but lapses into outright narcissism when it expects the terrible realities that infest society at large to not find themselves duplicated within the left itself. Add into this mix an SWP-esque brand of directionless actionism and you end up with Frankenstein politics: at best leading us towards disingenuous ‘safe spaces’ policies.