Friday, April 13, 2007

The Red Planet in 1973


Following the recent success of the BBC's “Life on Mars” it would be nice to think that a sequel could be made where by a leading member of today’s SWP is sent back to 1973.

Of course, due to the curious structure of the SWP, and its self perpetuating leadership, most of them were members of the International Socialists (IS) in 1973, or very shortly afterwards, so she may have the shock of meeting her younger self.

She would be able to explain to the IS, that the role of Rank and File papers is to develop a cosy relationship with members of the national executive of the union, and fudge clear positions of principle if that relationship is in danger. So last year (2006 not 1972!) Post Worker (PDF) took no position on the vital vote over “Shaping the Future”, which was an attack on working conditions and staffing levels as a prelude to privatisation. Instead of a clear recommendation for a NO vote, Post Worker published a “debate”, with NEC members Norman Candy and John Farnan in favour of acceptance. Our time traveller can explain to the IS that when faced with a make or break vote on a Union NEC, it is not mandatory for your delegate to actually turn up and vote. (SWP member Jane Loftus was absent from the crucial UCW NEC debate and vote on “Shaping the Future” – for reasons not explained.)

Some relationships may be a little strained of course. The time traveller would meet among the IS’s leadership, Roger Rosewell, who later scabbed by informing BL management of the identities of 13 IMG members in Cowley plant, and became a far right adviser to Dame Shirley Porter. Of course all left groups can suffer from former members moving to the right, but Rosewell's flakiness was commented upon at the time, but his factional loyalty to Cliff protected him.

She would also meet the genuine working class hero, Harry Wicks, who had been a founder member of the CPGB, and she would know that within two years the IS would expel Wicks, along with most of the group’s industrial militants.

She would of course have to keep to herself their future knowledge that Provisional Sinn Fein would grovel on their knees to join a coalition government with Ian Paisley, and be prepared to abandon all their political principles for the honour. Saying that in 1973 would probably have been enough to see her certified, but even more bizarre would be the idea that in the very Stormont election where Sinn Fein capitulated over every issue, that Eamonn McCann would write (PDF) that the story of the election was an SWP comrade getting a 2% vote: “Sean’s success in finishing ahead of long established parties like Alliance and the Workers’ Party was widely regarded as the performance of the election.”. Surely no-one in 1973 would believe that Socialist Worker would intervene in a Stormont election without mentioning the role of British imperialism in Ireland.

There may be some embarrassment for our time travelling comrade when she hears IS members criticising the IMG for looking for agencies of revolutionary change other than the working class. She will of course argue that the IS are wrong, and explain that Muslims are an inherently anti-imperialist force. Indeed in 1973 she could even start a platform within the IS to argue this.

(There is by the way no sub-text or inuendo behind the picture., except the Sweeney are so 1970s)


Snowball said...

I am trying to imagine what might happen if one particular former member of the SWP went back in a timemachine to the SWP in 1973 and tried to explain to the comrades that come 2007, the high point of revolutionary practice no longer lies in trying to build a mass revolutionary party in Britain but instead lies in writing in a rather sectarian manner for the 'Socialist Unity Blog'...

AN said...


That is a rather mendacious comment, and not the first time you have tried to make the same point.

First of all, writing for this blog is very far from being the sum total of my political practice.

Secondly, you use the word "sectarian" in a way devoid of all political content. It is a reflex insult designed to diminish the perosn making a critique, so that the cointent of the criticism can be safely ignored without thinking about it.

In want way is it sectarian to observe that the politics of today's SWP are a very long road travelled from the IS of 1973?

You, as a loyal supporter of the SWP today, presumably either think the politics of the IS in 1973 were flawed, or can explain that the political circumstances justify such changes.

I look forward to you reconciling the politics of the R&F, as for example expounded by Hallas and Jeffries in the 1970s, with the antics of Post Worker last year.

As far as I know there has been no in depth discussion about the change in what the SWOP mean by the rank and file since the early 1980s. Even Martin Smiths pamphlet on the unions a couple of years back was 80% a rehash of an artice written by Alex Callinicos in 1984. Or am I wrong?

AN said...

I would also point out Snowball, that 95% of the posts on this blog don't mention the SWP, but you only post comments on the ones about your own organisation.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, I think you're comments on the SWP and Northern Ireland are misplaced.
There's 2 good articles on the North of Ireland in this quarters, International Socialism Journal
The one on the death of radical republicanism is especially tasty!

There are problems with the SWPs engagement with trade unions but part of this is a disorientation across the left due to the historicly low levels of class struggles and strikes


johng said...

As an SWP member I'm unaware that there has been any argument suggesting that "Muslims" are an 'inherently revolutionary force'. Perhaps the sectarian nitwit that wrote this could explain where this is argued (the Alex Callinicos article on Rank and File Organisations was indeed an excellent one, and I can remember the extensive debates about the subject).

Critiques of the mistakes of the 1970's were of course extensive within the organisation and produced a range of literature. Thankfully the SWP is not an organisation which equates consistancy with saying the same thing over and over again for fifty years.

AN said...

Thanks anonymous, I will check those ISJ articles about ireland, however, whatever is written in the ISJ is divorced from the practice, which was to stand under two different banners in the six counties elections, and not mentioning imperialism or the capitulatioon of the Provos in the electoral literatire in either campaign. It is what is said opublically not what is argued (semi-)privately that is important.

To JOhng, of course the SW do not argue that Muslims are an inherently revolutionary force, that was saracasm on my part. There is however an overestimation of the significnace of the degree to which Muslims identify with anti-imperialism.

You have of course missed my point, which is not that there were mistakes in the 1970s, but that the 197s saw the IS as an essentially healthy and vigorous organisation, witha strategy that whether or not it could have worked, was at least consistent and oriented on organised workers. i.e. that the rank and file links between militant trade unionists could grow over into a revolutionary force.

the problematic engagement of the SWP with the unions now (and AJ is correct to say this is symptomatic of wider issues) is simply a bold indication that the SWP no longer has the same strategic concept of workplace militancy and its significance to building a mass party.

Nor is the difference ever so subtle, as the locud of the argument has shifted about who the rank and file even is. Whereas in the 1970s the R&F were the shop stewards, the eroneous argument promoted by Cliff about stewards being incorporated into "the lower levels of the bureaucracy", shifted the R&F to being all trade unionists.

The SWP is not consistent with the earleir politics of the IS becasue there is both an organisational rupture (form and content) with the IS, and a discontinuity of politics. the SWP has shifted wmuch more to the WRP model of organising, and in terms of strategic concept of how a revolutionary party is built.

Anonymous said...

"Secondly, you use the word "sectarian" in a way devoid of all political content."

I'm sorry but this post was devoid of any political content, apart from vagueness used to criticise the swp, it was simply full of insinuations and associations that are not explained, and thankfully, I'm not as old and haggered as you are to scrap the bottom of a very festering pile of shite... swindow must do this to you.

AN said...

It is hard to engage in any debate with people who are "anoymous", why not choose an alias, so at least I can distingush between you and other anonymous commentators.

Obviously this post was not a rounded political argument, and perhaps you do have a good point in that i have sorta assumed that the reader is familiar with the politics of the IS, which is probably not true of many SWP members today.

The big quesion here is what is the political rationale behind the decsiion of Post Worker to present a "debate" about the vote on shaping the futire, rather than recommend a straight NO vote.

How can you reconcile that with the the SWP's concept of rank and fileism, and the startegy for building working cllass self activity?

I will post in the same issue in a more political way, and look forward to you engaging with the argument in that way.

Anonymous said...

"the problematic engagement of the SWP with the unions now (and AJ is correct to say this is symptomatic of wider issues) is simply a bold indication that the SWP no longer has the same strategic concept of workplace militancy and its significance to building a mass party."

The trouble is that while the SWP agrees that rebuilding workplace militancy has to be the key to rebuilding the movement this is very difficult to do in this period. At the moment the economic struggle lags far behind the social and political struggle. In some ways the politicisation around for example the war is helping to drag forward the economic struggle. For example, people radicalised by the war are becoming trade unionists and helping to take things forward. But obviously things can't move forward this way indefinitely, at a certain point the economic struggle has to start pushing things forwards otherwise there will be no progress.

At the last SWP conference I attended one of the running themes was why was the current period not another 1968? Some activists are wondering how we could have had a massive social movement and yet the left is still so weak.

The argument put forward by the leadership was the problem was the social movements were broad but had yet to have the necessary implantation in the workplace. The question is how to rebuild trade union militancy. You should also not over-estimate the deadhand of the Labour trade union bureaucracy in sabotaging the upturn

It is very easy to identify the problems and to pose the solutions.

The question is how on a day-to-day basis can we change things.

As Chris Bambery wrote when relaunching Socialist Worker as the new editor:
"A few weeks ago novelist Tariq Mehmood argued in Socialist Worker that “the problem lies in the health of the socialist and working class movement”.

He explained that if they “were on the move they would take everyone with them”.

He is right, but there is a problem. The millions who marched against the war make up the new working class of 2004.

But because they have not yet fought together as a class they often see themselves as a rainbow coalition.

When those millions understand they are united by something more than race, colour or gender—by class—we can move the movements. "


AN said...

Thanks for the substantive response AJ.

I disagree that the Labour and Trade Union bureaucracy are "sabotaging the upturn", I think this is too deterministic a view of how the bureaucracy operate, and certainly there is an identification in some unions that the lack of workplace confidence and lay organisation is a major problem. The current trouble in the unions is the prevalence of the "insurance policy" model of trade un ion memebrship, where full time officials are run ragged servicing members' issues.

The most remarkable feature of industrial pespoectives in the SWP's internal bulletin's in recent years has been the formulaic nature of the discussion, largely divorced from the actual specifics. For example arguing that the union leaders failure to lead strike action against the war (IB2, 2003) was due to "a reluctance to directly challenge the anti-union laws" totally misunderstood the level of comabtivity of the working class today, and overestimates the depth and potential of the anti-war movement.

Another example: the discussion about Red Watch, which has at times been claimed to be a R&F organisation in the FBU, but no mention of the existing "grassroots FBU" organisation that was a much more real and credible organistaion.

With regard to the relationship between the party and industrial militants there clearly was a shift, most obvioulsy articulated in Cliff's "balnace of class forces articel in 1979, and Roger Cox's Socialist Review article in July 1983, in who the SWP regard the rank and file to be - I will return to this at more length later.

The significnace for me is this, that during the years of the IS, the strategy was clear: the sefl activity of the R&F organisation (meaning shop stewards and convenors) coul (if they could be won to defending their organisations) grow over into a revolutionary party, of which the IS were the advocates.

There was a brief confusing period around the flase and exagerated perspectives leading to the launch of the SWP, but after the adoption of Cliff's downturn thesis, the strategy changed to building an activist propaganda group, keeping the flame alive until thngs get better.

But what is the strategy now? how is the SW hoping to become a mass party, when it is actually smaller and getting older, and has built up a big legacy of hostility with most of the other established activists in the unions and the movements.

It is hard to look at the recent history of the "R&F papers", Across the Tracks and Red Watch, and not see them as SW fronts hoping to recruit individual militants to the SWP. Rather much in the model of the old WRP's approach.

Post Worker is a partial exception, but if it really were a R&F paper seeking to build workplace based opposition to the "Shaping the Future" it should have come out with a clear NO recomendation, based upoon those few wowrkplaces militants arguing that position, and been prepared to break with their allies on the NEC arguing for YES. As it was, in the absence of any mood of collective opposition, not a single depot rejected the deal, and the equivication of post Worker contributed to a mood - of even the SWP are failing to say NO (SW did argue no, but that is less significant).

Anonymous said...

I didn't feel the response was particularly substantive.

In the ISJ I mentioned there is also an interesting article on Scottish Nationalism.

Just to return to the Irish Question.

Can I ask one question:

Sinn Fein and DUP have shown that they can work together. This is because the nationalists and unionists can unite around neoliberalism this can bridge the gap.

By emphasising the "national question" in the most recent elections wouldn't the SWP play into the hands of Sinn Fein in the sense of allowing them to use that card to divert attention away from their neoliberal policies? When people start to react against Sinn Fein's new labour policies they can always dodge the attack by starting to talk about the British and imperialism?

Out of interest, you once spoke positively about Plaid, as a Welsh socialist can I report that their most recent move has been to ditch opposition to nuclear power, their leader has come out in favour of it, and are currently bartering for a coalition after the assembly elections with New Labour or the Tories - not much of an alternative then!