Thursday, March 14, 2013

SWP Bureaucracy & The IST: Part 1

The tradition in the IST is to not intervene in the controversies and debates of other organizations. This was explained to me as a reaction against the practice amongst the early Trotskyists & within the Fourth International to involve every affiliated organization in the debates of every other national section. But, it was pointed out, that it was a bit foolish and grandiose for these tiny organizations to be providing direction and critique given how marginal and troubled they were. They ought better be focusing on their own problems. On the other hand, one might argue, it could be a useful learning experience and a chance to generalize across organizations, as well as a chance for other organizations to get input that might have some objective distance. Whatever the case may be I do still think groups ought to be careful about intervening in the debates of other groups, if for no other reason than that a giant pile-on into a debate can escalate it out of proportion to its real significance. However, I also think that silence isn’t always golden. A leadership has to be mature enough to know the difference. But enough fence-sitting…

Because of this admonition we largely kept to ourselves. Except for the British leadership. Being the oldest, most experienced and largest group, they necessarily had a lot of prestige and were like the parent group to all us little kiddies. This was particularly true of Cliff who was, after all, The Founder Of The Tendency, and who was both very experienced and very opinionated. He also read the newspapers of every group in the Tendency and often took a particular interest in this or that country. And he had no qualms about providing detailed political direction to groups. After the 1994 convention in Canada, we received a letter from Cliff, hand delivered by Ahmed S from the ISO, telling us that we were prone to apolitical “faction” fights that were really clique fights because the organization was too passive, there was no criteria for leadership other than charm and talk. He told us to double our dues base, go immediately to a bi-weekly newspaper and hire full-timers (I believe this was the third prescription – it’s been a while and I didn’t keep all my notes from back then). To be honest, Cliff was right. The errors in the implementation – and they were significant – were ours to own, for which I must take a significant amount of blame.

But we could never imagine that if there were a crisis in the SWP of a similar nature or even in the Australians, who were rumoured to be a tad weird and to live in a commune type of set-up, it would not have been tolerated.


In any case, this one-sidedness hadn’t been such a problem, I think, until the 1990s and the now infamous “30s in slow motion” description of the changing period, coined by Cliff. (I joined in ’91, however, so some may want to contradict me) I still think that Cliff’s formulation was basically correct in terms of the purpose it was meant to serve. But there were two problems. The first was that he said “30s in slow motion” and we heard “the Great Depression is coming and fascism will soon be on the march, etc”. In retrospect, it might have been better to describe the return of crisis and politicization in the 90s as a return to capitalist normality. But this was Cliff’s stick-bending at work – seize the key link: the return of capitalist crisis with all its attendant effects from political polarization to immiseration of the working class – as a polemical weapon to shift the practice of the groups in the Tendency, including the SWP. The second problem, as just suggested, was that the SWP CC were pushing to overcome the conservatism of their membership. As I discussed previously, this meant Chris Bambery splitting up branches into tiny cells a la the CP in the 1930s (we obviously weren’t the only ones who missed the “slow” part of the formulation). They had also taken it upon themselves to break the conservatism of groups in the IST.

I can remember attending my first International Meeting in London, massively impressed by the size of the Marxism event with which it was concurrent. I remember two things about the meeting. The first was Chris Harman’s presentation on the revolutionary paper (I believe all the presentations were by the SWP and maybe one by the ISO). It was basically direction on how to turn our stale, theoretical-propaganda papers into something more vibrant and agitational to fit the changed circumstances of the 90s. The second thing I remember was Chris Bambery standing up in a session on general perspectives and barking (he always seemed to be barking whenever I saw him, which sort of endeared him to me but, then, I only saw him once a year) that having a state capitalist position on the USSR was not sufficient to be a member of the IST. You also had to implement the perspectives. I was young and inexperienced, and this seemed very impressively Bolshie. I didn’t ask the question – who gets to determine perspectives? When do we vote on it and who gets to judge if we’re implementing it correctly?

Now, it may be one thing to “bend the stick” in a relatively large (compared to the rest of us) organization of a few thousand with long-standing militants and with roots in some unions, etc. It is quite another in small, fragile organizations that are often little more than series of discussion circles, with no roots and which tend to operate as much on the basis of cliqueism as revolutionary principle. It’s hard not to be a clique when everyone knows everyone personally in the group. A more measured approach is in order – unless the pressure of objective circumstances is so severe that it is unavoidable. Within a couple of years there were splits in Australia, Canada, Germany and, I believe, Ireland. There may have been others that I’ve now forgotten. Were some of these avoidable? Were they all necessary to move the groups forward? I can’t speak for the other groups, of course, but in the case of the Canadian IS it was a mixed result, shall we say. On the one hand it probably did push us outward and break the very deterministic view that people held about the downturn (all struggles will shift to the right). On the other, Cliff’s prescriptions, particularly his admonition that leadership should lead in practice and not “from the back of the room”, were distorted and used by one clique leader to marginalize and humiliate the other clique leader and his allies, leading to a major split. (Mea culpa: I went along with this at the time. Allow me to blame my inexperience.) By the end of the “the turn” we had tiny branches, just like the Brits, of a few people sitting in a room wondering how they were supposed to “build locally”. I remember talking with the American comrades at, I believe, the same Marxism as I mentioned above in July ‘94. They were saying that they intended to get off of campuses and focus on building in working class communities. The Brits, I think, opposed this but there was a certain logic to pushing the “we need to be the CP of the 1930s with better politics” model. Everyone was reading Communists In Harlem During the Great Depression and Hammer & Hoe about the CPUSA in the Deep South. Needless to say, the ISO returned to building on campuses and later rejected the 1930s in slow motion slogan during the debates at the end of the 90s.

This basic method was again repeated during the big anti-war movement leading up to 2003 but perhaps more profoundly. The argument now coming from Britain was to eliminate branches entirely so that comrades’ time would be freed up to build the anti-war movement. This was, in a certain sense, a noble, self-sacrificing sentiment, to place the movement ahead of the party. But it meant in all the groups that followed this advice, that the full-timers in particular had to substitute for the membership, who were no longer sustaining the organization because the organization barely existed. The ultimate result was that while we did work of which we ought to be proud in trying to resist the looming war in Iraq our perspectives were distorted and our gains were negligible as an organization. There was simply nothing to recruit people to and to hold them. And since the anti-war movement had become the be all and end all of our practice (not to say that people weren’t involved in other struggles, but in terms of the delegation of party resources) we lied to ourselves that a movement still existed even after it should have been apparent that it was well and truly over. Besides, as I discussed previously, strengthening the tendency towards substitutionism, it made crises almost inevitable once the wave had receded and this couldn’t be denied any longer.

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