A few weeks ago, I attended the Socialist Worker’s Party’s Marxism Festival. Despite the fact that I disagree with some aspects of the SWP’s political programme and some of their methodology, I approached the Festival with an open mind, and mainly as an educational opportunity. The timetable read like a who’s who of today’s left: John McDonnell, Mark Bergfield, Judith Orr, Alex Callinicos, and Terry Eagleton were all on hand to share their wisdom.
Marxism 2011 didn’t explicitly advertise itself as an educational event, but the implication was there. The subtitle of the event was ‘ideas for freedom’. The timetable offered ‘lecture courses’ in various aspects of Marxist theory and practical activism. Talks covered everything from ‘an introduction to Marx’s Capital’ to ‘Marxism and Disability’.
I have to admit I enjoyed parts of it. Terry Eagleton’s talk on The Communist Manifesto was excellent, and Sara Bennett held an interesting discussion on the purposes and ends of Slutwalking. Yet the unifying feature of Marxism was that as soon as I left each lecture, on my way to the next talk or to Bookmarks bookstore, I’d be stopped by an earnest young person in a yellow t shirt, who would thrust a leaflet at me ‘Join the SWP!’ they would say. I would politely decline.
‘But don’t you want to join the revolutionary party?’ would come the astonished response. I’d move onto the next lecture, in a UCL Lecture theatre, decorated with SWP posters, red, with a single white clenched fist and the words ‘Join the SWP!’ This sentiment was repeated regularly – at the opening rally, Judith Orr, editor of The Socialist Worker declared that the only way forward for a revolutionary was to the join the ‘revolutionary party’ and that that revolutionary party was the SWP. The implication was that anyone not in the SWP, myself included, were not true revolutionaries.
Perhaps I’m over-reacting. The fact that the SWP is trying to recruit new members does not bother me. All political organisations want to expand, after all. The fact that they are quite aggressively enthusiastic in doing so does annoy me, but not enough to write an article about. What does get me, though, is that Marxism 2011, despite its veneer, felt like little more than an SWP recruitment event. We were given often-fascinating titbits of information, compressed into hour-long sessions. Such brief spells of learning were completed by the simple message, spoken or unspoken, that to learn more, the only thing you needed to do was join the SWP.
Despite how it may seem, I don’t hold a grudge against the SWP. In fact, the Cambridge branch of the SWP is one of the best-run branches that I know of, and many of its members are my firmest and closest comrades. What annoys me about Marxism, and what eventually drove me away from the festival, was a feeling of sectarianism.
I am not, at time of writing, a member of a leftist political group, nor have I been in the six years that I have been politically active on the left. For most of this time, joining a political group seemed to me to be unnecessary, and I frankly didn’t care much which left wing group others chose to join.
When linking arms against a line of riot police, or facing off the EDL, I never thought of turning to my nearest comrade and saying ‘So, I know this is probably not the best time, but I was wondering, are you SWP, or SA?’ The organisation to which someone belonged wasn’t part of their identity, but what mattered was that they were comrades, and as comrades we shared unspoken bonds, agreed that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world and vowed to fight against it. The idea that sectarian divides could exist on the left seemed, to my immature mind, ridiculous.
The sad fact of the matter is that the left has fallen into sectarianism. This is not a problem unique to the SWP – whilst many leftist groups claim to be willing to work with other groups, it is striking how often they fall to fighting and petty name-calling. “Don’t talk to them!” a member of one group said to me of another, “They support Zionism!” “Ah, don’t believe them,” responded a member of the offending group, “What they’ll never admit is that they didn’t have anything to say on LGBT rights until well into the 90s,” “But they’re just pointless!” cried someone in the third group, “They just exist to complain about the split with the Revolutionary Communist Party!” And so on.
The fact that the left has fallen to sectarianism is even more tragic when we consider that now is the time when the left is needed the most. We face savage public sector cuts, the opening of the health service and our education system to the ravages of the free market, and frankly disgraceful measures levelled at the disabled and women. Events in Greece and Spain show us that popular sentiment is swinging against the tired, irrational ways of Capitalism. Now, if anything, is the time for building a popular movement, and the structure and skill of the fragments of the left provide a valuable asset for doing so. If only we could resolve our differences…
Which leads me back to Marxism 2011. Here, an environment was created where the fragmented left could thrash out their differences, and try and embark on a discourse aimed at building unity. Such a debate, held before the eyes of those three thousand or so people who attended Marxism, would have accomplished much more than simply educate – it would have resolved age old differences. Instead of being pestered to join the SWP, the masses would have been inducted into something more than that, into a popular left wing movement, a unified political left.
These were exactly the kind of arguments that occured to me when I first got involved with the far left in 1981. Three decades later, they are no closer to resolution then they were then. In fact, it occurs to me that they are incapable of resolution.
The worrying thing is that the UK far left positively revels in its divisions. There is a certain (predominantly male)personality type that sees the main task in politics as asserting the superiority of one tiny group against another. These people would actually rather be on the leadership body of a sect than a middle-ranking activist in a more powerful united organisation.
In middle age, my commitment to Marxism ismore by way of theoretical affirmation of its central intellectual propositions than in the activism that characterised my youth. Even so, I still see the necessity for democratic socialism if humanity is to solve its most pressing problems. Part of me even secretly hopes that the Alliance for Workers' Liberty is capable of resuscitating some kind of rational humanist Marxism.
But looking around at the contemporary left makes me want to tear my hair out. Many of the 'leaders' of my generation or thereabout I know personally, or else from their track record over many years. Not only do they seem to me incapable of leading a revolution, but they incapable of positive engagement in serious politics.
I have watched the attempts at regroupment over the last 16 years; Socialist Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, United Socialist Party, Left Alternative, Left List, Solidarity, Campaign for a Marxist Party, No2EU, TUSC, and I've probably missed some.
But hey, just because there is no hope ... don't let it get you down.
Dave: I think you're spot on. I've had (thankfully) less experience of the revolutionary left than yourself, yet I feel no less jaded and cynical about it -- and I'm not even 30. And this point rings particularly true of my own experiences: "There is a certain (predominantly male)personality type that sees the main task in politics as asserting the superiority of one tiny group against another. These people would actually rather be on the leadership body of a sect than a middle-ranking activist in a more powerful united organisation."
I think Theo made a very similar point about the role of egos and personalities during a recent discussion in response to your article about the Socialist Party's working class base (here: http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/06/29/socialist-party’s-working-class-base). To use his words, I too think it would be great to see the emergence of "a revolutionary current which has the working-class organisational skills of the SP, the design and presentation skills of Counterfire, the intellectual breadth and, from what I can tell, genuine democratic spirit of the AWL, and the go-for-it elan of the youth who mostly describe themselves as 'anarchist'. (We could do with the ecological commitment and understanding of some Greens too)." But what are the chances of it, when the self-identity of so many comrades is so bound up with their own chosen sect? Not all of them, by any means, but so many of the key players (and their minions) are the worst advert for serious revolutionary politics that you could imagine.
Despite its strengths, the AWL is far from immune from this (and personally I think its strengths are many: its commitment to open debate, its promotion of rational humanist Marxism, its excellent educational work on the history of Trotskyism, etc.). Even during the aforementioned debate on SPEW, we had leading AWLers calling that party's leader a "wanker" and dismissing its members as "dull-witted", not to mention an entire article taking the piss out of "Bishop Taaffe" and his supposedly hilarious northern accent. One comment summed it up: it doesn't matter if SPEW comrades are (as Dave Osler wrote) generally "nicer human beings" (than many SWPers) and by contrast AWLers are rude, because we're right, and they're wrong, and that's all that matters. So there you have it: being in the right sect is a license to be a dick.
A pretty depressing state of affairs all in all.