As a long time commentator on the British SWP, I could not help but notice the exchange between Laurie Penny, a 23 year old student activist, and a couple of leaders of the group, Alex Callinicos and Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame. Actually, I don’t know if Richard is a leader in the formal sense but my fondest hopes is that one day he will lead this organization that despite its boneheaded ideas about party-building has some of the sharpest minds anywhere in the world operating in the name of Marxism.
The first salvo was fired by Ms. Penny in a Comments are Free article in the Guardian newspaper, where she wrote:
It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.
Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.
This is pretty unfair, but something has to be said about street sales or free distribution of printed material, a hallmark of very few groups today outside religious sects like the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Marxist-Leninists like the British SWP, or the American SWP that I belonged to.
Around the time that the Comintern was launched, street sales of newspapers were quite common so socialists hawking the Daily Worker or the Militant did not stand out. But by the 1950s at least, this practice had died out.
I remember one of my early experiences selling the Militant at a Stop the Draft Week demonstration in 1969, before I had become totally acculturated to the Trotskyist movement. As a large group of mostly student youth assembled in the streets near the Whitehall Induction Center just a stone’s throw from the Staten Island Ferry, I stood a distance away with a bundle of papers in my left elbow and holding up one with my right hand, saying in just a decibel over conversational level: “Get your latest copy of the Militant”. The whole thing made me feel weird, but I was committed to building a socialist movement and assumed that if the leadership thought it was a good idea, who was I to quibble—especially being the son of a shopkeeper.
After about fifteen minutes or so, I felt a kind of rabbit chop to the back of my neck—not enough to cause me any real pain but enough to grab my attention. It was Dave Frankel, a “youth leader” who would eventually end up writing for the Militant. Frankel was one of the more obnoxious people I ever ran into in the SWP, and—mind you—he had some stiff competition. After I spun around to see who had administered the rabbit chop (an SDS’er?), I saw it was Frankel who glared at me with a cold grin on his face and said “Sell, comrade, sell.”
I should have followed my instincts and resigned on the spot. Indeed, about a month later I met with the SWP organizer to inform him that I had plans to go back to graduate school, which would leave me little time for party activities. He replied that my services were urgently needed in Boston where Peter Camejo was involved with a faction fight against a group of comrades who had adapted to the Worker-Student-Alliance wing of SDS. That sounded like fun to me, so I moved up to Boston leaving thoughts of graduate school behind.
Yes, I know. I am going off on tangents. That is what happens when you get to be my age.
For Penny, the real dividing line seems to be between spontaneity and social networking on one side and “old left” newspaper sellers with their top-down approach on the other. She wrote:
For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.
Unfortunately bold tactics can only go so far in a mass movement that rests on a relatively weak social base, like university students. Situationism does certainly have its appeal to art students and the like, but I am not sure whether the heavy battalions of labor are easily drawn in to such actions. Indeed, the decline of the anti-globalization movement can be attributed in large part to adventuristic street tactics that could only go so far in forcing the ruling class to abandon the WTO and the like.
Alex Callinicos clearly has a handle on this given his long background in Marxist politics. In his reply that appeared on Comments are Free, he notes:
The important question now is how the student movement can maintain its forward momentum – despite the passage of higher tuition fees through parliament – and invigorate much broader resistance to the coalition’s austerity programme. Penny rightly welcomes the support that Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, has given the student movement. But his intervention underlines the fact that old political problems don’t simply go away when a new movement emerges…
All this points to the fact that trade union leaders are a lot better at fighting talk than effective action. And this is a very old problem, one with which feminists and Marxists like Penny and me have been grappling since at least the beginning of the 20th century. One of the strengths of student movements is the speed and elan with which they close the gap between words and deeds. This was as visible in France in 1968 as in Britain in 2010. But students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses.
Callinicos is far too smart to repeat the formulas of the cruder Marxist-Leninist groups, but it is crystal-clear—especially to an erstwhile practitioner like me—that he was alluding to the need for a revolutionary party that can unite various social layers—students, workers, etc.—into a common fighting front, like fingers being transformed into a fist. You get the picture, right?
The only problem with this conception is that the SWP does not have porous borders like the student movement. The relationship is totally one-sided. The students discuss strategy and tactics openly at their meetings and come to a vote. Anybody can say what they want, as long as it is understood that a democratic decision will guide the actions of the movement. But the SWP’s borders are guarded carefully against penetration from the outside. Students understand that the SWP comes to its decisions at meetings that are limited to party members. Once a decision is made, the line is presented to the mass movement as a fait accompli. No matter how convincing the case made for a particular tactic by someone like Laurie Penny, the SWP’er will vote in strict discipline with his or her comrades.
To put it as succinctly as possible, this methodology has been the ruin of the Marxist-Leninist left even as it has served its narrow, short-term interests. In a way, the democratic centralism of the self-declared vanguard parties is a mirror reflection of the business model of late capitalism in which quarterly earnings reports trump the long-term viability of the system. In seeking to advance its own narrow interests through a mechanical understanding of democratic centralism that has little to do with the way the Bolsheviks operated, groups such as the SWP can mobilize its ranks to get things done in a hurry even if it means isolating itself in the mass movement. The American SWP used to call itself “the big red machine” after this fashion. It helped us win votes at antiwar conferences even if it meant alienating the independents–our versions of Laurie Penny. Their numbers were legion.
Let’s turn now to the always refreshing and insightful Richard Seymour, whose response to Penny appears in the Liberal Conspiracy blog, where Penny has held forth on a fairly regular basis. Richard concludes his article thusly:
SWP members are willing to accept serious flack and criticism from the Left. We’re not infallible, we have made mistakes, and we’re open to learning from experience. And even if you don’t agree with the lessons that we draw, it doesn’t matter.
We don’t make it a condition of unity that you agree with us, or even like us very much. But it would help if, when we’re actually trying to help build unity in the most urgent situations, such as the struggle against fascism, others on the Left don’t try to undermine that unity with spurious and ungrounded attacks on those they disagree with.
Again, the problem is with the understanding of unity. For Richard, unity means the ability of left groups to work with other left groups and with unaffiliated activists. Now it does not mean very much if the SWP has figured out ways in the past to work with Peter Taaffe’s group or the CP or with any other left party. It is understood that these parties will come to a conference with their agendas set pretty much in stone. Their goal is to persuade the unaffiliated to vote for their proposals. That’s the way that the American SWP operated and it is frankly little more than a charade. A truly living mass movement is democratic to the core. And how can you have true democracy when decisions are made beforehand at someone’s central committee?
As I said earlier, this is not the way that the Bolsheviks operated. Proof of this is in John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” where Reed refers to the fight in the Bolshevik party about whether power should be seized from Kerensky:
However, the right wing of the Bolsheviki, led by Riazanov, Kameniev and Zinoviev, continued to campaign against an armed uprising. On the morning of October 31st appeared in Rabotchi Put the first installment of Lenin’s “Letter to the Comrades,” one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen. In it Lenin seriously presented the arguments in favour of insurrection, taking as text the objections of Kameniev and Riazanov.
As it turns out, Rabotchi Put was not an internal discussion bulletin of the kind that we were warned never to allow “outsiders” to see in the American Trotskyist movement, but the daily Bolshevik newspaper that was sold on the streets all over St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Lenin’s article is found in an appendix to Reed’s book and it is a real eye-opener. Against Kameniev and Riazanov’s argument that “we have not a majority”, Lenin replies that they “simply don’t want to look the real situation in the face” and draws the readers’ attention to the peasant uprising sweeping Russia, which cannot be readily reflected in parliamentary totals.
Needless to say, this is simply not the way that modern-day self-styled “Leninist” parties operate. They think that having members disagree with each other in public is a “social democratic talk shop”. But in fact, that is the way that the Bolsheviks operated and that allowed them to win the majority of Russian workers and peasants. If you are of course content to run a closed-off sect that does not have to put up with the inconveniences of the unenlightened masses, then none of this is particularly attractive even if it is historically faithful to the real Bolshevik party.
It would appear that Laurie Penny has the final word in The New Statesman, where she blogs regularly. In a reply to Alex Callinicos, she is more right than wrong, particularly this observation:
The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker’s revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin’s ideas about the function of a party paper – that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals – were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It’s no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It’s not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.
The Socialist Workers Party and other far left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year’s student revolutions have a background in far left agitation, and many more do not – but nearly all of us know precisely what’s at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that.
I doubt that the SWP will agree with her, but I hope that at least she is listened to carefully for in many respects she is closer to the spirit of Lenin’s party than they might have gathered. As some self-proclaimed and unrepentant Marxists try to recapture the spirit of the messy, free-spirited and even anarchic (in the sense of uncontrolled) nature of the Bolshevik party, we will eventually find ourselves converging not only with Laurie Penny but the real mass movement that exists, which by its very definition will not belong to any closed-off party but to the entire population of working people and its allies.
Richard Seymour has a lengthy reply to Laurie Penny here:
It is mostly a defense of newspapers that makes every point in the world worth making but that fails to grasp that the SWP newspaper does not function like Lenin’s Iskra. The sooner these comrades come to terms with this, the better off they will be. I would not hold my breath waiting, however.