A faction in the British SWP calling itself “In Defense of our Party” was declared in early January. It was formed to strengthen democracy in the party, issuing a warning about how “false polarisation and caricature will only obscure this process.” It also called for an “end to the punishment of party workers who have expressed concerns over the dispute.” It does not mention what kind of punishment is being meted out but I strongly doubt that is of the corporal nature.
What fascinated me was that Mike Gonzalez was one of the sixty SWP members who had come on board. Gonzalez functions as the party’s guru on Cuba, writing very much in the same vein as Samuel Farber, which is to say heavily reliant on Cubanology scholarship such as Carmelo Mesa-Lago’s. Gonzalez is not only an expert on Cuban ills. He has served as master diagnostician of what went wrong in Nicaragua under FSLN leadership in the 1980s and has more recently focused on the vain hopes pinned on Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
Gonzalez, an Emeritus Professor of Latin American Studies at Glasgow University, belongs to a hoary tradition that came out of the Left Opposition in Soviet Russia. Based on a critical examination of the sins of Stalinism or state capitalism, the Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist group will know which mistakes to avoid. In many ways it is the Marxist equivalent of those training films they used to show to draftees in WWII on preventing venereal disease. One look at the penis of someone with advanced syphilis is enough to make you want to wear two condoms, not one.
But somehow the thousands of pages that Mike Gonzalez has written did little to prevent Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and Martin Smith from acting like pint-size versions of Fidel Castro. At least with the Cubans, there has been the open recognition that centuries of a macho culture suffused with sexism, racism, and homophobia has left its imprint and that struggle is needed to create a more just society. But how in hell does the leadership of a group of a couple of thousand people trained in Tony Cliff’s “socialism from below” philosophy end up acting like a bunch of bureaucrats insensitive to the demands of a female comrade that her alleged rape be properly investigated? I don’t think it is an adequate explanation to say that Tony Cliff wrote some nonsense about feminism in the 1980s—reminiscent I should add of what Gus Hall wrote in the 1970s. You don’t have to have a fully evolved consciousness to understand that you don’t ask such a comrade about her drinking habits, her sexual experiences, etc.
Since that faction was declared, there are signs that things have degraded further. The faction associated in the left public’s mind with Richard Seymour and China Mieville just issued a statement titled “Stop the Bullying” that states:
Comrades across the party have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated at aggregates and branch meetings. When they have complained about this they have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated. Young comrades have received nasty messages from those much older than them. They have been threatened with violence.
Threatened with violence? How does an organization that treats Tony Cliff’s writings in the same fashion that the Catholic Church treats the Sermon on the Mount end up threatening people with violence? The answer is obvious. In both cases, you are dealing with institutions that are governed more by expedience than principle. Whether you are a Cardinal in Rome or a full-timer in London, you have material interests that sometimes clash with lofty ethical, political or religious beliefs.
And what really boggles the mind is Alex Callinicos’s warning that faction members face ‘lynch mobs’ of angry members if the debate continues after the special conference. Even if this is only a metaphor, what kind of fucked-up metaphor is that to use? Maybe the CC comrades should watch “Django Unchained”.
Unfortunately all institutions are susceptible to abuse of the sort that is taking place in the SWP. What occurs to me, however, is that the lofty ideological basis upon which such “vanguard” groups are built paradoxically sets it up for violation of its core beliefs.
When you develop a theory such as “state capitalism”, it becomes a kind of litmus test used against the rest of the left and as such logically implies that you are superior to it. This is not that different than the warring sects of Hasidic Jewry, all based on a particular interpretation of the Talmud and loyal to its founder or the founder’s male descendant. The same arrogance that is directed toward “opponent” groups often carries over to the rank and file of your own.
Such groups necessitate a priesthood that is keeper of the faith. Only those who have fully mastered Cliff-thought (or Cannon-thought) are fully capable of steering the party through the white-water rapids of bourgeois society. One false move to the left or the right and the boat capsizes, thus leaving the world bereft of the leadership it needs to challenge the capitalist order.
In my view people are not megalomaniacs prior to assuming leadership of a group like the SWP. It is only the heavy mantle of responsibility of being the “Lenin of today” that makes you a tin-pot dictator.
In my view we need to unite everybody on the left however they view the Castro brothers, Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales. Everybody can agree that the embargo has to end and that the 5 Cuban political prisoners in the U.S. should be freed immediately. But on the questions of how Cuban society is organized and how the population deals with the contradictions of trying to build a just society in an unjust world, that can be dealt with in the back pages of a theoretical magazine.
But the most important task facing the left is to unite across ideological lines and to build a leadership based on its ability to have led people in battle, not on their priestly grasp of what went wrong in the USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Angola ad infinitum, ad nauseam.