Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2011

Alex Callinicos considers the horizontalists

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

In the latest issue of International Socialism, the quarterly journal of the British SWP, you can read an interesting article by party leader Alex Callinicos titled “Unsteady as she goes”  that is a high-level analysis of world economic and political developments.

The part that interested me in particular came at the end when he turned his attention to the mass movement in Europe and the Middle East that appeared to be bypassing traditional Marxist formations:

Recent mass struggles—including the student movement in Britain and the Arab revolutions—have been marked by the relative lack of involvement of substantial political forces (with the important, but complicated, exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). The problem here isn’t simply the general weakening of political parties, but also the fact that what were the great ideologies of emancipation in the 20th century—socialism (the workers’ movement), nationalism (the anti-colonial struggles), liberalism (the revolutions of 1989)—have much less of a hold than they did a generation or two ago. Liberalism has been discredited by the experience of neoliberalism, and in the Middle East by its association with US imperialism; socialism has had to carry the burden of Stalinism and social democracy; and nationalism has been caught up in the failure of so many postcolonial regimes. These experiences are part of the story of the erosion of mass parties in recent decades.

None of these ideologies are in any way dead, and all are capable of revival. But the weakening of their influence means that mass movements tend not to have any clear ideological articulation. This doesn’t mean that these movements are purely spontaneous or that no political activists are involved in them. On the contrary, revolutionary socialists, for example, can be proud of the role they have played in struggles as diverse as the British student movement and the 25 January Revolution in Egypt. But, for much wider layers, suspicion of all political organisation and the belief that movements can sustain themselves through their own horizontal networks have become a kind of common sense. This then helps to sustain the kind of illusions in social media so effectively criticised by Jonny Jones in our last issue.

None of this alters the fact that we are experiencing an international renewal of struggle that continues the process of radicalisation beginning with the Seattle protests in November 1999. But revolutionary socialists have to recognise that this radicalisation doesn’t automatically lead those affected towards Marxism in the way that tended to happen during its predecessors in the 1930s and the 1960s and early 1970s. We have to fight to make our voices heard. This is no great injury—no one has the right to imagine they are the voice of history, but it is a challenge.

There are some things I find troubling about this.

When he says that “socialism has had to carry the burden of Stalinism and social democracy”, there is a failure to grasp that the far left has had its own responsibility for socialism’s decline—especially in Europe. While I understand that the British SWP is unlike other groups that have made serious mistakes in the mass movement, largely a result of its more profound understanding of the class struggle going back to the days of Karl Marx, other revolutionary-minded young people and workers might have gotten a bad taste in their mouth over the party’s record in RESPECT and other arenas the party has prioritized.

Such activists have tended to bypass the traditional far-left groups, most of which have their roots in the Trotskyist or Maoist movements, and relied on social media and a “horizontalist” organizational model. Jonny Jones’s article is not online but one must assume that he made many of the same points Callinicos himself made in his debate with Laurie Penny. In a January 8th article, Callinicos defended his party from charges that it was some kind of alien presence:

Laurie also seems to regard the presence of Socialist Worker sellers on student protests as a claim to “own” and dictate to the movement. This is absolutely not so. We understand that to defeat the coalition, let alone to overthrow capitalism, will require a mass movement of millions, far deeper and broader than the biggest revolutionary party.

In this, we are acting on our understanding of the Marxist tradition, at the heart of which is the self-emancipation of the working class. So when Laurie says, “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”, of course we agree. We never imagined anything different

But we also believe that we are entitled to consider ourselves as an organic part of the movement, not alien outsiders. As Laurie acknowledges, activists from the revolutionary left (not just the SWP) have been involved in building the protests from the start.

The Education Activist Network, which brings together students and workers in higher and further education, and which the SWP helped to initiate at the beginning of the year, has played an important role. One of the movement’s most prominent spokespeople, Mark Bergfeld, is a member of the SWP.

What Alex misses, however, is the way in which such “interventions” are perceived by non-party members. They understand quite rightly that strategy and tactics are hammered out within the SWP and then proposed at mass meetings that are supposedly the place where such strategy and tactics can be debated out publicly and voted on democratically. The discipline that SWP’ers operate under—a practice that is endemic to all “Marxist-Leninist” groups—is virtually guaranteed to turn people like Laurie Penny into resentful opponents of the party.

Perhaps the comrades are operating under the assumption that such “interventions” were developed by the Bolsheviks as a norm. Unfortunately, a mechanical application based on Lenin’s writings can lead to a disaster, especially if you misread Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder” with its stress on the need to participate in the trade unions with their reactionary leaderships. One can certainly understand the need to caucus before a meeting presided over by the likes of James Hoffa Jr. but the Education Activist Network is a horse of another color. In fact, the one thing that the SWP could do to burnish its image among such activists is to occasionally quarrel with each other in public meetings. If Richard Seymour would rush across the room and tweak Alex Callinicos’s nose, can you imagine the good will that would create?

All that being said, there are compelling reasons for “horizontalism” to be examined just as critically as “Marxist-Leninist” functioning. Over on the Kasama Project, an article appeared on June 29th that came from Reuters originally, of all places. Written by Peter Apps, it raised the question: Do “leaderless” revolts contain seeds of own failure?. Apps writes:

(Reuters) – From the streets of Cairo and Madrid to online forums and social media sites, “leaderless” protests are on the rise. But the very qualities that led to their short-term success may condemn them to failure in the long run.

Activists in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere say the lack of top-down management has been an important element in their recent success in rallying crowds disillusioned with the ruling establishment, using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Anti-austerity protesters in Europe have used similar tactics to organize mass street protests they hope will put pressure on governments to rethink spending cuts…

But the model has its limits. In Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters successfully ousted President Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, there are already signs the protesters are being sidelined by more established power centers.

In elections likely only weeks away, the westernized activists of Tahrir Square may be barely represented as power shifts back to the military — who remain in control — and the more organized Muslim Brotherhood.

In Libya and Syria, where popular uprisings turned into outright armed intervention and insurgency, initially leaderless rebels found themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

Whether at the ballot box or on the battlefield, some experts say that without some form of command and control leaderless groups will simply be outmaneuvered. That might leave them a simple choice: build more coherent leadership structures or join with other organizations that already have them.

“If leaderless movements are not wholly self-destructive, they might… fizzle out allowing the pre-existing power elites to take advantage,” said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle East politics at the U.S. Naval War College. “They need a general consensus about what they seek in the future.”

That can prove difficult. One of the strengths of the “leaderless” model, protesters say, is the way it can quickly bring together disparate groups working toward a common goal. But as frustration mounts, so does demand for change.

Given the lack of an authoritative leadership in a place like Egypt, for example, it is good news that socialists from different ideological backgrounds have put aside their differences and formed a new umbrella organization. On May 11th Ahram reported:

Five Egyptian political parties and movements unite to form the Coalition of Socialist Forces, they announced in a meeting on May 10, 2011. The newly formed coalition is made up of the Social Party of Egypt, the Democratic Labour Party, the Popular Socialist Coalition Party, Egypt Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialists. It aims to include under its umbrella other socialist movements in Egypt, which are considered fragmented.

“We [social political activists] are optimistic that the Coalition of Socialist Forces will bring a stronger socialist presence onto Egypt’s political scene”, said Gigi Ibrahim, a political activist.

During the May 10 meeting, there were intense discussions regarding the recent turn of events in the country and how it impacts the revolution.

The Coalition of Socialist Forces has appealed to all Egyptians, irrespective of their ideologies, to amass in Tahrir Square on Friday May 13 in a bid to protect the demands of revolution and for national unity.

While this is a step forward, one can only hope that it will avoid the mistakes of the Socialist Alliance experiments, primarily in English-speaking nations, that sought to coalesce socialist parties into a broad organization designed mostly to contest elections. Unfortunately, organizational inertia prevented these formations from becoming more than the sum of their often quarrelsome parts. Most dissolved because the constituent groups decided they were better off peddling their own wares.

Now that we are living through a period of deep crisis, one might hope that Marxists can transcend the narrow sect-mentality that has been as much of an obstacle to our growth as the sorry legacy of Stalinism and social democracy that Callinicos alluded to.

This is an exciting time to be a revolutionary and let’s hope that we can rise to the occasion.

26 Comments »

  1. Callinicos never makes a point. He just posits this, postulates that, surmises another, wonders about still another. And it all could change!

    The “academic” (read: pretentious, useless) left is the same no matter which spokesmodel it offers as Pontificator of the Moment. Namely, it’s too proud of its ability to ramble on indefinitely without saying anything. Solipsism, self-soothing egocentrism, and posturing at pedantry are the menu choices and the chef’s not taking requests.

    The only way revolution will happen is without the academic sector’s support. We don’t need a class of managerial interpreters of doctrine. And we don’t need Glossy Karl.

    Comment by Karl — July 5, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

  2. You fail to note that the Callincos piece deploys the standard SWP approach of believing in a movementist on/off switch where political upsurge has to be all or nothing. Thats’ a primary schema of their’s which must play havoc with their members heads.You might also like to catch up with events in Ireland and this recent SWP editorial about the ULA http://www.swp.ie/editorial/after-united-left-alliance-forum/4602 and the debate that is unfolding under that umbrella.

    Comment by Dave Riley — July 5, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  3. don’t you need to have a party to be able to rise to the occasion?

    Comment by damien — July 6, 2011 @ 3:15 am

  4. Ah yes! I was once part of a very small but very vocal Trotskyist sect that pours all of its time into the “front group”. For an hour of meeting for the front group came three hours of the party meeting about what we would say in the front group, and we were the clear majority anyway (and often the only ones there save for a couple of sympathetic souls). And God forbid you speak up even at the local! People seem to have been committed to insane asylums (way to use the bourgeois state!) when they disagreed with the party leadership too much.

    People have to get over this democratic centralism thing very quickly. I consider myself a Leninist, but such an organizational structure without mass struggle and without years of trial and error will only lead to cult-like behavior, and no one wants to be a part of that.

    Comment by El Pelón — July 6, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  5. Robert MIchels was right.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 6, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  6. A party or grouping must have a line and it must defend it but it must do that politically and by exemplary actions not bureaucratic manoeuvre or apolitical lash ups. The post War Fourth International degenerated into stalinised bureaucratic centrist sects quite early on in to the long Cold War boom. They adapted very quickly to Stalinism both in theorya nd practise. Bureaucratic centrists have interests separate from the movement as a whole. The SWP or the SP or whichever one it is comes first. Its interests are prior or higher to those of the workers and students movement as a whole. The sects (like the sects that were around before the First International was founded) have had their day however. They played a semi-useful role during the Cold War of keeping certain ideas alive but now they have become a reactionary impediment to the development of a Marxist movement that can gain the leadership of the labour movement. Centrism acts as a barrier between the working class and Marxism not just ideologically but often physically.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 6, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  7. Jonny Jones article is on line here: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=722&issue=130.

    Whatever the mistakes and failures of the SWP in Britain, I don’t think that can be the primary explanation of the phenomenon that Callinicos is talking about. The vast majority of people involved in the British movement have not the slightest idea about who did what in the Respect debacle. And in Spain and Egypt, the revolutionary left is miniscule. It’s pretty clear that in Spain, the reason the indignatos reject the label socialist is because the austerity program is being implemented by a socialist government. In Greece, it’s a similar story. Interestingly, it’s in the US that significant numbers of young people say that they have a favorable attitude towards socialism—an artifiact, perhaps, of the fact that there is no mass social democratic party in this country and hence no history of social democratic betrayals.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — July 7, 2011 @ 4:57 am

  8. I just do not get this attitude…

    “What Alex misses, however, is the way in which such “interventions” are perceived by non-party members. They understand quite rightly that strategy and tactics are hammered out within the SWP and then proposed at mass meetings that are supposedly the place where such strategy and tactics can be debated out publicly and voted on democratically. The discipline that SWP’ers operate under—a practice that is endemic to all “Marxist-Leninist” groups—is virtually guaranteed to turn people like Laurie Penny into resentful opponents of the party.
    Perhaps the comrades are operating under the assumption that such “interventions” were developed by the Bolsheviks as a norm. Unfortunately, a mechanical application based on Lenin’s writings can lead to a disaster, especially if you misread Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder” with its stress on the need to participate in the trade unions with their reactionary leaderships. One can certainly understand the need to caucus before a meeting presided over by the likes of James Hoffa Jr. but the Education Activist Network is a horse of another color. In fact, the one thing that the SWP could do to burnish its image among such activists is to occasionally quarrel with each other in public meetings. If Richard Seymour would rush across the room and tweak Alex Callinicos’s nose, can you imagine the good will that would create?”

    Why? Why is it somehow a better thing for a party to not have a uniform position? Taken to its logical conclusion why should any one individual be able to put forward a position? Why not several positions per person..?

    I realise some activists resent democratic centralism, but that’s because they are operating out of a liberal mindset. Why cater to backwardness when facing such huge tasks!?

    Comment by Dave — July 7, 2011 @ 6:05 am

  9. As I learned, rightly or wrongly, during my days as an orthodox Trotskyist in the 1960’s, the main thrust of Leninist democratic centralist discipline was NOT so much aimed at imposing uniformity on the rank and file as at making sure leading party members, especially those who had influential positions in trade unions and other non-party organizations, acted on behalf of the party and its program, rather than using their prominence to advance their own agendas. This kind of discipline, at least, seems quite proper to me.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — July 7, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  10. I always wonder why the left’s relationship to democratic centralism, is so problematic. Is it because most of the organized left-wing has never been involved in a labor dispute?
    If you have participated in strikes, in a brief or extended period, then you know that the strike organized around democratic centralism core principles. Democratic centralism is not a foreign element in the workers’ daily lives or struggle. In democratic trade unions organized and determined political strategies based on the best elements supportive of democratic centralism.
    The fact that certain ultra-leftist organizations have misunderstood what democratic centralism is. Does not mean we should abdicate our democratic centralism as a cornerstone of the future class struggle.

    Comment by Jan Hoby — July 7, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  11. Jan, I am not sure what your political background is but “democratic centralism” in groups like the American SWP and British SWP involved defending the party’s “program” to the outside world. This meant, for example, that gay members of the SWP had to oppose the slogan that “gay is good” because the American SWP opposed such a slogan at its 1973 convention. Now the British SWP was always (well, almost always) saner than the American group with the same name but it suffers from the same flaw. It imposes a kind of intellectual straightjacket on its members by forcing them to defend *ideas* that they disagree with. Lenin intended party discipline to apply to actions such as votes in the Duma, building a strike, etc. It was only through a slow process of mechanical “Bolshevization” that sect-formation took place.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 7, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  12. Louis, my political childhood shoes were entered into the Communist (Stalinist) movement. But the political straitjacket that you mentioned was too much. So most of my adult life, the revolutionary socialist movement had been my political home, with all the errors. As a regular reader of your blog, I can follow you for many of your criticisms of the revolutionary socialist organizations. But I do not share them all. I have never experienced a political and ideological straitjacket in my political work. But perhaps it is more about that all are equal but some are more equal than others in the revolutionary organizations. As a revolutionary socialist and trade union bureaucrats in a big union (I’m Vice President),there is a slightly longer leash 🙂

    Comment by Jan Hoby — July 7, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  13. The contradictions of a “leaderless” organization-free revolt have arisen before this latest wave in Argentina in 2002. Without stronger, more coherent organizations, the ruling class will eventually regain the initiative and try to claw back the concessions it was forced to give up. The fact that the struggles have bypassed the existing left organizations is nothing new — Russian workers spurned both factions of the RSDLP in 1905 to create soviets. In Argentina, the far left was not the only/main force organizing piqueteros and/or pot-bangers in the streets.

    At that time, quite a few would-be anarchist theorists hailed the Argentina revolt as a new paradigm, a leaderless revolution without “old” and “outdated” anachronisms like political parties; as evidence, they pointed to the movement’s slogan: “throw them all out!” It’s funny how this process — “spontaneous” upsurge from below bypasses left organizations, some activists try to turn this phenomenon into a theory — is repeating itself almost a decade later.

    Louis, you are right to point out what Callinicos misses. When a disciplined, cadre organization makes a concerted effort to intervene in a movement, struggle, or coalition meeting, it can *feel* like an invasion to those who aren’t members of that group, especially if there are no other organized forces within it that offer a competing program or strategy to the “line” said cadre group is pushing. This is something cadre groups need to take into account when they plan how they want to orient themselves within a movement. Unfortunately “democratic centralism” comes with no organizational guarantee, insurance policy, or vaccination against idiocy or heavy-handedness.

    I recently re-read an email report I wrote about the fall 2003 CAN conference where I was the lone ISO member to vote against including opposition to a U.N. occupation in the Points of Unity (one sign you are getting old: repeating the same stories over and over again) which ended up being the deciding vote. The reason I did so is because the night before, after the first day’s sessions, I found myself sitting with a dozen plus non-ISO activists from the conference who hadn’t spoken much during the conference. It turned out that they were not for immediate withdrawal or had big, big reservations/questions about it (civil war, white man’s burden, etc.). Me and another comrade spent that evening arguing hard for immediate withdrawal with these people, and the experience made me more aware of the fact that not everyone in CAN was on the same page politically, despite the near-unanimity exhibited in the speeches people gave on the floor of the conference. It didn’t make any sense to me for CAN to adopt a Point of Unity opposing a U.N. occupation when we weren’t even united around immediate withdrawal, much less a U.N. occupation, which at that time many anti-war activists and those sympathetic to the anti-war movement had questions/disagreements about (in fall 2003 it seemed like a full-blown U.N. occupation might actually happen).

    ISOers hadn’t met beforehand to agree on Points of Unity that we wanted to push for and win at the conference. I think there was a sense among us at that time that the movement was at an ebb and that it was important not to “micromanage” or misuse the undue influence we had as a result of the ebb. Sure, we could’ve jammed through Points of Unity affirming the necessity of socialism, opposition to imperialism, and taking a revolutionary defeatist line, but what use would that have been?

    I disagree that when you write: “The discipline that SWP’ers operate under—a practice that is endemic to all “Marxist-Leninist” groups—is virtually guaranteed to turn people like Laurie Penny into resentful opponents of the party.” It depends on the context. Judging by the number of resignations and expulsion from the British SWP in the last few years, it’s safe to say that the SWP is probably doing something wrong in practice in the various movements/organizations it intervenes in.

    Comment by Binh — July 7, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  14. Binh – I assume that would be a UN Occupation of Iraq.

    it’s safe to say that the SWP is probably doing something wrong
    It’s probably safe to say that something isn’t safe to say if you immediately have to include the conditional “probably”.

    I think that Louis’ article deserves an intelligent response, and I don’t think I have the time for one now. It is always easier in some ways to operate in a campaign as an individual (so some respect to those willing to stand up as party members). Spending much party activity in paper sales in the hope of converting buyers into sellers does seem like an activity with less intrinsic value over time, and I wonder how many have left left politics because they can’t see the point in such things.

    A SWSS group at the London School of Economics once voted three different ways on Cyprus. It didn’t fundamentally transform the way others viewed it.

    Comment by skidmarx — July 7, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

  15. Re: Binh @13: It seems to me that it would have been proper for the ISO to have decided as an organization what it considered to be essential points of unity for the anti-war coalition it was part of and to require its members to vote for those points. Whether it was crucial for such a coalition to explicitly reject a U.N. occupation of Iraq at the time Binh refers to depends, IMO, on whether or not there was a threat that people and literature speaking in the name of the coalition might actually support such an occupation. It certainly seems to me, though, that it was or would have been correct to push for including the demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. and client troops, which doesn’t mean that you have to quit the coalition if such a demand isn’t adopted.

    I remember an anti-war meeting in San Francisco in the Fall of 1990 where I, as an individual, and others pushed through a vote to include opposition to sanctions on Iraq in the coalition’s points of unity. Richard Becker, then a leader of Workers World and their anti-war front and now a leader of ANSWER and PSL, was chairing the meeting and, I think, voted for it. But right after that vote, he got a signal from his comrades and called for a revote where opposition to sanctions was voted down. I think the million or so deaths that resulted from sanctions between 1991 and 2003 show who was right, even if some groups and individuals might have left the coalition if that principled position had been adopted.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — July 8, 2011 @ 1:01 am

  16. Lenin got the democratic centralism thing by observing the working class and how it operated. The new forms it threw up in the course of struggle just as Marx and Engels had done with the Paris Commune. I have been on strike and as long as you uphold the democratic decision taken to go on strike you can argue from day one until the end that it was or is a mistake.

    The problem with the sects, especially the bureaucratic centrist ones, is that they are apolitical or worse anti-political. They live through abstractions and propaganda but they are unable and unwilling to relate that to everyday events and everyday life. They cannot act in exemplary fashion and therefore resort to bureaucratic manoeuvres or opportunist lash ups or sectarian splitting tactics.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 8, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

  17. AA: Immediate withdrawal from Iraq was voted for as a Point of Unity by a large margin. I don’t know if it was because the conversations ISOers convinced the people who were on the fence about it the night prior but I suspect that was a factor. The debate on the prospect of a U.N. occupation was much more divisive, probably because the issue hadn’t been raised and argued out as explicitly as immediate withdrawal was. My view was that adopting and winning people to “out now” would provide a very strong foundation for arguing against a U.N. occupation. The whole thing was a question of tactics and of judgment, and most of my comrades completely disagree with my line of thinking at the time and probably still do. I wasn’t too worried about people quitting the coalition, I was worried that any number of things could be declared “Points of Unity” by very narrow 50% plus 1 votes along “party lines” in a situation where the anti-war movement was small, giving said party undue/artificially large influence.

    Your story about Becker is disheartening but not terribly surprising. How did he justify a re-vote and how did WWP/PSL vote?

    Comment by Binh — July 8, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  18. Hmmm. Having no background in Trotskyism, these two cents may be worth even less than they seem. However, the core of Callinicos’ argument looked very much like a warning against assuming that because there is a big fat crisis in international capitalism, there is a revolutionary situation, at least of a mild type which Trotskyites (or any other kind of radical socialist movement) are going to find beneficial. It doesn’t seem to me that he is saying that there is not going to be any positive opportunity for the Western Left; he is, rather, saying that the Western Left is extremely poorly situated to accomplish anything. Which is, I suppose, a trivial point to make if you are on the outside of the Western Left — but if you spend half your life trying to take over poorly-attended meetings in large echoing halls in crumbling community centres, it is terribly tempting to hope that just one more hard push by someone, somewhere, will start the ball rolling. (Confession time; twenty years ago, involved in single-issue politics and psychologically addicted to it.)

    It does seem possible that a revolutionary situation will arrive within a decade or so, but it seems almost impossible that the Western Left will be in any position to take advantage of it. Meanwhile it seems rather likely that a revolutionary Right will arise.

    Comment by hismastersvoice — July 10, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

  19. I think your argument here is a bit one-sided Louis, with the implication that the main problem in the practice of groups like the SWP in coalition/movement work is that they try to adhere to a disciplined, unified position, too often making them appear like robots to those who are not in groups themselves. Or making them appear like they’re out to dominate the group or unwilling to listen to others’ ideas. These can be problems, but my own view is that developing the flexibility to do this type of coalition work is an art which can only be developed through experience (which I think is what Binh says in his comment). Being a member of a particular group does not necessarily curtail the development of this ability, although it certainly can. My experience is that the state of different movements (at least in the U.S.) is such right now that often the fact that socialists have met up before a meeting to brainstorm proposals and positions to bring plays a positive role in taking coalition/movement work forward. Although again, it’s an art, and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis.
    That said, the larger point is that members of groups like the SWP, etc. have to be aware of the dynamics created by their “interventions” and be extremely open to hearing others’ positions and potentially accommodating them, no matter what the heck might have been decided outside the meeting.
    I think there are larger issues involved in the relationship of groups like the SWP with movements. The existing socialist groups tend to breed arrogance and a know-it-all attitude that’s entirely unwarranted given their records. To mangle a Trotsky quote for my own purposes, “Every sectarian thinks they’re a master strategist.” For example, I’ve seen one group hold at least 3 public meetings in the last few months titled, “What Strategy for the [Insert Name Here] Movement?” This is just ridiculous and is probably worse than the particular failing you point to. Not to mention that there is the general suspicion that socialist groups are out to build themselves rather than the movement, a caricature that too many groups contribute to through their sectarian practices.
    In sum, I think that the practice of socialists caucusing and discussing positions outside of meetings should not be junked. It will be a part of the practice of any healthy socialist formation. But it has to be refined and done in such a way that can avoid the pitfalls you describe. And that involves a re-examination of the practice of democratic centralism as it’s come to be defined, along with a re-examination of the type of organization necessary for the socialist movement today.

    Comment by Dan DiMaggio — July 12, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  20. Here’s what looks like an example of how disciplined intervention in a movement can be botched badly to the detriment of everyone involved:
    http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20050529001500670

    Comment by Binh — July 19, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

  21. Binh: “Here’s what looks like…” The problem is that anything looks like anything you want it to if your description is inaccurate enough. I was in SF at the time of this tempest in a teapot, although not directly involved. The most negative descriptions in the emails don’t match with my recollections. As the antiwar movement went into sharp decline after the debacle of the 2004 election, some activists came to the conclusion that the problem was having open socialists in the movement, because that was supposedly scaring other people off. That led to some fairly sharp exchanges and some accusations that in my view had little merit. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that everyone could have handled the situation better, but I don’t think that what actually happened was an illustration of “disciplined intervention” harming an otherwise healthy movement. Believe me, in those days I wish the comrades had been a bit more disciplined.

    Comment by Phil — July 19, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

  22. The problem is that this wasn’t handled correctly. Who said anything about an “otherwise healthy movement”? If we’re going to debate any of this, let’s dispense with the strawmen.

    Comment by Binh — July 19, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  23. That was hardly intended as a straw man (or person). The question is, what destroyed the movement? I would say objective circumstances and the strategy of tailing the Democrats, which then let to internal friction and antagonisms as the movement declined. The idea that “disciplined intervention” that was”botched badly” played any significant role, is in my view wrong headed. I would argue that whatever mistakes were made were largely a consequence of the decline, not the cause of it—symptoms, not explanations. That’s the disagreement, without any “straw men.”

    Comment by Phil — July 19, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  24. Where did I mention anything about “destroying the movement”? Another strawman, intentional or not, that missed the point entirely. The link speaks for itself.

    Comment by Binh — July 20, 2011 @ 2:39 am

  25. No, the link doesn’t “speak for itself” (as if anything ever does). It consists of a series of accusations made in the context of a declining movement, most of which bear little relationship to what actually happened. And if you’re not interested in why the movement was on the way down, fair enough. But to my mind that’s the crucial question.

    Comment by Phil — July 20, 2011 @ 3:01 am

  26. Here’s part II for those who are interested in looking at who said what for themselves:
    http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20050531124816353

    The Democratic Party is not to blame for these mistakes. Sorry.

    Comment by Binh — July 20, 2011 @ 3:04 am


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