Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bye, bye all – see you in a bit


I will be away from work, computers and Facebook [and even the web] for about a week. If you find this page while I am away it must mean that one of the following predictions has come true:

1. The Coalition has abolished benefits: not housing benefits, council tax benefits, legal aid … just each, every and all social “benefits”
2. On passing its first 10,000 advance registrations, the People’s Assembly has booked the 100 bedrooms of Buckingham Palace as break-out rooms
3. Channel 4 news has revealed that there has indeed been a war between rich and poor, between black and white, between the man and the woman
4. The rapidly growing movement for gay marriage in America has smashed head-on with the rapidly growing movement in France against gay marriage. The Atlantic ocean is now a perfect pink
5. The Dow Jones industrial average has passed 15,000
6. The grumpy Professor has fallen below 5,000 Facebook friends
7. Dave Widgery, Joe Strummer and Alexandra Kollontai have been reincarnated and are planning to go on tour together

Dissident Marxism isn’t finished


Nine years ago, I published a book “Dissident Marxism” which was intended to point a path for the left to take post-Seattle, reminding everyone that Marxism is not a closed tradition, and using various lives of the post-1917 left (Karl Korsch, Dona Torr, E. P. Thompson, Georges Henein, Dave Widgery and others) to explore certain positive features of Marxist history and theory.

A message of the book was that the key task facing Marxism (“the acid test of dissidence”) between 1917 and 1989 had been to develop an explanation of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution which – honestly and convincingly – excused “Marxism” of the blame for the revolution’s defeat.

Implicitly, I located this break-through in Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism (although I only refer to him directly at four pages), blaming other (non-IS) Marxists’s failure to maintain their politics on equivocations in the face of “really existing socialism”.

Yet having taken that stance, I also expressly argued against a “Cliff-good, everyone else-bad” approach, insisting that other Marxisms had at least tried to sustain a non-Stalinist politics; and that because they were more deeply rooted in different moments of dissidence they often responded to a particular crisis with more creative urgency. The chapter in particular on EP Thompson and the New Left’s revolt in 1956 against Stalinism was intended to be unambiguously positive.

The book ended with my essay on Widgery (a version of which is on line here;, using his life as an example of the reconnection of theory and practice which the demise of Stalinism had enabled after a long period of defeats, and which (the book argued) would be easier in future.

The book enjoyed mixed reviews. Martyn Everett (ex of Solidarity) enjoyed it, writing that the book fruitfully made us of, without ever resolving, a tension between Marxism and anarchism. Dougal Macneill, in Socialist Alternative complained that I passed over the crucial question of organisation. “To really learn the lessons of these figures, this inspiring book needs to be read alongside a work by another “dissident” Marxist: Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin.”

Mike Fitzpatrick gave me a kicking in Spiked. Ian Birchall complained that the two women chosen Alexandra Kollontai and Dona Torr were two few, and unrepresentative of the main themes of the book.

Neil Davidson complained that a healthy Marxist party should itself be dissident and required no internal dissidents; “This is why, enjoyable though the chapter on Widgery is, I think that it is wrong to describe him as a dissident within the IS/SWP tradition; he seems rather to have been one of its best representatives.”

Dissident Marxism suffered from various weaknesses, some of which have only become apparent to me over time.

One that I could see even in 2004 was that it was pitched at an audience of self-described anti-capitalists who had been reducing in number from 9/11 onwards and were almost invisible by 2004. There was of course a huge anti-war movement in 2004, international in reach and ambition, but the relationship between one phase of activism and the next was considerably more complex than we told ourselves at the time (“the anti-capitalist generation have become the anti-war generation”).

Many of the reviewers came from similar political or theoretical backgrounds to me. Those that didn’t found the book empiricist, historicist, and shamelessly naïve about the International Socialism tradition.

Alex Law, writing in Critique suggested that the book was uninterested in clarifying what a theoretical tradition is composed of. He was right, the book does not define a “Dissident Marxist tradition” in any way except retrospectively (ie “methodologically eclectically”), and it would be interesting to reflect what other traditions have a problem of fruitful definition (where, this week, do John Rees or Lindsey German, or for that matter Christopher Hitchens, or Roger Rosewell, or “Comrade Delta” fit into “the IS tradition”, anyone?).

Law pointed out that I gave exaggerated meaning to individuals’ lives at the expense of concepts such as “recession”, “impoverishment”, “alienation”, “exploitation”, “consciousness”, “protest” (in an awkward passage, I argued that biography might explain these concepts better than theory). The emphasis on a historical rather than a philosophical method had the result that I tended to excuse (he argued) the political mistakes of historians while failing to offer the same clemency to philosophers: “…It is on the basis of a biographical reading that Renton reserves the most trenchant critique for Marxist theorists like Braverman and Korsch and exhibits the most indulgence towards historians like Torr, Thompson and Rodney.” Was Law right? In retrospect I can see that he was.

Again: “Renton displays an antipathy to fore-fronting the explanatory capacity of Marxist theory. Lost in his immediate acquaintance with all the known details of historical fact is the need to confront philosophy and theory rather than dismissing the realism of ideas with a dose of historical realism or activist zeal.”

And again: “Philosophy is reduced by Renton to the lifeless, abstract systems of academic formalism while ‘history’ is chock full of real human content.”

Perhaps un-consciously I was reflecting on the people I knew in the movement who were philosophers and the people I knew who were historians?

I can see now there was a deeper problem; and one that was more widespread on the left than I liked to acknowledge. For 20 years and more the British left has been dominated by a small number of very “big beasts”, who succeeded in reserving to themselves the task of “writing theory”, and consciously or not made it clear to everyone else that their contributions were footling. Theory did not necessarily just mean big books proving or disproving Althusser or Lukacs or Foucault. Theory meant any attempt to peer beneath the surface arguments of philosophy or economics or of the political conjuncture at all.

There were all sorts of sanctions, express or implied, for those of us who were seen to be trespassing on the territory marked out for the thought-leaders. Of the fourteen biographical essays (of various length) in Dissident Marxism, almost all were written with the intention of being offered as the definitive “IS” guide to the strengths or weaknesses of a particular author. Three at least were offered first to the then editor of the International Socialism Journal (John Rees) for publication, one at the editor’s express invitation. None received so much of a letter of acknowledgment in reply.

There was a period of 9 years in which that journal agree to publish just one book review of mine; it was not for want of making offers, nor for lack of writing. In the same period, non-SWP publishers brought out 13 of my books.

I am not complaining about my own treatment. In life you make your choices and you ride the blows. Many others in the organisation have been treated far worse.

My point is a general one; that when reformers have in recent years argued for example that the number of women contributing to the International Socialism Journal was woefully low (which it has been), people have erred in thinking that you could just push forward selected members of a younger generation of women, without dealing with the broader problem that the organisation has manifested practices of monopolisation and control with regards to its own internal life.

Those of us who spent time in the company of these self-declared “big beasts” knew that we were allowed to express ourselves, minutely, in a semi-theoretical fashion. We could write about culture for example (unless you were Andy Wilson or Ben Watson). We could write about history, save that 1917 or1923 were off-limits.

The crucial point on which we were not allowed to express an opinion was the general nature of the domestic or international period we were in (”the conjuncture”). We could watch, but we were not supposed to generalise (i.e. to think).

Strangest to relate: so many of us, even among the writers, accepted our subordinate position.

Hence the historicism of ‘Dissident Marxism’: this was not just a personal affectation (although, in my case, I would plead guilty to elements of that!); nor was it just the influence of the British intellectual culture of empiricism; part of it also was a sense that by de-theorising our Marxism, we would make our lives easier.

This, for me, is the meaning of our last few weeks’ crisis. There is no longer a monopoly within the party or the tendency, of the means of communication. There is no longer anyone in the leadership of the party who can speak authoritatively about the nature of the crisis and can assume they will be listened to. There are voices, of course, but all of us are partial or tainted. Each of us, to a considerable extent, will have to forge our own audience. From now on, we shall all have to think for ourselves, draw up our own tactics, strategy and theory.

It is a daunting prospect; but we do (as ever) have a world to win

(Originally published, with thread, here).

The People’s Assembly: an auto-critique


The People’s Assembly (PA) is still 13 weeks away, but many aspects of how it will work are already clear. A very large number of national organisations have given the call for the Assembly their support. Nine national unions have already signed up ( good. The chief sponsor of the People’s Assembly is the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), on which something like around 100 different left-wing parties, campaigns etc, are represented. Most if not all of these, we can assume, will sponsor the PA. We can anticipate that there will be speaking roles reserved for individuals who have played prominent parts in the various hospital campaigns, and in the protests against the bedroom tax. Size matters; we are facing a government which is co-ordinating austerity measures in every area of the public sector, social benefits, private employment, health, housing, education, etc. It would be churlish not to welcome an initiative on a grand scale.

The PA will announce “action”, in other words a national demonstration, timed presumably to coincide with the return of students in the autumn. It will coincide with an international anti-austerity conference. It will announce the formation of further Coalition of Resistance groups / People’s Assemblies, which are to be set up in every area. So far, so reasonable. Among those in the audience of the PA there will be many hundreds of people who are not activists, or who have not have had a means of being active for several years. It is possible that some of them will become permanently involved in the movement, and, if so, this is to be heartily welcomed. But for those of us who have been part of the movement for more than a few months, there is a method here, and one that we know only too well.

It was John Rees of Stop the War (StW), Counterfire (CF) and CoR who led off the discussion of how the PA would work at the recent CoR National Council. ( We can imagine, without needing to be conspiratorial, that the plan for a People’s Assembly was first discussed round “that” Clapton Square dining room table, with Lindsey German. Lindsey will have been on the phone to Chris Nineham, then Clare Solomon, James Meadway and Sam Fairbarn, and only much later will the plan have been visited upon the world.

Like Terminator VI (“I’ll be back … back … back”), this is of course a sequel. The first People’s Assembly to be held at Westminster Central Hall was the Stop the War Coalition People’s Assembly against war in Iraq on 15 March 2003. This too was planned by John and Lindsey and then agreed with Chris. This too had various international speakers and spin-off events. This too was intended to be a “meme” (in the Dawkins sense: a unit of cultural transmission, a unit of imitation and replication), to be copied by local assemblies of the parent organisation.

Above all, People’s Assembly I was a talking shop: with dozens of speakers making essentially the same points in lengthy succession. The choice of the venue determines the method: Westminster City Hall is a huge public forum seating 2500 people. There are not 50 separate halls there capable of hosting 50 separate conversations all then feeding back to a single, main event. The “conversation” has to be orchestrated, pre-scripted, and controlled. PA I, like PA II, announced further actions (a concert that evening, protests on 18 March, a demo on 19 March and further “spontaneous protests” five days later). PA II takes place (sadly) in a quieter context, and we can imagine that the action plans will be shorter. Moreover, experience teaches that even the action plans will be “memed” in advance. Tony Cliff used to joke that the first New Left had both theory (reading Edward Thompson) and practice (hearing Thompson speak). The CoR / StW / PA generations has its counterpart. Theory is hearing John and Lindsey address an indoor gathering. Practice is hearing John and Lindsey speak at the end of a long outdoor march.

There are more problems here though than mere repetition. If the various anti-cuts campaigns are to cohere into a national movement capable of bringing down the government (an ambition I anticipate we will hear from PA II, as grand ambitions are needed to keep the troops busy), key to this will be protests of a scale to make the country feel ungovernable, and to achieve that there will need to be a generation of movement activists with a shared political understanding. Don’t get me wrong, by “understanding” I don’t necessarily mean a shared, developed ideology. I just mean an idea, the simpler the better (“No Poll Tax” / “Peace, Bread, Land”).

Behind PA II there is an unstated analysis of how this generation will be formed. And it is based on reasoning that is – ultimately – bleak and unrewarding:

1. Revolutionaries should be organised in parties characterised by a very top-down vertical leadership
2. The leadership establishes its right to lead through forming “perspectives”, i.e. general analyses of the balance of forces within global capitalism which join up the international, the national and the local, finding in each the key point at which capitalism is weakest. By definition, these can only be formulated by a tiny number of talented individuals with time on their hands. Initiative within the parties, it follows, can come only from above
3. The sole, real purpose of the parties are to provide a succession of talented individuals, “cadre”, who can be recruited by the party’s leadership into the regional leadership of front organisations, where they can win individuals to the perspective of the party’s leaders
4. The shelf-life of cadre is narrow: they should be used, exhausted, and new cadre recruited in their place
5. We are in an age where (for reasons which are never properly explained) front organisations are the primary way in which the political left should present itself to the public
6. Front organisations give a practical expression to the assessment by the leadership of the revolutionary party of the point at which capitalism is weakest
7. Front organisations are composed of revolutionaries, who create them as alliances of left organisations with individuals to their right. As long as these individuals are helpful to the revolutionary party they should be courted with the same determination that a lover woos his or her fiancé (should the individuals lose their usefulness, the courting stops abruptly)
8. It is absolutely crucial to the method that the revolutionaries are homogeneous – having different revolutionary groups genuinely represented in the leadership of the front would deprive the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement, lead to arguments over tactics, and diminish the opportunities for revolutionaries to hegemonise the people who join the front
9. It is also crucial to the method that the front brings together more left-wing groups with more right-wing individuals (never groups or parties); an alliance of a revolutionary party and a reformist party would be dominated by the latter, depriving the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement
10. This is a plan for rapid movement when times are propitious. There is no plan B to deal with (for example) if capitalism has no weak spot at a particular time or if the revolutjonary party (for any reason) has difficulty in finding enough allies or members to sustain a front.

I have not drawn up this list maliciously: everyone who was there and is still capable of looking back at the period honestly will admit that the first incarnation of Respect was wrecked by mistakes by each of its key leaders, a declining window of opportunity as the anti-war movement (its motive force) declined, political differences between its constituents (“a united front of a special kind”), and the inability of John and Lindsey’s method to deal with periods of retreat.

If you take just the last sentence of number 7 in the list above; this actually happened. When you read George Galloway’s description of the last days of Respect (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, some of the most moving passages are those where he describes the seemingly-inexplicable shift in John and Lindsey’s behaviour, from wooing him and other leaders of Respect, to ignoring them. He focussed on the treatment of Salma Yacoob:

“There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era. “

“Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher. “

“There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures. “

The key text explaining the Rees-German method is a small book by John Rees, ‘Strategy and Tactics: How the left can organise to transform society’ (available for only £4 from Amazon and from the Counterfire website). Rees’ Little White Book explains how with proper leadership a political party can use the movement to start a revolution. It distils the StW experience into various lessons, which he suggests can be applied generally. A surprisingly large number of the lessons set out at 1-10 above (but admittedly not all of them) find their way into Rees’ book.

Just to take number 4 in my list above, the deliberate destruction of the human personnel that form the rank and file of the revolutionary party. Rees writes:

“The cadre of the organisation gives it stability, durability, and effectiveness in the struggle. But this can also give rise to problems especially when the conditions of struggle change quickly”.

There is then a quote from Trotsky before Rees continues:

“This highlights an important point: cadre only remain cadre if they continue to relate correctly to the turning points in the struggle. If they do not, in spite of their accumulated knowledge and experience, they turn from an asset into a liability.”

After another Trotsky quote he continues:

“Especially at such times, new members of the organisation may much more accurately understand what it necessary for the party to act effectively.”

I focus on these examples, because common to them is an idea that at the heart of revolutionary politics is a “churn”, under which the leadership constantly appoints new people to work with it, as allies in the united front, and as followers in the party. It is far from pleasant to be on the receiving end of the purges.

A few further problems occur to me:

This method I have just described is expressly very “Leninist” in that strange Zinovievite way that the British left does. The last two sentences of John’s pamphlet are a quote from Lukacs writing in defence of Leninism: “Leninism represents a hithero unprecedented degree of concrete, unschematic, unmechanistic, purely praxis-oriented thought. To preserve this is the task of the Leninist.”

This notion of defending Leninism from history, from the present, from all of us outside the leadership who risk corrupting it, is made doubly odd by the seemingly very open public, democratic politics of CoR / CF, which constantly emphasises new, participatory media-friendly ways of doing things. Like in all capitalist advertising; you are invited to “see” one thing; what you get is something else.

This kind of top-down, personalised leadership requires a very high degree of trust between the leadership of the party and both its allies in the movement and its followers in the organisation. Top-down leadership of the left can just about work when the person who asks for your loyalty is someone with a very high degree of personal incorruptibility, or someone who has made a political, theoretical or practical contribution which earns your trust. Without that trust, both the party and the front are constantly no more than a mistake away from disaster.

I haven’t pointed out here how these politics will shape the People’s Assembly on the day, beyond observing that the speeches will be in succession, and that their content will significantly overlap. But it seems safe to me to predict that every effort will be made to repeat certain core messages – in terms of particular, pre-sanctioned activities, which will be repeatedly plugged from the top table. This is what happened in StW, and, going back to those CoR minutes, you can seem the same mentality (once memorably satirised by the anarchists as “Monopolise Resistance”). This contribution, for example, gave me a pre-emptive chill:

“There was an appeal for people not to organise alternatives, but to organise for the PAAA to be inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the movement.”

I know what this means in practice: finding a line of least resistance, which is acceptable to the least dynamic within an alliance, whoever that may be, and closing down anything else with a spark of originality about it.

In this article, I am not going to say very much about which forces within the unions CoR plans to work with. Thinking away from CoR for a moment, I spent Saturday at a meeting of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG), where the word “rank and file” was used repeatedly, and in a way that chimed with the group’s authentic politics. There were two General Secretaries at the BSG, but they were repeatedly challenged and had at times to fight for their audience. They had to go to the rank and file, for fear of being isolated. There was nothing cosy about the BSG meeting; the atmosphere was very different from the top-table love-in I expect of PA II.

Now if you look carefully, you will find plenty of people today in CoR, CF, StW etc who will tell you that John and Lindsey have changed, that despite the similarities between the present method of organising (PA II) and things that were done 10 years ago (PA I) all is much better beneath the surface. I am hearing this not just from the usual faces, but from people whose good judgment I trust. My own party, the SWP, plans to support the People’s Assembly, and I am not disagreeing. If people are to join – it is a process – they should join, but with their eyes open.

What I am really criticising here is a method, a way of doing politics. Yes, I have focussed on one or two individuals, but no-one who is active on the left and has been active for several years, should be under any illusions that my applies only to Counterfire, or John or Lindsey, or the People’s Assembly.

The left is awash with acronyms; far too few of them are based on a principled, active unity. Far too often, they are supposed to fill a need where there is no need at all. This is a self-criticism.

How many national “Stop the Cuts” movements do we have now anyway: PA, CoR, UtR, NSSN, do Right to Work or the People’s Charter still exist? How has the left been strengthened as we have “grown” from 2 to 3, 4 or 5 of them? Do any of them work to strengthen the self-activity of the majority of people?

My real criticism is of the “front” method; and of the assumptions behind it. The revival of the left on a sustainable basis will depend on working out which – if any – of those 10 dubious assumptions I set out above are worth retaining.

(Originally published, with thread, here).

The Man or the Woman: who are we supposed to believe?


I recently wrote an article for the SWP’s Internal Bulletin with 3 other lawyers (it’s starting at page 89, seeing as you asked…), arguing that the party should apply a civil and not a criminal “standard of proof”, with a burden on the person defending the complaint. In the criminal system, you have to have a presumption of innocence, because it balances what would otherwise be the unjustifiable imbalance between the information-gathering powers of the state, which has access to police, telephone records, medical data, etc, and of the accused, who has none of this. This burden make no sense outside the criminal system, outside which it would create injustice, because it makes it intolerably unlikely that any complaint would ever be accepted.

The point of a reversed burden of proof would be to give “some” weight (not necessarily a decisive one, but some weight) to the undoubted fact that women make very few false complaints of rape or sexual harassment. It is enormously difficult to come forward with a complaint of this sort: still more so against a man who is many years your senior, who is your employer or the de facto leader of your party.

In reply, one misconception that I’ve heard repeatedly is that anything other than a criminal standard of proof would weigh the process unfairly against the person defending a serious complaint. Only a “radical feminist”, it is said, would automatically believe a woman just because she made a serious complaint.

There are lots of fallacies with that argument. Here I want to focus on one, which is the idea that deciding who to believe is only or primarily about what standard of proof you operate. Yes, standards and burden of proof matter, for the reasons I’ve just given, but they are not the heart of the decision-making process. I have represented people in both criminal and family courts accused of rape or domestic violence. The former operates the criminal standard of proof, the latter the civil standard. Logically, a person accused of an offence is more likely to be believed in the civil as opposed to the criminal courts (That is the whole point of the burden). But whichever court system you describe, some people will be believed and some will not.

Essentially, what makes a compelling case is much the same in either a civil or a court system. What you want from a witness is much the same in either. You want someone who will give a detailed and plausible account. You want someone whose story is backed up by such documents as there are.

In the criminal system, this process is codified into what are called “adverse inferences”. For example, if a person is asked about their guilt, and they provide one version of events, but they then change their story, a jury is told that they are entitled to use that as evidence that the person is lying.

A jury is entitled to draw adverse inferences from previous convictions. That does not mean that all previous convictions are relevant. If a person is accused of income tax evasion and they have a previous conviction for assault, the conviction is probably not relevant. But as well as the fact of previous convictions it is also worth looking at the manner in which those convictions were obtained. If a person has loudly maintained their innocence, pleaded not guilty, and yet been convicted, that means that another decision maker has listen to them carefully and decided that they lied. You could draw an inference from that person’s past denials not merely that they were untruthful to others but that were not truthful to themselves.

There is a degree of technique involved. People who have been judges for 20 years tend to make better decisions than judges in their second week. The most basic skill is a simple human one of empathy, the willingness to listen, to start your starting assumptions and to watch and see if a case develops along the lines you thought. Losing independent-minded people from these sorts of roles, and replacing them with others of less empathy, is a recipe for poor decisions in future.

Obviously: you should not believe a person bringing, or defending a complaint, solely because they are a leader of your party. And you should not believe the person defending a complaint just because you have been told they did good once in a different job, or because they are your friend.

Some defenders of the Disputes Committee process will tell you candidly: “I don’t necessarily defend the DC. But they are in a hopeless position. These cases invariably pit one woman against one man, her word against his, and in those circumstances who should you believe?”

Courts of all sorts are put in this position most days of an average week. They do their best, they apply these and other simple rules of evidence, and they make a clear decision. You cannot rely on the authority of a court or a quasi-court, or whatever you want to call it, which lacks the confidence to make clear decisions. And if its verdict was “we believe the woman, but we are not going to make the findings she asked us to make” then its decision was less than no decision at all.

(Originally published, with thread here)

The missing letter


“We have read with mounting horror the press coverage of the crisis in the SWP, including the coverage in your newspaper. It has been the most painful reading for us because while we could quibble about this or that detail, we know that your essential criticisms are true. Sometimes in life, you can do no better than to hold up your hands and apologise. This is one of those occasions.”

“It is true that several women have forward with complaints of rape or sexual harassment by leading members of our party, and that we investigated them, and it is true that afterwards, when they describe their experiences, the complainants said they felt they had been let down badly. We did not adopt those procedures with the intention of covering up sexual abuse, but it has since become obvious, as we have listened to the criticisms of our disputes procedures, that our procedures were simply and utterly unfit for the tasks we gave them.”

“There has been an intense period of discussion within our party about what we should do. For a long time, we thought that if we tried hard enough to pretend that there was no problem, it would go away. It has not. We now realise that this stain will not be removed unless the party undergoes a serious, and systematic, period of reform. For this reason we have decided to:”

“Apologise to the women who put in complaints. We have written to all of them inviting them to resubmit their complaints to a fresh investigation. We have approached individuals outside the SWP, from the women’s movement, the trade unions, and others with practical expertise in investigating serious sexual complaints. I am proud to say that nine independent figures, of high authority within the movement, have agreed to participate in a fresh panel of inquiry. Its sole remit will be to establish whether there was conduct inappropriate of a socialist party. If the panel finds that there was misconduct, we will accept that decision. I am glad to be able to confirm that on receiving guarantees as to the independent of this process, the principal complainants have all agreed to come forward as witness to it.”

“Suspend from membership of the party all individuals subject to serious, sexual complaints. We are not prejudging the outcome of the new investigation, but we recognise that there is no confidence in our old procedures, and it is not appropriate for a situation to continue where those accused of serious misconduct can use their positions within the organisation to lobby for their own positions.”

“Release those members of the organisation from full-time roles who have been exhausted by the experience of defending the indefensible.”

“Elect a new Central Committee, Disputes Committee and National Committee. They will be individually elected by a secret, postal ballot of all members.”

“Begin a discussion within and outside the organisation as to what it was about our procedures that enabled us to continue on such a destructive path for so long. We have begun discussions with individuals in the movement (Liz Davies, Mike Marqusee, Kevin Ovenden, Rob Hoveman, Nick Wrack and Salma Yacoob) who were formerly members of the organisation or our close allies, and whose treatment we now acknowledge echoes our treatment of the recent complainants. We will restore to full membership the “Facebook Four” and anyone who has left the Socialist Workers Party in the past 12 months but now wishes to rejoin.”

“Begin a second discussion within and outside the organisation as to how we can learn from the contemporary women’s movements. It has become obvious in recent weeks that when we refer to the party’s history of fighting women’s oppression, the proudest moments we can point to now all belong to the relatively distant past. For ten years and more, our best activity has been limited to responding positively to initiatives begun by others. We will be co-odinating open, public discussions with activists from SlutWalk, the F Word, Abortion Rights UK, the women’s organisations of the trade union and student movements, to establish bases for joint work with these campaigns on a far greater scale than we have done.”

“Make the party transparent by publishing in future a public note of all meetings of all our elected committees, including our National Committee and Central Committee. The transcripts of the proceedings of our old Disputes Committee will be published, as will transcripts of the independent panel of inquiry.”

“Finally, I am grateful to you newspaper for its giving us the space to put our version of events. One of the obstacles which the far left has to surmount is the common belief that socialists have no interest in engaging with the millions of people who share some of our beliefs but are outside our ranks. I hope your readers can now see for themselves that this is untrue. We want a dialogue with people who are not our members. We are champions of democracy, openness and honesty. We do not merely say that these are our politics, we try to live them in everything we do. Where we fail to match the standards we have set ourselves, we are confident enough in ourselves to admit that we were wrong. Thanks you for giving us a chance to put our own house in order.”

(Originally published, with thread, here).

On “Male Benefit”


In terms of male benefit and what it says about the IS tradition. I am increasingly exasperated by comrades talking about men “not benefiting” from women’s oppression. This is for a number of reasons. As Tom Walker has pointed out, we are the only people in Britain using this language of “benefit”. That means that our discussions have a weird, “straw woman” character. It would be like if we suddenly started chiding unnamed “African nationalists” for saying that black people in Britain should emigrate to Africa. If we said that, we would look weird. Everyone in our periphery would know that we were “refuting” an argument that no-one was making outside our very own fevered imagination. The same logic applies; by banging on repeatedly about the non-existence of male benefits, we make ourselves look weird.

This weirdness is accentuated by looking at the basis upon which we say that there is no such thing as male benefit. Up to the mid-80s, IS authors were willing to acknowledge that men might receive “marginal” benefits from women’s oppression. Somewhere around the mid-80s, for a reason which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with women’s oppression, but to do with some shift in IS politics, we suddenly decided that was wrong to even acknowledge the possibility that men might benefit.

If you read SW’s most recent article, it argues that “Our rulers … encourage the idea that men benefit from the system”. It says in effect that men don’t really benefit from women’s oppression, because if we accepted that they benefited from women’s oppression this would make a united struggle against capitalism harder to win. But in this context, “non-benefit” is not an empirical analysis (eg are men paid more than women? Is pay equality getting further or nearer? These are things we could count), but a restatement of a circular truth that by definition could never be disproven. We have morphed into saying that oppression never benefits anyone save for the capitalist class.

Compare Marx: when he talked about the oppression of the Irish in Britain, he said that the English saw themselves as oppressors in relation to the Irish, and would only be free if they rejected their oppressor consciousness.

We have decided to reject that approach when it comes to women’s oppression, but not on an analysis of what the actual power relations are or where “male” or “female” consciousness is, we reject it rather on the basis of the logic that stories of liberation are more likely to end happier if they have as a middle section “and then the oppressed realised that they were in no worse position than those who were not oppressed”. That method, of prioritising in principle the desired outcome of eventual unity over a practical analysis of whether disunity has any real basis or not – is not impressive.

I don’t have a fixed view on whether men benefit from women’s oppression. But my best guess is that if anyone wanted to talk analytically about whether men benefitted from a) the inequality of contribution to childcare under the conditions of the privatised family, b) pay inequality, and c) sexual violence, probably, there would be a different answer to each of these questions. I want people to systematically analyse the problem rather than to engage in apolitical straw-womanery.

If you’re going to say “some socialist feminists” believe that “men benefit from women’s oppression”, then you have to say – who, and on what basis. If you can’t do that, then you drift into a kind of intellectual assassination by ignorance (I never liked X’s politics, so I’m sure that she shared this heresy, even if she always said very loudly that she didn’t) or a kind of “false flag” argument (I don’t like Y so I’ll accept that Y didn’t agree with Z, but I’ll say that she is almost as bad as Z because her arguments open the way to Z’s). This is always risky when you ascribe to a political tradition a set of views which most of its holders didn’t think they had. And it is particularly uninspiring when you recall that the whole point of socialist feminism as a tradition is that it navigates against other feminist traditions, which it rejects because it rejects the very positions that IST authors now ascribe to it.

Finally, when people write that feminists (socialists or otherwise) had an ambition of “emancipating themselves from working class men”, I have to ask in this context, what does “emancipation” mean? In Tony Cliff’s book on Women, he at least had a negative “other” against which he could frame the negative project of feminism. His “other” was political lesbianism (mentioned more than 12 times in his book): under which women could emancipate themselves from men by determinedly living without men. In 2013, however, there are no longer any “political lesbians”. There are barely even any “radical feminists” any more. So what is this ambition of emancipation from men, which my comrades in the IST, insist on repeatedly ascribing to the very different tradition of socialist feminism? And which you keep on ascribing to them, without being able to name a socialist writer who argues for it?

(Originally published on Facebook, with thread, here)

On blogging, not blogging and the SWP crisis


The purpose of this blog is to join up some thoughts I have had on politics and on running. Any occasional readers will have spotted that in recent weeks, it has been relatively quiet. Part of the explanation is as follows. For much of that time, my party has been caught up in a bitter, factionalised row which began when a woman member made a complaint of rape about another comrade. If you “really” don’t know the story, Jim Jepps has been keeping on compendious notes on who exactly has said what and where about it online.

I’ve been finding it difficult to write about the connection between running and politics, when my views on politics have been going through an intense period of re-appraisal. At the end of it, it may well be that I decide that everything I thought before was good and right and true; it’s just that I’m not prepared to conclude that without having gone through a brief period of what EP Thompson once called “Reasoning”.

In the last 10 days or so, I’ve published a number of posts of my own on Facebook. A friend and comrade of mine in the SWP pointed out what I supposed is obvious to everyone else, that there is not much point posting them only on Facebook, as quite a number of people who have email, the web, etc, are quite sensibly not online there.

Accordingly, I thought it would make sense to post them here too. After all, they were openly posted on Facebook, as “public” documents which anyone else could have circulated of they so wished, and for all I know they have probably been doing so already.

This isn’t the ideal place to be posting them; I’m wary in particular of the blog lurching too far from its original purpose. As you’ll see from the last one, I’ll be going on holiday later today, and when I’m back, I’m hoping to keep up the original mixture of running and politics …

Reflecting on the burn


Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative