Monthly Archives: June 2013

Competition in a small running club

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If it is summer, it must be the new racing season. For me, as I’ve explained before, that means the Summer League; a contest between six or seven London running clubs, taking in a 5 mile or 10k race followed by various 400 metre relays. There are also “tenderfoot” races, 1 mile for the 7-18s, and a 400 metre race for children under 7. Add in the involvement of all ages (participants include people running in all age categories up to “s75”), a free picnic, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable day.

My left-wing friends have been discussing whether should we be opposed to all competition. The idea we have are revolting against, I suppose, is the red-tops’ cliche about how primary school sport is organised by “militants” from the “Marxist-led NUT trade union”, i.e. in mythically grim occasions in which anyone who should win one particular race is sent to Coventry to their teachers and penalised by being sent to the very back for the start of the next race. (Whenever someone tells me that this is how the left “does” sport, I’m reminded always of how assiduous the Tories have been at compelling schools to sell of their sports grounds…). Against the myth of compulsory egalitarianism, I’ve heard it suggested (and I think agree) that there should be a space for socialist competition, i.e. teams competing against each other in a more playful spirit, where the purpose of the competition is to maximise dynamics of solidarity and people compete against themselves as much as they do against anyone else. My friend Josh Clarke tells me that this is true of Rugby Union. Clubs play each other but the rivalries are complex and different teams’ supporters drink together. The negative image here is football, and the glee with which (for example) many Celtic fans welcomed the near destruction last year of their great rivals Rangers.

Josh suggests (and I think I agree) that this is a peculiarly self-defeating way of being. Sport, unlike politics, is made more interesting by rivalry. The logic of the competition dictates a certain sympathy for the people you are competing against. Should they be obliterated altogether, that doesn’t leave your team standing solo, “the winner” for all time. It just means that the particular sporting contest in which you have been involved is finished, and no-one can derive any pleasure from it any more.

Now that I’m over 40, my running ambitions have changed. At the moment, I’m running relatively well, by which I mean that I haven’t had an acute injury (i.e. something that disables me from running for more than three weeks) for more than two months. After a winter which was a complete write-off, that’s a victory of sorts. But instead of intense injuries, I seem to be suffering from fewer, more chronic injuries. Every time I run my calves and achilles tendons are sore, typically it takes me between 5 and ten days before I feel capable of running again. I find myself reading websites aimed at people running in their 40s. Much of their advice is relatively generic: hydrate, improve your diet … I see suggestions that I should not train more often than four times per week – in truth, I seem to be maintaining speed with only 1-2 runs a week (I find this both encouraging and troubling).

Racing in the Summer Leagues, I find myself conserving energy for the relays at the end. My best pace for 10k ought to be about 50 minutes or so (last year, I ran it in a best of 51:30). Earlier this summer, I ran a 10k in 63 minutes. This is a slower pace even than my slowest in a marathon. (it brought me home 17 seconds behind runners thirty years my senior). But by conserving energy I seem to leave something behind for the sprints. The image at the top shows me racing an anchor leg in the 400 metre relay. I felt fastaround 70 seconds pace, and quicker than anything I’ve run on the track in quite a while.

The most successful Renton in the summer league is my youngest son, the reigning Summer League age 13 champion from 2012 in the 1 mile category. His triumph appears to have been assisted by a transcription error. When he ran the race last year he was not aged 13 but only 3. Someone misread “y3” as “year 3 of secondary school” (i.e. 13 years old) instead of “years: 3”, which is what we had intended. Of course, if there had been an under-4 age category he would have won that fair and square. His brother also ran the same race, his face turning back every 5 metres to make sure that the younger boy did not catch him.

Our club, the Mornington Chasers, were recently featured on the Running Stories blog, where we are described as “relatively small compared to other London clubs, with a modest 260 members, but the advantage of our small size is that we get to know each other well”. That’s my sense too as a relatively new member (about 13 months in the club). In a smaller club, it’s easier to get to know people, to find people who run at a similar pace, to “drop in” to a training programme that suits. Even just running as occasionally with the Chasers as my injuries allow, I have found it easy to join in, to meet people, to benefit from that running dynamic where sometimes I am the one who encourages others to keep going, and sometimes others support me.

The Chasers’ rivals in the summer leagues include the Serpentine Running Club (red vests with orange hoops in picture above) who with over 2000 members boast that they are “possibly the largest running and triathlon club in Britain”. It is a small point of pride to note that the Serpies rarely do well in the Summer League, compared to the Chasers (green orange and white vests), who seem to end most matches in either first or second. I do not pretend to have an adequate explanation of the Serpies’ relative failure. But in a format that rewards participation by the largest number of people, of as many different ages as possible, my “hunch” is that they just don’t have enough young and old runners, enough people running second- and third-string relays, enough people running as a team.

They are not the Chasers’ only rivals. In the relays, i.e. the 400 metre sprints, the usual winners are the Ealing Eagles (white vests with a black trim), who almost always seem to do best in the men’s races in particular. Malicious gossips suggest that they (gasp) …  train for the races. The Chasers’ refusal to do this , to select within our club our fastest six runners, to practise handovers; all of these are signs of what I like about club running. We compete, we refuse to be competitive. We run together. We cheer each other on. No money ever changes hands. If a  neoliberal should watch our sporting competition they would grumble that we barely seem to have grasped the point of competition at all.

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Losing an argument about Lenin

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“[Kelsall’s] face was ascetic-looking almost to sourness, but he had an unusually long forelock which – like Rupert Brooke’s – was brushed back above his ear. One other vestigial indication of his middle-class origin was his green sportscoat, shabby now with leather patches on the elbows but it had probably been expensive when bought and was the kind of thing worn by university aesthetes in the ‘twenties.” …

“Well, what exactly is the problem of yours that you want to talk about?”

Elsie was ready with the wording of her answer.

“Lately I’ve become a bit confused”’, she used the apologetic phrase customary with Party members when they wanted to express inability to accept official policy completely – “about the theoretical line that the Party seems to have adopted since the war.”

Kelsall asked almost snappishly,

“Why do you say seems?”

“I mean I’m not altogether clear about it. Apparently it is different in some ways from the line that Lenin laid down in State and Revolution.” …

“What grounds have you for supposing that the Party has departed from Lenin at all?”

She wasn’t prepared for this, Alan knew. She hadn’t really doubted Kelsall would admit that the leadership had modified Lenin’s theory, and she had expected him to defend the modification with reason which would either convince her – and she was she sure she was willing and even eager to be convinced – or which if she found them inadequate, as she suspected they might be, she could demolish and thereby set going in his mind a process that would end by his being persuaded, and in turn persuading the rest of the leadership, that the Party’s theoretical line was wrong. Before she could think how to answer him, he added.

“If you had taken the trouble to read Party publications over the last year you would be less likely to come out with such half-baked assertions”

“Does it occur to you as you sit nattering there, that you are criticizing comrades who not only have more experience politically than most of us but who have international contacts?” …

“What did Lenin think of the line taken by Parvus and Trotsky about the 1905 revolution?”

“I don’t remember what line they took. I suppose it was leftist. Did they want the Social Democrats to aim at setting up a workers’ government and not a bourgeois democratic one?”

“You don’t remember”, Kelsall said, with a surprise that was quite crudely sarcastic, though he didn’t say she was wrong. “I advise you to go and read Lenin’s two articles on the subject which were published in the thirteenth and fourteenth numbers of Vperiod.” Elsie’s face was beginning to show a glumness recognizable to Alan as a sign that she had taken deep offence and would not soon get over it. Kelsall went on: “I suggest that you too study what Lenin said and wrote in 1917 during the period between the overthrow of the Tsar and the start of the October revolution. I think this might help you to see that there’s no departure from Lenin in our Party’s present policy”

from E. Upward, The Rotten Elements (1969)

NOTE

Kelsall is a composite. His closest historical counterpart is probably Rajani Palme Dutt who edited the Communist party’s A5-sized theoretical journal Labour Monthly for about four decades from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, complete each issue with a ‘Notes of the Month’ taking up the first half-dozen paes, offering a retrospective analysis of the latest developments in world politics, incorporating them always to the latest twists or turns of the policies coming out of the Stalinist high command in Moscow.

Duncan Hallas describes Dutt’s role well: “Month by month, his Notes of the Month arrived from Brussels, like papal encyclicals, expounding and defending every twist and turn of the Stalinist line with never a backward glance or explanation. It supported the rightist line of the CPGB in the run up to and during the 1926 general strike, the turn to lunatic ultra-leftism in 1928-29 (which met with strong resistance at first in the British party) and then the abandonment of class politics altogether with the popular front.”

Dutt’s response to Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech, admitting only the most heinous of Stalin’s crimes, was as follows: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper”. He retired on a pension paid for by Moscow, finally donating to the British Library a collection of his carefully cut-and-pasted articles for the various publications of the Communist Party, which he no doubt assumed would receive the full “Collected Works” treatment previously reserved for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. They have never in fact been published; who, today, would read them?

Green sportscoats fell out of fashion among Oxford undergraduates before the end of the 1930s. By the early 1970s, it seems, they had been replaced on the clothes pegs of  university aesthetes by leather jackets in brown.

Public and private under late capitalism

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GCHQ

A guest post by Ian Stone

Edward Snowden will now have to traverse the globe looking for a country in which to hide. The irony is that whether or not he is arrested, if he finds a sympathetic territory or not; in exposing the biggest encroachment on civil liberties yet known, he has wholly surrendered his private life, perhaps for the rest of his life. What Snowden’s whistleblowing revealed was that the US was tapping citizen’s phones, that GCHQ was operating as an extended arm of the American operation, and that the US had been extensively monitoring the Chinese Government. To many of us, this was not particularly a surprise. Technology is sufficiently sophisticated now as to allow for such large scale monitoring operations-though it is likely that the scope of such a thing would mean that only aspects of the monitoring could be effectively targeted. The argument we are then expected to follow is that we have nothing to worry about if we are good citizens, or in the case of the UK, subjects.

What then, does it require to be a good citizen? The answer is not, as has been the case for centuries, merely a good producer, but is increasingly a good consumer. The main linkage between the US and UK is their vast trade empires. Witness the lightning cultural exchanges of the fifties and sixties, where Music and fashion trends had no sooner captured the imagination of one of the territories than they were sweeping across the other. The Beatles returned the compliment of Elvis, the West Coast Psychedelic movement had spawned the British musical equivalent, which within a year had been somewhat subsumed by and assimilated into Carnaby street fashion. The journey from dangerous teenage rebellion to sanitised product has not always been as quick, but it has unfailingly happened. All innovative music and fashion with any whiff of popular appeal has quickly been repackaged , modified and managed as commercial product.

As western societies became affluent (for some, at least) in the Sixties, leisure time became a significant portion of the life of aspirant working class youth for the first time. Since the OPEC oil crisis of the mid-seventies the trend of increased leisure time has somewhat reversed. In the ever more frequent recessions, those in work have been expected to work increasingly longer hours, and especially so in the age of computers and mobile phones, to take their work home with them, into the private sphere. In the UK, for those not in work, the job centre requires the use of a computer as a stipulation to make applications. Those without a job and without the means to buy a Private Computer are then expected to use a computer in the Public Library. Such institutions are being cut by the hundred in the age of austerity. Thus, as the UK economic crisis deepens, and the policies of the coalition worsen it, those without a Private Computer are effectively shut out of the job market.

Meanwhile, those who are able to access the net are met with a whirl of mediated options. Here the public and private sphere criss-cross and coagulate. The internet’s earliest innovation was the email-a private message that could be exchanged between private individuals but, by extension, between organisations and institutions. Public web forums where users shared their private thoughts also were an early method of communication-in the days before Social media as we know it now, these were very popular. Human administrator/s could manage the content of these forums, in an arbitrary and subjective manner-nevertheless, they acted as a sometimes authoritarian reminder of a repressive society. The value output of the use of emails was confined to the time they saved for businesses; the value output of social forums in monetary terms was perhaps little better than nil.

Then came social media proper, in the shape of Facebook et al. The market has steadily encroached into this area of leisure time-the sites themselves really just glorified social forums. The surplus value generated by users is in large part down to the information they impart-from this the sites generate a user profile that proffers suggested likes. Before long the users interests are showing patterns of behaviour that can be sold onto market researchers and advertisers. There is no real way of measuring what this means in terms of exchange value, but it is unarguably immense as over a billion people use Social Media worldwide. In using these invasive forms of market profiling, Capitalism can not only track your every movement, it can profit from your most private thoughts.

Capitalism now more than ever works on the premise that it requires your full ideological commitment. This is absolutely essential when austerity bites hard. Witness the recent Coca-Cola accumulation ploy that taps into the realm of the private. Named ‘friends’, this campaign is designed to make you buy your own name, which is emblazoned on the Coke bottle. This will, of course, be an instant hit with children, who will want to ‘own’ their identity. If they have a group of friends, they can also ‘collect’ their friends’ names. For adults, the buying of the bottles may be more subliminal and reactive. Such conditioning has been going on for some time, consider the ‘I’m in meal deal’ supermarket sandwiches that scream at us from their packaging, lest we forget to buy something to go with the sandwich. Here the personalisation shapes the character of the product. This very directed method of accumulation is only one of many strategies that modern Capitalism employs, but it appears to be a significant one, as consumers declining purchase power means that Capitalists are continually looking to optimise their profit in ever more targeted ways. The Coke bottle naming is a confident ideological play-there is some sense that the naming will act as a psychological trigger.

In such volatile times, where Capitalism lurches from one crisis to another, sometimes the proverbial carrot is not sufficient to maintain jurisdiction over the realm of the private. The stick is being increasingly used. We can see this where the realm of the private encroaches on  perceived State business-witness Bradley Manning’s terrifying treatment at the hands of the State for his whistleblowing over Iraq war secrets. Dispatches on Channel 4 this week revealed that the State has a long history of maintaining the private realm in the way that it sees fit, to the extent of sending in Undercover Police to infiltrate activists groups, and disrupt the possibilities of the communal. Such state interference has seen an alleged campaign to smear the Lawrence family, while they were trying to secure justice for their murdered son Stephen, as well as the devastation of numerous young women’s lives through the alleged abuse of their trust and bodies by Policemen who established relationships with them under false pretences to gain info, then disappeared.

Capitalism famously maintained its division of labour, as Engels explained in Family, private property and the state partly through the maintenance of established family roles. The family is appreciably more discursive in its formulations now than it was then. This poses an ideological problem for Capitalism. The Tories have attempted to negotiate this by advancing Heterosexual marriage as the ideal, while paying lip service to other formulations (mindful that possibilities for reproduction of labour will be as great in Gay and Trans relationships as greater adoption rights are granted).

The division of labour is also maintained through the separation of private lives along racial lines and cultural ghettoization. This has been broken down increasingly over the last fifty years, though the evidence that Capital is still prepared to assert coercive force against the integration and peaceful co-existence of Black and White is plain for all to see in its actions against the Lawrence family.

Technology is now also posing a threat to the traditional division of labour model. We have seen how social media was a factor in unifying the forces of the Egyptian Revolution. Hackers and whistleblowers now mean we know more about the inner realm of Capitalism than ever before. Revealing secrets about Capitalism undermines its sheen of invincibility. It could be the beginning of the puncturing of the dream of Capitalism, a break in its transmission of false consciousness to the millions. From such small acts, far-reaching changes are possible.

Not Running For Gold

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Mark Perryman, editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us explores the meaning of sport one year on from the Olympics

In his excellent book chronicling the sins of modern football Richer Than God journalist David Conn sums up neatly the way the game has been commodified:

“All around us is a celebration and injunction to watch other people playing sport, the hype that supporting a professional football ‘club’ is compulsory, Sky TV’s relentless persuasion that paying £50 a month will provide endlessly exciting hours on the sofa, the newspapers, whose sections are wholly about following the skills of a very few, and almost never about helping people play sport themselves.”

A Manchester City fan, David in between celebrating City winning the league accounts for the consequences of what football has turned into: “Arriving at Manchester City, and all the other stadiums, to find the burger vans lined up and some seriously unhealthy looking middle-aged fans in extra-large replica shirt, who look like they have not broken into a jog for years, has become part of the landscape of football’s boom. Its flipside are the rotting public pitches and decline in people exercising. And it is seen as a great credit to England that we are exporting around the world our multimillion pound Premier League, for more people in other countries to watch on television.”

For the duration of the Olympics and a chunk of the Paralympics football didn’t enjoy its customary absolute dominance in the shaping of sports culture. But within days that domination was re-established and it’s been the same ever since. Football has led the way in the transformation of modern sport into a business, and it has grabbed the biggest share of the spoils too. But the Olympics has never been very far behind, and sometimes ahead in this particular race. It is a process founded on the commercialisation of sport’s traditions and the commodification of sport’s practice. The result, in the words of that wonderful quote from Marx, “ All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

After London 2012, and his victory in The Tour De France Bradley Wiggins was certainly a demi-god, but holy? Maybe. Cycling offers a potential counter to the commercialised and commodified meltdown Marx was prefacing, though perhaps not in the guise of Olympism. What other sport can you use as a way to get to work, to school or college, with a handlebar mounted basket or decent pair of panniers double up with a shopping trip? We can do it as a family , use it as a basis for a day out or for the more adventurous a holiday. Cycle for a good cause, challenge ourselves to beat clock and body completing a hundred-mile century ride. Never have to stand in a queue for a bus or wait for an overcrowded train, sail past cars stuck in a traffic jam and keep our carbon footprint small into the bargain. With Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s success in last year’s Le Tour, Lizzie Armistead and Emma Pooley on the roads too, Chris Hoy and, Victoria Pendelton being overtaken by a new generation headed up by Laura Trott on the track , we have the poster boys and girls of aspiration too. Its a potent mix yet the Olympics and elite success are only one part of cycling’s potential to engage those not active, or getting those who are, more active.

We may well be in the middle of a cycling boom. There are certainly reports that suggest this is so. Jackie Ashley in the Guardian wasn’t alone in dubbing 2012 while at the same time pointing to some of the messy contradictions that remain:

“A quarter of us, roughly, are obese, children as well as adults. Our urban air is filthy. We are using too much carbon. But the great thing is millions of us are getting the message. Real revolutions come from below, and this one is too. That’s perhaps the greatest message from 2012, the year of the bike.”

In the early 1980s it was the running boom that was making similar headlines. Accompanied by the success of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott on the track jogging became a social phenomenon, the first London marathon was run, almost every city and town could boast a fun run of sorts, many raising funds for good causes. In the USA Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running became a best seller, pretty soon with a world-wide readership too. In GB it was the late, and no longer anything but great, Jimmy Savile who helped popularise the link between running and reducing the risk of heart disease. A Radio One DJ, chomping on his trademark cigar, wrists and chest covered in what today we call bling, the message seemed to be if JImmy could do it then anybody could, and tens of thousands of us did.

I was one of those. The first Olympics I can properly remember, Munich ‘72, a Games of Team GB disappointment on the track. With his Zapata moustache, trademark red socks and a cockiness that we traditionally didn’t associate with our Olympians, David Bedford was going to Munich to win, telling us back home to “stop what they were doing to watch him win a gold medal“. He never even came close, attempting the same double as Mo triumphed in at the 2012 Games Dave finished sixth in the 5000m, and a lowly twelfth in the 10,000m. A fantastic runner, a year later Bedford was to run a world record time for the 10,000m, at Munich though he failed to live up to my boyhood expectations. But another runner did catch my eye, Dave Wottle, a US athlete, who wore a battered old golf cap when he ran, symbolising an almost carefree attitude to his sport. When he won 800m gold with a quite incredible sprint to the line from almost last position he even forgot to take the cap off during the medal ceremony. Reviewing Wottle’s career the US magazine Running Times described his Munich victory as “marking the end of age of innocence for sport.” For me it was the beginning, and I’ve hardly stopped running since. In the 1980s just like cycling today, running seemed to be part of a boom, and by the 1990s commentators were dubbing the era ‘the Age of Sport’. Yet the twenty-first century has seen Britain report record levels of physical inactivity and obesity with all the health problems associated with both. Some run, cycle, swim too, most don’t.

Mark Rowlands is a philosopher of running, in his book Running With the Pack he makes two key observations of the sport. Firstly , for runners what we do has a variety of instrumental purposes. “Different people run for different reasons: some because they enjoy it, some because it makes them feel good, look good, because it keeps them healthy, happy even alive. Some run for company, others to relieve the stress of everyday life. Some like to push themselves, test their limits; others to compare their limits with the limits of others.”

But Mark then adds a second observation. That the appeal of running lies not in any of these reasons at all, the point of running is that it is pointless: “It is true that running has multifarious forms of instrumental value. However at its purest and its best running has an entirely different sort of value. This is sometimes known as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ value. To say that something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow to get or possess. Running is intrinsically valuable, when one runs one is in contact with intrinsic value in life.”

As I clock up another week’s running mileage I’ve come to realise all those years on from Dave Wottle and the Munich ‘72 games that the appeal of an early morning run lies in that it has no purpose other than its appeal. Yes my legs are stronger and fat-free, I can run a distance and in a time plenty half my age couldn’t even start. But the instrumentalism of running will always disappoint. I’ve scarcely ever won a race, despite all those miles I’ve still got a bigger waistline than I’d prefer, running has left me less resistant to colds, flu and sundry other viruses.

So why do I run? Because its free and it is freedom, it is the most basic form of sporting activity, I run because I can. And the reason I can is in large measure socially constructed. I have a lifestyle which enables me to put ninety minutes or so aside most days for a run. I’m male, the dark mornings from October through to March don’t hold too much fear for me. Today I live on the edge of the South Downs, my gravest fear is a randy Bull taking an unnatural fancy to me. For twenty odd years though I ran along the towpath of the River Lea, circumnavigating what was to become the Olympic Park . In those two decades along my route there were two shootings, and on a couple of occasions I was chased by a variety of the deranged and the inebriated. Fortunately I have a decent finishing kick, which can come in useful when you least expect it. And when I started my running I went to a school with a playing field to run round, next to a heath too, the basic facilities to nurture my childhood enthusiasm existed. I’ve never joined a running club, this is a sport you can do individually or collectively, but when I wanted to race there were events I could easily and cheaply enter, family and friends to provide the transport and support I would sometimes rely upon. I have come to value and protect the time I spend on my runs, but in order to do so I had to have the time to run in the first place.

My access to my sport is socially constructed. All sports are. The best Olympic Games ever will be the one that both recognises this and changes it. London 2012 was one great party, me and tens of millions more, we’ll always be grateful for that. For a precious few it will have changed their lives, for most it hasn’t. You can’t keep politics out of sport. Sport is politics.

London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here

The new layers

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Between 1900 and 1979 the worst year for strikes in Britain was 1927, with just 1.17 million strike days. It was the year after the General Strike, after which the miners (in whose support the 1926 Strike had been called) had gone down to a crushing defeat. Many of the previous year’s activists had been victimised and the leaders of the movement were desperate to promote compromise.

In three of the last four years, strike levels have been lower even than they were in 1927 (2008: 759,000 days; 2009: 455,000 days and 2010: 365,000 days). “The biggest wave of industrial action since 1926”, as some enthusiastic voices reported the public sector strikes of 2011, represented more struggle admittedly more than the seventy-year nadir of 1927, but only marginally more. The total number of strikes days “lost” during the 2011 strikes (1.39 million strike days) was less than 1 percent of the strikes in 1926 (160 million days).

Those of us who are committed to an idea of working-class struggle, along the lines once envisaged by Marx (“the proletariat is revolutionary relative to the bourgeoisie because, having itself grown up on the basis of large-scale industry, it strives to strip off from production the capitalist character that the bourgeoisie seeks to perpetuate”) should be honest with ourselves. Strikes are at historically low levels; trade union membership is half what it was, and union density in the private sector in particular has fallen sharper still.

If there is hope it lies in the new layers: workers unburdened by 40 years of defeats.

Looking at where jobs have been growing the UK economy, compared to four years ago, there have been modest rises in the number of workers employed in two sectors in particular: health (by around 10%) and transport (around 5%). These sectors have survived the recession because they are on a trend of long-term jobs growth. With more people living into their 90s, there are inevitably going to be more people in future involved in nursing and in all forms of adult, social care.

Transport includes all the drivers who deliver the books, cds, furniture, second hand goods and even food shopping that are increasingly purchased online. The Unite website reports recent strikes by bus drivers, protests by National Express drivers showing their solidarity for strikers in the US, and above inflation pay rises for Unite members working for UPS. There is clearly a lot going on; more, relatively speaking, than 30 years ago when drivers where seen as a conservative layer compared to steel and power workers, miners, etc.

One group of workers who it is difficult to track through the statistics are call centre workers, who by general estimate now stand at around 1 million people, or 4% of the total UK workforce. Of course, “call centre worker”, like “factory worker”, describes the content of how people work, and how they are managed, rather than the sector of the economy they work for. Call centre workers in the civil service tend to be in PCS, in banking they might be in Unifi or Unite. Many ex-BT, at Virgin and elsewhere are in CWU.

Call centres are worth watching because theirs is a type of working which people can go into relatively young, and because of the intense disciplinary conditions which are common in the industry, the intense scrutiny there can be of the time workers to take to answer calls or their average duration, the bans on toilet breaks, the electronic monitoring of the content of the phone calls, the dismissal of union reps. These are the sorts of conditions which time and again throughout the past 150 years have caused groups of workers to strike.

If the focus is on the unions, then right now I would encourage readers to look at two groups in particular:

Unions organising at the intersection between secure and insecure work. Under the past 30 years of neoliberalism, there have been dramatic changes to the nature of the employment contract. The proportion of workers who are engaged directly (ie non-agency), as employees (ie not self-employed), on full-time permanent contracts, is shrinking year on year, and is now down to around 55% of all workers. It is hard to organise the most precarious workers, but if they are going to be organised (as once the unions managed to organise the dockers, the most precarious of all workers in late Victorian Britain), it is most likely to come about through strikes by intermediate groups, neither as secure as classroom teachers, nor as insecure as agency workers on zero-hours contracts in a canning factory.

Just to give an example of how this might work: there have been a number of strikes by groups of London cleaners in the past couple of years including London underground cleaners and cleaners at SOAS. In both cases, the proximity of unorganised to organised groups of workers has made it easier to bring about solidarity from other groups of workers, and easier for the cleaners themselves to organise.  If you are going to try to organise the unorganised, mere activist good sense suggests that this is far easier done near an existing union base than in areas where unions are in all other respects very weak.

Workers organising inside and against their own unions. Workers at One Housing Group, on strike this week, give an example of how it can be done. Historically, the housing association, like most others, has been organised by Unison. But when the employer awarded at the same time, its chief executive a £31,000 pay rise, and many of its workers an £8,000 pay cut, the initiative was taken by Unite, a union which then represented just a tiny proportion of the workers. Unite was able to take a lead because of the organising style of Unison, which has long involved a very small number of national officials representing whole branches of the economy (education, health, housing, etc). It is not an organising approach. There is relatively little emphasis on holding meetings, supporting reps, etc. In a year, Unite’s membership has risen ten fold. Workers are now on a three day strike, with more strikes threatened.

Another example is the Pop Up union at Sussex University. There has been a similar dynamic on site, with clerical grades and security guards historically represented by Unison, a union which organises in the higher education sector in the same way that it organises in social housing. Reps have set about addressing the disparity between Unison and the other unions on campus, not by poaching Unison’s members, but by setting up an all-grades workplace union, which workers are invite to join on a “dual” basis. The Popup union has been registered as an independent union with the Certification Officer, has had meeting many times larger than any of the individual unions have been able to call by themselves, and has begun balloting for stikes. It is not always onwards. The union has had to retreat, a little, in this past week after the employer threatened it with an injunction. The Popup form is not a magic cure to the general weaknesses of the trade union movement, but neither, as a comrade has represented it, “the desperate gamble of a mini-union to bypass the dead hand of the union bureaucracy.” It is instead an attempt to build up the confidence of people, within their existing unions, to strike.

Anyone who who thinks that the trade union movement in 2013 already represents the final organisational form that the British working class has adopted, to last from here to the other side of a revolutionary struggle, reveals only the poverty of their ambitions.

Yes to Teachers, but not only Teachers

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The modest upturn in trade union membership in 2012 (by around 60,000; out of a total of over 6 million trade unionists) cannot mask the reality that trade unions are an embattled presence within Britain as whole. When New Labour was elected in 1997 trade union density in manufacturing was 33%, now it is a mere 19%. Three-fifths of all trade unionists in Britain work in the public sector; but only 1 in 5 workers in Britain work in this sector. In the private sector, where most jobs are, union density is a distinctly unimpressive 14%..

One answer to the long-term weakening of the unions would be to say that socialists should focus all our energies on the sectors with the highest levels of trade union membership, the logic presumably being that if growth takes place there, other groups of workers will inevitably follow them. On this analysis, the sharp edge of contemporary trade unionism would be the two large areas of the public sector with the highest overall density: education and the civil service (both at around 52%). Here, I’ll choose just one of them, education, which I know relatively well, having worked as a further education and university lecturer from 1998 to 2003 and then as an official of the old lecturers’ union Natfhe (now amalgamated into UCU) from 2003 until 2006.

When thinking about the place of teachers in the trade unions, a useful starting point might be to remind ourselves that the history of the relationship between teachers and the unions (and indeed between teachers and the left generally) is lengthy. Even the most sympathetic accounts tend to start in around 1970 with the conversion of a series of professional associations into conventional trade unions. But the history of the teachers and the left goes back much further still.

“A distinguishing characteristic of student agitation in early nineteenth century [France]”, writes Theodore Zeldin, “was that it was led by teachers. Persecuted professors were often the heroes of demonstrations.” Yet under the dictatorship of the 1860s he continues, teachers became a pillar of the Bonapartist dictatorship. The shift in their ideals can be explained in terms of the teachers’ ideology of Republicanism. It was the teachers’ job to teach, i.e. to install young French men and women in the virtues of the French revolution. When the logic of fealty to the Great French Revolution of 1789 pointed towards struggles, teachers led them. But when the logic of Republicanism was towards accommodation with the existing regime, no other occupation was more loyal.

To compare the teachers whose demonstration in Paris on 22 February 1848 began a revolutionary wave across Europe with the teachers who Zeldin describes as “the electoral machine” of Bonapartism in the 1850s and 1860s is not necessarily to invoke two different generations; in many cases it was the same contradictory souls which provided first the best and then the worst faces of the French left.

A similar contradiction can be seen at the edges of the twentieth century labour movement. Socialist pedagogues could be found in the Marxist parties, in the Socialist Labour Party which organised study circles, correspondence courses and even its own exams, and in labour movement organisations calling for a socialist education. The celebrated Ruskin College strike of 1908-9 was about whether a Liberal model of education for change could be transformed into a socialist one, with the strike giving birth to the Central Labour College (CLC), which promoted syndicalist ideas especially among miners’ and transport workers. John Maclean, nominated by the Bolsheviks to be their first consul for Scotland, declared in 1917: “The greatest crime I have committed in the eyes of the British government and the Scottish capitalist class has been the teaching of Marxian economics to the Scottish workers”. Yet even in 1906 or 1917 there were many more teachers in the explicitly anti-Marxist and anti-syndicalist Workers Education Association (WEA) than there were in the CLC. And the WEA’s purpose was, as its founder Albert Mansbridge explained to “divert the strong movements of the people from the narrow paths of immediate interests”. Self-interest meant for Mansbridge the railwaymen who had recently struck at Taff Vale.

Had Mansbridge been so minded, he might have found examples of strike action within his own profession. Members of the National Union of Teachers, set up in 1870, had taken part in strikes in Portsmouth just a few years earlier in 1896 (he was writing in 1903). They would be involved in strike action at West Ham in 1907. By 1910, the union had around 70,000 members.

Much of the union’s national character, even today, derives from a series of responses to the revolutionary year of 1919. The key question was whether the NUT should be a trade union or a professional association (i.e. a body that negotiated its members’ wages with the government and struck where negotiations failed, or one primarily concerned with issues of education policy), i.e. should it align itself with or against the syndicalism of groups such as the miners and the transport workers?

The NUT’s response was a complex fudge. Its 110,000 members voted against affiliation to either the Labour Party or even the TUC. Meanwhile, the government offered, and the NUT accepted, a tripartite committee of teachers, local authority and government representatives to determine teachers’ pay (the committee lasted until 1986). Finally, the union reasserted its long-standing policy of equal pay for men and women. A breakaway right-wing union the National Association of Schoolmasters (the predecessor of today’s NASUWT) was formed in opposition to the NUT to campaign against equal pay.

The National Union of Teacher’s turn to the left began in the mid-1960s, with the union’s conversion to a policy of comprehensive education, and then after 1970 with the need to defend that policy from Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher’s support of a selective education system in the Heath government. The first time NUT conference came out in favour of comprehensive education was 1965. By 1972, the same union, disgusted by the Tories, finally affiliated to the TUC.

It was exactly when the NUT was moving to the left that the best of the postwar socialists began to get involved in teachers’ trade unionism (there had been a Communist presence before then, and Max Morris of the Communist Party was President of the NUT in 1973-4). The International Socialists’ trade union base had historically been in engineering: Geoff Carlsson of SRG/IS had stood for the position of President of the engineers’ AEU as early in the organisation’s history as 1959. But once the group had passed the psychologically important stage of 1000 members in 1968, it was obvious that the group would have to think more seriously about its trade union work.

Two processes came together: first, the organisation had a relatively large number of former student members who were just starting their first jobs in what were then the most accessible graduate careers (school and university teaching, local government and the civil service). Second, the centre of gravity in these occupations was shifting to the left, precisely because of the recruitment of young people – not just IS, or CP, but plenty of other ex-students too – from a generation who had been repeatedly involved in protests.

In 1967, a group of IS teachers (including Duncan Hallas and Chanie Rosenberg) had sent up a joint group ‘Rank and File’, together with some supporters of the Communist Party. The group founded its own paper. Soon Rank and File was a model for what was assumed would be more significant initiatives, including rank and file paper for the miners (The Collier) and the car-plants (Carworker)

After the 1969 NUT conference (which had just voted through a pay package representing a real pay cut for most of its members, but a pay rise for headteachers), Duncan Hallas sat down to explain why it was that the NUT did not fight:

“The outstanding feature of the NUT is its complete domination at the top by the privileged minority of full-time administrators called headteachers. Not only is the executive completely controlled by them, they also dominate the great majority of local associations outside the London area and hence the national conference.”

“The majority of the membership are women and for understandable sociological reasons, they have, in their great majority been relatively inert and passive members. Even today when this situation is beginning to change, a glance at any union conference shows an overwhelmingly male representation. The minority of men in the union provide the vast majority of activists.”

“The completely autocratic structure of the school situation also reinforces conformity and ‘deference’. The union has absolutely no effective ‘shop-floor’ organisation.”

The purpose of Rank and File, he explained, was to seek a break with the top-down way of running schools, and of doing trade unionism:

“The strategy of Rank and File centres around a single issue, democratisation, of the schools and of the union.”

“The educational structure is an extremely sensitive part of the capitalist state machine and the school system is perhaps even more important in this connection than the higher educational system. The basic function of schools in Britain today is to turn out docile and suitably trained units who will fit into the slots provided by the economy. Docility is the main aim of the authoritarianism dominant in schools. When it is challenged the basis of the whole system is threatened…”

The idea that schools existed to teach authoritarianism was widespread in 1960s culture; in the compulsory PE of The loneliness of the long distance runner, in the glowering fury of To Sir With Love, in the cane-wielding conservatism of Goodbye Mr Chips.

Forty years later, Mark Thackeray has been promoted and is Head of the Sixth Form, Ruxton Towers no longer offers running races (not even against the local toffs), and Mr Chips has finally retired. The structures of the NUT no longer privilege men; the General Secretary of the NUT, Christine Blowers, is a woman. Relationships between the generations have been transformed to an extent that would have seemed quite extraordinary 40 years ago: without an accompanying social revolution between the classes. Neither the union nor the school retain their old authoritarian content, and yet the caution of the union leadership (the iron law of teacher politics) survives intact.

This is not to underestimate how much still needs to be done. Friends who teach complain of intrusive inspections, of ever-lengthening hours, of centrally-determined content, of shifts to and from phonics or citizenship or endless changes not merely to the syllabus but also the structure of GCSEs. There are campaigns against Academies and against Free Schools and against changes to the school history syllabus. The most interesting teacher trade unionism will be that kind that forges an alliance with parents and students against the market authoritarianism of our age. But the best will never be all. Teachers teach, they have a disciplinary function; and there is a recurring social basis within the teacher-pupil relationship for the idea (admittedly, more clearly associated these days with NAS than with the NUT), that schools would be a better, happier place if only all the disruptive pupils could be removed from them.

When I worked for Natfhe, we were lucky enough to have in temporary charge a generation of former activists who were willing to push the union quite as far in the direction of revolutionary politics as the union would possibly go. Paul Mackney and Roger Kline at the top had both been members of the IS, Mackney an organiser of the Jim Higgins faction. We had a story of where the union had come from (i.e. from the experience of former engineers who had begun working in FE colleges in the 1950s 1960s, and brought with them their traditions of rank-and-file trade unionism). Paul Mackney, in particular, had a plan for how the union would expand its influence within the trade union movement generally. This began with very simply getting the union “lefts” (RMT, NUJ, CWU, PCS, FBU) to meet regularly and caucus. From there, we would increasingly involve them in a series of political campaigns, including Stop the War and Unite Against Fascism, in both of which Paul played a proud part and to each of which we gave a physical home.

Part of this plan involved merger with the other lecturers’ union AUT (our sector’s NAS to NATFHE’s NUT), with increasing numbers would come greater influence. But personal circumstances intervened; Paul became ill and could not stand, and the race to be General Secretary of the new merged union was won by the distinctly New Labourite Sally Hunt.

There was, in truth, always something quixotic about the notion that a small union of lecturers Further and Higher Education could force itself to play a leading part in the affairs of the entire trade union movement. You see if most people in Britain were to close their eyes and think “Who is a trade unionist?” or “Who is a worker?” the images that would come to mind would be of people involved in hard, physical work containing an element of danger. For those of us in our 40s and upwards, we might imagine a miner in orange overalls coming off shift, or a firefighter, or a building worker. For those under 40, I imagine, there would be a different set of visual images, perhaps a nurse, tired after a long shift. But to imagine that school teachers, FE lecturers or even London-based University Professors might become the emblematic face of the working class is taking it too far.

In May 2013, the pollsters “YouGov” carried out a survey of which occupations people thought were paid too much or too little. Respondents divided different careers into essentially three groups. There was a first large band of people whose jobs are hard and (actually) poorly paid. So 62% of people thought nurses were paid too little and only 3% that they were too much. Shop assistants (50% too little, 1% too much) and call centre workers (31% to 7%) had the same positive treatment.

A second group of workers were also felt to be under-paid, essentially white-collar workers in the public sector (Social workers 30% to 13% and teachers 32% to 14%). They had a positive perception, but not by the same overwhelming majorities.

A third set of workers, doctors and head-teachers had a majority going the other way; they were seen to be generally over-paid.

What was most interesting, when looking at this middle group is how differently people saw them depending on their own social class. Using the standard sociological distinction between ABC1 (i.e. professional and supervisory occupations) and C2DE (skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers’ jobs), when people in the ABC1 categories looked at teachers, they saw them clearly as an underpaid group (by 35% to 12%) but when workers in C2, D or E were asked about teachers, there was a much narrower majority: only 25% thought they were underpaid, and 18% believed that they were in fact overpaid. Other groups of workers meanwhile (eg nurses) were viewed equally positively by every class. Meanwhile some occupations (eg builders) had the exact opposite perception to teachers – people in groups ABC1 through they were paid too much, those in C2DE thought they were paid too little.

The disparity in different people’s opinion of teachers occurs because large numbers of workers in Britain don’t see teachers as people like themselves. They are not be hostile to them, but nor do they see teachers’ trade unionism as a solution to their problems.

Other evidence too points in the same direction. Between 1995 and 2012, while net trade union membership fell by 600,000 or so nationally (from 6.8 to 6.2 million), this fall was accompanied by a very large rise in the number of trade unionists in the education sector (around 500,000 extra trade unionists). So for 17 years the number of teachers in unions has been growing very fast, without this doing anything at all it seems to draw other groups into the trade unions.

Teachers also serve to illustrate a further problem, not specific to them, but common to public sector trade unionism generally. When Gate Gourmet workers struck at Heathrow in 2005, a strike by 670 workers cost the company around £40 million, that is, vastly more than the salaries of the workers involved. When teachers strike, there is no financial loss to the government (but if anything a modest alleviation of the pressure on budgets). Of course the teacher’s lot is not altogether hopeless, their strikes can impinge on the profits of other businesses, which may in turn put pressure on the government. But inevitably, public sector strikes become to a greater extent than say tube strikes a battles for public opinion; which is always a weaker bargaining position than pure industrial strength. “Where the chains of capitalism are forged”, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “there they must be broken.” She was not thinking of the classroom.

Some of my comrades will no doubt accused me once again of “suggesting that public sector workers are somehow a privileged layer compared to the private sector.” Or of “echoing the sort of ideas peddled by Slavoj Žižek about the ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ or – to be blunter – ideas about the ‘gold plated advantages’ of public sector workers” and “writ[ing] off those workers who have shown they are organised enough to hold off attacks on their wages and conditions.”

So I will try to be clearer. It is useful to think of teachers, and other white collar workers in the public sector, as a fraction of the working class. They do not own the means of production and have to work. But this cannot be sufficient. We need to be thinking of layers within the working-class strategically, rather than packing tens of millions of people together (like so many clothes in a mixed wash at a laundry). Once we do, we can start to think about how and why one or another has played a positive or a negative role in the political crises of recent times, and which are the groups on which we should focus any spare energy we have.

And even now, the left does still have resources to allocate. Most school or university leavers can expect to have in front of them several years of insecure or part-time employment. The jobs they find will be temporary (eg shop work, catering…) and probably non-union. These are the groups of people who were used in 2011-2012 to argue for the maximum positive response to the public sector pension strikes. Even now, they still stand outside workplaces, leaflet them, or take collections. The mere task of choosing the workplaces on which to focus, already involves some modest calculation about who is most likely to strike, and whose strikes will have the greatest impact. We choose the unions for which to produce leaflets. We choose which union conferences to leaflet and how many people to send to them. The branches of local parties, and their national leaderships ought to be capable of choosing the one union or the one workplace where that branch or the party’s interventions will best be tested. That process necessarily involves some selection of priorities.

It all depends on what question you are asking. If it is, “can teachers lead the working class?” then the answer will probably be No for some of the reasons I have outlined. A militant “teacher’s consciousness” is always going to rub against the sorts pressures that Duncan Hallas grasped all those years ago. IE teachers teach, education under capitalism is never going to be education for liberation, and the people who you are inviting to form the vanguard of the workers also play a disciplinary role in relationship to the children of the working class. The neo-liberal agenda, attacks on the public sector, etc, make teachers angry. But the day to day job leads people away from revolutionary conclusions.

Or if your question is, “who are the groups of workers that, by striking, would be most likely to encourage strikes among other groups of workers?”, then we might do better to  focus a little of our energy on nurses or builders or on Britain’s 1 million call centre workers. They are layers of the working class which already have trade unions, but density is relatively low (i.e. there are opportunities for growth). Were they to strike, other workers might copy them.

Reflections on the “IS tradition”

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During the recent crisis in the party a number of comrades (from both sides) have talked of “the IS tradition”, as if the whole history of the SWP and its predecessors has been an organic unity, marked by a consistency in terms of both high theory and practical politics. Yet any deeper familiarity with the actual history of the group would show that there have been sharp turns, rapid changes of personnel, etc, so that the SWP of today is in many ways unlike the party of 20 or 50 years ago.

You can see this by comparing the SWP of today to its predecessor of 20 years ago. In 1993 the party claimed a membership of 10,000. There were SWP branches not just in cities but in individual streets, and on council estates. Members of the SWP were the backbones of a dozen different campaigns, against the Criminal Justice Act, against the British National Party, in trade unions, in favour of publicly-funded health care and against privatisation. The party seemed large, well-rooted. A very common historical comparison that we tended to dwell on in our own literature was with the Communist Parties of Britain and France in the 1930s, parties already in their tens of thousands which were on the cusp of further, rapid growth.

Yet the SWP of 1993, for all its size, was characterised by underlying weaknesses. The publications of the SWP had been allowed to become dull. With a large staff of professional journalists, the actual numbers of people writing for Socialist Worker was very small. The SWP’s theoretical journal International Socialism devoted its attention to the ongoing crisis in Russia, the rise of Tony Blair, the extent to which Marxism is or is not deterministic, the responsibility of the West for the Balkan War and topics of this sort. The tone of the articles was the vindication of older Marxist concepts, such as state capitalism, reformism, and imperialism. The emphasis was on the truth of older ideas, their elaboration in a new context rather than their extension. There was a real nervousness about admitting the changes to the economy and society which live behind such abstractions as “neo-liberalism” or “globalisation”. The party’s size masked deeper weaknesses.

Or you could look back further to the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists, of 30 years before. The IS in 1963 was a small organisation of around 200 or so members. This modest fraternity included a great variety of talents, established trade union militants such as Jim Higgins and Geoff Carlsson, the journalist Paul Foot, the philosopher, Alasdair Macintyre, writers Nigel Harris and Mike Kidron, Peter Sedgwick while Ian Birchall, Colin Barker and Chris Harman were among a younger generation of activists. The party was young, engaged, and intellectually fecund.

There was a strong bind of trust between leader and led. Every effort was made to involve as many members as possible in as wide a range of the group’s activities as possible. The publications of the IS were characterised by modesty and a great deal of self-deprecatory wit. The party’s small size masked a number of deeper strengths; the very same strengths which enabled the organisation to grow sharply over the next five years, and then more slowly thereafter.

So, alongside the relative continuities in the SWP’s core ideas, to understand the “tradition” you need to see the party as something dynamic, carried by people, in circumstances some of which have been more or less favourable.

The sharpest discontinuity in the history of the SWP was the political argument which led to the publication of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s book Lenin in 1975. Cliff portrayed Lenin as a mercurial figure, leading the party from the front and usually in the right direction. The leader might lose a vote here or there, and Cliff’s account of the crisis of the Bolshevik party in summer 1917 emphasises the positive role of internal democracy in enabling Lenin’s ideas to find their base, but armed with a higher sense of strategy, the party leader is shown to have directed his party successfully towards insurrection (and vindication) in October 1917.

The key phrase in Cliff’s book is ‘bending the stick’: Lenin is presented as having succeeded by means of a series of partial insights, whose truth was political rather than historical. Faced with Russia in the months leading towards the October revolution, any historian would conclude that there were elements in Russian society acting to make a second revolution possible, and processes acting also to hold it back. Lenin’s genius was to see the former and to emphasise them, thus convincing his party and enabling it to act in a single, unified fashion. The political truth of this method was demonstrated by its success: the epochal victory of October 1917.

The adoption of a Leninist party model transformed the political culture of the IS from one which was open and tolerant, to one which was results-oriented and has been incrementally ever less tolerant of dissident.

Two articles by the same writer, Peter Sedgwick, give a sense of the shift. In a piece published in Socialist Review in 1959, ‘The Pretenders’, Sedgwick satirised the culture within other Trotskyist groups of announcing their “Leadership” over the masses. “Socialists who think [that the main [problem facing the class is a lack of leadership] may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1959/01/pretenders.htm)

Compare Peter Sedgwick writing in 1976, in an introduction to Dave Widgery’s The Left in Britain. “For revolutionary Socialists it now has to be the Age of Majority: the majorities which have to be won in factory after factory, workplace after workplace, in every cell of social and economic organization. Socialist cadres must keep one step ahead of their constituency, two or three steps at the most, and generate their slogans from what can be seen as the next link in the chain of solidarity … The requirements of an age of majorities mean that every socialist must engage, as the first call on his or her time and energy, in mass work within a real rank and file…”

The old elan had not been lost altogether, the fear of self-proclaimed leadership could still be seen (“two or three steps at the most”). But you find a certain flattening of language, even a tolerance of socialist jargon (“cadres”… “rank and file” … ) which an earlier Sedgwick would have erased with his own in-built editor’s pencil.

The first document in which Cliff sketched out his proposals for the IS’s future democratic structure were some ‘Notes on democratic centralism’ written in June 1968. Cliff’s conception of the shift from a federal to a centralist structure assumed, contrary to the party’s recent practice, that the party’s conference would be its highest body: “A Delegates Conference – meeting once or twice a year – decides the policies – the principles and strategy of the organisation.” He took it for granted that there would be factions within the party, i.e. long-term groupings characterised by subtly different emphases of politics. “An Executive, Political Committee, etc., are elected by the Conference as individuals, or on a list of candidates” Where there were “factional groupings”, he continued, “each group of delegates is entitled to elect the number of people to the Committees in proportion to their share at the Conference.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1968/06/democent.htm

What justification could there be for Leninism; what connection could there possibly be between the Bolsheviks organising in clandestine conditions in Tsarist Russia and a legal organisation of socialists in post-war Britain? The key participants had got so much else right that, on this occasion, their ideas deserve to be treated with respect. The IS emerged from a Trotskyist tradition in which illegal conditions were not unknown. Cliff had worked under them, and certain figures within IS/SWP such as Duncan Hallas had organised in a clandestine fashion within the army.

More to the point, the core idea of democratic centralism was one that could be applied flexibly: in the context of a small party, most of whose members were known to one another, the idea of concentrating resources and working in a disciplined, united fashion, was attractive. People’s negative experiences of other parties that claimed to work in a democratic centralist fashion (the example uppermost in many of the comrades minds would have been Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League) could be explained away by reference to the personal foibles of a violent bully. The formula ‘democratic centralism’ by its very character tends to conceal the key question, which is how much democracy and how much centralism?

One problem with bending the stick, as Cliff’s critics pointed out, was that by investing the leadership of a party with a sole role in initiating tactical changes, the theory under-analysed the role of the majority of party members. It was a child of that old Comintern argument that Communist Parties were unique in history being the first parties in history to have existed without a rank-and-file and with no bureaucracy.

Now it is easy to show that at many key stages in the history of the SWP, Cliff himself acted with the consent of his comrades. Further, we can also show that at many times, his practical leadership was in fact an exemplar of democratic practice. Looking at the same period, in composing his two books about the workers’ movement in Britain, and the impact of the social contract and incomes policies, Cliff was able to mobilise large sections of the party to take part in the writing of these books, in interviewing workplace militants, in selling the books, in making both the texts and their audience. The books were the party’s as much as they were Cliff’s. Nor is this an isolated example. But what can you do if leadership is not expressed in a consensual, democratic or successful fashion, if new tactics are adopted without sufficient thought, or even on a whim; and what if they fail?

Hence it is wrong to focus merely on the form of democratic centralism without having a sense also of the different quality of the decisions taken by a leadership. Any structure which gives the leadership a key role in initiating tactical change, will inevitably depend for its success on the quality of the people in top positions, and not their general quality (their sense of humour, their tactical nous, their humility, their ability to write well or to think deeply) but much more specifically on their ability to lead in the immediate social crisis of the present, to act, to make fruitful decisions.

One feature of the SWP’s history is that at key moments the party was well-led: for example, in the period between 1960 and 1963 or 1968 and 1972, but these were moments when leadership was a relatively easy task, when the numbers of strikes and protests were rising, and any Marxist explanation was going to be more plausible with the people who were most likely to join the party: young workers and students.

The years 1990 to 1995 saw real growth, which was achieved, more strikingly, when most other left-wing traditions were in decline. Many of the other groups, internationally and in Britain, were shaken by the collapse of Communism. No matter how fiercely they had previously criticised the eastern bloc, there was a tendency towards what you might call ‘retrospective Brezhnevism’, a feeling that America was the real enemy, and that the existence of the Soviet Union had at least created a certain space in which dissidence could flourish – not in the East but in the West. The Socialist Workers Party, to its great credit, was largely immune to this disease.

In other periods, by contrast, the SWP was led badly: in 1974 to 1975, from 1995 to 1999, from 2005 to 2009 and over the last year. These were different moments: the former combined a rightward moving Labour government in Britain with a sharp economic decline, de-industrialisation, and the defeat of social movements around the world. Some party crisis was perhaps inevitable; if not necessarily on the scale of the Higgins faction fight.

The mid 1990s should have been more favourable: the emergence of Tony Blair enabled the Labour Party to hegemonise popular politics and demobilise extra-parliamentary protest. The SWP suffered from what was then the most rapid decline in activity and membership that the party had known in its entire history.

Why should leadership in one period achieve success in meeting the possibilities open to it – when much the same leaders later failed? Part of the answer, it seems to me, lies in the openness of party thinking.

By thinking I mean much more than tactical leadership, I mean the range of people employed on party publications, the quality of long-term strategic theory, the ability to spot changes in the world before other parties trying to recruit a similar audience. Thus one of the heroic moments in the SWP’s history is undoubtedly Tony Cliff’s formulation of the theory of state capitalism, which explained to members that Russia was not socialist, but an entirely hostile social formation. As a result of this policy, members of the SWP were armed against the successive defeat of the Russian bureaucracy: not just in 1989 and 1991, but in 1956 and 1968 also.

By its nature, such openness is not likely to be manifest right in the middle of defining political events, but in the periods before. Another example is Mike Kidron’s analysis of the long-term character of the post-war boom. If the analysis did not precede the fact, it certainly preceded most of the fact’s consequences: 25 years of affluence, which made other Marxist arguments for the inevitability of revolution seem utterly implausible. A third example would be Cliff’s claim in the late 1970s that the left in Britain (later, the comrades would say the left internationally) was entering into a period of political defeat. While the theory may even have hindered the SWP from benefiting from moments of undoubted opportunity (such as the poll tax campaign in Scotland ten years later) it operated largely to diminish expectations and to provide some explanation for the real losses ahead: not least the Falklands and the shattering defeat of the miners in 1984-5.

I have tried elsewhere to sketch a brief history of the socialist left since Marx’s death in 1883 around two key concepts: “classical” and “dissident” Marxism. The paradigmatic case of the former, was the German Social Democratic Party prior to the First World War. From Marx and Engels, through the popularisation of their work by Kautsky, that party inherited a formalised even ossified theory. All questions had previously been answered. Their solution was to be found in reading rather than in political activism, or in reflection on activism. Having reconciled Marxism to a purely parliamentary strategy, the party was unwilling or unable to restore the revolutionary content of its original politics when faced with the new situations of 1914, 1918, 1919 and 1923. Dissident Marxism was embodied for me in different situations: in the anti-war politics of Georges Henein, in the journalism of David Widgery, in the activism of Rock Against Racism, in the historical writing of Edward Thompson, and the anti-colonial agitation of Walter Rodney, in the contemporary anti-capitalist movement. These episodes were shaped historically, I argued, by the decay of both social democracy and then Stalinism, and by the urgent need to develop new revolutionary politics as some form of alternative to both.

Implied in this model is the idea that ‘Marxism’ always takes in elements of both dissidence and classicism. The contrast between them refers not just to periods, or to high politics, but to activist styles. Thus classicists are often involved in the heart of movements, building campaigns, organising then along set lines. Conversely, the dissidents have tended to be on the edge of campaigns: within the movement, but often critical of its leadership decisions, and arguing for alternative activist strategies. Employing the same model to the history of the SWP, we might say the party has been characterised by a consistent secular trend from dissidence to classicism.

Neither “classicism” nor “dissidence” is better than the other. A more dissident party may be less well-rooted in trade union and peace campaigns. A more classical party may be closer to the mainstream of the trade union movement. The less dissident SWP of the last 20 years was capable of leading the massive Stop the War movement of 2003-2005. Yet looking at the party as a whole it is barely disputable that the SWP has become more canonical and less interested in challenging basic assumptions, more prone to think ‘In Defence’, less likely to think anew.

A less open party will generally find it harder to deal with moments when the whole world changes. Thus to take some recent examples: the major new political movement of the later 1990s was the anti-capitalist campaign which could be seen at the J18 protest in London in 1999 or at Seattle a few months later. The SWP responded to the protests at Seattle by enthusiastically adopting this new movement, so enthusiastically indeed that when the American ISO, the second largest member of the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency, failed to endorse Seattle with equal enthusiasm, the SWP excluded the American group from the IS Tendency. Yet this hyper-enthusiasm sat awkwardly with the relative hostility of the SWP to the J18 protests just weeks beforehand: when SWP members did attend J18 they did do as individuals, they did not leaflet the demonstration nor did they attempt to sell Socialist Worker on it. They were effectively invisible.

Closed thinking can make an intervention harder, but it will not always have that effect. Contrast the tardiness of the SWP in summer 1999 with our speed two years later, after 9/11. Within three days, the party had called an internal meeting to debate our response. Within another week, a large public meeting had packed out London’s Friends Meeting House. By our speed, members of the SWP were able to initiate and then take a series of leadership roles in the Stop the War Coalition. By an act of political bravery, the SWP catapulted itself right to the front of the movement. We were not just the first organised group in Britain to grasp the extent of the American threat and the need to organise, and to do something useful about it, but one of the first in Europe or the World.

We can contrast this thinking again, however, with the party’s unwillingness to take up a raft of big political issues: globalisation, informal working, and the role of the working class in an economy in which production seems to be less important than it was. Articles in International Socialism Journal have responded late, if at all, and by explaining only that these processes are exaggerated, their social significance little if anything at all. Odd, incompatible positions have emerged as a result. Chris Harman told readers of the ISJ that globalisation was hopelessly exaggerated, nothing had changed. How then to understand the SWP’s involvement in an anti-capitalist movement the majority of whose public figures denounced not capitalism but globalisation?  They were anti-globalisation, and we … weren’t? There has been an intellectual lurching from one position to another which mirrors the incoherence of our industrial politics, our anti-fascism and so on.

To understand the history of the SWP you need to have a sense in particular of the consequences of Tony Cliff’s idea of state capitalism. Until Ian Birchall’s biography it often used to be said that this theory was first discovered (as if out of thin air) by Tony Cliff in 1948. Cliff characterised the Soviet Union and its satellites as state capitalist. The idea was political: it argued that there was nothing about the societies for socialists to defend. It was also analytical: unlike other theories of what was wrong with Russia (totalitarianism, new class theory, bureaucratic collectivism) Cliff’s argument portrayed Russia as a society amenable to an economic or sociological analysis. The rulers of Russia were like the rulers of the West, their workers were similar also. It followed that the Russian tyranny would not continue indefinitely, but would in all likelihood be overthrown from within.

Contrary to the claim that Cliff invented the theory, the idea had in fact many origins: there were anarchist critiques of the Soviet Union which characterised that society as state capitalist, as did some thinkers associated with some parties of the parliamentary left. Other Trotskyists also developed state capitalist analyses: the Socialism ou Barbarie group in France, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya in America, most importantly perhaps the idea was discussed in the first gulags by groups of Russian dissidents.

But there was at least one way in which Cliff’s use of the term was different (say) from CLR James’ way of thinking, or the use of the term in the official circles of European Trotskysim. Cliff came to an analysis of state capitalism by way not of events in Russia but in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The idea of state capitalism emerged in criticism of an earlier formulation, which held that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state. Once that same theory was applied to the eastern bloc, Cliff argued, it could no longer make sense: where was the workers revolution in Romania or Albania?

The sociological and historical comparison between Russia and its satellites raised an immediate question: how similar were these states? At the leadership level, and in their forms they looked not just similar but identical. Did that mean that there were no significant legacies in Russia of the workers’ victory in 1917? In Cliff’s original analysis, this problem was solved by a modest distinction between state capitalism of revolutionary and non-revolutionary origin. How about the societies that later sought to emulate Russia, that were attracted to a model of growth which emphasised urbanisation and industrialisation at the expense of a peasantry? China was self-evidently state capitalist. Many third world societies looked similar too: from Mozambique to Egypt or Algeria. The theory of state capitalism was linked to an idea of deflected permanent revolution: the national revolutions which had removed colonialism failed to enact socialism. In the gap, the society which emerged tended to be another state capitalist model.

If state capitalism could take in societies created by workers’ revolution (and its subsequent internal defeat), societies created by tanks, urbanised European societies and rural China, and much of the Third World, was there a danger that the concept had been extended beyond breaking? Or was there another danger in fact that the concept had still not been extended enough?

From the perspective of 2013, and looking back at the middle years of the twentieth century, what is really striking is the extent to which a generation of productive industries combined with the militarization of society, to create a condition in which almost every society saw a rapid increase in state spending. ‘State capitalism’ can be used to stand for a world characterised by Keynesianism, military Keynesianism, fascism and war. Even in liberal democratic Britain, with its surplus profits, colonial dominions and aristocratic traditions, a war-time government could sit down and discuss rationally the gains and losses of a proposal to nationalise the country’s land. For business, attempting a similar process of careful planning, state capitalism meant an epoch in which there were strong incentives to invest in certain forms of productions, certain scales of enterprise. Because arms industry required mass production, because the development of technology was partial and the productivity savings of miniaturisation were few, state capitalist societies also tended to be ones where workers had considerable potential power. Perhaps for the same reason, state capitalist societies were ones where the political control of labour tended to be carried out at an intense level. State capitalist societies were often dictatorships. When they were democracies, the economic power of labour was often considerable.

All of this matters for two reasons. It is important, first, because the Marxist explanation of society looks to the emancipation of labour. Society seemed to be developing along the lines that Marx predicted. But with one extraordinary contradiction: that many of the workers were organising against Soviet societies which ruled in the name of labour! The SWP, armed with a state capitalist analysis was well-placed to explain both halves of this contradiction: both the tendencies towards centralised production, and the betrayal of 1917 by state capitalist regimes.

It matters, second, because since 1989 our world has been in many respects different. An epoch of state capitalism has given way to one of private capitalism: a tendency that dates from at least the early 1970s, but was crowned by the events of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Large-scale militarised industry has given way to small-scale computerised industry. Planned and managed employment has given way to much higher numbers of unemployment, underemployment or casual employment. A system in which repression was frequently political is replaced by one in which repression is typically economic, the self-repression of people trained by the fear of poverty or by the discipline of over-work. In every country in the world, offensives of the rich have seen a transfer of wealth upwards. Key social gains of the earlier period are replaced by privatisation: privatised healthcare, privatised social services, privatised housing. Public space has been cut to a minimum. Profits are associated with reduced investment, with the closing down of large industries and the selling-off of their subsidiaries. The scale of the units of production is less.

Having emphasised the differences; there are of course major points of commonality between the global system now and twenty years ago; both, after all, have been capitalist societies, both have depended at their base on relationships of production between those who own or manage and those who work. But to stress the differences allows us to grasp one key point; that since 1989, Marxists have had an urgent task to develop new thinking to explain the ways in which the global power of labour seems to have diminished. Is this a partial loss? Is it an epochal defeat? What are the signs in the present that point towards hope? The right answers must be strategic rather than tactical: they must explain what has changed and point a way forward. The ideas to explain a way through the present could not be found in a single book or document, in one party or one newspaper alone.

Our ideas have tended to emphasise the continuities between periods, and in response to many partial arguments (flexible working, theories of the multitude or the New Poors, the Precariat as the new revolutionary class, etc), too many comrades have claimed that capitalism continues unchanged, exactly the same system as it was before.

The right task of defending Marxist orthodoxy becomes from another viewpoint a lapse from open to closed thinking. And a Marxist party which gives up on renewing its ideas is only storing up further crises for its future.

[first published here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151420316841269%5D