I am old enough to remember a much younger Seth Harman telling the SWP conference at the end of the 1990s that the average age of our party had increased from 27 (his own age, then) five years before to 32 (his own age by the time he was speaking). One of the positive consequences of the campaign waged this year by the student office against our (then) student members is that the age of branch attendees appears to have risen by a healthy twenty years or more even since Seth spoke. If we keep going at the present rate, we should soon enough be able to host a genuine October 1917 Recreation Society (rather than our present mere shadow of one), enabling us at long last to settle the definitive question raised by our present leadership: if we were all back in time in Russia, who would be the purer Bolsheviks, Lenin and his recent admirers or us?
Finding ourselves in an Old Party has the secondary advantage that some readers may understand my concern with the disastrous course on which we are set. The longer Alex, Judith and Charlie remain in place, the less we seem like the organisation which Tony Cliff once founded, and the more we appear to have taken over the old political and organisational habits of late British Stalinism.
We have a policy on oppression which increasingly insists that all such vogueish notions as the oppression of women or of black people can be wished out of existence. Yes, women and “others” (always acknowledged, never identified directly) are oppressed, but no-one should worry since by some wonderful magic no-one else benefits from their oppression. While Marx once insisted that oppression was real but could be solved only by the unity of the working-class, we reduce oppression to something vestigial and passing. The Stalinists used to say the same about fascism in the 1930s (“the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”), that it was the only a vanishingly small number of monopoly capitalists who gained from it, enabling them to paint red non-Nazi forces far to the KPD’s right (liberals, nationalists even on one troubling occasion a fascist martyr) and happily solving the problem of what otherwise might have seemed Adolf Hitler’s troublingly high vote in democratic elections. Minimising fascism’s social base allowed loyalist KPDers the fantasy of After Hitler Us.
Like the Stalinists, we have a cadre of senior union activists, secure in NEC positions or on facility time. We behave as if, like the old CPGB, we increasingly see the future of ourselves in the unions as depending on the goodwill of union Broad Lefts rather than on our support in the rank and file.
We find social media as bad and as incomprehensible as once the Stalinists were terrified by the deep Americanism of superhero comics and amplified guitar music.
Another thing we share with the old CPGB is the attempt to hide embarrassing facts from the membership, and keep the party in line through the threat of disciplinary action. At Marxism, Alex Callinicos formulated a series of ad hoc political justifications for administrative measures – accusing Rob Owen of wanting to turn the party into a movement, Dan Swain of giving up on the vanguard, Ian Birchall of not having read Ian’s own books, etc. There were so many political errors he invented, as he accused his opponents of being ridiculous, so many barely-concealed threats of expulsion.
Those of us who have been around the block a while know full well that even more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary argument by which Socialism is made to appear ridiculous is this: you can’t build a better society without it falling into tyranny and violence, the decay of the Russian Revolution proves it.
The continuity of that myth is why the present course is so destructive. Promises that conference will bring an end to the discussion; threats of loyalty oaths for those who have seen the moral poverty of our CC, ideas that consensus can be achieved by threats; banning of membership without reason but by caprice; the election of 100% faction slates from aggregates on the basis of code words which their authors didn’t believe, and the careful purging not just of oppositionists but even important national activists in the middle ground who (without needing to be asked) could just be assumed to be politically unreliable – don’t just threaten to weaken the party, but to make the whole project of socialism look positively sinister.
If there is anything the last year should have taught us it is that there are not several lefts but only one. Your SWP branch may not have done anything to assist the purges, it might be the very model of independence from the leadership. Yet with every Callinicos speech on YouTube, every fixed aggregate, every article seeking Smith’s return, another person who had been in your audience shifts from neutrality to hostility.
And beyond the promise to deal violently with dissent, what else, if anything, still unites our decaying leadership?