Monthly Archives: December 2013

We need to talk about secrecy

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I have been criticised for writing openly about the crisis in the SWP, the man who began it, and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t it be better, my comrades have asked, if I had kept quiet? Isn’t silent what any responsible socialist keeps, when faced with a crisis in their own organisation? But the reason why the party’s name is mud is precisely because the leaders of the party have tried to keep hidden what they have known and what they have done.

When it comes to disputes, the party has adopted a culture in which secrecy is treated as an overwhelming priority. An example of this at work is the rape complaint, reported on the ISN website in October. According to the woman who wrote the article, on approaching the SWP Disputes Committee, the DC’s principal concern was not to investigate but to ensure that the complainant told no-one about the complaint.

The woman quoted correspondence from the DC in which she was accused of breaching confidentiality (and I understand that the DC does not dispute sending her those emails), and concluded:  “Throughout the whole of this process the need for confidentiality was constantly repeated to me. I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades”.

The same concern with secrecy has characterised our handling of the two original complaints.

There are I think three main explanations given for the weight that the SWP DC gives to keeping complaints secret.

First, the desire for secrecy comes from the complainants concerned. Not in the “ISN” case, clearly. And neither was this the pattern in the cases of X or W. Comrades have been told repeatedly that the complainants were asking us all to protect their anonymity and the secrecy was only there for their sake. But the first complainant attempted to address our January 2013 conference directly (she was stopped by the CC). Had she spoken, in public, she could not have kept her identity wholly secret thereafter. She wanted her accuser’s name to be identified and his crimes publicly known. The second complainant spoken at the same conference, and would have spoken again in March, if our former National Secretary’s supporters had not mobilised to prevent her attending conference.

Second, it has been suggested that the SWP’s emphasis on secrecy merely mirrors that of the courts. But the courts don’t work in secret at all. Our civil and our criminal trials are heard in public. Indeed hearing them in public is something to be defended. It operates as a shield to both parties. For the complainant, it means their case is properly heard; and (often enough) it is publicised in the press. Reporters will notice details such as that the woman complainant was in tears when giving her evidence.

Allowing the women to speak in court and, indirectly, through the reporting of the case, means that they cannot be defamed by the sorts of cold slanders which have been circulated through the SWP by Idoom supporters including some on the CC. It’s much easier to portray a woman as a police agent or a feminist who hates the SWP if you are talking about someone who’s name is not known and who no-one has seen setting out some basic facts about their own case with dignity.

The person subject to the complaint also has a degree of protection if their case is in public – because their explanation of what happened is also publicly available. And if they are cleared, they can tell the world what the court decided and why. They have an explanation for why the Jury or the Judge reached the decision they did. That explanation is more than our former National Secretary has ever had.

When lawyers get things wrong in court, because there are journalists present, the story reaches the world. If people are asked sexist questions, or their representatives make sexist arguments in court; the people making these arguments will be held accountable in public. The presence of journalists and the reporting of rape trials has been one dynamic tending to reduce a little the extraordinary institutional sexism that rape complainants have to endure.

If any rape trial in any court Britain had been handled as badly as our investigation, it would have been national news. If any other employer (and of course, in relation to the second complainant, the SWP was the employer) had handled a complaint of sexual harassment as badly and victimised a witness as wilfully as we did, that employer would be a public disgrace.

Third, there is an idea that by not telling the world what we have done wrong, we will be protected, because the information will never surface. The problem here is that it just doesn’t work. It is not a coincidence that Edward Snowden has just been voted the Guardian’s person of the year. We are in an age where information surfaces and those who try to curtail it look ridiculous.

Thousands of people on the left in Britain and internationally now know at least some of the worst facts about our rape investigation: the failure to investigate in 2010, despite what the woman told our CC her complaint involved; the sexist questions that were asked in 2012; the refusal to allow comrades to seek reform of the DC at our conference in January 2013; the attempts by the chair  at the January conference to restrict speakers from raising any of the detail of what had happened during the investigation; the CC’s failure at that conference to allow any open discussion of the future role in the SWP of our former National Secretary; the CC’s attempt in January and February to restrict any DC reform to the sole question of increasing secrecy; the attempts after March to frustrate the hearing of the second complaint …

The person subject to the complaint has an obvious interest in secrecy; the current CC also thinks it has an interest in keeping its handling of the dispute as quiet as possible – both from the members of the SWP and from the rest of the left, including all the people who are usually our audience.

But you can’t sustain an organisation by constantly pretending to its members that you haven’t mucked up the most important decision of your political life – when you have and everyone can see it. You can’t pretend to be Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky or Bert Ramelson or whoever our  leaders fancy themselves to be if you look in the mirror of public opinion, and find David Brent staring back at you.

Even now, I don’t believe that Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber grasp the enormity of the harm they have done, to their own reputations, to the SWP’s reputation, and to the cause of the left.

The government recently introduced secret courts for certain National Security cases. Socialist Worker‘s report was brief and to the point: “Secret courts deny justice”. Yes, of course they do.

We haven’t had secret courts in Britain on any scale since the defeat of King Charles in the revolution of the 1640s. They were removed not only because there was a tremendous popular movement against them (although, there was a struggle). They died also because even the powerful grasped that they do their side no favours. People who are not told the full truth assume that everything they hear is a lie.

And they assume that there are further embarrassing details, which are also being kept hidden from them.

Martin Smith: a retrospective

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The CC staked the party’s future on Martin Smith. When he was first accused of sexual misconduct, in 2010, the response should have been to suspend him, properly investigate and expel if any hint of misbehavior was found. Instead there have been years of attempts to hide the complaints.

When our leaders have been asked in private why they gambled so heavily on protecting Smith they have had a stock answer: that without him, the party would not be able to do industrial or anti-fascist work in future. How could the leadership get to a point where they believed this was true?

Smith joined the SWP in the 1980s, and was an activist in the CPSA (fore-runner of today’s PCS trade union) before first taking a high-profile role working for the SWP in 1993. He was asked to be the SWP’s East London organiser after the BNP’s Derek Beackon won a council election to a council seat at Millwall. The Anti-Nazi League campaign was helped immensely by the presence of a number of SWP members in key jobs (eg among the council workers who walked out after Beackon was elected) and living in the council estates where the BNP was trying to build.

Smith was still the SWP district organiser for East London in 1994, when Beackon lost his seat. He was not slow to claim the credit for that victory.

In the early 2000s, Smith was promoted to work for the SWP’s industrial office, and for a couple of years brought real vigour to the job. He worked with the party’s carworkers, postal workers and railworkers, encouraging them produce rank and file newspapers. At their peak, according to Smith, they were selling between 2,000 and 5,000 copies per issue. (What we would give to still possess networks with that sort of audience…)

From 2004, when he became National Secretary of the SWP, Smith retained overall responsibility for two key areas of the party’s work, our industrial politics and our anti-fascism.

This was a heavy responsibility; the tasks take time, require different skills. The other leaders of the party took a gamble that Smith would have the vigour to play both roles well. At least at the start, he did apply himself with energy. But his tactics always involved top-down maneuvering and the longer he was in post the less success he had.

In 2006, the party initiated an “Organising for Fighting Unions” (OFFU) event, also intended to build the party’s then electoral initiative Respect. The conference was built around a mix of left union leaders on the platform in front of an audience of 700 or so, heavily leaning on party members.

“OFFU” did not survive the collapse of Respect. It was replaced by a new campaign “Right to Work”, which responded to the election of the Coalition government in 2010 with a conference attended again by about 600-700 people. Right to Work was eventually mothballed, without any adequate public explanation of why, in around spring 2012.

Unite the Resistance then took over, having its first conference in November 2012, again with 700 or so attendees. The same formula – a conference of left-ish union leaders and audience of largely SWP members – obtained, perhaps unsurprisingly, more or less the same results each time it was tried.

There was one change: UTR differed from its predecessors in that it sold itself to SWP members  as a temporary alliance with the trade union bureaucracy, who would agree to grace SWP platforms in return for something. Quite what we would give them was never spelled out.

Smith’s supporters have pointed to his key contacts in the unions – Mark Serwotka of PCS and Kevin Courtney of the NUT – as the source of his importance. However, when our much smaller rival Counterfire employed more or less used the same formula for their People’s Assembly, both Mark Serwotka and Kevin Courtney assumed positions on the platform.

UtR does rally the party’s trade union members in the few unions where we have still any base. But it has not done more than that. And it is not a strategy that requires Smith’s personal input.

Smith seems to have recognised that the drift to cheering for the union leaders has its problems, and occasionally led a balancing lurch to the left.

At the end of the 2010 Right to Work conference, Smith led a couple of hundred SWP members to occupy the nearby headquarters of ACAS where Unite leaders were negotiating with British Airways over the Cabin Crew strike. The occupation was national news. But the Cabin Crew workers thesmelves did not support the stunt, leading to an embarrassed apology in “Party Notes” two days later “We are trying to bring together a serious coalition that can resist the cuts … That means when we hold stunts and protests we need to point all our fire at the Con-Dems and the bosses, and should try and avoid at all costs protests that embroil Labour and trade union leaders in them”.

Smith’s anti-fascism showed the same problems. Julie Waterson was removed from the Anti Nazi League leadership in 2003. Shortly after, the Anti Nazi League merged with the organisation to its immediate right, the National Assembly Against Racism. The new group, Unite Against Fascism, had good relations with the TUC race relations committee and other union grandees.

Unite Against Fascism mobilised opposition to the threat of the BNP. The press were haranguing us all with endless stories of “bogus asylum seekers”, New Labour were conciliating the racists, and the fascists were winning more council seats. The party, under John Rees and Lindsey German’s leadership, was in the ropiest of conditions, with barely half the branches outside London that we had had five years before. The party lacked the activist base to fight a campaign on the scale of the heroic anti-fascism of the 1970s.

In these unfavourable conditions, UAF did well to keep anti-racist campaigning alive. But there was always something discordant about the campaign: in the way that one month’s success was never used to build the next month’s activity, in the drop-dead dull format of UAF annual conferences, in the lack of transparency or accountability about the campaign’s tactics and finances.

This was also true of UAF’s ally Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). Smith used to claim that LMHR had “adopted the punk DIY ethic.” However, while LMHR successfully recruited many musicians and swathes of volunteers, LMHR events always felt top-down. There was never a democratic relationship between the organising core and the young activists who would be courted for a particular event and then, often as not, dropped suddenly.

One nadir was the 30th anniversary festival in 2008; at which the gap between the celebrity status of the performers and the lack of an LMHR organisation was made good by privatising the event; giving security, refreshments, etc, to the private outfits who run all the “normal”, corporate festivals.

In his capacity as head of LMHR Smith also embarrassed the party by forging a relationship between our organisation and the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon. Smith invited him to speak at Marxism in 2004, when Atzmon began spouting some of the anti-Semitic rubbish he now specialises in. Despite SWP members challenging Atzmon from the floor, Smith continued inviting him to SWP events, and to perform with him at concerts as late as 2007.

Unite Against Fascism faced a new challenge after 2009 with the rise of the English Defence League. Smith took the decision that the party (with or without UAF) would confront each and every EDL demonstration. This was a tough demand and hard to deliver. UAF’s top-down approach hadn’t built anything like as strong local groups that we needed.

The pressures of the campaign led UAF to swing between either “broad” demonstrations quite separate from EDL mobilisations on one hand, or small numbers directly confronting the EDL on the other. Several of the demonstrations, including Bradford in 2010, became Popular Front-ish mobilisations away from the local EDL, while local youths unassisted by SWP members fought Tommy Robinson in the streets. Others were almost the exact opposite with small groups of young comrades being treated like “cannon fodder” in small, stunt-ish confrontations. Anti-fascist work is vital but Smith’s leadership was not perfect and he is not irreplaceable.

Any activist can test their own success in whatever role they have found for themselves by seeing what happens when they finish and someone else has to take over from them. If the organisation they leave behind is strong, if more people are involved then, they can be proud of themselves.

The CC will tell us that UAF and UtR have been glowing successes. They will never tell us how few members either campaign actually has than it used to, what funds they have raised, how many people are involved compared to 5 years ago.

All of us can see with our own eyes that UtR is less than it was, while UAF is decreasingly capable of mobilising anyone outside the SWP’s ranks. Even the number of comrades willing to turn out for either campaign is fewer than it was as recently as 12 months ago. These “united fronts” have taken more and more of the party’s resources to get less and less impressive results. It was on Smith’s watch that they suffered their decline. Progress will not involve simply repeating the same models, again and again, until nothing is left.

You can also see the measure of Smith in the way he has tried to defend himself since the complaints were made: encouraging his friends to speculate about the complainants and smear them, minimising what he did, and lying to the party at our 2011 conference with his “I am no angel” speech.

When it finally became clear this summer that the party would properly investigate the second complaint, Smith resigned rather than face a second enquiry into his behaviour. No-one who was accused of crimes on this seriousness would keep quiet; they would use every opportunity to clear their name. Smith did not because there was nothing he could have said.

Smith’s friends in the leadership will no doubt to continue to plead his innocence. Something like a hundred people from his faction met at a central London pub in June, with Smith  himself trying to duck away and pretend he had not been seen.

I do not doubt that his faction continues to meet, and co-ordinate its response to his critics. But loud as Smith’s friends continue to protest his innocence; his actions speak louder than their words.

This leaves the party with the worst of both worlds: Those who thought Smith played an essential role have lost him. But nor has the party appeased those of us of who grasped that the first disputes procedure was “mate’s justice”.

The party has lost hundreds of members and has a terrible stain on its reputation in the wider movement – a stain that won’t wear away with time, or be removed by expelling or suspending more members.

To move forward, the SWP needs to do two things. Firstly, we need to admit to the terrible mistakes made by not handling the allegations against Smith properly from the moment the first complaint became tolerably clear – summer 2010. And we need to apologise unequivocally for his treatment of the two women.

Second, we need to admit that his role in the party was in any case mixed. When other members of the leadership suggested he was irreplaceable, they were describing their own weakness, not his strengths.

What his case exposes more brightly than anything is the fallacy that you can build a healthy socialist party by restricting  all decision-making to a group of a dozen or so people. Were they geniuses of the highest calibre, this would still be an error. With the CC we’ve had, it has been a disaster.

The view from the top table

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2013

On an occasion in the last couple of months, I was speaking at a public meeting alongside a senior official of the trade union movement. His tone was folksy, with deliberate and repetitive swearing, declarations that he could speak openly “among friends”, and a loudly-announced disinterest in the detail of the latest government attacks on unions (“I don’t need to tell you, you all know how much they hate us”). These were of course details which his audience, almost entirely made up of  trade union reps rooted in local workplaces, needed to know if they were ever going to successfully resist them.

He made a passionate appeal to his listeners not to put too much pressure on the TUC to call co-ordinated strikes or even prepare the ground for them (it will, he said, be a decision for affiliated unions not for the TUC which has no members to call out), and he criticised those from the rank and file who were making demands of their leaders.

“Everyone in the room is a leader”, he insisted – not that he was going to lead us anywhere – “it is up to you to deliver the change, in education, in collective bargaining, in voters’ minds about the economy, which alone will improve workers’ lives.”

I am intrigued by this concept of leadership, not because of the  individual who expressed it but because it feels so familiar from the group of which I have been a member these past 20 years.

I will be writing more, over the next weeks, about the years I have spent in the SWP. I will save for another, longer piece the great moments, the times and the people that so inspired me of the possibility for revolutionary ideas to become the common sense of hundreds of thousands of people that I chose to remain a member, even though even at the age of 20 I could see, as we all could, that the leaders had clay feet

But here I wanted to convey how proud I have been to be a member of a group in which for long periods of time I was only slightly active – when I would go to meetings I had not organised, and I watched new people coming through.

When I rejoined the SWP in 2008, I did not become a branch secretary, I was not a full-timer nor was I a regular contributor to the group’s publications.

For two years, my main contribution was to book speakers for a North London branch, which had not met, in any sustained way, for more than five years.

My comrades seemed to appreciate that by the radical innovation of actually booking speakers for meetings every week, and thinking about different topics we could have, we were able to “grow” a small branch so that at one time it had around 3 people at meetings every week, and at another time, the number was more like 15.

This was a mundane task, not the sort of anything that anyone will put on their imaginary “activist CV”. But when we combined it with asking people at sales if they wanted to come to meetings, the dual effect was to bring a few people into contact with socialist ideas, who had never heard of them. Bringing new people and longstanding comrades together was not “the revolution” but it felt good.

I say all of this only to express my regret for those people in the SWP who form our national leadership, and who in several cases have not been part of that process, sometimes for decades. For them, the SWP is an office in Vauxhall where those who hang on long enough through every bureaucratic intrigue are guaranteed, eventually a senior position. And it is a series of meeting rooms (of admittedly, declining numbers) where a permanently revolving set of grey-bearded comrades listen quietly to their talks, laugh at some of their jokes (although there are many fewer even of them than there used to be), and then let the speaker depart, whereupon thode audience members presumably clear all the chairs away. If you only interact with people as an audience, you can have a very bad sense of what people think – even the people who continue to vote for you.

You can become frustrated with them, and (as we have seen repeatedly in the last ten years) bored of their activities. You can start to wish – frankly – that they would all go away and leave you to the more important task of meeting the General Secretary who is in the news, or recording an interview with Russia Today, or finishing the article that you’ve never written which would prove once and for all how much more you know about a topic than Owen Jones

There is a kind of leadership which says “every one of you is powerful, if only you can find the right opportunity you could be part of changing history, and I will give all my energy to try and inspire every one of you in the hope that individually, you, could be the person who at that key moment, makes the contribution which moves everything”. And there is a kind of leadership which says “I’ll go through the motions but don’t bother me, don’t you see I’ve got something more important to do.”

Each style can satisfy itself with the slogan “we are all leaders; you are leaders too”, but the two types of speaker mean different things by it.

The two women are still owed a proper apology

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This piece was originally published in the SWP’s pre-conference bulletin 1. It was of course heavily edited by the CC. Even with those changes, I think it is appropriate to republish it now, at a time when the detail of the cases is much more widely known within the party. On a second reading, some of the details here may take on added significance. In particular, I think it is important for comrades to be aware of the gracelessness and hostility with which the CC acted on the DC’s advice that it should make a (limited) apology to the second complainant

The SWP has suffered the worst year in the party’s history. We have had to have three conferences in one year, the numbers attending Marxism have fallen by half, and the party has suffered hundreds of resignations. Everywhere in the organisation, we see ageing and decay. If the SWP is to survive, we desperately need to change course.

The basis of survival is at least clear. First, there will need to be a significant change in our leadership: at the minimum it will need to involve the removal of the minority of our old CC who voted against the adoption of the second DC report and of Alex Callinicos, whose intervention at our January conference (“this is war”) set the party up for our last eight months of continuous internal conflict. A new set of comrades needs to emerge, not selected on the basis of how they voted in the last 8 months, but on whether they are capable of moral leadership and of playing a consensus role.

Second, at every level of the organisation, we need to break the culture of “following orders”. It was this mentality, that the next rank up of leadership is perfect, which led the first DC into repeated errors. How can you properly investigate a leadership you have been trained to think infallible? The purges which members of our outgoing CC have authorised in North London, Walthamstow, and Manchester must stop. The relationship between the CC and NC, and between each of them and the branches, needs to be reversed. Initiative has to be allowed to come from below.

Third, there needs to be a public and meaningful apology to the two women at the centre of the complaint. After our conference in January 2013, Charlie Kimber wrote to all members of the SWP saying, “We believe that both parties to the case should have their right to confidentiality and their right as members in good standing respected.”

Eight months later, no-one can pretend that the situation is still the same. The person about whom the first complaint was made (until 2013 a member of our Central Committee) has resigned from the party, and following a second complaint our disputes committee has found that he has a case to answer on a complaint of sexual harassment.  He is no longer a mere non-member of the SWP, and if he wanted to join the party, he would have to apply to join.

The phrase “case to answer” is itself curious. The former CC member resigned from the party in July 2013, just weeks before the DC that was due to hear complaints against him. A decision was taken, even before the DC investigation had begun, that the disputes procedure investigating the second complaint would be limited to the two options only of “case to answer” or “no case to answer”.

Where an employer investigates a complaint against a worker, or a grievance against a manager, or where a union investigates misconduct, or where a professional body investigates allegations of misconduct casting doubt on a worker’s fitness to conduct their profession, in the employment tribunal, or in the family or criminal courts – all of which investigate complaints of sexual harassment – an investigation is not halted halfway merely because the person subject to the complaint says “sorry, I won’t attend a hearing”. In all these other bodies, a decision maker investigates, and makes a decision as to what probably happened. In all of them, a wilful refusal to attend is taken as a small but significant sign of guilt.

Only in the police, where senior figures are allowed routinely to resign to forestall misconduct investigations, is there a culture of protecting senior figures by refusing to investigate fully when the senior figure resigns, and stopping a decision short of saying robustly, “yes, on the evidence before us, he did it”.

The DC recommended that the party apologise to the second complainant because her move to another place of work and to a more mundane job with less political content, caused her “unintended but nonetheless real hurt and distress”. Our outgoing CC waited a month before belatedly accepting the need to apologise in these terms. Its apology was partial and expressed its reservations with the DC report.

If the party wants to remove the terrible stain that has accumulated over the last three years, we will have to go further, and apologise properly and publicly to each of the two women.

In terms of the second complaint, the DC did not go far enough in suggesting that the party only needed to apologise for moving her but not for the sexual harassment which was what her complaint was about.

Following the most exhaustive investigation of which the party is capable, a two-day hearing in which a number of witnesses were heard and documents read, it was found that the former CC member had a case to answer for sexually harassing the complainant.

The period of time her complaint relates to is one when she worked for the party and he was our National Secretary, the person who appoints everyone else who works for the SWP. Part of her complaint was that it was his role as her employer which meant that she was required to keep on seeing him.

There could be no logic to justify saying: “We accept the complaint of sexual harassment has enough merit so that we can decide to place an obstacle on the former CC member rejoining the party, but we do not believe it has enough merit to oblige us to apologise to the woman concerned.”

In terms of the first complaint, the reasons for an apology are slightly different. Part of the need relates to our process of disputes procedure reform. In drawing up new procedures the party has accepted that our old rules were not good enough. But those were the rules under which her complaint was heard. If our old procedures need change; it must follow that the complainant has not had what we now consider a fair hearing.

There is another reason. In both complaints the women wanted an investigation of what they said was sexual conduct involving the same man. If the decisions had been heard in the reverse order, with the first complaint determined after the second, then by the time the first complaint had been heard we would have already decided that there was a case to answer on a complaint of sexual misconduct.

Anyone who has ever been involved in even the simplest kind of workplace investigation will know what this means. Where a company investigate a worker for two thefts or two assaults, and finds on one of them “case to answer”, the second hearing is inevitably more robust. The worker has to do so much more to be heard and believed where at first sight there appears to be a pattern of similar behaviour by him.

The same point applies with even more force in the courts, where what is called “similar fact” evidence is allowed in sexual cases – the similarity of the behaviour justifies placing an extra burden on a person to disprove the case against them.

For all these reasons, the part has a choice. The CC could say now to the first complainant, “We don’t know whether all your complaint was true, and in truth we will never have the complete answer. But we are serious about our politics, and if there is any possibility at all he did it, that is enough for us, we will apologise to you.”

Or, if that is a step that our outgoing CC will not take, the new report into the future of the DC recommends there should be an appeal process against the DC’s decisions. If this is the only way in which the party will allow proper findings about our former National Secretary, then so be it. To reclaim any scrap of authority, the party must revisit the first complaint – and, this time, investigate it fairly and properly.

You cannot re-build a party around an injustice. As part of the steps needed to bring the party’s crisis to a conclusion which we can explain to the outside world, the two women who made complaints each require a full, public apology.

CLR James at 112

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CLR JAMES jacket

If the historian of slavery, British and Caribbean political activist, and one-time crickter CLR James (1901-1989) was still alive, he might set out his vision for the world through some compelling, broad-brush explanation of the state of the worldwide austerity project and of the limits it had reached through the opposing force of popular protest, whether in Turkey, Egypt or the US. It was equally his style to begin with something different, more intimate, a memory of a time long past.

CLR James began his visionary book Beyond a Boundary with a recollection, as a child, of having watched through the window of his family home, situated beside the ground of Tunapuna Cricket Club, as the team’s star batsman Arthur Jones emerged to applause, struck the ball hard, and was caught in the deep, before returning to the pavilion humbled, his supporters downcast. Even James as a child was overcome with despair. Why had this small incident cast him down so low?

This was James’ answer: “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”

Six years ago, when I published my biography of CLR James which is now being published for the first time this month as an e-book by HopeRoad, I stated that it was my intention to persuade Marxists of the joys of cricket and followers of cricket of the calibre of James and James’ Marxism.

Events in the last few weeks suggest an unwelcome symmetry. The cricket has become more brutal since then with captains threatening to break the arms of the opposing team’s bowlers and batsmen returning home scarred. On the left too, we have had our brutes, and we struggle to disassociate ourselves from them. Perhaps on both sides of the equation we could do with a period of reorientation, a reminder of the best about ourselves, and of why we do the things that we love

James’ musings on Arthur Jones are as good a place as any to begin. “The relations of countries had to change”. James’ other great book, The Black Jacobins rescued from posterity’s condescension the story of the Haitian Slave Uprising and the part played in it by Toussaint L’Ouverture, showing that the slave trade was not brought to an end through the goodwill of William Wilberforce or any other Parliamentarian but as a result of a life-and-death struggle on the part of the slaves themselves.

“The relations of classes”: in James’ contemporary account the moment which made him a Marxist was travelling to England, to act as a ghost-writer for the great Caribbean all-rounder Learie Constantine who was then working as the club professional for the Lancashire club side Nelson.

James’ arrival coincided with a lockout by the owners of the town’s cinema. “The Nelson operators were paid at this time around 45 shillings a week, and the owners of the theatres decided to reduce their salaries. What followed was a boycott by the town’s public, who refused to consent to any lowering of pay … The whole town of Nelson, so to speak, went on strike. They would not go to the cinema. The pickets were putout in order to turn back those who tried to go. For days the cinemas played to empty benches. In a town of forty thousand people you could find sometimes no more than half a dozen in the theatres. The company went bankrupt and had to leave. Whereupon local people took over and the theatres again began to be filled.”

To his then lover Constance Webb James confessed his pleasure at hearing the story and his identification with the workers of Nelson: “I was thrilled to the bone.”

“Old empires would fall”. This was the immediate context to Beyond a Boundary, the independence of India and of the former European possessions all over Africa and across the world. More than two decades earlier James had helped to found the International African Friends of Ethiopia, a campaign against Mussolini’s colonial war, which had brought together such young activists as George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta, who by the 1960s had become respectively (Padmore) the leading writer of African independence and a hero to the revolutionary left in South Africa and (Kenyatta) the first Prime Minister of Kenya following decolonisation.

In his memoir, James sought to show that the cricketing rise of the West Indies was the product as much of Politics and of History as of the talents of the individual cricketers; and he made a case for absolute human liberation, rooted in such unlikely supports as the moral code of the English public schools, the literary culture of the Victorians, and the succession by which a team game designed for the inhabitants of small, pre-industrial towns had become the property of the insurgent Caribbean.

Even if our public schools are more venal, and our literature barer than it was, even if sport is more widespread and shallower than ever, James principle of movement remains good. It is not what you came from or have but where you are going that counts.

Expropriation, Participation and Weimar

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weimar

Five months ago, I reposted on this blog a piece from from the magazine Socialist Lawyer, in which I had argued that the defining socialist right is the right to expropriate the holders of capital. The piece has had a mixed response. Some friends have been very enthusiastic about this idea, suggesting that we could use it as an organising concept, and try to found a campaign around the principle of expropriating businesses that destroy the environment, or engage in unusual oppression or exploitation of their workers. I’d like that; there is a potential fit with Occupy and with protests such as Balcombe, and with the trend towards using agitprop trials to highlight the crimes of individual corporations. (Incidentally, if friends would be interested in being part of the team for any future trials of this sort – direct message me, I am very serious about this).

Some other friends (chiefly, but not only, Bill Bowring) have suggested that I misread Marx, and found in him a teleology of ascending strategies of equality, whereas actually he kept his blueprint for the future minimal, preferring to trust in the unfolding process of struggle to provide all the answers. (There is a link to that debate, here). They may or may not be right. For my part, I’ve always felt that Marx had a keener sense of rights (and of morality) than he admitted to himself, I’ll leave that to others to judge, I just feel that they are missing what was at the heart of of my piece, the idea of a right to take.

In this context, I am grateful to Ewan McGaughey, who has just sent me his recent PhD on the history of the idea of Public Participation in Corporate Governance. By “participation” he of course means vastly more than the dreary David Brentism that many Human Resources professionals have in mind, but something much closer to the idea of Workers’ Control.

Two section in particular touch on this discussion. In the first, he goes back to Marx, noting that he and Engels were among the very first people to notice the tendency under capitalism for businesses to split apart ownership and control. (For people who are interested in this part of the discussion, there is of course an incredibly rich Marxist literature on management, in which key authors are Sidney Pollard, Harry Braverman, Michael Burawoy, etc etc).

As I read McGaughey, he is not saying that Marx deeply considered the question of Participation – far from it, for the reasons Bill Bowring alludes to (and here I do agree with Bill) – Marx’s express focus was far more on calling into being a revolutionary army to take on capitalism, rather than supporting even detailed projects for the reform of any aspect of the system.

In a later section, McGaughey describes what happened after the German Revolution of 1918, when successive Socialist administrations tried to implement theories of workplace participation. These examples are important, because when thinking about expropriation I was trying to imagine it as a way of strategising for a political upturn, i.e. towards an idea of how different demands might push forward a movement that was growing. While you could legitimately query the revolutionary faith of the leaders of the 1919-era SPD or USPD, I don’t doubt they were thinking through the same problem and even from a similar perspective of “if they had been here, what would Marx or Engels have done?”

The answer turns out to be as follows: the SPD wrote into the 1919 Weimar Constitution the principle that workers had a right to participate in the country’s entire field of economic development. There followed the Works Council Act, or Betriebsrätegesetz, of 1920 requiring that works councils participate in a host of workplace matters, including in the administration of pensions and housing as well as other company welfare facilities. I can just about visualise the influence of Karl Korsch, and other Red Professors, who had been won over to the ideal, if not the practice, of the workers’ councils.

As well these matters, the 1920 Act also gave the councils other powers, including an equal role in the agreement of common terms and conditions of service, and a role in deciding appeals against dismissal. Employees who were dismissed could appeal to the work council on grounds that they suffered gender, political, military, religious or union based discrimination, if dismissed without any reasons, or if it would cause significant hardship. The council could choose to take up the complaint to arbitration, and if the complaint were found justified compensation, but not yet reinstatement, could be ordered. Finally, where the company had a supervisory board, there was a right for one or two work council representatives to attend as full members.

“Codetermination had been successfully codified”, McGaughey writes, “but its implementation over the Weimar Republic depended on the courts, and the continued strength of the unions to utilise it”. Three processes diminished the effect of this legislation: first, in the broadest possible terms, the defeat of the revolution, and the demise of the economy in conditions of reparations, inflation and unemployment.  Second, the hostility of the ‘Empire Court’ which did all it could to ignore the parts of the Weimar Constitution which protected this settlement. Third, businesses withdrew their co-operation, taking decisions away from the committees on which workers’ delegates were entitled to sit, or reducing their meetings to once or twice a year, or hiving decisions off to sub-committees on which the employer had 100% control.

One critic in his early 30s, the labour lawyer Otto Kahn-Freund accused the courts of adopting, long before Hitler’s victory, a fascist approach of guaranteeing businesses’ right to manage. (And Kahn-Freund was of course to play a significant part 40 years later in the development of the UK’s Employment Tribunal system, but that’s a story for another time).

Participation always meant something less than full control; and of course it was impossible to sustain in an economy where the power of the rich was reasserting itself. But the propertied will not always win, and part of our ability to challenge them will derive from our collective capacity imagine their defeat. I suppose it is this possibility that I really wanted to raise in my original piece. Yes, workers’ representatives should be allowed functions which diminish management’s power to recruit and to dismiss, to relocate a business, etc. yet what I had in mind was more than a couple of trade unionists on a company’s board.

My vision was more like the following: if, for example, a business was to carry out pollution on the scale of Union Carbide, shouldn’t there be a place (a forum more specific than the general “court of public opinion”) where people (its workers, its customers, those who live in the affected area or anyone else) could come together and say “The way you have behaved is so bad that your ownership of the business is forfeit and it will pass, right now, into the hands of everyone who works there”?