Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part Three

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sedge castle

 

picture source: http://www.petersedgwick.org/

The final letters at the Bishopsgate Institute begin in around 1968. Sedgwick was now in his mid-30s and had become an activist of some prominence within the International Socialists. In 1963, OUP had published Sedgwick’s translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and in the revolutionary year of 1968 Serge’s autobiography had been read by hundreds of the student activists who streamed into the group. By the end of 1968, IS claimed around 800-1000 members; around 10 times more than a decade before. Together with Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Colin Barker, Richard Kuper and Bob Looker, Sedgwick was one of six people on the editorial board of the group’s magazine, International Socialism. He had written important, detailed articles for the Group on the politics of Isaac Deutcher and George Orwell, as well as shorter articles on topics as diverse as capital punishment, CND and direct action, the perils of academic Marxism, the problem of fascism, and what IS should say about elections.

A good sense of the esteem with which he was held in the organisation is provided by the response to Sedgwick’s unease with new rules introduced in 1970, which would have limited the rights of minorities within the group to organise. Sedgwick resigned from both the IS Editorial board and from the IS National Committee, complaining that “To limit the propagation of ideas to ‘group members’ only is fitting only for a sect: to make such a limitation a disciplinary rule, to be infringed only at the risk of expulsion, violates every principle of revolutionary democracy, and to create a rule whereby comrades can be expelled or disciplined merely for meeting together is a hollow mockery of everything for which IS used to stand.” Tess Lindop replied, for IS’ NC, refusing to accept Sedgwick’s resignation. He had been elected by IS Conference, which was sovereign over the NC, and therefore the NC could not accept his resignation, only Conference could. Moreover, IS as a group, continued to hold that controversies were for the entire membership. Personal resignation could not resolve a political disagreement, which remained outstanding: “you were elected to go to the NC by the Conference and it is therefore your duty to fight for your position on this subject on the NC” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1970/05/factions.htm).

Probably in 1968, Sedgwick was approached by David Widgery, a medical student some thirteen years his junior, who had the ear of Penguin for a possible collection of articles and memorabilia to reflect the activist experience of the left in Britain (the publication was to appear in print, under that title, six years later).

“Many thanks for your letter and the copy of the letter to Penguin”, Sedgwick responded, “we seem to be in essential agreement on what the reader/commentary would look like. I have not been sure up till now how far you wanted my collaboration on any continuing basis for the project.  With your proposed timetable (late spring next year) it would tend to cut across my plans for other writing: but if we aim to get only a first selection together by then, it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

Sedgwick then went on to list his various writing projects: “I still have a lot of work to do on Serge, and want to finish Orwell.” Sedgwick published the first half of an article on Orwell in the June-July 1969 issue of International Socialism (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/xx/orwell.htm); the second half was never published.

Sedgwick was also thinking of writing something to take on what he saw as IS’ increasing – and wholly malign – shift towards Leninism.

“I would also like to write a commemorative article on Ten Years of IS (the journal) and get some work going on myths of ‘Leninism’: for the fact is plain that the main danger to the group does not come from the Troglodyte Tendency but from the widely diffused pseudo-hard line (“we are in The Trotskyist Tradition, except for State Capitalism and the 4th International”) which is in the course of destroying and denaturing everything rational in IS and which rests on ideas about ‘the party’ that should have been got over years ago.”

What Sedgwick was alluding to here was the adherence to IS of a group (“Workers’ Fight” aka “the Trotskyist Tendency”; the forerunners of today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) who had joined IS in 1968 and maintained their own organisation thereafter, with candidate membership, separate subs, and an autonomous disciplinary structure. In response to Workers’ Fight, the leadership of IS opposed the existence of a separate party within a party, a “permanent faction” in IS-speak (http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1971/10/trottend.htm), and over time this hostility would be become a permanent organisational shibboleth of IS and its successors. Sedgwick was writing before this orthodoxy had hardened, but already he could see that the adoption of “Leninism” would tend to fix the International Socialists into ideas that went deep in the Trotskyist DNA (but which IS had always previously resisted): that capitalism was always on the verge of crisis; that a small party, so long as it was ideological homogenous, could grow rapidly into a force of millions; and that what the working class needed above all was “leadership”, Sedgwick, Cliff, Kidron, and their comrades in IS had spent much of the 1960s arguing that all these ideas were, in the words of one of Sedgwick’s early polemics, “Pretending” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1959/01/pretenders.htm). A turn now to “Leninism” would be, Sedgwick argued, a betrayal of the best of IS’ insights:

“I shall therefore have to give some attention to Bob Looker, to the internal front, just around the time when you want your book doing. (I should be grateful if you would sound out any other co-thinkers, the Hornsey people and the remnants of the microfaction, as to what they feel: I’m afraid that I didn’t like the first part of Mike Caffoor’s contribution to the probationary membership debate, anti-W[orkers’] F[ight] paranoia being in my view part of the problem rather than the answer, and I am very much afraid that we shall lose on the probationary question, with immense defeat that this would imply for free politics, at the conference.)”

In late 1970, Sedgwick accepted a one year post teaching in the Department of Sociology at Queens College and spent a year living in New York. American society was then at about its most left, as Sedgwick reported back to Widgery:

“The little left is ever so much littler and even more removed from daily life than the one back home. I have visited N[ew] Y[ork] IS, thirty-odd grave post-undergraduates plus the odd ex YPSL baldie all living on Manhattan, none with cars to get out to factories, acutely sophisticated and seasoned, whose favourite expression of approval seems to be ‘heavy’, ‘we must send by Sai, he’s one of our heavies’. It is rather a case of ‘heavier than thou’, with candidate membership (only a month, mercifully). A sub of 10% of income (less deductions as an afterthought) and long, very good informal documents (Draper is out on a paranoid limb somewhat out in the West, an atmosphere of fraternally controlled denunciation prevails, rather more pleasant than at Cottons Gardens. The IS national office has moved to Detroit but just what it is doing nobody seems to know.”

6 Cottons Gardens was the headquarters of IS (UK); “Draper” was Hal Draper, one of the founders of the American IS, who would break with IS the following year, accusing the party of a sect-method of party building (https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1971/alt/index.htm).

Sedgwick did not limit himself to watching the closest allies of his own party, but also spent some time among the American SWP (not to be confused with the British group of the same name), the largest Trotskyist organisation in the States, which was then moving from Trotskyism towards its subsequent Castro-ite politics. For the moment, it still seemed alive and full of health:

“The SWP is very impressive, intelligent and ubiquitous. Here they all are running for Governor, masterminding Women’s Lib and peace demos on a vast scale and producing an excellent weekly The Militant with good info on black, Chicano (Mexican-American) and kindred punch-ups and hassles. All very opportunistic no doubt, but the whole of the rest of the functioning Left seems tributary to them in one way or another. There was a meeting at college the other day (thirty present out of the campus enrolment of 20,000) with [Clifton] DeBerry, their Governor candidate, a real veteran of the labor organizing Thirties (and the SWP had a cadre of proletarian organisors unique for any Trotskyist movement), fabulously experienced and sensitive to history: he was debating with Lyn Marcus, the pro-theorist of the National Caucus of Labor Committees (one of the SDS relics with ex-SWP overtones, fairly established in our vicinity). Marcus had a hypotheticodeductive economics (‘if the UAW workers win their demands a depression will follow in which the only alternative will be fascism or revolution’), a neat flat bow-tie, a decent light blue suit, big cigars and a sense of Boston origins: an extraordinary doctrinaire with all the flavour of the second-international Marxist educator. His following, naturally, are all small, wet cocker-spaniel types who speak in paragraphs, as if to gatherings of thousands, even if one just asks them the time of day.”

More troubling were the advocates of armed struggle (against whose British counterparts the Angry Brigades, Widgery would direct a famous polemic, ‘Bomb Politics’, in Ink magazine, the following year)

“Somewhere, someplace else, but perhaps here and now in the next few seconds, the explosionists explode: at Wisconsin the score was one Army research building and one physics postgraduate, who had nothing to do with military work, an antiwar chap, father of three. The local post office has the FBI’s Wanted posters up for the suspected culprits”

Others were also in difficulty: “The [Black] Panthers sell their weekly with KILL THE PIGS and POWER TO THE VANGUARD on three quarters of its pages, with some sensible material in the rest, but all the obituaries, four or five different ones each week, are of beloved gunned-down brothers. Basically a Kamikaze squad without hope and therefore with no need to produce perspective or theory.”

Sedgwick sent Widgery a second letter in spring 1971, containing vivid details of conversations with labour activists and the trends on New York demonstrations:

“Trotted down to Liberty St, right in the hardhat heartland where the big construction sites are, to meet Burt Hall, labor lawyer and friend of numerous unofficial tiny opposition groups in the unions. A mine of detail, multichannel polygraph of the microscopic minuscule murmurings among the rank and file.  It will take around fifteen years for the wildcat tremors to summate into anything; all these jobs are discovering the reality of their situation in total isolation from each other and from politics. How they manage to stick to is beyond me. Burt is a great soul, with an attraction towards Bakunin as a figure rather than as a theorist and a large practical knowledge of what precisely a rank-and-filer might be able to do.”

“Film: Battle of Algiers, made by an Italian director 4 years ago and now the urban-guerrilla rage, put in as evidence by the prosecution in one of the Panther trails here, tho’ heaven knows why since any Panther who saw it could only conclude that the Pigs will smash urban terrorism. But the movie has gotten surrounded with a penumbra of you must see it: the ululation of the Arab women that rises as the FLN goes into combat has now become a war-cry audible on demos here. Ice, another urban-guerrilla movie made by ex SDS people and starring themselves, their tape recorders and cine-equipment, and their favorite haunts on the mid-fashionable West Side, is an incredible load of balls…”

Sedgwick was still watching his comrades in New York IS. One thing he spotted early on was that the American group had a very strong need to root itself in an intellectual tradition. It was far more common for the American socialists than for their British counterparts to speak of an “IS tradition” (of course, in Britain, people eventually start to speak in much the same defensive way as the American comrades of the early 1970s about an IS tradition – but only much later).

To understand the looseness and caution with which IS (UK) spoke of traditions, a good place to begin is Tony Cliff’s “Revolutionary Traditions”, a speech from 1967 (which eventually made it into the Widgery and Sedgwick collection on The Left in Britain). Cliff, in this talk, did point out that IS had developed theories of state capitalism, and a scepticism about the rest of the left’s assumption that the 1939-1945 war would result in a period of capitalism slump, but these were the only parts of an IS tradition which he identified, and even then he prefaced these remarks with a series of comments to the effect that “tradition” has an immense capacity to deceive. “Traditions sound as though they are a subject for a Conservative Party conference … What I will say about the IS Group’s tradition is a very simple one – is that in reality we have changed all the time, and thank heaven for that.”

As a temporary exile from the less reverential culture of the British group, Sedgwick was surprised not merely by the New York comrades’ search for a tradition (with all the anachronism that involved), but also by the elements they chose to fix on. For although the IS in the UK and Britain shared the same name, they had a different history. The American an organisation which went back continuously (via Draper, whose departure had not yet been thought through) to previous American Trotskyist groups: the Independent Socialist Club, YPSL, and ultimately to a faction with the Workers Party of Max Shachtman. One difference between IS in Britain and the US was precisely over the question which Cliff had identified as most essential to IS traditions, i.e. how to categorise the Soviet Union. International Socialists in Britain saw the USSR as state capitalist, IS in America saw it as bureaucratic collectivist.

Sedgwick’s conclusion about the American group was that they were overwhelming themselves in a technical jargon and losing sight of rather more urgent tasks:

“[L]ast night the local IS recounted the history of the Workers Party and the ISC and several other acronyms I can’t remember, very much in the vein of What are our traditions? It was agreed that the traditions were awful but they were still ours. It’s a strange experience to hear a comrade saying what were we doing in 1949? As though she had something to do with people arguing at Schachtman’s elbow, when she was 4 or something. I said rubbish, we are all orphans, none of these people are my ancestors anyway, but they would not agree. No, at the 1963 YPSL Conference there were nine Tendencies two of which were Us, another was Widcat/Worker & Soldier, another was Wohlforth and so on so forth … I pointed out the traditional British-IS lesson of the Stalin-phobia inherent in one variant of the Bureaucratic Collectivist theory: ‘ah yes,’ it was said, ‘the Cliffites’ (with a nod in my direction) ‘have drawn such and such conclusions’, or words to that effect. Some of the younger people recruited later than the YPSL phase did agree with me though.”

Sedgwick’s conclusion was forthright: “The whole business was as crippling as the 19th century Socialists of New York talking to each other in German.”

By April 1974, Sedgwick and Widgery were in discussion about another writing project, a joint book on Sex and Socialism. Sedgwick, perhaps surprisingly, was seeking to discourage his fellow-author’s attempt to find a great general theory, combining Marxism and feminism:

“Sexual liberation is a license to kill. It is a form of freedom which each year deprives millions of people of stability, contentment and ordinary expectations of civilized conduct. Hundreds of thousands of these it plunges into unhappiness of a kind which may be permanent and which stands a good chance of depriving them of ever knowing again the delights of sex and waking up in the morning with one’s dear one near. I really don’t know if the constraints of legally enforced patriarchal monogamy and matrimony made women or men less miserable and deprived than what is going on now. The reason why the anti-abortionists can call millions of working-class people to their cause is less because of the attractions of the foetus than through the sense that a terrible destructive chaos is upon us. They don’t want to set the clock back, they just miss having the clock, all these little watches that people have been using as timepieces don’t synchronise and have a habit of exploding on one’s wrist.”

A further letter, on similar themes, followed in May 1974. The difficulty of writing about sex and politics, Sedgwick wrote, was how to avoid a vague and vacuous liberalism which offered not much more than a polite message of “do what you like so long as it does no harm to anyone else”:

“Last Wednesday I heard Bea Campbell get a CME meeting in Leeds going as a sort of truncated encounter group. After a critical but inconclusive opening on Engels, we had from her and several present (including men) a series of observations which (if they were not dauntingly inaccurate and over-generalised – more of this later) could have come from any enlightened sex manual recommending care, forbearance and tender attention to neglected parts of the body. Bea proclaimed her own gayness, not too obtrusively, and told various anecdotes about the sexual games or misdeeds of friends or relatives. She laid great stress on the male collective masturbatory culture of adolescence, contrasting it with female dependence on blokes for any sexual identity. I interjected to say that male patriarchy and the establishment of masculine dominance in micro (or macro) politics had nothing special to do with present day wank-fashions, since masturbation was unheard-of in some male cultures which still had the unusual leverage over women in bed, household and work. I found myself rather cornered here by Bea, Lee Comer and a couple of other feminists: I must give a very patriarchal impression myself being old, bearded and visibly irritated at all this intellectually unsound intuitiveness…”

“The politics of the whole discussion and its earlier correlates in published material seem to be validly liberal but only liberal. I can’t see what rational case could be made out for the political significance of any particular sort of sexual expression (it might be possible to argue that sadomasochism or paedophiles were always inherently reactionary just as rape is; but even that (accept for the case of rape) is disputable. There were people at the meeting saying that assertive sexuality was Ok for girls but Right-wing for blokes (one male there gained huge credibility from saying that he had had fantasies of being seduced rather than taking an initiating stance ever since he started adolescent masturbation). I fail to see how that adds up. You seem to be tending to say that monogamy is politically regressive or at least to dub some such arrangements as ‘marriages of political convenience’, I don’t see how you can know enough about those relationships, and those particular people (IS leaders you were talking about but it could easily be others) to say that monogamy is other than progressive for them. And if one can’t give a political endorsement to any practice and topical or social one is left saying that couples, or sets of other combination of people should come to some agreement on a fair and non-coercive basis about what to do or not to do. That is liberalism complete (Mill was prophet of sexual freedom no less than Kollontai. The Bloomsbury group was first rate at it). It doesn’t acquire any socialist meaning because the people who engage in it have socialist ideas or because there enough of them to constitute a mass movement.”

“Liberalism says that individuals should be free to do what they want, to realize and fulfill themselves so long as don’t maximize their gains by worsening the lives of others. It is possible to fill out liberalism a bit by saying this kind of freedom can only be exercised on the basis of a genuine equality of all partners to whatever relationship it is. The assertion of a new basis for equality has tremendous implications in any number of areas of life outside bed, and this is why feminism has a connection with Marxism. But, while connected, it does not seem able to synthesise. Bea is able to be eloquent about sexual possibilities just because as a CPer who is making no complaints about the Italian Compromise (and none of the dissident C[ommunist] P[arty] intellectuals have any qualms about Italy) her general politics are liberal.”

Widgery and Sedgwick’s book was never published, but there is a reference to their collaboration in a talk, of the same title, which Widgery gave in 1987 to his comrades in Stoke Newington SWP. The “dear friend” is Sedgwick:

“[B]ecoming aware of the problem [of Sex and Socialism], the complexity of the problem, I and a dear friend decided to stop all the discussion a bit short by starting a theoretical journal on the subject which would abolish all of the debate because we were getting fed up with all the different tendencies and so on and so forth. So we started Red Wank, the journal of rank and file masturbation, and I would just like to briefly read an editorial that we wrote which was going to solve the whole problem of sexism on the left. We began:”

“The entire Trotskyist and libertarian movement is infected with sexism, i.e. the ideology and mystification of having sex. We believed the solution was stopping to have sex. Down with close relationships! Such must be the slogan for the future. Yet gays and hets, monogamous and promiscuous types of the Marxist groups, insist on the bourgeois romantic ideal of fulfilment through human relationships. The capitalist system is structured on the basis of bourgeois couplings, temporary or long term. Red Wank will attack this capitulation of consumer values of institutions. Only by the uprooting of feminism, machismo, polygamy, prostitution, one night stands, open marriages, bickering, depression, ecstasy, romance, and sexism generally will provide the proletariat with the correct perspective and, most important, peace of mind.”

“The next issue would contain the three following articles:”

“Great autoerotic revolutionary acts”

“Coming out as a worker – problems in a Trade Union branch”

“Instant masturbation and why it was suppressed in Romania.”

“Now that is meant to be a joke, but it was a sort of serious joke in as far as we were trying to say how something as simple as sex was getting incredibly complicated theoretically…” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/widgery/1987/xx/sex-soc.htm)

In autumn 1974 Sedgwick started a new job teaching Politics and Psychology at Leeds University, after which he moved to Leeds. His last letter in the Bishopsgate collection, shows Sedgwick still in contact with the leading circles of the International Socialists:

“I am sorry to have been out of touch with you and indeed everyone at Montague Road. Have been to London a couple of times but have generally stayed in an orbit around Camden Town Tube including the Harrises where I discourse on China and Schizophrenia, Bill and Linda for general grouses about the state of London and the defection of this and that person from whatever it was…”

Sedgwick was reading, urgently, for a course he taught on the politics of fascism:

“Addictive reading and analysis of the Third Reich for this course I still teach at York once a week (conclusion: Nazi Germany was not the dictatorship of mono[poly] cap[ital] but the dictatorship of the enraged petty bourgeoisie in alliance with mono cap: a most important difference and one which is destined to bring a Note of Qualification from Duncan H[allas] who will say the IS line on Nazi Germany is actually, let nobody mistake it, such & such)..”

IS in Leeds was busy, although the group was already having difficulty in replicating its previous success in recruiting manual workers:

“Political work in Leeds is coming on a bit. It’s a case-study in the overwhitecollarisation (as written in the text) of IS, students doing student work, teachers in their section, strong ATTI fraction, postgraduates raising Soviets three times a term on payment for invigilation frees for exams. I don’t like white-collar unions though it takes up quite a lot of my time…”

The correspondence stops before the decision to rename IS as the Socialist Workers Party in in winter 1976-7, which caused his eventual departure from the group:

“Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/12/fraud.htm)

Nor does the correspondence offer much of a hint as to where Sedgwick’s writing would go next – towards a critique of the anti-psychiatry of Laing, Foucault and others resulting in Sedgwick’s 1982 book Psychopolitics.

Sedgwick died 31 years ago. Had he lived, he would have been 80 this year. I imagine him defying the pains of old age to attend the ongoing Palestine marches. No doubt, he would have lectured the comrades with whom he travelled down to London on the necessity of going beyond routine A to B marches, and then, in a quiet moment reflected to himself on the limits even of the most militant anarcho-pacifism.

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