Category Archives: SWP

Why I don’t buy Socialist Worker

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You weren’t a member, you tell me, in 2013 when the arguments happened. You’ve heard, of course, there was some controversy but you have been told that the people who left were sectarians. That’s true, isn’t it, they had some grievance with the SWP and they used a disagreement about the SWP’s internal procedures as an excuse to leave? Hadn’t they been planning to leave for years? 

In 2010 a man called Martin Smith (“Comrade Delta”) was the National Secretary of the SWP, its day to day leader, the person who employs the other party workers. In July of that year, a 19 year old woman (“Comrade W”) complained that he had mistreated her. She didn’t use the word “rape”, but the people who met her and heard her knew what she was talking about.

From the start, Smith’s supporters (including Weyman Bennett, who worked with him on the SWP’s anti-fascist campaign) put pressure on the women who helped Comrade W, calling one of them a “traitor”, ostracising and dismissing them and forcing them out of the SWP.

The complaint was investigated by Charlie Kimber, who is now the editor of Socialist Worker. He met comrade W, told her that he believed her and that disciplinary action would be taken against Martin Smith. The extent of the punishment was as follows: Smith was demoted from his position as National Secretary but remained in the SWP’s full-time leadership on its Central Committee.

Smith’s demotion was eventually explained to the membership at the SWP’s 2011 conference, where it was introduced by Alex Callinicos who complained about outside forces reporting on internal difficulties within the SWP. He said there was a complaint, he didn’t explain its seriousness and he said that Smith himself had asked to be moved to a different role. The session ended with delegates clapping, stamping their feet in Smith’s defence and shouting, “The workers united will never be defeated.”

In 2012, W, taking at face value the SWP’s recent involvement in anti-rape campaigns, decided to rejoin. She was still traumatised by what had happened, suffering flashbacks and was tearful, and eventually she asked the SWP’s disputes committee (“DC”) to investigate. This time, she did describe what had happened to her in 2010 as rape.

The investigation was loaded: a majority of those investigating were Smith’s friends and appointees. He was given sight of her written statement (which the SWP has always refused to publish). She was not allowed to read his.

A second complainant came forward: at this stage, the DC heard but refused to investigate her complaint.

By a majority, they decided to take no action against him. One person who dissented was the chair of the committee, who found that there probably had been improper sexual conduct – “sexual harassment” – and that Smith’s behaviour was incompatible with membership, or leadership, of a left-wing party.

At the start of 2013, the SWP conference narrowly approved the disputes committee report; from then on large parts of the organisation operated a loyalty test: if you were willing to back Smith, you could remain in the party. if not, you were told to leave. The atmosphere, at its worst, was as hostile as could be. Members of Smith’s personal anti-fascist bodyguard, men in the late 40s, spat in the faces of a woman in her 20s who disagreed with them. Smith’s supporters threatened to beat up another young, male critic. People were silenced, jeered, told to their faces to leave.

The second complaint was eventually heard. It was in writing. It too, has never been published. In careful, painful detail, it described further improper sexual conduct by Smith. This time, and for the first time in the entire scandal, the SWP’s leadership decided that a degree of damage limitation was necessary. A fresh panel was convened and Martin Smith resigned rather than face investigation.

In the SWP, you will be told that Martin Smith was vindicated. He wasn’t. The last panel to investigate his complaint found that there was enough evidence of sexual harassment that if he was to ever seek to rejoin he would have to explain his conduct.

In the SWP, you will be told that the leadership’s critics were a few malcontents, people who were on the verge of leaving the organisation anyway. They weren’t. At least 700 people left, or around a quarter of the SWP’s subs-paying membership. Among those who left were people who had given twenty, thirty, even fifty years of their lives to that organisation. 

In the SWP, you will be told that this incident belongs to history, that the SWP has learnt from its mistakes. It hasn’t, the men and women who attempted to cover up a crime are all still in its leadership.

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David Widgery, Agitprop and the SWP (1978)

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[from issue 2, Wedge magazine]

This quick history of the rise, fall and rise again of the Agit-prop Committee in the Socialist Workers over the last three years is prompted by two agit-prop objections to the first snore-worthy issue of Wedge. The first is the stated perspective that there are the editorial “we”, an elite of cultural revolutionaries, and the excruciating economistic berks who lumber along in the less enlightened left, obsessed with tedious, uncreative things like strikes and demos, badly in need of the elite’s expertise. The second is the timeless, academic tone of your journal, too much like a left alternative to Red Letters, when what’s urgently needed is some forum for reporting and sharing the practical experience we do possess of cultural action. I like to read a trenchant critique of late David Sequiros or a dialectical scrutiny of Walt Disney as much as the next person, and I especially enjoy the pleasingly irreverent cultural critique of North Americans like Georgakas, Baxendall, Buhle and the divine Rosemont, and great theory mags like Cineaste, Women and Film, middle-period Radical America and Cultural Correspondence. But there’s too many people making an academic living here in the UK on that scene anyway, and what we need is not another generation of tyros staring at the words “Art” and “Marxism”, trying to figure out some finished diagram of their relation, but a sharing of the half-wrought, human efforts so many of us have been making in different mediums since ’68 to get our revolutionary ideas across in new cultural-political forms.

So, on to the saga of Arties v Hacks in SWP, or, more accurately, How does a modern grouping of conscious revolutionaries develop a policy towards art and propaganda? This interests me personally because I joined IS ten years ago, after disenchanting spells in the CP and SLL, because of an obituary of André Breton written by Ian Birchall in the journal International Socialism. Quite something, I thought:  post-Trotskyists who liked Surrealism and had 300 members into the bargain. The electrician who joined with me turned out to have been bribed with free saxophone lessons after meetings, and IS even then had quite a distinctive graphic flair and the only half-way funny cartoonist on the left. But it was only in 1975, on the initiative of Roland Muldoon of CAST and the proletariat’s Oliver, that we set up an informal committee to co-ordinate agit-prop work. Roland, with pre-Women’s Movement Sheila Rowbotham and pre-playwright John Hoyland, had set up the original agit-prop office in the acid-dropped flurry of the May Events. Psychedelia v Ian Smith at the Roundhouse, the Black Dwarf Christmas Party. I’d always been involved a weird kind of headshop Marxism in the underground press as well as trying to liven up the ‘Arts’ coverage of Socialist Worker. Nigel Fountain, who has a world record of working on failed left culture magazines from Idiot International to Street Life, Roger Huddle, SW’s designer, Pete Marsden, the paper’s infintely patient sub, and Toni of IS Books were other supporters of the ‘post-electronic faction’, as the Agit-Prop Committee got labelled.

Our first outing was entrepreneured by Roland. Karmitz’s reconstruction of a women’s textile factory occupation, the film Blow by Blow, was a gift: four stars for the subject, crisply edited, topical, a sensitivity to feminist ideas not bad for the times and in colour. “We’ll just have to keep quiet about the sub-titles”, counselled Muldoon. We tried it on an after-conference audience in St Pancras Town Hall, acoustics as bad as ever, bar worse, mistake to precede it with too long Chile movie. Still people loved it, cheering and booing along – and we made money. One month later, we sent it out, on hire from The Other Cinema on a tour of Britain, from Glasgow to Southampton with IS stops on the way. The heroic projectionist was his own driver, cashier, electrician, and often made a speech at the end. We organised posters, tickets and advance publicity from London, and depended on local enthusiasm to carry it through. High spot of that tour was a hurriedly arranged showing of the film to an audience of women strikers whose dispute has many parallels with the film, in a Salford GEC factory.

Our next tour was with Berwick St Film Collective’s Ireland: Behind the Wire, not an ‘easy’ movie and with some rather indistinct sound which, we discovered all too easily, gets lost in a tall, bare meeting room. But the film was harrowingly authentic, especially the testimonies of the internees and interrogees and the film-maker had clearly won the trust of their subjects. This time the tour was broken up in stages and, on the Yorkshire leg, where I was doing the projecting, we got large and very attentive audiences. I was especially impressed by the large number of Irish people in the audience, often whole families, nodding in agreement with the film. An important feature of this still very subversive film is that it made its own political analysis, and a good one, as it went along. We later ran into problems or rather ran out of films when we toured movies whose politics we had reservations about. Last Grave in Dimbaza is a solid but dated film and since we made a special effort on this tour to visit industrial areas where firms operated who were heavily involved in South Africa, we had to supplement the film with prepared speakers’ notes. Spain: Dreams and Nightmares, made by a retired American building worker, working through his own feelings about modern Spain and his memories of the civil War, in which he fought, has a good class line, but it’s got a pretty terrible account of the Civil War, so again we provided background material. Predictably on all our tours some idiotic hack would ring up in fury and complain that our films “didn’t have the right class line” and we were misleading the class … again. We’d explain that we didn’t have the resources to produce our own politically kosher films, even if this was possible or desirable, and that, for Chri’sake, we were involved in films to reach out to a wider political audience of the usual circle of the already converted and over-committed.

We also tried local tours and specialist tours (I humped Cinema Action’s Miners Film on British Rail round the Yorkshire coalfield) and wrote a section for the IS Handbook on the practical problems of organising film shows. But Pete Marsden was virtually collapsing under the strain of being tour organiser as well as SW sub-editor. We succeeded in our first aim: taking left films to people who would never venture into arts cinema or college; and we’d established as SWP network of over 25 towns of people who had experience of setting up the venues. We’d done something to raise the politicos’ consciousness about film as a weapon; and we’d tackled the mundane but absolutely vital problem of distribution. Otherwise, as The Other Cinema debacle has demonstrated (see elsewhere in this issue of Wedge) you can show leftist films to lefties in the metropolis and still not break into new audiences. One regret is that we didn’t link in with the Newsreel Collective, probably because we (wrongly?) regarded them as a Big Flame front, although their more topical work would have brilliant as a sort of Marxist Pathe News, preceding their big movie. We did have some success showing the Portugal newsreel alongside Spain: Dreams and Nightmares. The national tours served their purpose, enough people got the message to set up their own shows and there are not two SWP-based cinema clubs.

Our first national Agit-Prop conference was held in Manchester in September 1975 with about 200 people including many non-IS folk joining in. We had workshops, many of them practical, with Penny Morris of North West Spanner on theatre organising, John Sturrock advising budding photographers; Eve Barker printing a special conference silk-screen poster; Andy Weistreich on organising song-swapping for socialist minstrels; Roland on ‘hotting up live events’, a blistering attack on that appalling left-wing institution ‘The Social’; Mackie and Evans cartooning; and much free-for-alling. We attempted a discussion on the relationship between the ‘classical’ Marx / Trotsky analysis of high art and the Mayakovsky / Brecht / May Events school of art-as-action, introduced by Ian Birchall and the much-abused Paul O’Flynn, who socked everyone, especially me, by hailing Richard Neville’s Playpower as revolutionary in form (if hollow in content). At least that was what the debate was supposed to be about, but it went all over the place at high speed, not getting us anywhere except a blazing row about whether digging up Headingley cricket pitch to free George Davis was a surrealist act or a form of working class self-defence. Out of habit, we passed a motion at the conference, which was duly handed on to the Central Committee, which gives the flavour of the meeting:

This first national Agitprop meeting wants an end to drab socials, colourless meetings, boring education, unconvincing education and bad jokes by uncovering and organising the creative potential of our members and supporters as designers, printers, sound recordists, actors, photographers and musicians.

We also had grand plans to set up self-financing local agit-prop resources centres and a million other things. A bulletin was started to co-ordinate work but only appeared once. People did things usually off their own bat and without our knowledge.

In London, we organised tape-slide shows for political education; we started a cassette-hire service (SW Recordings) so that people could hear our popular and/or specialist speakers at their convenience (which we now sell); we operated an agi-prop enquiries service at the Finsbury Park Bookshop which was itself trying to improve co-ordination between the nine or ten SWP-operated bookshops and trying to establish the ‘Bookmarx’ book club. We battered away at Socialist Worker, starting, for example, the highly successful ‘Under the Influence’ series, in which socialists recalled the books that had first converted them, and encouraging agit-proppers like Muldoon and O’Flynn to take on review columns and build on the strong arts coverage that Roger Protz had developed. Success here was not encouraging, partly out of sheer pressure on space, partly through a certain crassness among the political leadership (we thought). We organised benefits and concerts ad hoc. Roland put CAST back on the road – strictly roots – ignoring the scaling-up in size and cost that the broader left groups were entering, by reinstating the old, economical and highly mobile gymanstic style of the original Muggins shows. The group of designers at the SW printshop who turn out a prodigious amount of agitation design in political emergencies formed a group called ‘Red Wedge Graphics’ (not to be confused with your august journal) to try and push for more exciting design work. Red Wedge Graphics is a deliberate engima and contains many factions constantly feuding and demanding the suppression of their rivals’ work in best Agit-Prop tradition. One section, the Hot Pink tendency, the most fanatically pro-punk element are now working with the Tom Robinson Band.

In its own anarchic way, punk has had a critical influence on our Agit Prop work, not only confirming many of our cultural ideas but fuelling Rock Against Racism, perhaps the best initiative by the ‘post-electronic tendency’. RAR was the gut reaction of Roger Huddle and Red Saunders the photographer and Kartoon Klown (who is not in the SWP) – who describe their street status as “ageing mods” – to Eric Clapton’s drunken racialist ramblings at a Brum concert. They wrote a letter of protest, signed by friends who could be reached on the phone, to the music press, announcing the existence of a campaigning organisation, Rock Against Racism. The reaction swamped them, not just from closet music freaks on the left but, more importantly, from literally thousands of kids who ‘Love Music And Hate Racism’, are sick of rich super-stars and bored with 90% of what the Left offers them. This is not time or the place for a full  history of RAR but already there have been over 100 gigs, 20,000 badges, four issue of the political fanzine Temporary Hoarding selling out 5,000 copies a time, and just amazing new energy. If you’ve been to a RAR gig, you’ll know. I think its critical important is that it really is the first white anti-racialist initiative which has clicked with black youth, its medium is its message, and it fits and influences the punk rebellion. RAR deserves a lot of credit for getting the punks to come our so hard against the NF. For a while it looked as it it might easily go the other way. If Mayakovksy was alive today, says Patti Smith, he’d play in a rock band. So maybe John Rotten out to go back to writing poetry, which he used to do very well when still at Kingsway FE college.

Punk ironically led to the revival of the Agit Prop Bulletin when Lucy Toothpaste, feminist-punker and editor of the fanzine Jolt took it over and renamed it Rentamob. You can get it from 27 Clerkenwell Close, London E1, c/o Counteract, and it’s full of our current agit-prop ideas. Life inside these dreadful left-wing parties isn’t quite as dead as you seem to think.

Every ship needs a helmsman (Sedgwick)

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EVERY SHIP NEEDS A HELMSMAN

Every manic needs a depressive
and
Every depressive needs a manic
and
Every dominant needs a recessive
and
we
agree
People think we’re so aggressive
but
Underneath our front there’s panic
but
Let’s not get depressed or obsessive
or let
peo-
ple see

Every conman needs a sucker
Every sucker needs to be conned
You don’t have to be a stupid mucker

If you don’t count your change don’t squeal if it’s wrong.

We have got a special pedigree
From Karl Marx’s holy family tree
With an Engels-pure heredity
– then we cross:

Four voices:
1, 2 & 3:     Lenin fucked my grandma.
2:                    Trotsky fucked my mam.
1:            Uncle Ho,
3:                And there’s Uncle Jo
1:            Not to speak of Chairman Mo,
4:                And that sexy old Makhno,
1, 2, 3, & 4: All the great bods had a go
(crescendo:)  SEE WHAT A BIG STRONG LAD
I AM!!!

Every junkie needs a mania
Every politician needs Tanzania
Moscow, Castro or Albania:
Make your vow.

Every setback needs a victory
Every doubt must have a mystery
We’re hooked on history now.

Many thanks to John Rudge for sending me a copy of the York IS magazine from 1970. It includes some treats, such as a letter back from Peter Sedgwick in New York, a second piece by Sedgwick warning against a default position of assuming that socialists should vote for Labour, Juliet Ash on the women’s liberation movement, and a sympathetic piece by Dave Gibson on skinheads.

It also includes the above song, which although unattributed (“Anon Trad.”), from its humour and themes of  mental illness and (anti-) Stalinism, strikes me as almost certainly by Sedgwick

 

 

Hollow threats; hollow people

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In the distant decades when Socialist Worker was a lively, campaigning newspaper, its editors found themselves repeatedly threatened with libel. The Metropolitan police threatened a libel action in 1974 after Socialist Worker accused its officers of having killed a demonstrator Kevin Gateley at Red Lion Square. In March 1977, the paper was accused of libelling Clive Jenkins, the General Secretary of the white-collar union ASTMS. These, and other threats of libel, left the paper’s then editor Paul Foot with a lifelong feeling of contempt for the ways in which the rich, the powerful, and the custodians of bureaucratic organisations  would use libel law to silence their critics. “Those of us who seek to publish uncomfortable facts about our fellow human beings are constantly being plagued by the law of libel”, he complained in the London Review of Books in 1991.

Twelve years later, after Alex Callinicos had falsely labelled Quintin Hoare, the translator of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, as a supported of the Tudjman-era Croatian state, Paul Foot was asked to pen an appeal for the funds that would prevent Hoare’s action from bankrupting Callinicos’ publisher, Bookmarks. This is what he wrote:

“… It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws. The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford … Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts”.

Twenty years later, and Socialist Worker has a very different approach to those in the younger generation seeking to expose the cover-ups carried out by middle-aged men in their modest left-wing bureaucracies of power. It has stopped being a newspaper that dares the risk of libel, it has become a paper which uses libel to silence its critics.

So, this week, when students at Edinburgh University proposed a motion to say that the SWP should be banned from holding meetings on campus, in the light of what happened in the SWP in 2013, the SWP’s present National Secretary Charlie Kimber responded by threatening the students with a libel action. Asked by the Edinburgh students’ newspaper to justify his threats, he said, “The motion – and the article in The Student – were wholly inaccurate and, I believe, contained defamatory statements about readily-identifiable individuals”.

The victims in all of this are, of course, the students at Edinburgh. Defending a libel case takes time, causes immense worry, and can do psychological harm to those on the receiving end. Paul Foot was right too about the effect of costs: libel actions are brought in the High Court, which means that anyone bringing them must rely on the most expensive lawyers.  It is the tradition in civil litigation that a party who wins their case is entitled to have the other side pay their costs. So although the damages to the claimant for loss of reputation are often modest, the lawyers’ bills can act as a multiplier of 5 or 10 to one or even more. In practice, publishers almost always try to settle rather than fight libel claims, and when do they fight them they are often bankrupted. For all these reasons, libel has been the device of bullies and petty tyrants through the ages.

If you believe it is a good thing that Edinburgh University has a students’ paper, or that the socialist publisher Bookmarks exists, then in general you should oppose those socialists who try to silence alternative views by threatening to go to court.

There is in addition something peculiarly unattractive about Charlie Kimber threatening libel to defend the reputation of “readily-identifiable individuals” (ie his predecessor in the role of National Secretary of the SWP). This individual chose to leave the SWP rather than explain himself before a disputes committee made up of SWP members which went on to find that he had “a case to answer” on an allegation of sexual harassment. Ordinarily, when an individual in any organisation is found to have a case to answer on misdeeds of this seriousness, and the effects of their behaviour have been to drive out a majority of that organisation’s young members, and several hundred people altogether from the group, you would expect that the individual’s name would be mud in the party that he has wrecked. But this time, the opposite applies: the SWP has never publicly repudiated him, nor commented on his resignation from that party. He has a blog, Dream Deferred, written jointly with a supporter of Unite Against Fascism. It has been promoted by Alex Callinicos a member of the central committee of the leadership of the SWP, while another SWP CC member has retweeted three of his personal posts on twitter in this month alone.

Should the students try to ban the SWP from campus? No: the best situation would be one in which the few new people who joined the SWP over the summer could have properly explained to them the depths that their organisation has recently plumbed. This is less likely to happen if the SWP keeps itself away from places where its members can be challenged.

But the students should be heartened by the thought that the SWP’s threats of libel are hollow. While in many cases, a libel threat can silence a critic, the more that it is relied on the more treacherous the weapon becomes. Many people have tried to use libel threats to silence critics – quite a few, of whom Oscar Wilde is the best known, have found that they were making a disastrous mistake.

The SWP’s problem is that truth is a complete defence to libel. And the only way that a court can establish whether a person has spoken untrtuthfully is by ordering both sides to disclose all the documents of a case and forming a view for itself. That means that one of the tasks facing any organisation seriously maintaining libel is to disclose to the court and to the party which it accuses of libel all the documents of the case, both those that support its case, and those that potentially undermine its case.

Charlie Kimber knows very well the catastrophic impact that the details of what happened during the two investigations would have – even on Smith’s most blinkered supporters, let alone on any new recruits to the SWP – if they were finally made public. He has no doubt been advised, or if he has not been advised, he should have been – that once a document has been part of court proceedings, there is nothing you can do to stop its open discussion. For those reasons, he will not pursue a libel threat to court.

There is finally a neat symmetry between the hollowness of the SWP’s threat, and the SWP’s hollowness in terms of what it purports to be: a revolutionary party, of the young and the questioning, where all those who are in the forefront of the struggle against oppression can meet.

You can see the emptiness in its publications, in the weariness with which it repeats analyses of the present stage of capitalism which have not changed in four decades, in the fatigue of its leaders, in the paucity of its interventions, in its inability to say anything to its critics. The SWP is already a hollow shell; this after all is exactly why Kimber thought it was necessary to threaten libel. Because there were undoubtedly no young students in Edinburgh, or anywhere else, who could be trusted to argue the leadership’s case in public.

 

Rest in Power Bassem Chit

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My love goes out to everyone who knew Bassem Chit, who has died suddenly and prematurely of a heart attack. He was a socialist, an opponent of sectarianism, and a key ally of the comrades who founded Lebanon’s Helem, an LGBT campaign which fought against imperialism for justice and against dictatorship – making a space for LGBT rights among anti-imperialists and on the left just as once in Britain LGSM made gay rights part of the miners’ struggle.

“Social identities are not fixed”, Chit argued, “It is precisely the ruling classes and the order of the market that wish to restrict them in this way. The dissolution of social identities can occur only when society is truly free from oppression and exploitation”.

Far Left Book Competition

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(As a fellow contributor to Evan’s collection – my chapter is on anti-fascism in Britain post 1997 – I thought I should share details of this competition. Send answers to him, not me: by my reckoning, I would get just 4 out of 10…)

Reposted from Hatful of History

As regular readers of [that] blog are probably aware, our edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 will be published by Manchester University Press next month. To publicise the book, I [ie Evan who runs HoH] am running a competition through this blog (and hopefully cross-posted with a few others) to win a copy of the book (to be posted anywhere in the world). Below are ten questions on the history of the British far left (ranging from 1949 to 1987), which all have answers that can be found on the internet. Please email your answers to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com. I will hold the competition open until 11:59PM on Monday 6th October (Adelaide time or +9.30 GMT). All of those who get 10 out of 10 for the answers will have their name put in a hat and one winner will be drawn on Tuesday 7 October. The answers and the winner will be posted on this blog once the winner is notified via email. The outcome of this draw will be considered final and no negotiations over answers will be entered into. Sorry, but contributors to the collection cannot enter the competition.

So here are the questions:

  1. What electoral district did Harry Pollitt contest for the Communist Party in a 1949 by-election?
  2. Stuart Hall and Ralph Samuel were both on the editors of which new left journal?
  3. Gerry Healy’s The Club was transformed into the Socialist Labour League in which year?
  4. What was the name of the anti-Vietnam War organisation that the CPGB initially supported, in rivalry with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign?
  5. The first issue of the modern version of Black Dwarf appeared in 1968 (the ‘We Shall Fight, We Shall Win’ edition). What was its volume and issue number?
  6. In 1972, Peter Doyle, as a member of the Militant Tendency, acquired which position on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee?
  7. What was the name of the SWP’s black activist newspaper?
  8. Which factional journal first appeared as a ‘Communist Theoretical Journal’ in the winter of 1981/82?
  9. In July 1985, Anti-Fascist Action was established by Red Action, Searchlight, the Newham Monitoring Project and several other groups in which London building?
  10. Who was the first Conservative MP to be interviewed in Marxism Today?

Once again, please email your answers by Monday 6th October to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

If you aren’t lucky enough to win a copy of the book, you can purchase a copy (for a slightly discounted price) here.

In place of a review (II)

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To recap: during 2013, the Socialist Workers Party had three conferences. Their real business was to do decide how the party should respond to complaints of rape and sexual harassment that had been made against Martin Smith, until recently the National Secretary of the SWP.

During that year, the SWP leadership faced a central difficulty that it had no decent explanation of what Smith had done, or why a group of present and previous co-workers with Smith, had exculpated him of the rape complaint, when on everything that the members of the SWP were told about his conduct, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that his behaviour was – at the very best – far below anything you would expect in a member, or still less a leader, of a socialist party.

In order to deal with the difficulty of a lack of explanation, Alex Callinicos, the main propagandist of the leadership of the SWP, tried with all his power to change the subject – insisting in a series of articles within the SWP’s magazine Socialist Review, that the SWP’s leadership’s critics were motivated by a secret and perhaps unconscious vice of “movementism”.

The SWP would be saved, he insisted, not by addressing the problem of its leader’s vile sexual conduct, but by him writing about capitalism. In an article entitled ‘Is Leninism Finished?’, he made this strategy explicit:

“What does continuing a tradition mean? There are plenty of sects, Stalinist as well as Trotskyist, who think this involves the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas. But genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. Marxism is about the unity of theory and practice so this process of renewal has both intellectual and political dimensions.”

He concluded: “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

The book he was writing a year ago has now been published,

It has modest strengths – these can be found elsewhere on the web.

It has deeper weaknesses – first, for anyone versed in the events of the past 2 years, it is impossible to read the book without being conscious of its purpose to keep on keeping on changing the subject away from the leadership’s complicity and cover up of sexual violence. Those of us who were there will read the book, as Brecht once suggested we should read the ruins of Thebes’s seven gates, conscious of the bodies which lie buried beneath its every page.

Second, the argument is developed not through a reading of world historical events, still less through a statement of or analysis of Marx’s theory, but at a continuous third hand, along the lines of “Zizek suggest that Marx argued X, but Harvey interprets these same passages as meaning Y instead”.

This is not to reunite theory and practice, rather it is to express in a hyper-theoretical form the world of Plato’s cave, inhabited now by a whole tribe of day-blinded scholars, among whom Callinicos proceeds to allocate praise or blame, reserving for a few friends the highest praise of being “scholarly”.

Third – and simplifying for brevity – the book is based around an “Althusserian” approach to Marx, i.e. an idea that the purpose of criticism is to iron all the contradictions within Marx’s argument, to show that it is a seamless and perfect totality.

When Callinicos writes, for example, about Marx’s theory of crisis, he does repeatedly from the perspective of establishing that Marx had such a theory, that it was consistent, that the seeming contrasts between its expression at different stages of its development can be solved by understanding the logic and successive development of Marx’s argument.

In this approach – whether in its original, Althusserian expression, or in Callinicos’ updating – there is barely any interest at all in the economy as it is inhabited by people. In marked contrast to a previous generation of SWP’s economists, such as Chris Harman, for whom the final ascent from abstraction to reality was precious; there is no meaningful attempt to join the facts of the last 6 years’ crisis to the theory which is being expounded.

The point of theory is not to explain the world, but to explain someone else’s explanation of it.

That method may call itself Marxist. But if so, it was the method of exactly half of Marx – it was not the method of the Manifesto, the Eighteenth Brumaire, or The Civil War in France. It is a method without class, without agency, and without the breathing fire of struggle.

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Few books illustrate the point better than this one.