Tag Archives: ISN

What Engels’ supporters did next



In the great split of 1884, Engels took the side of those who demanded the earliest possible break with the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF’s flaw, as he saw it, was the party’s utter dominance by its leader, HM Hyndman. An aristocrat with a distinguished record of academic publication, Hyndman was a constant intriguer. Hyndman is “petty and hard-faced”, Engels complained, “possessing a vanity in excess of his talent and natural goods”. William Morris agreed, complaining about Hyndman’s habits of “discreditable intrigue and sowing of suspicion among those who are working for the party”. The historian EP Thompson diagnoses a relationship between Hyndman’s patrician upbringing, his sneering personal style, and his determination to create a party of followers, “Supremely self-confident himself himself, he saw the question of leadership as a matter of loyalty to himself and his Executive. If only the workers could be won to follow, he would look after the leading: the workers were the club he would swing.”

To demand an immediate split was to break apart the only socialist party on the British left, at a time when the far left was seemingly better united than it had been at any time since Chartism. The faction should think twice before continuing on a course that will lead them to abandon the SDF, Hyndman and his supporters urged. The SDF was Britain’s largest and only Marxist party, not a negligible acheivement, and one that should not lightly be abandoned. With around 1000 members prior to the break-up, the SDF contained in its ranks all the outstanding individuals of the most recent period of struggle; William Morris, Belfort Bax, HM Hyndman, John Burns, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Plenty of socialists outside the party – George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells – may have looked askance on the day-to-day pronouncements of Hyndman but at just the same time they assumed that in the coming social ferments the SDF would be reinvigorated, and that it would be capable of taking the practical leadership of the mass movement, a role that an individual could never hold but could be played only by a party.

Those who repeatedly and mechanically promise unity on the left are often the most desperate advocates of private intrigue. In public Hyndman may have promised that he would allow a space within the SDF for his critics; in private, he did everything in power to stiffen the resolve of his own partisans against a reconciliation with the faction. Morris was invited to speak at meeting of the SDF in Edinburgh. Hyndman sent eager comrades to break up his meeting, heckling him, by asking him repeatedly if he accepted the party’s line on economics.

While the ground on which the internal struggle rased was the sole question of inner-party democracy, the whole left was shaped by the patriachal culture of British public life. The SDF portrayed the class struggle as the key to creating a system of general equality, it existed in a world structured by sustained gender as well as class oppression. Among the SDF’s early supporters were Annie Besant, who on the break-up of her marriage had lost the custody of her children, the High Court ruling that as a socialist and secularist she was incapable of being a fit mother. A second prominent SDFer Edith Lanchester would be forcibly confined to an asylum after telling her family that she intended to live openly with her lover, without the two of them marrying. Another SDF activist Belfort Bax insisted that an urgent task facing socialists was to refute the feminism (the term not having yet been coined, he wrote instead against”gyneolotry”). Only class, he maintained, had the power to liberate the oppressed: “The real state of the case”, he wrote “is that the condition of women has been determined by that of the men of the class to which they belonged. Women of the privileged class have always been privileged, women of an oppressed class have been oppressed, not as women, but as belonging to an economically inferior section of the population”. Bax’s book on The Legal Subjection of Men justified his approach to his comrades.

After weeks of intrigue and attempted coups and counter-coups, Engels’ and Morris’ factions quit the SDF to launch a new party, the Socialist League, with branches in Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford. There were a preponderance of writers on the SL’s first steering committee – Marx, Aveling, the poet Tom Maguire, and the most talented of them all, not a journalist but an author of alternative imagined futures, William Morris.

The League had certain virtues – an independence of spirit, a hostility to top-down leadership, a youthful membership – but within months these strengths had become the League’s equal weaknesses. Charles Mowbray, another member of the Provisional Council, would drift into anarchism after years as an activist among he unemployed in Norwich. Franz Kitz was rumoured to have previously led a cell of East End bomb-makers. He was an extreme individualist and the an advocate of copying the revolutionary Terror in order to strike fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie.  Before long, Engels was expressing his disappointment with the decisions of the steering committee, “The League is passing through a crisis”, Engels wrote, “Morris has fallen headlong over the phrase ‘revolution’ and become a victim of the anarchists.”

Members of the SL began a discussion on the merits or otherwise of “Communist Anarchism”. The League should not become a party it was argued but should restrict itself to a “centre of relations and statistics” without initiative, or leadership. Morris himself cease to play a day-to-day role within the League. His critique of the increasingly anarchist direction taken by the League was expressed in a coded passage in his greatest novel, during which the inhabitants of the future considered the individualist anarchist ideal, “To wit, that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”. The citizens of the future “burst out laughing very heartily” at the idea.

As for the SDF, beyond the undoubted accomplishment of maintaining any organisation after a bitter split, it became a shrunken memory of the party that it once was. Besides losing members in the formal split, it also shed activists towards careers in the trade unions and the Liberal party (John Burns). It retained an industrial cadre of very senior trade unionists who continued in office, increasingly elderly and indifferent or hostile to struggle. While on paper such figures as Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, General Secretaries of the boiler makers and dockers’ unions, were still members of the SDF and therefore Marxist revolutionaries, they argued for immigration controls and against strikes, and took seats in Parliament on the centre-right and far-right of the Labour spectrum (and this in a party which had the corruptible Ramsay MacDonald at its centre).

Hyndman was in private contemptuous of the class which his party supposedly existed to represent, “our working men are so ignorant and depressed by a hundred years of capitalist tyranny that it is hard to rouse them”, he told William Liebknecht, “the Trade Unions … stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”.

While Morris battled with the Socialist League ultra-left, a second group ex-SDFers (the ones closest to Engels’ heart) also drifted away but without in any way giving up on activity. At the 1888 conference of the Socialist League, Eleanor Marx’s Bloomsbury branch unsuccessfully moved motions called on the League to stand candidates for Parliament and to work to this end with others on the left. On the defeat of its motions, the Bloomsbury branch quit the League. Rather than give up on politics, they then attempted to work out a way of being revolutionaries that would be principled and effective and which would contribute to the renewal of the working class. In 1889, a revolt of unskilled workers began – with strikes among Beckton gas workers and East End dockers. Ex-SDFers such as Eleanor Marx in London and Tom Maguire in Leeds ignored both the SDF and the SL and threw themselves into participation in this nascent movement. In spring 1890, the boilermaker’s union, with Eleanor Marx on its executive, attempted to bring about a practical alliance of the unions and the socialist parties through a campaign for the 8-hour day. Tens of thousands of workers demonstrated jointly in Britain’s first May Day. Marx herself spoke twice a day at strike rallies. For the next four years, she would speak across Britain and internationally as a socialist but with no organised position beyond her seat on the executive of the boilermakers’ union.

At the end of the upturn of 1889-90, the remaining SLers split in three directions. A number became anarchists of the deed, while others dropped out of the movement. A third group moved rapidly in the direction of parliamentary politics. The League’s members in Leeds and Bradford swung one way and back between plans for incendiary devices to be used against local business owners and projects for standing for municipal office. A group around Maguire helped to choose the venue for the first conference of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford, while other ex-SDfers provided several of the office-holders (John Burns, Tom Mann) of the new electoral movement. A good case could be made that without the Socialist League there would have been no ILP. The League’s ultra-leftism in 1889 gave way surprisingly quickly to a longer future of mild reformism.

Morris, isolated and increasingly wooed by Hyndman, declined to write for his paper but admitted that the League was doomed, “I want to pull myself together after what has been, to me at least, a defeat”. Various branches of the SL (Hammersmith, North Kensington) defected from the increasingly anarchist parent, and attempted to hold a middle line thereafter between the SL and SDF. Their independence was at least facilitated by a healthy culture on the left of the 1890s where it was not unusual for socialists of whatever tradition (Fabian, SDF, ILP, ex-SL) to speak wherever they were invited, irrespective of the national politics of the group that was now providing their platform.

As for the Engels faction, after 10 years of independence they largely returned to the SDF,  with little enthusiasm, with no belief that Hyndman would ever change, but from a conviction that the only real alternative (the ILP) was headed in a direction which was even further from the revolutionary politics which they espoused. In this way the SDF ultimately reasserted itself and eventually passed on to its eventual child (the Communist Party of Great Britain) the old patterns of sectarianism and top-down leadership against which Morris, Engels and others had once raged. They would have done better, in 1895, to have retained their independence. And between 1884 and 1895 Morris, Maguire and all the others who had a vision of the League as a principled and democratic party of revolutionaries would have done better to have carried on working with them.

What would a democratic party look like?



Marxists ought to have a great deal to say about democracy. After all, we are extreme democrats. We grasp that under this stage of capitalism, many of the superficial processes which are normally associated with democracy (electoral parties, decision-making by representatives and the secret ballot) have lost their appeal. In the protests and the revolutions of our time, in Turkey, Egypt and in the Occupy campaigns, people call for democracy but few protesters demand the constitutional separation of powers. Marxists have a developed theory that political democracy begins to breaks down as soon it loses its social content. Without reforms, people turn their anger on politicians and democracy becomes a debased idea. We are too shy in developing this argument and using it to explain what is happening to the world. We are too shy also in thinking about what democracy means for our party.

The Classical Marxists had a number of ideas about the process of democracy: if there must be representatives, you should keep their period of office short and make them subject to recall, and take steps (eg limiting their salary to a workers’ wage) to ensure that the roles are filled by workers.

These sorts of insights might usefully be applied to a Marxist party. In general, it should try not to rely on full-time employees, or, where necessary, their terms should be short and they should be subject to recall.

The model that a large proportion of the membership of a group will do no more for it than pay subs, which are then used to employ around 1 in 40 of the group’s members as full-time employees is one way to run a charity (although even there the formula is usually more like 1 in 400) but, as happens in charities, it reinforces the passivity of everyone who is not on the payroll.

A Marxist party which selects its leadership from a cohort of full-time employees is, in practice, going to be run by its staff not its activists.

The idea of a permanent leadership of people whose primary right to their position is that they have been there a long time might be appropriate in all sorts of other places in society (it seems to work well enough for the House of Lords), it is not an attractive proposition in a revolutionary party.

A slate system, where the leadership gets to nominate its replacements, gives the leadership a control over the organisation, and takes decision-making power away from the membership. It rewards loyalty and silence when the leadership errs. It looks offensive outside the ranks of those already persuaded by it. It is an obstacle towards any party ever holding in its ranks the generations of young members who join the left in hope and depart with their eyes wide as to the actual operation of power inside our groups.

Democracy is not just about electing a leadership, it is also about breaking down the gap within any organisation between those who take decisions at one moment, and those who need to come forward in the next.

You can have a undemocratic organisation and it will survive for a while, maybe even a few years, just as you could hold a revolutionary party together through a crisis of a few weeks on the basis of repeated threats of disciplinary action, but do it any longer than that and the group will die.

Democracy and activism need to be integrated otherwise the democracy has no purchase: it does not result in a group actually doing things differently.

Democracy is also about what happens in the smallest unit of a party. If its branches have no purpose other than to distribute a series of tasks, which have been drawn up centrally (build a meeting or a demonstration, or sell a publication), then the content of the discussion in that branch will wither.

Rather than working out what your local priorities are, rather than working out who the branch knows, rather than working out what your audience have told you and what you can learn from them, the branch will have purely instrumental discussions: how do we get three people together on Saturday for a stall? Who is going to the next meeting? If you don’t give people a chance to express their initiative and take control of planning their own activity, then fewer people will be involved in decisions, and the decisions you take will be worse for most members’ lack of involvement in them.

In a healthy group, people are accountable to one another; members who say they will do things, do them, and report back on them, and then the group takes decisions about what is working and what to do next.

In most healthy revolutionary parties there are defined tasks (without them how can anyone be accountable?) and some circulation of roles. A party in which anyone is in the leadership for more than decade is doomed.

Finally, there is a story about Rosa Luxemburg, that during one of the debates of the 1890s, she found herself arguing with a Polish reformist. As it happened, she was also the only person in the hall who spoke her opponent’s language, so before disagreeing with him, she first made a point of translating his words into the German of most delegates. She did so with scrupulous care and accuracy, and only then did she go on to explain her disagreements.

Democracy is also about a kind of process: a willingness to tolerate a range of dissenting views, the protection of the rights of minorities. It is about something as simple as being able to fairly represent the views of those you disagree with, rather than relying on selective quotation and insults.

Originally published in IB2

Cliffism: reopening the age of interpretation



The historian of the future, when tracing the origins of the SWP crisis of 2013, might do worse than begin, far from the scene of the final battle, with the reception accorded to Neil Davidson’s book on Bourgeois Revolutions. When Neil spoke at a one-day conference of the International Socialism Journal in September 2012, he was followed by Alex Callinicos, who responded to Neil’s gentle remarks by saying in the fashion which has become so familiar, “I don’t really agree with what Neil said”. Callinicos then went on to recapitulate first Trotsky and then Cliff’s theories of permanent and deflected permanent revolution, as if by merely stating them and their differences from Neil’s, he was proving Neil’s error. He concluded with the words, “What Neil said was so provocative that it couldn’t simply be ignored”.

The discussion was operating at a certain level of code but long-term members of the SWP could hardly have been unaware that Callinicos was accusing Davidson of apostasy and inviting his listeners to treat Davidson thereafter as a Marxist in error, a category for which the appropriate treatment, as it would be a child at school with a disease, is isolation from the rest of the group who must be kept safe from infection.

Yet anyone who had actually read Neil’s book would have known how generous he is in placing at the heart of his theory of bourgeois revolution the early postwar theories of Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron about state capitalism and about the defeat of the colonial revolutions. By re-interpreting the Algerian, Kenyan, Egyptian and Cuban revolutions as the last bourgeois revolutions, Neil made Cliff’s short observations at to the failure of Nasser etc to introduce full Communism central to his own project of rethinking historical materialis,.

Neil’s project was about affirming Cliff’s truths through understanding and applying them; in contrast to Callinicos, who was seeking to make them timeless, fixed, incapable of analysis, “true” only in the way that that a believer must treat decades-old Papal decrees as Infallible.

That was a year ago, there have been many other intellectual police-actions since.

At the end of the SWP’s December conference, it is tolerably clear, delegates will be offered two conceptions of how the SWP might be in the future.

In one conception, the age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979. New members, on joining the party should be expected to acquire, i.e. learn by rote, the important elements of the IS intellectual tradition; state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, permanent arms economy, the downturn, organisational “Leninism”. The ideas, they will be told, are fixed and correct and can equip any new activist for any practical difficulties they face. The party is a transmission belt for the ideas of a dead generation; the job of new members is to justify their adoption of Leninism to their parents and family, who (it can safely be assumed) will be opposed towards their decision to join. The member protects the group, and the group the member – in both cases from a world which is hostile to them.

A sceptical observer might object that some of the ideas I’ve listed (the first three of them) were intended to explain an age which has now definitively ended – the 1984-universe of big-power blocks and centralised state planning. The fourth was only ever an attempt to explain why, after the demise of the first three processes, the workers were not (yet) winning. And the party consensus is that the downturn is over. If Orwell’s novel seems dated now, why should we defer to Cliff, whose ideas were intended to explain the same epoch?

The young sceptic’s more sceptical teacher (Comrade Loyalist) will explain that it does not matter how long ago the Soviet Union ended. The gap between theory and practice can be cured, on the Loyalist’s urging, by intense periods of frantic activity, by giving away newspapers to people who sign petitions (but please do not ask them to go to any of our meetings), by distributing leaflets which someone else has designed, by recruiting students at one of our two SWSS groups (small numbers are apparently now our “strategy”), and persuading recruits of the truth of ideas that reached their fixed form many years ago.

Yet while Callinicos might today seem the counterpart in politics of George Eliot’s Casaubon, even now he can say to his credit – “well, in my philosophy, the world stopped in 1979. Compared to many others on the left, I am the very model of the modern Marxist theorist.”

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Within Left Unity there are other groups who also desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall. But the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities), and merely wishing that defeat away will not make it un-happen.

You might prefer to begin with those who saw 1917 or 1936 as breakthroughs. Even now, some British Trotskyists want history to end in 1938 with the Transitional Programme, with capitalism incapable of further expansion, and with a mass workers’ movement whose spare young activists can be enrolled in the tens-of-thousands strong legions of anti-fascist workers’ battalions. Wishing the ranks were full won’t make it happen.

The ideas of one dead political economist may of course preferable to another; Marx is a better place to begin than Smith or even Keynes, and Marx is not diminished if you add to him Luxemburg and Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky. But even if your list goes on and on and reaches beyond Mandel even to Cliff, the difficulty remains. The difficulties of the present are our own, and we have to find new strategies to overcome them.

There is therefore a second conception of the relationship between theory and practice which is struggling to break through. This is of a party which would be Cliffite but in subtler ways. It would learn from the first generation of International Socialists modest perspectives and their good humour, from their willingness to turn quickly in the direction of struggle once it is seen to be happening, and from their ability to admit the obvious when struggle was low.

It would share with Kidron, Cliff, Hallas, and many others of their generation a belief in the revolutionary potential of workers, through their struggles and the mutual solidarity without which any authentically working-class protest is doomed, to change the world.

It would see in the story of Cliff himself, the original anti-Zionist Palestinian Jew, an opposition worth repeating to racism and oppression in all its forms.

It would learn from a more recent case of grotesque, institutional injustice the need to be deeply, rather than casually, supportive of women’s liberation.

It would be a party of the young and the engaged, and it would be youthful and questioning in its approach to theory

Such a party would wear its Cliffism in Regular not in Extra Large; in just the same way that the first generation of International Socialists refused to call themselves “Trotskyists”, not because he had been wrong about Stalin or Hitler, but because the mere repetition of formulas is an obstacle to the sort of activist re-thinking we need.

The immediate omission of course is a serviceable theory of Neo-Liberalism; one which connects as the Manifesto once did the emergence of the working class to capitalism’s defeat (even if Marx’s notion of an “immediately following” workers revolution as soon as the capitalists had defeated the feudal lords now seems a little optimistic). Or as Kidron’s Arms Economy once did, in locating the independent-minded shop stewards of the 1960s and the unofficial strikes on the shop-floor as the best antidote to the world of Doctor Strangelove.

Getting to a better place will involve some reading (just as Kidron had to borrow from the exotic corners of American Trotskyism), and a genuine sharing of ideas. As is only possible between members of collective, who share their time and their ideas fruitfully.

In light of our recent history, we will also need to reimmerse ourselves in revolutionary feminism – not just in theory, but in activity, without which all theory is grey.

It was Tony Cliff who used to say that, of course, and before him Rosa Luxemburg.

Maybe if we learned to depend a little less on Cliff himself and did better at using him, we would get closer to the politics that he tried to teach us.

Trotskyist miler of 2013*


This is to advertise that on Sunday 26 May, probably at around 9.30-10 am, at St James’ Park, a group of runners (all members of the SWP or the International Socialism Network) will be running, competitively, to determine which of us had the right perspective over the last six months. My fellow runners will be John Game, Sam Jam, Mark Bergfeld, Robin Burrett, Alexis Wearmouth and Ian Stone.

The organisers describe the event, rather grandly as the “Senior British Athletics 1 Mile Road Championships”. Sadly the race is sponsored by a company which exists in order to take money out of the NHS, but I am sure that we could combine running with some modest “ad-busting” (if any readers have any practical ideas as to how to do this, please share them with me)

More details here: http://www.bupawestminstermile.co.uk/Race_Info/Schedule_of_Races.htm

*(The title, I admit, probably sounds a bit dry. I have also been lobbying for “Nietszchean Leadership Superhero of all time”, although sadly I gather this is copyright to the Counterfire group…)