Tag Archives: Lindsey German

Rape (Women’s Voice, 1982)

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Rape has been in the news more than virtually any other single item over the past weeks.  First because a businessman who raped a girl escaped prison, then because three men in Glasgow escaped trial when the woman they allegedly raped was too ill to give evidence against them, and finally after the screening of a horrific tv documentary on the police which showed them questioning a raped woman about her sex life and mental history.

Each incident caused a flurry of protests, editorials and questions from MPs.  Everyone from Len Murray to Margaret Thatcher condemned the incidents yet anyone who has been raped, or had any contact with someone who has, knows what these cases highlight in such a dramatic way.  Women who are raped get a rough deal from the law.

It starts when you report the rape, and are subject to lengthy and often unsympathetic questioning.  Even if the police believe you, there is still the repeat performance at least one in court, where unless the accused pleads guilty you have to go through cross examination.

Your credibility usually hinges on how many men you have slept with, or how late at night you were walking alone.  This description of police reaction to rape is fairly common.  ‘VICTIM: I rang the police and they showed up very casually about ten minutes later.  They sauntered in and one of them produced a flick knife when I asked him to untie me.  They started saying things like ‘ Well,  I don’t think you have been raped.  This was obviously someone you met last night.  It got too heavy and you decided to call the police this morning’.  They kept suggesting it was a casual affair gone wrong.  They said, ‘ if everything you say happened had happened you would be completely hysterical by now you would have thrown yourself out of the window to get away’, ‘They obviously didn’t believe me.’ (‘The Facts of Rape’ by Barbara Toner, Arrow).

Many women prefer not to report rapes because of this sort of attitude, believing they can cope better without this ordeal on top of the actual rape.  They see the law as something which doesn’t offer them much protection.

This fact now seems to be seeping through to people who have never been concerned with the issue.  The head of Thames Valley Police has promised that their interview procedure will be reviewed.  Margaret Thatcher wants stiffer sentences for rapists.  William Whitelaw is backing a bill to guarantee jail sentences for rapists.

But will any of it really help?  Of course it is better for women to be decently treated by the police, but tightening up the law presupposes that men will stop raping women if they will get longer prison sentences.  That seems unlikely.

Rape is a product of the way women are seen in society.  In some societies rape has been a sign of possession.  In periods where society is in upheaval, such as in war, rape can be used to subjugate the defeated population.  In capitalist society, rape is a product of women being seen as objects, as things which can be bought and sold.

When nude women fill the pages of newspapers and magazines, with the express purpose of selling more copies, it is hardly surprising that some men see them as something they can steal.

Long sentences won’t change these attitudes.  If they are a product of society, it is only by changing society that rape can become a memory of the past, instead of the grim reality of the present.

That doesn’t mean that even within capitalism things always stay as they are.  In the boom years of the fifties and sixties women’s role changed.  They went out to work, many entered higher education, ideas of women’s equality were on the agenda.  New laws on equal pay and sex discrimination were introduced, even if they were very feeble.  People expected to see women outside the home, often challenging the idea that their only role was as wives and mothers.

The crisis and, especially in Britain, the Thatcher government, has changed a lot of that.  Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister, who worked throughout her life, even when her children were small, now tells us that may be fine for a few women, but isn’t running a home and family the most fulfilling thing a woman can do?  Women are encouraged to cope with cuts in services – no school dinners, looking after sick relatives, living on unemployment pay.

As education and job opportunities disappear, women no longer have the chance to challenge their roles.  They are forced back into the family and into the image of themselves as either page three pin-ups or good wives and mothers.  It is not unexpected therefore that along with a breakdown in the fabric of society in other areas – increases in prostitution, street theft, the crimes of poverty and unemployment – so too we should see an increase in the crime of rape.

The cries of Thatcher and Whitelaw are cosmetic.  They are precisely the people who create these conditions, yet are the first to cry for law and order.  Just as they are the people who caused riots by making life in the cities so intolerable for young people, especially for blacks, then call for a short sharp shock treatment to stop them.

Of course there are a few rapists who decide to go out and rape as many women as they can.  Some like the Boston Strangler even have films made about them.  But most of the statistics show – as do these recent cases – that rape by someone known to the woman and often as a once only thing is much more common.

It is more likely to be the men who think that because a woman hitchhikes, or wears a low cut dress, or is out alone at night, she is offering sex, who are the most common rapists.  That is to do with the particular ideas in those men’s heads, of course.  But it isn’t simply badness on their part.  It is interesting how these ideas really coincide with the image of women as passive willing sex objects.  And that image isn’t one which individual men dream up.  It is a product of the people who package sex and use it to sell everything from fast cars to Turkish Delight – which is what the world we live in is all about.

There isn’t any halfway house we can talk about getting rid of rape, because it is so obviously a product of society.  That is why legal reforms solve very little – we have to fight for a transformation of the world of commodity production which produces such attitudes and acts towards women.  Which is why the fight for women’s liberation is at the centre of the fight for socialism.

Lindsey German, February 1982

Woman’s Voice, February 1982 – Issue 60

Lindsey German, Sheila McGregor and sexual violence: the SWP after Cliff

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Following from my last piece, arguing that Tony Cliff’s book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation has had a negative effect on the SWP’s and our allies’ thinking about women, discouraging us from taking a sustained interest in sexual violence (i.e. rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment), if I am right, then you would expect to see this omission not so much in Cliff’s book (although it does neglect all three topics) but also in the writing of other Marxists in the SWP who have written about women’s equality.

Lindsey German has already anticipated and responded to this criticism, arguing on the website of her new party Counterfire that “whatever the differences exist between socialists and socialist feminists on questions of theory or practice, the mistakes that have been made cannot be explained by adherence to one particular analysis.” She goes on to defend Cliff’s book and the IS tradition on women. She provides links to pieces by Kathy Ennis, Irene Breugel, Chris Harman, John Molyneux and Sheila McGregor. Her article is in general is a useful starting summary of the articles written about women by leading members of the SWP. To that extent, I would encourage everyone who has seen this and my previous piece to also read hers.

In a second article, for the Australian website Links, German criticises Sharmon Smith and Abbie Bakan, accepting in principle that Marxists should see feminists as allies, but saying that this insight is useless unless it is also accompanied by a deepening of the analysis of women’s oppression. If she is right, then I hope I have already begun this process by pointing out what I think was the key omission in Cliff’s analysis – an inability to theorise what he saw as the divisive areas (or, in his words, “the areas where men and women are at odds”) of working-class women’s oppression, i.e. their oppression through rape, violence, and an unequal burden of childcare, in all of which the agents of division (if not its beneficiaries), he assumed, were working-class men. She’s right; we need to state a new, positive theory. In due course, I’ll be posting on this site relatively lengthy pieces setting out my own attempts at a Marxist theory of sexual violence. First thought, I think we need to pause a bit longer on the SWP’s record.

Of course, if I am right that the key weakness has been an inadequate theory of sexual violence, then this potentially answers German’s first article. Because if it is true that for years our leading members encouraged us not to think deeply about rape, domestic violence or the allied phenomenon of sexual harassment – then you could expect this omission to have been significant in the three years since the party was first obliged to consider complaints of rape and harassment.

So, going back to the (several) pieces named by German, how many consider rape? The word does not appear once in Kathy’s Ennis original 1974 article on women’s consciousness, nor in Irene Breugel’s 1978 analysis of the family, nor in German’s Theories of Patriarchy, not the pieces German cites by Molyneux or McGregor on whether men benefit from women’s oppression.

Chris Harman’s 1984 piece on women’s liberation cites once in passing the “radical feminist” position that rapes are carried out by men rather than capitalism, but only in the “divisive” sense in which Cliff refers to rape – using it as an instance of the sorts of politics that bad people (feminists) talk about, and against which good comrades (male or female) should steel themselves.

None of these pieces refers at any point either to sexual harassment or domestic violence.

They do cover one of the areas which Cliff sought to remove from discussion – the question of whether men benefit from childcare – where there was a heated debate with McGregor and Molyneux taking opposed sides. But all of these writers treated the capacity of some men to behave in an aggressive or in a humiliating way to some women as theoretically off limits.

In her recent piece for Counterfire, German explains that she wrote her 1989 book Sex, Class and Socialism “to develop our theories further and in different directions from the ones in which Cliff had taken them. The book dealt extensively with different contemporary and historical aspects of the family, and with various socialist and feminist theories of oppression, as well as looking historically at a range of topics from the suffragettes to women in trade unions to the women’s movement of the 1960s.”

I suspect there is more to this notion of developing Cliff than German will say directly. Sarah Cox, an SWP member of 50 years’ standing, has written elsewhere that many of the leading women in the SWP were very critical of Cliff’s book. And few women played a more leading tole in the SWP than Lindsey German. But if German thought Cliff needed correcting, does her book make good the absences in his? It is true that her book is more contemporary than Cliff’s and less historical, more political and less of an narrative of inspiring episodes in past struggles. But in an 256 page book her analysis of rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence is limited to the following two paragraphs only:

Violence against women first became an issue inside the movement in 1974, when Women’s Aid came into being. By 1975 there were 90 women’s refuges across the country. These were mainly funded and run by volunteers. Women’s Aid served to highlight a major scandal: that many women lived in fear of physical beating from the men they lived with, and that the capitalist state itself colluded in this situation. The police would not normally interfere in domestic disputes, and local councils would not normally rehouse women made homeless through violence. The idea of the refuges was that women would at least have somewhere safe to go where they could be safe from battering. They quickly became accepted, even be some Tory councils”.

Similar arguments arose over issues such as rape and pornography. There were a number of controversial rape cases at the time, and in 1975, the first Rape Crisis Centre was set up. The following year saw the establishment of Women Against Rape. WAR was influenced by the same people who had set up the Wages for Housework campaign two years previously. Is therefore combined a strong radical feminism, a theory which located women’s oppression in the home with a level of activism which ensured that it gained some support.”  (1989 edition, at page 189, emphasis added).

In a 75,000 or so word book, that is by my reckoning just 32 words on rape and 20 on domestic violence, and they don’t tell you  very much. These passages could not plausibly represent a developed theory of rape or sexual violence. This is an important omission. German’s book was taken for years as the complete statement of the SWP’s position on women’s oppression, one of the best-sellers on party book stalls, routinely recommended as the definitive work. I recall German herself telling me that it had sold around 10,000 copies altogether; that is, about the same number as the maximum membership which the SWP claimed at its mid-1990s height. No doubt some readers will tell me that this gap in her argument was accidental. But, I would see it rather as part of a pattern of “unseeing” which had been equally evident in Cliff’s book and was typical of the post Women’s Voice SWP.

(For completeness’ sake, I should add that German has written several further books since Sex, Class and Socialism; Material girls has a richer discussion of sexual violence; and her most recent book How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women has a complex and original section on rape during warfare. As these were written in one case after German had left the SWP, and, in the other, after she had adopted a different role in the organisation, working primarily for Stop the War – I won’t do more here than urge people to read them. They are important and interesting books).

German’s list of IS writing about women in her recent Counterfire article is incomplete. She doesn’t mention anything published from the 10 years of Women’s Voice magazine (1972-1982), which sadly no-one has ever published online, and even its paper copies are now rare. On this website, over successive weeks, I’ll post a number of articles from Women’s Voice, which did take sexual violence seriously, and wrote about it repeatedly, always from a perspective of justice for women. Between about 1976 and 1982 in there were a cohort of women who tried to write systematically about women’s politics in general and male sexual violence in particular, and they did so in varied and imaginative ways. Unfortunately, of course their magazine was closed down, and the majority of them found themselves outside the organisation. Cliff’s book, as I’ve pointed out, was written in this context, to justify Women’s Voice’s closure, and it is the dual effect of his book and that decision which has left our theory struggling.

There are a few pieces from the Socialist Review of the 1980s which did look at inter-personal violence – a Lindi Gonzalez book review, and a piece by Julie Waterson (one of the relatively few remaining people in the SWP who had written for Women’s Voice) in Socialist Review in 1986 in which Waterson calls for socialists to be part of the movement dispelling rape myths. Rather than taking Cliff’s position – that a class analysis and the need for male-female unity overrides the need to talk about rape at all – Waterson argues there that it is possible to oppose rape and take a class position on it. It is a short article but reading it, it is hard not to feel regret that in the next 25 years we have never thought fit to publish anything this angry on this topic since.

Norah Carlin’s 1986 pamphlet Women and the Struggle for Socialism contains passing references to rape (“a kind of violence which men don’t face, perhaps the most humiliating of all”) and domestic violence (“25 per cent of all violent crime reported to the police”, the product of “the small family household … a boiling cauldron of intense emotions focussed on a few people”). Again, while these ideas are simply too brief to constitute a developed theory of sexual violence, there is at least an awareness of the issues, and more politics than in either Cliff or even German’s books.

Judith Orr published a piece in the ISJ in 2010 which mentions each of rape, harassment and violence against women, although each is problem name-checked at breakneck speed, and she says very little more than that rape is still happening.

Some friends who I’ve discussed this piece with have pointed out that beneath the level of high theory (i.e. books, articles in Socialist Review and International Socialism) it was possible to discuss domestic violence and rape, in Socialist Worker and at branch meetings. Here is Hazel Cox for example,: “I gave at least 20 branch meetings on violence against women and rape in the 1990s … I also remember around the Sara Thornton case (in 1996) giving branch meetings entitled ‘women, domestic violence and the law’.”

I too recall articles about Sara Thornton in Socialist Worker, although they stand out as relatively exceptional within my 20 years of reading the paper since I first joined the SWP in 1990. The few pieces which have been solely about domestic violence against women and have been more than simple news pieces have tended to have been written by non-members of the SWP – eg a good piece in 2005 by Ann Henderson of the Women’s National Commission in Scotland.

As for the branch meetings, my sense is that on the closure of Women’s Voice, there was for several years an attempt to integrate women’s politics within the SWP and prove the sceptics about the decision wrong, by taking the more overtly “political” topics the magazine had raised and adding them to the list of regular branch topics. With many of the most passionate Women’s Voice identifiers leaving after the decision to close the magazine, the number of people remaining in the party who saw the need to maintain this practice three or four years later must have been relatively few. In the eight or so SWP branches I was in during the 1990s, I only once heard a discussion of women and socialism which was less general than just the SWP’s perspectives for women’s work (it was a meeting by Jonathon Neale on the politics of abortion), and while I may have been unlucky in my choice of branches (including Sheffield, Nottingham, Oxford and Liverpool, i.e. away from London where the “national” speakers are congregated), the pattern has been repeated in the last 10 years, with women’s liberation meetings becoming successively more general.

Another friend, Josh Clarke, tells me that in Ireland the SWP which is in general no less “Cliffite” than the London-based party has campaigned regularly against the closure of women’s refuges. I can well believe it. Of course, there have been the long-running culture wars in Ireland around abortion, divorce, and the role of the Catholic church and the Irish SWP has been active around all these campaigns. It would be remarkable if that activity hadn’t caused people, to some extent, to move away from positions which in London are treated as immutable truths. It is the difference, if you like, between Eamon McCann and John Molyneux. Much the same could also be said about the Socialist Alternative group in Australia, and the International Socialist Organisation in the US: orthodox Cliffite or not, both have actively campaigned about women’s issues, and  as ever on the left, theory tails activity.

Returning to Britain, I have left to last the two major pieces in which the SWP has acknowledged (after a fashion) sexual violence, Sheila McGregor’s two pieces Marxism and women’s oppression today (2013) which has a single paragraph about rape, and an older, more analytical piece by her in the same journal, Rape pornography and capitalism (1989).

(McGregor has already been subject to one critique, by Ruth Lorimer and Shanice McBean; keen readers will see that the analysis which follows is derived, substantially, from points these comrades have made before me).

Rape, pornography and capitalism is summarised on the SWP’s “theory” website as “an intervention in debates about some of the aspects of women’s oppression from 1989”. The word “intervention” is accurate; the piece criticises various “radical feminists” (Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin) who, it complains, had a “single dimension” explanation of rape, reducing it to a recurring form of “male behaviour”. The article’s polemical purpose is well set out in the final sentence where McGregor concludes “Marxism is far superior to radical feminist theory as a guide to changing the world.”

In so far as she explains rape, McGregor writes that it is an act of late capitalist society. She illustrates this by leaping in a single bound from pre-class societies in which there were no structural divisions of labour between men and women (and therefore, she implies, there was no rape) to the early twentieth century while missing out everything that happened in between (i.e. the vast majority of human history).

The idea that there was no rape in pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies is at best a guess. It assumes, for no reason at all, that the most distant past shared the same sexual customs as post-1968 Europe and the US, when we know that people’s sex lives have changed dramatically even between the 1940s or the 1970s and today.  As Colin Wilson has pointed out, historic hunter-gatherer societies had limited technology, and their lives were often bleak. The equality they practised was rough, and consistent with the limited means people possessed. Societies within this group practiced (at different times and to different extents) torture, war, slavery and infanticide and it makes no sense to base a whole theory on the assumption that there could have been no rape.

The history “in between” is far from trivial. There very clearly was rape in pre-capitalist societies and under early capitalism: almost every society with a law code has had a prohibition on something like rape. (In another piece, I’ll set out what these prohibitions were, and some of the subtle ways in which they varied over time and between different modes of production).

A far more compelling argument would have been that capitalism understands rape in different ways from slave or feudal societies (for example by focussing on the consent of women themselves rather than husbands or fathers), i.e. it actually opens the way towards our present broadly-drawn criminalisation of any non-consensual sex as rape, an opening which required the agency of the women liberation movement for its completion. (Again, I’ll make this point in detail in that future piece)

McGregor portrays rape in 1980s Britain as the act of three types of men; primarily young men (ie those dating young women, before they have formed long-term relationships), but also some husbands, and strangers. McGregor cites different figures, but all of them suggest that the first of her three categories is the key one, and one estimate she cites approvingly suggests that dating teens account for 90% of all rapes. McGregor concludes that most rapes are significantly like most other youthful sex, “Given that premarital sex is fairly common and that young men are supposed to go out and get sex from young women, it is hardly surprising that there is some incidence of breakdown, i.e. rape.”

McGregor looked to blame rape (which was, in her words, a “minority occurrence”) on untypical men, the young, career criminals, or (in an echoing of Freudian categories) men incapable or sex, in order to buttress the argument that not all men rape. The problem is that when rape did become a universal criminal offence, i.e. one which even married men could commit, which was only in 1991, the whole meaning of the crime changed. The police stopped disregarding the  majority of rapes (i.e. rapes committed in long-term relationships) and for the first time treated even “typical men” as potential rapists.

While the studies used by McGregor suggested that only one in ten rapes took place in long-term relationships, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the true figure is 56%. Her entire evidence base, in other words, was made up of a number of sources which all shared the same common mistake of ignoring the majority of all rapes.

Now statistics change, and of course people can get things wrong – it is no disgrace. The problem is that the exact terrain on which McGregor had chosen to rebut supposedly “separatist feminism” was the claim of writers such as Brownmiller that rape was a crime of ordinary men, and that if properly investigated there would be many more male protagonists than were then admitted by the police, the courts, and the state. In so far as she thought this, Brownmiller was right. McGregor made the criticism of this position central to her argument and she was wrong. Far from refuting radical feminism, she showed only the limitations of her politics.

In conclusion, the route joining Tony Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor’s mistakes was not altogether straight. Cliff taught the members of the SWP to think that rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence were actually taboo: topics which socialists should preferably not raise at all for fear of giving succor to separatist feminism. German may well have improved other parts of Cliff’s analysis, but she left this silence about sexual violence substantially unchallenged.

McGregor wrote about rape, and was until recently the only member of the SWP since the demise of Women’s Voice to have done so at any length. Her failure, when seeming to move beyond Cliff’s prohibition, was that she did not go beyond its underlying assumptions. She continued to see rape as an issue which was the natural property of radical feminists. She used the same starting assumption, that if you admit that hundreds of thousand of men rape women every year you are somehow making solidarity between male and female workers harder to acheive. This false premises guided her choice of the ground on which to fight.

In choosing to fight Brownmiller where she was correct – at the point of her insight that rape was much more pervasive than anyone had then admitted – McGregor left socialists ill-equipped to deal with an actual rape inside or outside our ranks. We were made to seem like people who minimised its extent and had no solidarity to offer to its victims.

She inadvertantly gave ammunition to all those members of the SWP who have been so quick in the last year to insist that women exaggerate the incidence of rape or that women who complain of rape should not be believed any more than the police spies who harassed “Parnell, Lenin, Joe Hill, Scargill” (and, by implication, the SWP’s recent National Secretary).

The key weakness – an unwillingness to give solidarity to the victims of sexual violence – continues to haunt the SWP.

The People’s Assembly: an auto-critique

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The People’s Assembly (PA) is still 13 weeks away, but many aspects of how it will work are already clear. A very large number of national organisations have given the call for the Assembly their support. Nine national unions have already signed up (http://union-news.co.uk/2013/03/unions-signal-mass-resistance-to-austerity-by-backing-peoples-assembly/): good. The chief sponsor of the People’s Assembly is the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), on which something like around 100 different left-wing parties, campaigns etc, are represented. Most if not all of these, we can assume, will sponsor the PA. We can anticipate that there will be speaking roles reserved for individuals who have played prominent parts in the various hospital campaigns, and in the protests against the bedroom tax. Size matters; we are facing a government which is co-ordinating austerity measures in every area of the public sector, social benefits, private employment, health, housing, education, etc. It would be churlish not to welcome an initiative on a grand scale.

The PA will announce “action”, in other words a national demonstration, timed presumably to coincide with the return of students in the autumn. It will coincide with an international anti-austerity conference. It will announce the formation of further Coalition of Resistance groups / People’s Assemblies, which are to be set up in every area. So far, so reasonable. Among those in the audience of the PA there will be many hundreds of people who are not activists, or who have not have had a means of being active for several years. It is possible that some of them will become permanently involved in the movement, and, if so, this is to be heartily welcomed. But for those of us who have been part of the movement for more than a few months, there is a method here, and one that we know only too well.

It was John Rees of Stop the War (StW), Counterfire (CF) and CoR who led off the discussion of how the PA would work at the recent CoR National Council. (http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/2013/02/minutes-of-coalition-of-resistance-national-council-sunday-10-february-2013/). We can imagine, without needing to be conspiratorial, that the plan for a People’s Assembly was first discussed round “that” Clapton Square dining room table, with Lindsey German. Lindsey will have been on the phone to Chris Nineham, then Clare Solomon, James Meadway and Sam Fairbarn, and only much later will the plan have been visited upon the world.

Like Terminator VI (“I’ll be back … back … back”), this is of course a sequel. The first People’s Assembly to be held at Westminster Central Hall was the Stop the War Coalition People’s Assembly against war in Iraq on 15 March 2003. This too was planned by John and Lindsey and then agreed with Chris. This too had various international speakers and spin-off events. This too was intended to be a “meme” (in the Dawkins sense: a unit of cultural transmission, a unit of imitation and replication), to be copied by local assemblies of the parent organisation.

Above all, People’s Assembly I was a talking shop: with dozens of speakers making essentially the same points in lengthy succession. The choice of the venue determines the method: Westminster City Hall is a huge public forum seating 2500 people. There are not 50 separate halls there capable of hosting 50 separate conversations all then feeding back to a single, main event. The “conversation” has to be orchestrated, pre-scripted, and controlled. PA I, like PA II, announced further actions (a concert that evening, protests on 18 March, a demo on 19 March and further “spontaneous protests” five days later). PA II takes place (sadly) in a quieter context, and we can imagine that the action plans will be shorter. Moreover, experience teaches that even the action plans will be “memed” in advance. Tony Cliff used to joke that the first New Left had both theory (reading Edward Thompson) and practice (hearing Thompson speak). The CoR / StW / PA generations has its counterpart. Theory is hearing John and Lindsey address an indoor gathering. Practice is hearing John and Lindsey speak at the end of a long outdoor march.

There are more problems here though than mere repetition. If the various anti-cuts campaigns are to cohere into a national movement capable of bringing down the government (an ambition I anticipate we will hear from PA II, as grand ambitions are needed to keep the troops busy), key to this will be protests of a scale to make the country feel ungovernable, and to achieve that there will need to be a generation of movement activists with a shared political understanding. Don’t get me wrong, by “understanding” I don’t necessarily mean a shared, developed ideology. I just mean an idea, the simpler the better (“No Poll Tax” / “Peace, Bread, Land”).

Behind PA II there is an unstated analysis of how this generation will be formed. And it is based on reasoning that is – ultimately – bleak and unrewarding:

1. Revolutionaries should be organised in parties characterised by a very top-down vertical leadership
2. The leadership establishes its right to lead through forming “perspectives”, i.e. general analyses of the balance of forces within global capitalism which join up the international, the national and the local, finding in each the key point at which capitalism is weakest. By definition, these can only be formulated by a tiny number of talented individuals with time on their hands. Initiative within the parties, it follows, can come only from above
3. The sole, real purpose of the parties are to provide a succession of talented individuals, “cadre”, who can be recruited by the party’s leadership into the regional leadership of front organisations, where they can win individuals to the perspective of the party’s leaders
4. The shelf-life of cadre is narrow: they should be used, exhausted, and new cadre recruited in their place
5. We are in an age where (for reasons which are never properly explained) front organisations are the primary way in which the political left should present itself to the public
6. Front organisations give a practical expression to the assessment by the leadership of the revolutionary party of the point at which capitalism is weakest
7. Front organisations are composed of revolutionaries, who create them as alliances of left organisations with individuals to their right. As long as these individuals are helpful to the revolutionary party they should be courted with the same determination that a lover woos his or her fiancé (should the individuals lose their usefulness, the courting stops abruptly)
8. It is absolutely crucial to the method that the revolutionaries are homogeneous – having different revolutionary groups genuinely represented in the leadership of the front would deprive the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement, lead to arguments over tactics, and diminish the opportunities for revolutionaries to hegemonise the people who join the front
9. It is also crucial to the method that the front brings together more left-wing groups with more right-wing individuals (never groups or parties); an alliance of a revolutionary party and a reformist party would be dominated by the latter, depriving the main revolutionary party of its hegemony over the movement
10. This is a plan for rapid movement when times are propitious. There is no plan B to deal with (for example) if capitalism has no weak spot at a particular time or if the revolutjonary party (for any reason) has difficulty in finding enough allies or members to sustain a front.

I have not drawn up this list maliciously: everyone who was there and is still capable of looking back at the period honestly will admit that the first incarnation of Respect was wrecked by mistakes by each of its key leaders, a declining window of opportunity as the anti-war movement (its motive force) declined, political differences between its constituents (“a united front of a special kind”), and the inability of John and Lindsey’s method to deal with periods of retreat.

If you take just the last sentence of number 7 in the list above; this actually happened. When you read George Galloway’s description of the last days of Respect (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/politics/GallowayRespect.html) some of the most moving passages are those where he describes the seemingly-inexplicable shift in John and Lindsey’s behaviour, from wooing him and other leaders of Respect, to ignoring them. He focussed on the treatment of Salma Yacoob:

“There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era. “

“Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher. “

“There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures. “

The key text explaining the Rees-German method is a small book by John Rees, ‘Strategy and Tactics: How the left can organise to transform society’ (available for only £4 from Amazon and from the Counterfire website). Rees’ Little White Book explains how with proper leadership a political party can use the movement to start a revolution. It distils the StW experience into various lessons, which he suggests can be applied generally. A surprisingly large number of the lessons set out at 1-10 above (but admittedly not all of them) find their way into Rees’ book.

Just to take number 4 in my list above, the deliberate destruction of the human personnel that form the rank and file of the revolutionary party. Rees writes:

“The cadre of the organisation gives it stability, durability, and effectiveness in the struggle. But this can also give rise to problems especially when the conditions of struggle change quickly”.

There is then a quote from Trotsky before Rees continues:

“This highlights an important point: cadre only remain cadre if they continue to relate correctly to the turning points in the struggle. If they do not, in spite of their accumulated knowledge and experience, they turn from an asset into a liability.”

After another Trotsky quote he continues:

“Especially at such times, new members of the organisation may much more accurately understand what it necessary for the party to act effectively.”

I focus on these examples, because common to them is an idea that at the heart of revolutionary politics is a “churn”, under which the leadership constantly appoints new people to work with it, as allies in the united front, and as followers in the party. It is far from pleasant to be on the receiving end of the purges.

A few further problems occur to me:

This method I have just described is expressly very “Leninist” in that strange Zinovievite way that the British left does. The last two sentences of John’s pamphlet are a quote from Lukacs writing in defence of Leninism: “Leninism represents a hithero unprecedented degree of concrete, unschematic, unmechanistic, purely praxis-oriented thought. To preserve this is the task of the Leninist.”

This notion of defending Leninism from history, from the present, from all of us outside the leadership who risk corrupting it, is made doubly odd by the seemingly very open public, democratic politics of CoR / CF, which constantly emphasises new, participatory media-friendly ways of doing things. Like in all capitalist advertising; you are invited to “see” one thing; what you get is something else.

This kind of top-down, personalised leadership requires a very high degree of trust between the leadership of the party and both its allies in the movement and its followers in the organisation. Top-down leadership of the left can just about work when the person who asks for your loyalty is someone with a very high degree of personal incorruptibility, or someone who has made a political, theoretical or practical contribution which earns your trust. Without that trust, both the party and the front are constantly no more than a mistake away from disaster.

I haven’t pointed out here how these politics will shape the People’s Assembly on the day, beyond observing that the speeches will be in succession, and that their content will significantly overlap. But it seems safe to me to predict that every effort will be made to repeat certain core messages – in terms of particular, pre-sanctioned activities, which will be repeatedly plugged from the top table. This is what happened in StW, and, going back to those CoR minutes, you can seem the same mentality (once memorably satirised by the anarchists as “Monopolise Resistance”). This contribution, for example, gave me a pre-emptive chill:

“There was an appeal for people not to organise alternatives, but to organise for the PAAA to be inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the movement.”

I know what this means in practice: finding a line of least resistance, which is acceptable to the least dynamic within an alliance, whoever that may be, and closing down anything else with a spark of originality about it.

In this article, I am not going to say very much about which forces within the unions CoR plans to work with. Thinking away from CoR for a moment, I spent Saturday at a meeting of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG), where the word “rank and file” was used repeatedly, and in a way that chimed with the group’s authentic politics. There were two General Secretaries at the BSG, but they were repeatedly challenged and had at times to fight for their audience. They had to go to the rank and file, for fear of being isolated. There was nothing cosy about the BSG meeting; the atmosphere was very different from the top-table love-in I expect of PA II.

Now if you look carefully, you will find plenty of people today in CoR, CF, StW etc who will tell you that John and Lindsey have changed, that despite the similarities between the present method of organising (PA II) and things that were done 10 years ago (PA I) all is much better beneath the surface. I am hearing this not just from the usual faces, but from people whose good judgment I trust. My own party, the SWP, plans to support the People’s Assembly, and I am not disagreeing. If people are to join – it is a process – they should join, but with their eyes open.

What I am really criticising here is a method, a way of doing politics. Yes, I have focussed on one or two individuals, but no-one who is active on the left and has been active for several years, should be under any illusions that my applies only to Counterfire, or John or Lindsey, or the People’s Assembly.

The left is awash with acronyms; far too few of them are based on a principled, active unity. Far too often, they are supposed to fill a need where there is no need at all. This is a self-criticism.

How many national “Stop the Cuts” movements do we have now anyway: PA, CoR, UtR, NSSN, do Right to Work or the People’s Charter still exist? How has the left been strengthened as we have “grown” from 2 to 3, 4 or 5 of them? Do any of them work to strengthen the self-activity of the majority of people?

My real criticism is of the “front” method; and of the assumptions behind it. The revival of the left on a sustainable basis will depend on working out which – if any – of those 10 dubious assumptions I set out above are worth retaining.

(Originally published, with thread, here).