Speak one more time
About the joy of hoping for joy
So that at least some will ask:
What was that?
When will it come again?
In the early Christian church there was a continuing problem of Bishops who were surplus to requirement. They might be removed from office or even excommunicated by the Pope: nevertheless, through the mysterious ways of the apostolic succession dating back to St Peter, who laid on hands to create the first Bishop, they remained bishops with the power to lay on hands and create more bishops themselves. This caused a deal of anguish to various Popes who took the view that if they could make ’em, they could break ’em. However, no less an authority than St Augustine proclaimed the continuing validity of orders once conferred. The result was an embarrassing surplus of redundant, incompetent or malfeasant Bishops, who wandered about behaving like princes of the church despite the fact that they had no See. They were known in the trade as Episcopi Vagantes (Vagrant Bishops). This obscure historical fact was little remarked on in church circles, but was noted by a 19th century Church of England parson, AH Mathew, who cunningly managed to get the Church of Utrecht to adopt him as their Bishop for Britain.
No sooner had the apostolic hands graced Mathew’s head than he was off forming his own church. There is nothing like a Bishop’s mitre and crozier to make a chap look posh and become the object of envious glances from other would-be Bishops. Where one man has ventured others will surely follow, if not always by the same route. JR Vilatte and Vernon Herford were made Bishops by the Nestorian Church of the Malabar Coast. Thus it was that the good work continued: the new bishops built their churches and, in time, felt the need for additional bishops. Need being father to the deed, they laid their hands on suitable candidates, who oftentimes, in their turn, developed doctrinal differences which necessitated them breaking away to form their own church. With each split there was a new accretion of theological exotica. One vagrant bishop blended Catholicism with theosophy and built his cathedral around a massive brass funnel through which God sent down beneficent rays to the faithful, who stood underneath the blessed metal conduit to receive them. Another, perhaps unsure of the effectiveness of one ceremony, was consecrated on numerous occasions in various vagrant churches and when last heard of was styled Mar Georgius, Patriarch of Glastonbury, the Episcopate of the West, and his subsidiary titles covered ten full lines of 12 point type. Among this small but sparky firmament, one with real star quality was the French “Bishop” who combined catholicism with druidism. He conducted baptism, weather permitting, in the sea off the Normandy coast. This splendid chap styled himself, “His Whiteness the Humble Tugdual the Second”. May his God preserve him from pneumonia. The most recent count, in 1961, of the number of such “Bishops” was over 200 and I sincerely hope that Tugdual II, who was one of them, is still with us. 
It does not require a particularly profound knowledge of the Trotskyist tradition to notice certain similarities between Marxist obscurantism and an addiction to Christian arcana, together with shared fissiparous tendencies. There is Trotsky, like Peter, the first and the best of the disciples and then there is the ever-growing proliferation of sects, sectlets and insects claiming direct descent from the master. Each one of them has a cast iron reason for standing against the rest. If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself. So powerful is this yearning for the certainties of the past that even the way some of us talk and write is redolent of Comintern jargon of the 1920s, freshly translated from the Russian by an incompetent. Quite a few years ago there was a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League whose fluency with the jargon exercised an awful fascination. A typical example went something like this: “In the coming period, the various amalgams will concretize into programatic agreement on limited and partial plans for statification and so on and so forth.” The last five words of this quote are, although not mandatory, usually there because they give the quite spurious impression that you have a great deal more of importance to say. The uncritical, not to say idolatrous, veneration for everything Bolshevik, until 1924, and the obsessive desire to see everything through the prism of Russian precedent, has resulted in far too many people suffering a self induced inability to communicate with workers in a language they can understand without an A level in Russian Marxism.
In 1938, the Fourth International was formed. If generous, or gullible, you can believe the Founding Congress’s claim of approximately 6,000 members world-wide. Little enough you might think for a “World Party of Revolution” – and that was probably its high point. It was an aggregation of tiny groups drawn together by the attraction of Trotsky’s historic role and his powerful intellect. Here was the force that was to lead the working class to power when capitalism and Stalinism succumbed to the irresistible force of the coming war. In fact, came the war and the FI, along with Gracie Fields and WH Auden, went to the US for the duration. When all is said and done, the likelihood of the FI actually taking power would ensure that William Hill gave you odds against of such length that if the bet came good you would, as a multi-billionaire, be opposed to the result.
Trotsky had seen the future working in 1917 and all his scepticism, independence and willingness to contemplate change was heavily circumscribed by that event. The Bolshevik success and its ability to replicate itself were reduced to organisational forms rather than their content. As one, along with Luxemburg, who had on occasion correctly criticised Lenin before the revolution, in his struggles against Stalinism he became an ultra-Leninist, which paradoxically ensured that he denied the essence of Lenin. For Lenin the form was always subsidiary to the revolutionary content: he would see nothing wrong with developing a new strategy and tactics to meet the changed reality and the suitable organisational form would derive from that experience. At least, however, the pre-war Fourth International lived in a world where the Russian Revolution was of recent memory and Trotsky’s perspectives had yet to be invalidated by unexpected changes in the script.
Nowadays, there are lots and lots of Fourth Internationals, each one claiming fidelity to the thought of the founder. It may be that some of them do actually believe that they are uniquely qualified and prepared to lead the workers to power. Perhaps you have in your mind’s eye a vision of a worker continuously on the lookout for a Fourth International, preferably one with a democratic centralist constitution, a clean copy of the Transitional Programme, a battle cry of “forward to the first four congresses of the Communist International”, and nothing later than 1940 in the way of political theory. There may be such workers about, but they have almost certainly been in another group for at least ten years and will, therefore, think you are a bit of a pratt. Your average newly radicalised worker will not find the somewhat mystical, on occasion almost hysterical, attachment to an abstract International attractive. Like Guinness and Chris Harman, it is an acquired taste that the overwhelming majority of people never acquire.
One thing that all the groups on the left share is a dedication to democratic centralism. This goes for those from the Trotskyist tradition and from the survivors of the Stalinist shipwreck. Democratic Centralism is something that is taken as read, that is now so manifestly appropriate for all occasions as to be beyond discussion. Why this should be so is difficult to understand. It is not a form of organisation that can be easily deduced from a close examination of the classical Marxist texts. On the other hand, it can be readily understood as a necessary organisational response to the oppression of Tsarist autocracy and the intrusions and exactions of the Okhrana. That it grew out of the 1903 debates in Russian Social Democracy, on who is and who is not a member of the party, and subsequently developed piecemeal into a set of rules, is because it was a reaction to events as they occurred and not as a result of a preconceived plan of action. In the Communist and Trotskyist tradition, democratic centralism has now acquired a universal validity beyond time and context. It is like some deviated cargo-cult where the strict observance of certain complicated rituals will result in the great four-engined bird flying in, loaded with a nourishing mass revolutionary party just for us.
It is frequently claimed that democratic centralism makes the organisation more efficient, enabling it to become a more effective combat organisation. I have often heard this claim; indeed I confess to having asserted it myself on occasion, but I cannot recall any time when it was manifestly so and unsupported assertion is seldom accepted as conclusive evidence before impartial tribunals. Let us suppose a democratic centralist organisation is split 49 per cent to 51 per cent on whether or not to adopt a particular course of action. Will the magic of democratic centralism ensure that the 49 per cent fling themselves into activity with little squeals of enthusiasm equal in intensity to those of the 51 per cent? Will they together be as effective as another organisation, unblessed with “Leninist” rules, where 100 per cent of the members are agreed on the course of action to be taken? The answer is No. For even the most “Leninist” organisation has only volunteers for the overwhelming majority of the membership. No matter how forcefully the Central Committee promulgates its instructions, the only sanction available against those who refuse to follow them is that they will not be allowed to carry out any future orders, to pay the extortionate subscription and to attend meetings. Not much of a frightener when you come down to it: indeed, it sounds more like a promise than a threat. It is true, however, that for some people the “party” becomes a way of life, an extended family in which to feel at home. It is the cause in which all of the idealism and enthusiasm has been invested and where a complete social life can be found.
Precedent suggests that the most enthusiastic partisans of democratic centralism are, more often than not, the most authoritarian in their control of the party regimes. One thinks of Cliff and Healy and the old CP. They are, of course, the top tenth of the centralist iceberg; beneath the surface there is a proliferation of smaller centralised sects where democracy is the absolute right of the people who agree with the leader, their freedom of speech in praising the guru and his works is not only guaranteed, it is mandatory. There are those who claim that their version of democratic centralism is heavy on democracy with just a soupçon of centralism. It is open to anybody to believe this story, but before signing up for the duration it might be wise to seek out any recent expellees to see if the claim is universally accepted.
Is the democratic centralist organisation secure from the attentions of the organs of state security or malign political opponents? Not really. Anyone who wants to know the inner working of the leading committees just needs join the group and hang around the centre making himself useful and frequenting the right pubs. In not too long a time he will be supplying his spymasters with information about who is doing what to whom, who is in and who is out and, if he has any nous at all, whether any of it matters a toss. In an organisation like the SWP, the pool of experience is limited to the members of the Central Committee because the Group is not structured to utilise the experience of the membership. That such a system can maintain a sort of organisation is proved by the continuing existence of the SWP; but for those of us who support Rosa Luxemburg’s contention that the mistakes of a genuine workers’ movement are infinitely to be preferred to the decisions of the most immaculately conceived central committee, there can be little community of interest with Cliff and his minions.
In Prague before World War I, Jaroslav Hasek, author of the Good Soldier Schweik, founded The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of Law. The aim was to ridicule the imperial authorities, abuse other parties and especially to bring custom to his pal, a landlord in whose pub the new party held its meetings. An early resolution laid it down that anyone who liked could sit on the Central Committee – the number of members was limited only by the capacity of two tables stuck together in the dining room. For my part, if that seems a bit restrictive, we can always move to a bigger dining room and add tables. Certainly it is closer to a sensible ideal than the toy Bolshevism of so many of our democratic centralists.
Naturally enough, all of this organisational fetishism is justified, like practically everything else, by reference to the works of the great masters. Pre-eminently, that means Lenin, with Trotsky as a useful seconder of the Leninist proposition. Thus infallibility acquires such power that the substantive motion has an irresistible force for the faithful. This argument by quotation ascribes god-like qualities to individuals. It assumes that Lenin, who died in 1924, and Trotsky who died just 16 years later, encompassed in their lives and thought through all the permutations of the answers to the problems afflicting revolutionary socialism that might arise after their deaths. It is a pity, really, that they were unable to apply the same powerful insights to the time when they were alive: it would have saved us all an awful lot of subsequent pain and suffering.
Such is the frequency with which some of the Lenin quotes are used that I would like to make a modest proposal that would save ink and paper – a vital consideration in these ecologically sensitive times. In the logging camps of North America the lumberjacks were isolated for months on end and before long they had heard one another’s jokes so often that they gave each one a number. Thus, just by calling out the number – so long as you avoided number 37, which was too disgusting even for lumberjacks – you could get the laugh even though you had forgotten the punch line. By the same token, why not give these Lenin quotations special codes? Using a modified Dewey system we could arrive at LC17/430/2/1-5, which would indicate a reference to Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol 17, page 430, paragraph two, lines one to five. As it happens this is a very boring denunciation of the fake liberalism of the Cadet party in 1905, but it might have been an absolute cruncher like LC56/54/1/4-10. To which the only reply, and that a purely defensive one while you regroup, is LC24/623/1/1-4. This might just catch on and it would have the immeasurable benefit of reducing the length of Cliff’s books to manageable proportions.
Failing such a sensible reform, the hucksters will continue to root about in the Collected Works looking for apposite quotes to add a little class to some sordid manoeuvre. Inevitably someone else who opposes the move will, given the right of reply – clearly these are not members of the SWP – find an equally apposite and opposite Lenin quote.
The history of the Marxist movement is a storehouse of useful information and can provide many lessons for current practice, particularly if we are looking for things not to do in the future. What, however, we should never do is lose sight of the need to set every historic work and every quote from an historic work into context. That means not just the context of its surrounding sense, but also the time and the world to which it was addressed. Lenin wrote an awful lot and some of it is clearly of more lasting significance than other bits. The man himself recognised this when he recommended that certain works should not be republished without a commentary to explain their peculiarly Russian application. He was, after all, not God sending down messages incised in stone; he was a fallible human being, albeit one of genius, whose more obscure factional spats and rows can be safely allowed to rest easy in uncut volumes, with absolutely no loss to the workers’ movement.
Of course, those who impose a dreary democracy on Lenin’s work, where his collected laundry lists are of equal significance with major theoretical contributions, will continue to quote him in and out of season. Robin Blick, for example, was once a bright young man in Gerry Healy’s group. Since he fell out with Gerry he has gone quite a long way in rejecting his own past. He is, nowadays, an inveterate quoter from Lenin, but where once he wrote plus he now writes minus. He does this with some skill, selectively and blissfully free of context. His intention is to prove Lenin was an unmitigated scoundrel, not just the only begetter of Joe Stalin but a true descendent of the Tartar hordes, an associate of the German Black Hundreds and an all round jolly rotten person. Cliff, on the other hand, quotes Lenin with some skill, selectively and equally abstracted from context, with the intention of proving him to be a jolly decent person who, by happenstance, seems to have written incredibly prescient material that justifies anything Cliff wants to do, no matter who he wants to do it to. The only defence to this quotation offensive is to have your own copy of the Collected Works, although these days that is quite expensive and Cliff sometimes tries to fool you by using the 4th Russian edition. Better not to be impressed by anything that reads as if Lenin has been sitting at Cliff’s feet soaking up the sheer Marxist wizardry of his latest enthusiasm. For Blick and Cliff, Lenin is a milch cow of full-fat quotations, allowing them both to remain smugly plump with their own certainties – an awful double X certificate sight that should be kept from the young and innocent at all costs.
The SWP is the paradigm of the worst possible application of democratic centralism and a reductio ad absurdum of Lenin’s politics. The supposedly key role of the revolutionary party has become the whole object of the exercise. The only measure of revolutionary advance is the membership figures – never mind the quality feel the width. Presumably, the workers are assigned the role of foot soldiers in the revolution, the vanguard will be there to lead them in the sweet by and by. In this scheme there is no need to recruit workers now, they might spoil the autocratic anarchy of clique leadership.
The party that was formed in 1977 was not predicated on great upheavals and political differentiation; it was less capable of mounting its own initiatives in the workers’ movement than it had been three years before. Its founding was for purely internal reasons, to give the members a sense of progress, the better to conceal the fact that there had actually been a retreat. The social composition was now worse, the circulation of the papers reduced. The sheer pretentious absurdity of the move resulted in long-standing and valuable members like Peter Sedgwick, Richard Kuper, Mike McGrath, Martin Shaw and quite a few others deciding that another journey into Cloud Cuckoo-land without maps was more than tolerance and sweet reason should be asked to bear. They headed for the exit convinced that the performance was over. The fractions and factory branches were declining in number and influence. The rank and file papers were quietly dying. Of course there were noisy campaigns – a right to work march here and some anti-fascist work there – but they were one off campaigns which were allowed to live just as long as they produced new members: when that stopped the life support system was switched off. As with all such sect inspired activity the campaigns were not worthwhile in their own right, just creatures of the party, jealously guarded against alien intruders. One almost heard the cry, “this is our recruiting agency, if you want one go and build your own”.
An organisation like the SWP can continue to exist despite its sectarianism and behaving, outside its own ranks, like a gatecrasher sneering at the hosts but nicking anything that is not screwed down. It will go on so long as a few conditions are met. That its printshop continues to generate sufficient profit from its commercial work to subsidise the party press and contribute toward the full time wage bill. The apparatchiks, in their turn, will organise the subscription return and ensure a reasonable recruitment rate at least equalling the membership attrition. Long ago the SWP established a policy of minimum debate that is now so firmly embedded as to be part of the tradition. Dissent is stamped on and the norms of revolutionary justice ignored. The Central Committee is uniquely qualified to pronounce on anything and everything, containing as it does that renaissance man, that Marxist Leonardo Da Vinci, Chris Harman. Not long ago he pronounced, ex-cathedra, as it were, on the question of anthropology and now that is the line, although why the SWP should require a line on anthropology is beyond me. The anthropologist member of the SWP – there could even be more than one of them – who accepts the modern academic wisdom on the subject, now contradicted by Harman, is under a vow of silence on his own specialisation. One recalls Lysenko, who, at Joe Stalin’s command, stood Darwin on his head, inducing genetic changes in plants over a few generations by altering their environment. Thus he claimed he could grow winter wheat and tomatoes north of the Arctic circle. Nobody was ever allowed close enough to actually examine his plants – for all I know they were made of plastic. Eventually he was shuffled off into early retirement, but not before he had ended the careers of a number of more conventional geneticists. The SWP’s cultural climate is strangely reminiscent of those halcyon days when Zhdanov wielded the cultural hatchet for Joe Stalin, a triumphant outing for philistinism.
A leading committee with this kind of suzerainty over all it surveys is unlikely to fall apart from within its own ranks, because dissent from one or two members can be stifled by the rest. Nor will it succumb to a non-existent democratic pressure from the party. It will, however, be most unstable if its leading figure is removed. One hopes that Cliff has, like Lenin, written his Testament. It would be distressing to see any unseemly squabbling in the future, although the Lenin precedent does not give us too much hope for a smooth transfer. The metaphorical blood-letting may well put us in mind of a Dashiell Hammett novel but without any of the style and none of the artistry. It would be unchristian to wish any unpleasantness to the current holders of authority in the SWP. On the other hand, of course, I am an atheist.
The unseemly scuttle to the wilder shores of obscurantism that Cliff started in the early 1970s was made possible by the fact that in the previous 20 years, a group had been built of sufficient size to maintain some momentum, in large measure by ignoring or rejecting large chunks of the Bolshevik and Trotskyist tradition. The attractive force was in the somewhat laid back and non-sectarian way in which IS viewed revolutionary politics without being at all light minded about it. If the work on state capitalism, reformism, the long boom and Luxemburg were tentative and incomplete they showed sufficient coherence to indicate that there was some life in revolutionary politics after Trotsky’s death in 1940. The serious work of completing this was not done, although the Incomes Policy and Productivity books were the progeny of that period of earnest and worthwhile enquiry. The “Leninist” phase was Cliff calling a halt to new thinking; a retreat to the certainties of history that can be rewritten on the hoof. There is, for example, more Marxism in Cliff’s productivity pamphlet than in all four volumes of his Lenin. The first was directed to building a presence in the working class movement and the second is a primer for a party that is allegedly Leninist and in practice is formed in Cliff’s image. That party will never be built.
The SWP is an example of the worst kind of recidivism; it represents the past not the future. Over the years nearly all those who knew the group in better times have either been expelled or have left in disgust: the few who do remain have cultivated that “genre of silence” recommended by Isaak Babel at the height of Stalin’s purges.  New members are generally new to all politics, with no background in other organisations in the socialist movement. The closed confines of the SWP is the fortress from which they sally forth episodically to pursue the organisation’s limited campaigns. They are encouraged to believe, and some manifestly do believe that outside the party there is just desert, unrelieved by oases – not even a glass of cooking lager. Fortunately for the rest of humanity there is a real world outside the SWP and, despite what it may say in the party press, the revolutionary party has yet to be built.
When it is built it will not be on the basis of inappropriate Russian organisational forms, expressed in a language deriving from badly translated Russian. Nor will it be built by the SWP engaging in a stepped up version of the Cliff method of primitive socialist accumulation. For the SWP to be part of the process there will have to be a sharp differentiation within its ranks and a decisive break with its current practice. Similarly, the traditional “unity” offensive that has marred the Trotskyist movement in the past, and has invariably been the prelude to one or more splits, will not be of much help in the party building stakes. It is almost possible to despair when recognising the fact that the groups – who have in membership fine, intelligent comrades – should cling so fanatically to their differences with everybody else. The irony is that those differences operate as an effective bar to them growing to the point where they could do anything about their defining principles. Either they will stop behaving to other groups like thieves in the night, believing them fit only to be plundered, or they will effectively lock themselves away from the possibilities of real advance. There is nothing in the record that says that they are likely to reform but the lesson of those long grinding years of failure must eventually filter through to all but the most closed minds.
The small mass revolutionary party idea does not just animate the Socialist Workers’ Party. Arthur Scargill hopes to position himself so that he is handily placed to offer a home for the socialists who will be cast adrift after Tony Blair’s New Labour takes over the ship of state. That Arthur’s Socialist Labour Party bears a strong resemblance to the pre-1956 Communist Party is one reason why it will not succeed. Another, of course, is the comic spectacle of the SLP’s party machine being controlled by members of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (almost as many members as letters in the name) who are dedicated to the task of denying admission to Trotskyists of any other persuasion.
The real grounds for hope rests on the changes that have taken place in the past few years. In the past, the revolutionary movement found itself crushed between the upper and nether millstones of Stalinism and social democracy. Both of these excrescences on the body politic proved incapable of matching the strength and dynamism of capitalism. If they were not outgunned and subdued they were absorbed. Their collectivism, far from mirroring and building on workers’ solidarity, became a force for exploitation, squalor and inefficiency. And now they are both gone: social democracy by its own hand and Stalinism by some advanced ageing process that set in before it had even grown up. Although these events took all the groups by surprise – and their first response was to be even more strident in their projection of their defining difference, especially their attitude to the class nature of the now non-existent Soviet Union – it must surely follow that while we are wishing Stalinism a raucous sailor’s farewell, we must also recognise that we are living in a post-Trotskyist world. The disappearance of the two millstones, far from liberating Trotskyism from its constraints, seems to have removed those features by which it defined itself.
The party will not be built with the disillusioned followers of Stalinism, or the socialist refugees from social democracy, because there are none any more. It is back to the working class, where we ought to have been all the time.
There are those who claim, like Edward Bernstein before them, that capitalism has so changed that not only are Stalinism and social democracy redundant, but the very notion of socialism has passed its sell by date. We are told that manual skills are little needed and what we have is lots of technology and a lot fewer technicians. The growth area in employment is women on part time contracts. The buzz word of the 1980s and 1990s has been downsizing and manufacturing has been irrevocably exported to the Pacific rim and Central and South America. According to this story in the old capitalist world the working class has been beaten and decimated. Of course there is some truth in all this but it is, like every other snapshot of a complicated world, a static and inadequate view. Everything is there but, because it cannot be seen in movement or its elements interacting one with another, it is misleading. It is true that there are more women in the labour force than before and so much the better. It is true that downsizing enabled companies vastly to increase profits without selling more products, but as the guru of downsizing, Stephen S Roach, now confesses: “Tactics of open ended downsizing and real wage compression are ultimately recipes for industrial extinction ... If all you do is cut then you will eventually be left with nothing, no market share”. The question about manufacturing is not whether it twill grow again but when. The growing workforce will need trade unions – either those available or others yet to be built. They will also need, as they have always done, a socialist movement that speaks a language they can understand, that is not self-indulgent and sectarian, that is comfortable to live in and that will grow with its members. All of this will take time and patience and forbearance, but when you remember how long we have gone getting nowhere without these qualities, it seems reasonable to give it a chance.
It is clear that the task of regroupment and renewal will not be an easy one and it is not difficult to become disheartened before the magnitude of the task. Nevertheless, it has to be tried because there still no other course to follow. We have to educate, agitate and organise, applying those things to ourselves as well as others. There are no guarantees of success, not even the promise that the pursuit of socialism will make you happy, although the happiest times of my life have been in the movement. The one enduring certainty is that the future will not be won by attempting to recreate the past. It might be as well to reverse Lincoln Steffens famous phrase, to make it read, “I have been over into the past and it does not work”. New forms, new forces and new ideas that accord with the world in which we live are far more important than yesterday’s failed certainties. Heaven and earth remain unstormed and we still have a world to win.
1. For further information on this fascinating subject see: Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church by HRT Brandreth and Bishops at Large by PF Anson.
1. Actually even his silence did not save Babel. He was arrested and sentenced to a long period of incarceration. He died in prison. Perhaps Stalin had, like the British army, a crime called, “dumb insolence.”
Last updated on 2.11.2003