Eye on the left: The market theory of revolutionary groups

Submitted by Anon on 1 October, 2003 - 5:41 Author: cyclops

Now that the mainstream parties agree on most important issues, politics in the media is reduced to a sub-species of sports commentary.

Journalists ruminate wisely on this politician's performance, that one's new "position", this other one's charisma or lack of it. Reporters ask people in the street what they thought of this politician's recent speech, in terms of his "performance", if they think that one's recent shift in "position" has really made his party more "electable". Politics? That is politics! Policy? (Eh?) That is policy!

The "left" naturally has its own version of the "politics is sport" phenomenon. Ex-activist kibbitzers — has-beens, never-weres and never-tried-to-bes — find in what might be called the "market theory of left groups", the master key that explains everything. One of its advantages is that you don't have to bother with old style socialist politics at all. left wing politics? left wing politics is gossip and kibbitzing, stupid! Where have you been for the last 20 years?

The 'Revolutionary Communist Party' (RCP) was a small 1970s splinter of the SWP, which flourished as a middle-class cult in the 80s and early 90s, publishing a magazine called Living Marxism (later LM). The only thing noteworthy about the 'RCP' is that it functioned as an ideological scab-herding outfit during the great miners' strike of 1984-5.

Insisting that they were 'revolutionary communists' and 'Marxists', and simultaneously indulging in pseudo ultra left criticism of the National Union of Mineworkers because its 'demands' in the strike did not question the basics of capitalist society, they championed the scab Notts miners - the majority of Notts miners - who worked throughout the 13-month strike. (They would soon form a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.)

At the time when the demand for a "ballot" of the NUM was the cutting edge of Tory propaganda against the miners, and of the labour movement right wing's campaign to stop other workers giving them solidarity action, the RCP threw everything they had behind the scabs and the Tory and Labour scab-herders.

It was a piece of deliberate and calculated betrayal.

No matter how critical you felt towards the Stalinist NUM leaders, nobody with labour movement instincts and loyalties could do other than stand with the miners and contribute as much as possible to helping them fight Thatcher.

Nobody except the strange cult which, perhaps sarcastically, still called itself the Revolutionary Communist Party!

A man who was a member of this cult during or soon after their heroic work in the miners strike, Paul F., contributed his mature reflections on the 'RCP', and on the AWL, to a recent left wing paper.

Giving a caricatural account of a dispute, about 'left wing anti-semitism', which he overheard between Al Richardson of Revolutionary History and Sean Matgamna of Solidarity, he speculates on what drives us to stand up to the "big battalions" of the 'left' on such questions. He offers a 'psychological' explanation.

We just want to be different, he thinks.

He solemnly rehashes the droll old joke - he doesn't know it is a joke - that the multiplicity of groups on the left can be explained according to simple supply and demand market theory: people look for gaps in the political market and "produce" "lines" that will fill it.

Thus, we decided to identify with the US Workers' Party of the 1940s, not because we realised that much of what we'd been saying for years had already long ago been said - and usually better said - by them, but because we saw a gap in the "market", for Shachtmanism!

F., in passing, accounts for the RCP: "As an erstwhile supporter of the RCP I am only too well aware of how left groups mark themselves out by exaggerating extreme

positions, or by going to extremes in opposing other ones. With the RCP I don't know how much of this was the product of a conscious decision to be different or extreme [or] the end product of searching for a theoretical focus around which the group could operate"

Even as a psychological account, this begs all the important questions, the psychological, no less than the political ones. Alright, they wanted to "be different", to find their niche "in the market". But why and how did this impulse come to overwhelm every other impulse, principle, judgement, sympathy, assessment that should have governed what people calling themselves "communists" did in the biggest class struggle battle in Britain since the 1926 General Strike?

And, while we're at it, why, Mr F., were you a member, during the miners' strike or soon afterwards, of an organisation that did tha
t? How can you be so smug about your own strange political history as to offer this dim-wit's pseudo-psychological and largely apolitical explanation of your organisation, the R!C!P? You just wanted to "be different"? And now you've decided to conform?

Herbert Spencer, the great propagandist for Charles Darwin's theories, and militant atheism, invented "agnosticism" - the "I don't know" position between atheism and theism - as a joke, a reductio ad absurdum. The joke found its own "niche in the market" and lots of people who like to ward off unpleasant certainties by keeping things hazy call themselves "agnostic".

The "market explanation" for the divisions on the left was also originally concocted as a reductio-ad-absurdum - that's what it was when I first came across it, anyway - of the political practice of "Marxists" who change their "line" for organisational advantage, just as focus group-obsessed bourgeois political organisations do, seeking votes. (To give a real example from the history of the SWP: against their own long-time convictions they became fervent opponents of the EU, because that "line", they thought, would better help them "build the revolutionary party" in a labour movement saturated by CP and Labour left little-Englandism.)

It originated, I think, with the late Ken Tarbuck. (He had another nice satirical fantasy about individuals smoothly transferring from one revolutionary organisation to another, like footballers, at a price - so much for a "theoretician", so much for an "organiser", and so on.)

Ken Tarbuck's satirical joke, like Herbert Spencer's reductio-ad-absurdum, agnosticism, has found its "niche in the market", as an apolitical explanation for political divisions, and it is now presented in solemn seriousness by dim kibbitzers like F., for whom revolutionary politics and "group-watching" is an alternative to trainspotting or collecting football cards.

It appeared as a serious "explanation" in Tribune 15 years ago, in pseudonymous pieces written by John Sullivan, another of the half-wise revolutionary "trainspotters". It appeared, applied to the AWL, in a floundering polemical piece by Jim Higgins, in Workers Liberty magazine some years ago.

Yet the idea remains what it was when it started, an absurdity.

Observably, some people on the left do this sort of thing some of the time, ergo everybody does it all of the time! Nobody acts out of conviction and principle?

Other than as a joke, this apolitical "explanation" could only be taken seriously by people who themselves have no political convictions they think are worth fighting for, and simply cannot understand people who do.

Yet its acceptance by people who think they are being serious, is symptomatic of the state of the left.

Michael Bakunin once observed - and Trotsky repeated it, applied to the USA, in 1938 - that the prevalence of market concepts in bourgeois society was so strong that a man who had a million dollars was said to be "worth" a million. The behaviour of organisations like the Healyite WRP and the SWP over half a century, and of the Stalinists for much longer, has come to seem so "natural" and "normal" to the dimmer observers, or those - Jim Higgins, for example - obsessed by a Tony Cliff or a Gerry Healy, that the "market theory" of socialist groups has been transmuted from a satirical absurdity into a serious idea.

The pseudo-left has made itself satire-proof!

F’s. dopey self-satisfaction is unfortunately not unrepresentative of the mind-processes of the half depoliticised "trainspotting" citizens who pollute the fringes of the pseudo-left.