Vogon spaceships and the dinner party Plan

Submitted by martin on 19 January, 2003 - 1:39

Response to 'an Independent workers focus' document

By Gerry B


When I saw this document I sighed. Here we go again Another MT document, full of good things but no way of prioritising them, a document you feel harsh for criticising because it means well.
And can you stand up at conference and call for a vote against it? What is the point? It won't make any difference either way.

And that is the point. What does it do to an organisation to vote through a pointless document? What goes on in the heads of the membership, when they put up their hands after being told (as last year) 'If you want to build the organisation, if you want to turn outward and recruit, vote for this document' (Because, of course, to be critical means one wants to create a cosy inward-looking sect)?

We have, in the end, only one thing going for us, only one thing that acts as a counterweight to our pathetic size and lack of influence compared to the task we've set ourselves, that one thing is that we are conscious communists committed to seeing the world as it really is and acting on it.

If we squander, that then we've thrown away everything. In one way, this is a harmless document that won't kill anyone to vote for: it's not a nail-biting, must-get-there-for-vote, can't-miss-the debate kind of document. One could probably happily sleep through it. But that is the danger, that we'll sleepwalk into something quite opposite from what we need to be, that by tiny increments we'll turn into our own negation.

What should a conference document do?

Any conference document, for any organisation from a multinational to a playgroup to a revolutionary group, has to do certain things: look at how we analysed the situation last year and what we intended; check that picture against reality (Did we do as we said? Was the world as we described it?) If we didn't do what we said, if events didn't turn out as predicted, then we need an analysis and an explanation. Did something unforeseen happen? Are there developments we didn't predict? Was our analysis wrong? Or our intentions unrealistic? Somehow we have to bridge the gap between what we said and how the world is. If we don't, we're set on a course where we and reality gradually drift further apart. Organisations don't go insane overnight: it happens by tiny denials of reality.

What is wrong with this picture?

'3. We have the political ideas, the practical campaigning stratagems, the activist/ educational materials, and the core of politically-educated activists to do it [5] c. Those decisions have not been carried through adequately.' We're so great and we haven't done what we said we'd do. How to explain this discrepancy? It never is explained. The default explanation is some kind of moral failing on the part of the membership. Hints of inertia, routinism, getting bogged down in trade union 'casework'. In this respect, it resembles a mild, dinner party version of a Stalinist 5-Year Plan. Instead of executions for 'sabotage', we get a more-in-sorrow-than-anger head-shaking: Must try harder.

What we need to explain

Last year we talked about doubling our membership (though the figure is not in any document). Along with everyone else, we believed the biggest demonstration in our history against a 'Labour' government ignoring the clear mass of the people would lead to a breakthrough or a least a break-up 'cemented-over' channels of working class representation. We were wrong.

Everyone was wrong. From the high point of February 15th we have sunk to Lindsey German and George Galloway as the 'alternative'! We are seriously discussing abstaining in the June elections: in terms of political representation we are in a worse state than ever in my lifetime, possibly than in the last hundred years.

This requires some explanation. To blandly report 'in 2002 we decided' without registering the scale of the disaster dragged from the jaws of victory, to complacently repeat the prescription when the patient is rattling out their last breath, is astonishing. We got it wrong. The fact that everyone else got it wrong too doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of soberly registering it and searching for an explanation.

If a conference document fails to register the reality that's staring us in the face, if it can confront an utterly changed situation with an identical recipe, then it is useless as a conference document, however much good things it contains. It fails in its basic function of confronting reality.

Tom C., last conference, in his accustomed Cassandra role, pointed out the pointlessness of voting for a document you couldn't vote against. I don't share his specific analysis of the labour movement and how we should pursue the issue of labour representation, but he was absolutely right, as others have grudgingly admitted, on this question.

What we did well in the last year was despite last year's conference decisions. It is significant that the only even partial explanation for why we didn't carry out last year's resolve is 'TU routinism' - why are no other dangers railed against?

Insofar as the document does commit to specifics, it is wrong.

Comrades may argue that there are specific documents on labour representation, etc. but that is an incredibly back-to-front way of doing things - the organisational prescriptions preceding the political analysis.

At this point I wish I could pull an explanation from out of my hat and say 'This is why we got it wrong'. I can't. But at least confronting the failure of explanation is the beginning of wisdom. Uncertainty is a better place to start than false complacency.

I think we were mesmerised by the numbers. I think we abandoned concrete analysis of the phenomena in favour of a superficial 'global' impressionism.

We saw the 'movement' as an undifferentiated whole and tried to relate to that - which is a bit like saying we want to recruit the 'working class'.

You always need a point of entry, some way of getting to grips with the disproportion between what we are and what we aim for.

So I am going to focus specifically on our publications: 'Solidarity' has been compared to the Vogon spaceship in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, 'not so much designed as congealed'.

When I first came back into the group and criticised the paper, I was told it was a 'Combination tool'. At the time I accepted it. But when I come to think about it, what use is a combination tool or what does it tell us about what we're trying to do? I have a combination tool, a Swiss Army knife. It's good for peeling fruit in the jungle. It has a corkscrew! And a dinky pair of scissors. And several perfect obscure attachments I haven't found a use for yet.

But any old blade can peel fruit. And when I applied the corkscrew to a particularly recalcitrant cork, the corkscrew got pulled straight. And the dinky scissors are too delicate to cut my fingernails. The obscure blades are still pristine, though.

The point about a combination tool is that it's never as good for any particular job as the tool-for-the-job. And I have yet to see one that successfully combined a sledgehammer and a set of surgical tweezers. As a concept the combination tool is either rubbish at the job or meaningless.

Why do we pretend to compete with Socialist Worker pretending to compete with Mirror?

We are not a newspaper. Nothing ever appears in 'Solidarity' first. We take stuff from the bourgeois media and comment on it. Or we tell people what to do. We attempt to organise them. The 'Mirror' is a newspaper. It has a circulation a thousand times ours. But it still needs to target its audience. It doesn't aim for everybody.

Someone at the last NC said the SWP was aiming to for the 'Guardian reader'.

Judging from the way John Rees now dresses, that seems be about right.

Politically that seems to be their target constituency (look at who Respect is standing, outside of the SWP and GG). But Socialist Worker, the paper, doesn't appeal to Guardian readers. It's from another age and a different set of politics. Its style was formed in the era of factory gate sales. And we, unthinkingly, ape its format, cramming utterly unsuitable content into a form long ago abandoned by the bourgeois press.

When there might have been some point to a newspaper During the firefighters' strike I became convinced of the need for a Socialist Alliance paper, where before I'd been opposed to it. That was for a very specific purpose in very particular circumstances. The FBU started that strike with a vast well of public sympathy, and a high degree of self-confidence and organisation. Within weeks, and I was astonished how fast and effectively they accomplished it, the bourgeois press, in particular the tabloids turned the tide. Suddenly, I was confronted in arguments with stories of firefighters' 3-day weeks, second jobs, enormous pay packets. A newspaper in that situation might have made a difference, given ammunition to working class activists to argue against this poison, put the case for class solidarity. And to have any effect it needed to 'belong' to the whole of the left (or as much as could agree on the basic class solidarity case) - the only candidate for that was the SA. It didn't happen, and we know the result.

In the lead-up to the war, arguably a united socialist paper, open to differing opinions but united in the basic case, could have been decisive.

Coulda woulda shoulda. It didn't happen. The SWP were already too far gone in their special blend of sectarianism and opportunism. We did creditably in the war. Our adoption of the 'No to War, No to Saddam' appeal was right. But it had almost nothing to do with our paper. If anything the paper was a liability in pushing the statement.

So where do we go from here?

It takes a special degree of inspired incompetence to get from 1-2 million on the streets to 'Lindsey German for Mayor'. We don't want to be here, but we are. Lets deal with it.

Educate, agitate, organise - but which? We can't use the paper to organise to any meaningful degree. The situation we're facing is precisely one of crisis of working class organisation. We can't use the pre-existing structures - they are precisely the problem. I presume this is what is meant by not seeing the present as a 'bad 1980s': we can't reinvent 'Socialist Organiser' for 2004. Outside of particular union fractions (and No Sweat, which I'll deal with later) we are not in a position to organise, and where we are the paper does not help (there are probably better instruments).

Our openings for agitation (in the sense of getting across a small number of ideas to a large number of people) are similarly limited. The demonstrations are smaller and anyway we can't really encapsulate our message in a simple slogan like 'Blair Out'. There are particular arenas of agitation, such as over fees, but again the paper doesn't serve us particularly well for these.

Our primary task in this period is to educate, to get across a body of relatively complex ideas to an interested audience.

Who is our audience?

Specifically? It's foolish to say 'the working class': we haven't a hope of reaching that wide. We need to be clear what we are doing and who we are aiming at. What do we need to say to them? What format?

Our members: who need arguments to take out into the world, relatively complex and sophisticated exposition of our politics, and an arena for debating and developing our analysis; ·

Our close contacts, whom we wish to educate and recruit - again what makes us distinctive requires detailed exposition that can't be reduced to a few slogans - when we do try to do that we come across as hysterical and obsessive; ·

A looser periphery, whom we come into contact with in unions and workplaces, in campaigns and No Sweat activity. The problem is that we don't differentiate between very disparate sorts of contacts. A 50-something union activist, who has been through various left groups or the SA is very different from an 'A' level student who joined the anti-war protests, or a church-going 'fair trade' campaigner. A paper that tries to appeal to all these ends up not really saying anything to any of them.

I think we've failed to get our message across because we refused to make choices. This document ('For an independent working class focus'), like its predecessors, wants us to be all things to all people, to face in all directions at once. It's disorienting and that's one reason for our failure to move.

I'll make specific proposals / amendments in a separate document on Publications, Bulletins and Website. But I think the first step is to recognise the problem.


Submitted by Janine on Thu, 01/23/2003 - 17:24

I found this passage of Martin's report quite alarming:

>>Rob Hoveman, John Rees and Weyman Bennett replied that the SWP had to persuade its members to be active in the Alliance. SWP members were put off when they saw other Alliance members pleased at getting motions through their local Alliances against SWP opposition, or by Alliance discussions that were "inward-looking".

Firstly, it is hard to believe that the SWP can not convince its own members of its political orientation. Does this suggest that the leadership is not that convinced of it themselves? Or that their real perspective for the SA is a hat to wear in elections, and so their members know that they don't really have to get involved outside of voting time? Either way, it is hardly the description of the organised, disciplined party the SWP keeps telling its recruits that we need.

Secondly, if losing a resolution every now and then is that unbearable, how on earth do they think the rest of us feel!? Try losing nearly all of them!! If we are going to have a democratic culture on the left, people are going to have to start accepting that sometimes you lose the vote. It is an incredible arrogance on the part of the SWP to expect everyone else in the Alliance to go along with them determining nearly every policy and then go off in a sulk on the rare occasions they lose.


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