published in Weekly Worker, 25th November 2011
“I think today’s turnout is amazing,” announced Lindsey German to the assembled anti-war protesters in her trademark style. It was a case of official optimism gone mad: not only was the turnout at the November 20 Stop the War Coalition demo the poorest in years, but Lindsey’s blatant reversal of the truth was screamingly obvious to anyone who was there and had eyes to see. You can take the girl out of the SWP …
Alongside the British Muslim Initiative and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the march was organised by the STWC, now led by the defected right wing of the Socialist Workers Party around John Rees’s Counterfire. According to the organisers, it was attended by 10,000 protesters – but as it took the marchers less than 10 minutes to enter Trafalgar Square, it could not have been more than 3,000. Dissident soldier and anti-Afghanistan war activist Joe Glenton’s short and poignant contribution was a welcome contrast to Counterfire’s modern-day take on ‘official communist’ speechifying.
Currently preoccupied with its misnamed Right to Work anti-cuts front, the SWP itself did not mobilise at all, contenting itself with sending out a contingent of foot soldiers to set up recruitment stalls at either end of the march. The SWP placard, “Cut war, not welfare!”, aimed to provide an easy link to pull anti-war activists towards Right to Work and the SWP itself.
The organisation’s instructions to its members read: “Make sure that comrades coming on the transport to London have papers, Reviews, etc to sell and most importantly recruitment forms. The impact of the student protests last week has been massive and there could be a pick-up among young people for Saturday. If they are making the political links, we want to talk to them about joining the SWP and getting organised” (Party Notes November 15).
There was a clear sub-plot here, which was further elaborated in the following internal bulletin: while “it is important that comrades continue to maintain the STW groups and networks”, they are there exclusively to recruit to and build the SWP, not the coalition itself (Party Notes November 22). The bulletin reports that 13 people “joined the SWP” on the demo.
One SWP comrade not only made himself an easy target for ridicule by sporting a 1919 Soviet cavalry hat replica: he also refused to let me have a look at the anti-English Defence League pamphlet he was peddling. Now I am well acquainted with the fact that the SWP rank and file is expected to shun the publications of other left groups, especially ours. It is news to me, however, that it is not even deemed safe to let us read SWP material any more. Would Lenin approve of this kind of paranoid sectarianism?
The SWP sometimes reminds you of the excellent Greek movie Dogtooth, in which three teenage siblings are not permitted to leave the confines of the family’s house and garden – a rule enforced by their father, a pathologically protective patriarch. Having never been exposed to the world outside, the teenagers have no choice but to rely on their father’s lurid tales of the dangers that apparently await them on the other side of the garden fence. Naturally, all media is banned in the family home, with the exception of some carefully selected, screened and reinterpreted information.
Apropos sectarianism. As we were handing out leaflets, CPGB comrade Claire Fisher was told off by a CND relic for “taking advantage” of “our” demonstration for “sectarian” purposes. The leaflets in question called for unity of all existing anti-cuts campaigns under a democratically elected leadership – hardly a textbook example of sectarianism, but Mr Grumpy would not listen. Yes, the ‘What are we doing this for?’ factor was very high.
Further conversations were had with members of the Revolutionary Communist Group, who are presently at pains defending the Cuban government’s plans to do what governments are doing the world over: laying off hundreds of thousands of workers. Raúl Castro calls upon them to take responsibility for their own fate and start small businesses and cooperatives. He sells this as a redistribution of power to the people, calling it ‘inventing the invention’. David Cameron’s marketing slogan for his own ‘people power’ schemes, meanwhile, is that of a ‘big society’.
Claire and I had visited Cuba earlier this year and would have liked to discuss some of our impressions. What we saw was a class society with shocking differences of wealth, heavy police regimentation, and bureaucratic control over almost every aspect of people’s lives. But instead of a discussion with the RCG members, we bore witness to the left’s notorious inability to engage in dialogue, to which the willingness to listen is essential. The fact that we had only recently visited Cuba was of no further interest, nor did it prompt any questions; instead of an exchange, we were treated to a well-rehearsed machine gun salvo of slogans, ‘facts’ and random ‘truths about Cuba’, which were mostly beside the point.
How on earth do members of these groups engage in conversation with the much-cited ‘ordinary people’? Does their perspective resemble a Schwarzenegger point-of-view shot from Terminator, where certain key words prompt corresponding instructions, such as ‘Recite official article from Granma’, ‘Ignore the question’ or ‘Claim that opponent relies on bourgeois propaganda’?
The most interesting leaflet came courtesy of a comrade whose placard displayed nothing but an image of Marx: it was the ‘outline manifesto’ of the mysterious Communist Corresponding Society from Oxford (described as a “two men and a dog nano-sect” on the Socialist Unity website). A breath of fresh air among the identical economistic slogans of other left groups, the text stood out for being intelligent and challenging as much as for its indecisiveness and apparent lack of perspective. The Communist Correspondent Society does not believe in reforging the original Labour Party. But neither does it, for undisclosed reasons, believe in reforging the CPGB.
“Those Marxists who are keenest to dissociate themselves from the ‘bad’ communism of the past are sometimes the first to reproduce the bureaucratic and authoritarian methods they condemn,” states the outline manifesto, accurately referring to the Trotskyite, Cliffite and various other bureaucratic centralist sects of the present. The CCS, on the other hand, claims that it is out to learn from the history of our still relatively young movement – including its darkest days and most monstrous mistakes – instead of washing its hand of guilt. What exactly their project entails beyond setting up discussion circles, however, remains the group’s secret.