Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left.


9:42 pm - February 17th 2010

by Laurie Penny    


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Radical politics, like romance, inevitably disappoints. It has become a cliché that liberal infighting gets in the way of liberal action, but this week has been a flashpoint for the British left, struggling to organise itself in the face of an upcoming election which may well bring greater gains for its enemies on the right and the far-right than the country has seen for a generation.

Fifty core members of provocative far-left group The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) resigned their membership yesterday in a dramatic public walkout that has sent shockwaves through the British far-left.

The catalyst for the walkout was the resignation of party stalwart and recent Mayoral candidate Lindsey German after members attempted to block her appearance at a local Stop The War meeting, amid ferocious internal debates.

“Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement, [and] fits into what is now a well-established pattern,” conceded the fifty former SWP members in their joint resignation statement.

They are right: sectarianism has crippled progress on the left since the formation of Respect in 2004, and has prevented any genuine electoral alternative to the three central parties from forming.

The SWP has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade, gaining themselves a reputation for petty squabbling that, for many, overshadows their valuable work in opposing the Iraq war and propelling the anti-capitalist mobilisations of the start of the decade.

It’s almost enough, in the words of singer-songwriter Frank Turner, to make one hang up one’s banner in disgust and head for the door.

The inertia that inevitably results from destructive leftist squabbles is heartbreaking for anyone who believes in progress, but there is something to be said for infighting – within reason. The nature of the left is multifarious. We are progressive not in spite of our differences, but because of them: we are progressive because we have the imagination to think beyond the good old days or the status quo, and sometimes that thinking will take us in different directions.

However, radical politics, like romance, isn’t a thought or a feeling – it’s something that you do. The usefulness of the British Left will not be judged by the purity of our ideals, but by our actions, and by what we manage to achieve together for the benefit of ordinary people.

Factional splitting is hardly unheard of on the left, but yesterday’s walkout offers genuine cause for hope. Most significantly, the mutineers acknowledged the need to prioritise agitation over irritation, saying that “the most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left.

“Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left,” said the mutineers, who recognised the achievements of the SWP in their statement. Their call for unity in action could hardly be more urgent.

Were we living in a period of peace, stability and economic ease, without the pressing necessity of a response to climate change, the left could be forgiven for allowing itself the luxury of protracted ideological self-scrutiny – a pastime that has never overly troubled the British right.

But we are cowering on the tracks of a cultural crisis, and there is a train bearing down upon us, and it is brutal, and relentless, and recalcitrant, and intolerant, and if we don’t hold it up it’s going to roll right over us.

If we want to halt the approach of a grim Tory future riddled with fascist pressure groups, the left needs to prioritise action over solipsistic squabbling – because if we don’t, the far right will.

[adapted from a talk given at Mutiny:Love on Trial last week and cross-posted at The Samosa]

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments


I hate to piss on this parada Laurie, but about 50 nobodys resigned from a party just a few thousand people in the country pay attention to.

It is NOT a flashpoint for the left. It’s just the disintegration of a sectarian party.

I can’t remember the last time I got inspiration from those bunch on any issue.

It’s a long time since the SWP was on the left, in my view.

I was a member and remember very well being told to leave my concerns about George Galloway’s anti-abortionism at the door while the Respect experiment was trialled… sexist and patronising in the extreme. A pox on the buggers. My only surprise, as I said to Alan, was that they had as many as 60 members left – would have thought the resignation of 60 people left them in negative balance.

They did do well with STW for a time, but then killed it with their dogma and obsession with Islam. You can’t be a socialist and a religious zealot at the same time, for Christ’s sake. I mean – everyone knows that. Duh.

Aw Sunny, I thought you’d be really heartened by the coalition-building agenda. We can’t call ourselves Liberal Conspiracy and then just write off everyone to the left of the Lib Dems as ‘nobodys’. I think there needs to be space for all kinds of left/liberal discussion on here – and like it or not, this sort of factionalism is going to be mirrored in the Labour Party very soon.

Hear hear, Sunny. Their influence amounts to wall-to-wall fuck-all. They’re tiny in the union movement and anybody with a brain left around the time that Galloway emerged from under his stone. I think 3000 is generous re: membership.

I thank Laurie, though, for giving us an opportunity to take the piss out of the twats.

Surely all this has done is weaken the power of the SWP, which as you say has been responsible for large splits in the left over the years? Obviously there is the danger that these 50 people create a new faction, but they most probably won’t and will join a more progressive left wing group, which can only be good right?

I’m really not sorry to see this happen to the SWP – good riddance to their legitimacy, at least until they radically restructure their attitudes and agendas from the ground up. Hopefully this will mean that the people who want to do genuine progressive activism will be able to get the fuck on with things.

The SWP split honestly means bugger all for the British left particularly given that the RESPECT project has most definitely failed by this point. At most, it means a few more recruits for another broad left alliance of some sort, and even then I’m sceptical that German, Rees et al will be able to abandon the factionalism that’s served them so well in the SWP (although I hope to be pleasantly surprised on this one; hopefully the perils of ridiculous obstructionism have been highlighted to them by what’s happened with German, and they’ll follow in deed what they’ve said in word – it’ll be a very nice change, at least).

In my view, it’s not of any real relevance and it’s only of interest to leftist trainspotters (which I’ll admit to being, but still).

“I’m really not sorry to see this happen to the SWP – good riddance to their legitimacy, at least until they radically restructure their attitudes and agendas from the ground up. Hopefully this will mean that the people who want to do genuine progressive activism will be able to get the fuck on with things.”

I will, however, drink to this. Cheers!

‘I thank Laurie, though, for giving us an opportunity to take the piss out of the twats’

Thanks for that image – you’ve just put me right off my beer.

10. J Alfred Prufrock

The SWP stopped being relevent when it cosied up to anti-choice homophobic anti-Semitic Islamist nutters.
Wonder what this latest bunch of 50 splitters will call themselves though.
Beyond parody.

Laurie – what Kate said at #2. I’m not sure what a coalition with the SWPers would look like. As far as I can see they’re not into coalitions, but running things their own way.

If the Tories were suggesting there might be something to be gained by making tactical alliances with the Far Right you would rightly be screaming blue murder.

Yet for some reason the Far Left, fans of Leon Trotsky (not as bad as Stalin but a nasty murdering piece of work who would have taken the USSR in a similarly authoritarian direction) are deemed as potential allies. Calling for violent revolution and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is just another form of hate politics.

@richard

I remember there was some politician in the 1980s – their name escapes
me – who was very chummy with Chile’s mass murdering dictator General Pinochet and White supremacist South Africa.

There’s also another politician making common cause with the far right
in the EU.

Remember you live in a greenhouse

SPLITTERS!!!

Ha Ha Ha! twas ever thus.

During my only (short) experience of being a member of the organised left (CPGB mid-80s) I found that most energy and animus was directed against other factions in the party, rather than the Thatcherite Tories attacking the miners and that weasly little toad Kinnock (the Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty for newbies) with his constant “there should have been a ballot” whining.

It’s like the, probably apocryphal, story of a new Tory MP in his first visit to the H of C sitting next to Churchill and looking at the Labour benches and saying “so, they are the enemy eh?”. Churchiill repiled: “No they are your opponents, your enemies are behind you”.

If the SWP completely imploded it would be no loss. Their only real achivement was the Anti-Nazi League in the late ’70s and that concept owed much to a popular front which is anathema to the Trots Leninistsof the SWP.

I remember there was some politician in the 1980s – their name escapes
me – who was very chummy with Chile’s mass murdering dictator General Pinochet and White supremacist South Africa.

And you know the funny thing about this sevillista – is that the same politician is currently constantly praised by the mainstream right party all the time.

I don’t know how this happens. I’m told right-wingers are really big on human rights and not siding with genocidal dictators, selling them arms and helping them repress civilians.

and like it or not, this sort of factionalism is going to be mirrored in the Labour Party very soon.

Actually, I highly doubt it.

Nice to see the tone from all you anti-SWPers is so friendly and constructive!
Sunny as one of the 50 ‘nobodies’ you dismiss I thought you ought to know they include people who initiated the StW coalition which as the name suggests is a real coalition with support of all major unions, and got Feb 15 agreed as a call to action through the European Social Forum process which of course led to the biggest day of global protest ever, something which, even
with your weak liberal politics you must have participated in and something that did have something of an effect…I could also mention organising things like the ESF in ally pally with 25,000 participants and many more things-can you point me toward any achievements of
yours that stand up to that?

Norman Lamont has always been an enthusiatic Pinochet fancier (Pinochet pioneered privatisation after his CIA aided overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende), who was the fella who was Lamont’s bag carrier on Black Wednesday?

As for Tory supporters of white supremacist South Africa in the ’80s, their number was legion. Perhaps the most egregious was John Carlisle MP for Luton North, but rather better known as the ‘Member for Johannesburg’.

Sunny,
At last I am in full agreement. Your first comment was rather charitable towards the SWP.

Laurie,
I think your description of this split as heartbreaking shows you to be a kind person who cares more than the hardened people in this particular dispute. I suggest this squable has more to with the left’s past than it’s future in the UK.

Ah, classic SWP: “I took part in something therefore my organisation was crucial to its ENTIRE EXISTENCE AND I AM NEO-LENIN”. (OK, sorry for the hyperbole there, but you get what I’m angling at.)

The work of any comrade in efforts such as StW and the ESF and so on should be and is valued, but just because you’ve helped with those efforts doesn’t magically make you a more important figure in your own right. It’s hard to say, but let’s face it – no matter how much work you may have put in in these regards, you leaving the SWP hardly massively affects the SWP, let alone the broader left (I should note here that of course the resignations in question because of their numbers and names DO affect the SWP, to be fair, but the point still stands that in broader terms it’s not actually of that much consequence).

Let’s not get bogged down in a reputation dick-waving contest here.

That first sentence of the OP really gets my goat. The suffragettes were radical politics. The French Revolution was radical politics. The idea of an NHS, at one time, was considered radical politics.

If you mean “the SWP is a waste of time”, then I will agree with you, not because they are too “radical” but because I disagree with their politics and their solipsism.

The left in the UK today has been disappointed, not by its radical fringe but the New Labour cabal that has critically damaged the Labour Party and left us with a choice of bad and worse neoliberal lookalikes.

I could also mention organising things like the ESF in ally pally with 25,000 participants and many more things-can you point me toward any achievements of

I don’t want to get into a dick-waving contest here Noel – but the SwtC were not responsible for the march – the people and the unions did most of the legwork. The SwtC was merely the vehicle through which people came together.

And what happened to that energy after? It dissipated. You guys were so obsessed by side-issues that people got turned off by the people organising the marches and stopped coming. The movement that could have been was lost. For that alone the SWP should get the blame for not doing anything substantial with the anti-war movement that was created.

You’re right though, my CV is not as impressive as yours. But in the grand context of things you guys are still nobodies fighting over the crumbs of a highly sectarian movement that has become an embarrassment for the mainstream left.

I wish there was a more left-wing alternative to the Labour Party. I support the Greens and Libdems (on certain issues). But I wouldn’t touch the SWP. All you guys have done is hinder a more serious and intelligent left-movement develop in the UK.

No Sunny you misinterpret what I say- Feb 15 would not have happened at all without the SWP it was our idea that we had to argue hard for in the ESF process against opposition from the French and others…because we persuaded people and won that argument it was then launced as a call by one of the other people on the list at the ESF in Florence.
I’m not saying the SWP got all the people on the march itself…that would be ridiculous…
The party has also played a vital role in stopping fascism in this country throughout the decades, something that can’t be said for labour or the lib dems….
As I say I don’t care that you don’t like the org, but until you are part of trying to build something better that works and see how difficult that is…I think it’s rich for you to dismiss good activists as nobodies-writing for comment is free and blogging (or supporting the lib dems or labour) is really not going to answer the problems we all face of an out of control, planet destroying system…
Oh and Joseph, when you can debate is a respectful manner I might engage with you this isn’t student politics it’s serious stuff, we need to build the movments of the 21st century that can save humanity from capital-some of us are thinking hard about what we need to do, to do just that.

Oh and on the decline of the anti-war movement that happened the world over t wasn’t the SWPs fault…the STWC is not the SWP it is the unions, cnd, labour people all of who have a say n what it does….and that energy wasn’t squandered it may not have worked out but Respect was drawing on the energy of the Antiwar movement the most successful left of
labour electoral project there has been since the war…whether you liked it or not, that’s a fact….

The party has also played a vital role in stopping fascism in this country throughout the decades, something that can’t be said for labour or the lib dems….

I think the trade unions would rightly take bigger credit here, along with a general change in attitudes. I remember the first SWP meeting I went to – they wouldn’t even talk about race, and thought even the war in Bosnia was down to class differences. I didn’t bother after that.

but until you are part of trying to build something better that works and see how difficult that is

Hey I’m not saying it’s easy at all. I’m just saying the SWP has never actually managed to do a whole lot that I’d applaud. Especially, intellectually, or in terms of political activity. Sure – there have been some local impact, but broadly that could go for a lot of movements.

writing for comment is free and blogging (or supporting the lib dems or labour) is really not going to answer the problems we all face of an out of control, planet destroying system…

Well that’s something we can agree with. But then I didn’t claim it would. But that isn’t to say debates in the media are entirely useless or have no impact because they do.

Respect – yes well, I think that says more about the far-left (with Respect the only notable project) than it does about Respect itself. And now. of course, that is also pretty defunct.

I went to a couple of their meetings some years ago, and couldn’t get over how cringeworthy it felt at the end when they all sang The Internationale with their fists raised in the air.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQUiCjFsKjQ

27. So Much For Subtlety

LP – “They are right: sectarianism has crippled progress on the left since the formation of Respect in 2004, and has prevented any genuine electoral alternative to the three central parties from forming.”

Sure. It is not that they are all fruit cakes (with totalitarian intent) that is preventing people voting for them, it is sectarianism. If only they could get their act together. Then they wouldn’t be a bunch of inadequates who desperately want power to make up for all their personal insecurities and deep suppressed desires. Who the average voters wouldn’t touch with a literal barge pole.

What’s wrong with singing the Internationale?

RE: the collapse of the SWP
People in pubs up and down the country are talking about nothing else.

30. Luis Enrique

Laurie,

I don’t want the left to succeed if the left consists of the SWP – I’d rather see the Tories in power than that bunch of clowns, or anybody that closely resembles them. This might sound like heresy (I suspect I am already disbarred from the true left in some people’s eyes) but if you think of politics as a continuum from left to right (or even a circle) it makes sense that people like me (centre left) are closer to the centre right than the extreme left. This is the problem with calling for unity and the end to squabbling – some people on the left just want nothing to do with these “radicals”.

Now a lot depends on the number of people (voters) in all these categories. If I thought that somehow making peace with the radical left would help a centrish left retain power, then I’d have a tactical reason to agree with you – but I just don’t think that’s true. I think the further the left moves toward the SWP, the lower its reelection chance become.

(this doesn’t mean I object to radical policies …. just those ‘radical’ policies (i.e. tired statist socialism))

31. Luis Enrique

hmm, on further thought I realise I’ve probably missed the point of this article. Please strike post 30 from the record your honour.

Can I just add if we are now having to measure each post with whether many people ‘down the pub’ are talking about it, I’d say much at Lib Con is pretty irrelevant to this demographic.

As for Tory supporters of white supremacist South Africa in the ’80s, their number was legion. Perhaps the most egregious was John Carlisle MP for Luton North, but rather better known as the ‘Member for Johannesburg’.

Sure, and Labour MPs were in the pay of the KGB. That was then and this is now.

@32
My dig wasn’t at “the post”. Far from it.
It was at the SWP and its total irrelevance.

35. Earnest Ernest

“Can I just add if we are now having to measure each post with whether many people ‘down the pub’ are talking about it, I’d say much at Lib Con is pretty irrelevant to this demographic.”

Not quite sure quite what this means…I’ heartened to see Lib Con is still a beacon to the rhetorically and syntactically challenged…but I think I agree with the poster’s general point. Issues which dominate the LibCon agenda are never likely to dominate discourse down the boozer…but if we’re talking wine-bars, Pilates classes or those lovely little cafe bars which do the bean soup just like the one we had in Tuscany, then I think you’re onto something.

Claude:

My comment was not solely aimed at you, others seem to be doing the SO WHAT thing (not that you are per se), which often happens here.

Chairman Moo/I’m So Cool/Monkeyfish/Earnest Ernest:

Lib Con is more of a beacon to sock puppets and anonymous coward types but still, the point is, your wild, inaccurate, presumptuous and sweeping generalisations aside; debate here is on a wide range of issues about all kinds of things, some fictional idea of ‘man in the street’ demographic is as poor a measuring stick as your silly concepts.

I deal with this split on a micro-level in my union; we have a “Left” faction which would like to go on about Palestine till the sun sets, meanwhile the hatchetman cometh insofar as job and pay cuts are concerned. There is a question of being fit for purpose, and what can be usefully achieved. The SWP as well as this “Left” faction are so wrapped up in their own agendas that they forget to progress a real agenda, namely one that has a chance of achieving the most good for the most people.

Jeez, I wish I’d seen that Noel had turned up today. I gotta pay more attention.

While you’re around, Noel, and alerting the world to the SWP’s coalition-building finesse, could you tell us why you thought it was okay to form a coalition with the anti-abortionist Galloway parked on the throne, and why it was okay to tell women who thought this was a problem to piss off and leave their feminism at the door for the greater good? Why were women’s issues so disposable?

Hope you come back, Noel, I really do.

39. Golden Gordon

Sure, and Labour MPs were in the pay of the KGB. That was then and this is now.
True but I think most of them were in the pay of the MI5 or CIA

I don’t want the left to succeed if the left consists of the SWP – I’d rather see the Tories in power than that bunch of clowns, or anybody that closely resembles them.
I agree but it is close call but SWP /respect/trots make a lot of noise but actually are very small number of individuals.
The trouble with the numbnuts rightists, I hope your not one, is that they assume everyone on the left is the same and the Labour government is controlled by the SWP

This might sound like heresy (I suspect I am already disbarred from the true left in some people’s eyes) but if you think of politics as a continuum from left to right (or even a circle) it makes sense that people like me (centre left) are closer to the centre right than the extreme left.
Only you know your true politics. Also depends what you call centre right. Enoch was described as centre right

This is the problem with calling for unity and the end to squabbling – some people on the left just want nothing to do with these “radicals
I agree. The funny thing is that many Trots / Marxists I argued with in the seventies are now die hard neo Thatcherites.

Yeah, you’re really “revitalis[ing] the liberal-left through discussion and action” by pissing all over the SWP, which whether you like it or not is one of the most significant & active components of the Socialist, anti-war, etc movements. Certainly, the SWP has problems, but they are the same problems that the left as a whole has. Infighting being perhaps the worst, as this is a major reason why many people don’t take us seriously.

You prefer a Labour party that has moved so far to the right as to be virtually indistinguishable from the Tories; a set of corrupt, lying, theiving, murdering neo-liberal war-mongers? Or a Liberal Democrat party that will say just about anything to get a vote even if this means blatantly contradicting themselves (see the invasion of Iraq or student fees for a couple of examples), but when it comes right down to it shares the same neo-liberal orthodoxy as NL & the Tories?

Not much detailed or researched analysis here, Penny, just some old clichés really.

I think — though correct me if this is a case of mistaken identity — that this mean-spirited attack on the swp is written by the same person who, at Love On Trial, was calling for leftists to be temperate in their arguments and friendly to one another. ‘Practice’ and ‘preach’… or pot and black… come to mind.

The SWP say they want to form coalitions and make alliances. But in the end they cannot comprehend how anyone can have a different opinion to their own. So wherever they go, meeting people and groups with different opinions, they bring a culture of unpleasentness with them. For if you do not agree with them, they say you are a Tory.
These are desperate people. They are seeking to build a mass movement to defeat capitalism, but as yet they are tiny and insigificant. They want you to join them, but you have to learn to accept the party line.
So the net effect of the SWP is a negative one. Whenever a movement is spawned on the left, they seek to take over it, and impose their culture on that movement.
As a result it is often the case that being on the left is simply an unpleasent experience. You may have some kind of idealism to make the world a better place. And then you find in order to acheive it you have to enter a war zone.
So the SWP is split. I can’t say I am sorry. History shows this always happens to them, but somehow they keep on going. It would greatly benefit the left if this time it is terminal.

So the pure-at-heart, tolerant, inclusive liberals don’t like the SWP because it’s insensitive to the delicate proclivities of the liberal vanguard and adopts a doctrinaire approach within whatever movement it’s involved with, unless of course the movement concerned may have a large muslim contingent, in which case the SWP isn’t sufficiently doctrinaire and insensitive. Bless.

I stopped reading as soon as I read the word “progressive”. Which is amusingly defined here as “thinking beyond the good old days” (as if the the problems of now are somehow different to the problems of the past) and “thinking beyoned the status quo” (which has been arrived at as a consequence of the solving the problems of the past, see above).

You made it that far?

Well done that man.

Thanks, Daniel, but I’m still trying to figure out who the fuck is who in all this.

If it was in Heat or Hello mags they’d print photos to keep one up to speed – not joking, really honestly can’t keep track of the personalities (the politics is not relevant. Try visualising the fall of the USSR without knowing where Yeltsin fitted in, and why he hated Gorby without knowing Moscow/KGB standoff c ’85 etc etc…).
Anyone with a flowchart or a power-web diagram? Please?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left. http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  2. Laurie Penny

    New post at LibCon: resignations, rivalry and the future of the left http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  3. Jonathan Holt

    RT @libcon: Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left. http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  4. Leon Green

    RT @PennyRed New post at LibCon: resignations, rivalry and the future of the left http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  5. Carol Roper

    A glimmer of hope for the left after mass shock walkout of #SWP following Lindsey German's resignation. http://bit.ly/8ZlyIl

  6. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by libcon: Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left. http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  7. Richard Hall

    RT @leninology: Liberal Conspiracy: In defence of the SWP http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/02/17/resignations-rivalry-and-the-future-of-the-left/

  8. Liberal Conspiracy » In defence of the SWP

    […] Wednesday, I was reading Laurie Penny’s outburst, in her brief pay-off to the recent split within the Socialist Workers’ Party, that: […]

  9. leninology

    Liberal Conspiracy: In defence of the SWP http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/02/17/resignations-rivalry-and-the-future-of-the-left/

  10. 3arabawy BookMarx 02/19/2010 (p.m.) « 3arabawy

    […] Liberal Conspiracy » Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left. […]

  11. Lenny vs Laurie « Shiraz Socialist

    […] of organised Marxist groups and the wider left. Firstly, regular LC contributor Laurie Penny puts a case for the prosecution, in particular criticising the fractious and sectarian ways of working which exist in many of the […]

  12. Meascra na mblaganna « Splintered Sunrise

    […] at Liberal Conspiracy, there’s been an entertaining barney going on whereby Laurie Penny opinionates on destructive behaviour on the left, while that nice wee man Mr L Tombs responds with a defence of […]

  13. sunny hundal

    @casi_insurgente @NoelTweet they def have damaged far left with their sectarianism, which helps working class lose out http://bit.ly/aUV3ug

  14. sunny hundal

    @nick4glengate http://bit.ly/aUV3ug





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