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Peter Waterman © 2003

 

 
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I have elsewhere written two reflections on the Third World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 2003, here and here. Those papers are both inspired by and oriented toward a re-invention of social emancipation (Waterman 2003a,b). In so far as they were mainly concerned with the general, they had to sacrifice some of the particular.

One peculiar particular thus disregarded was the role within Porto Alegre (or my part of it) of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP, of course, is less concerned with the re-invention of social emancipation than the preservation/repetition of a 19-20th century version of such. In this it is not alone, since there are similar such parties doing the same thing in, for example, far away India (Sen 2002).

My particular (peculiar?) interest in the SWP may be explained by my experience in a vanguard party, the Communist Party of Great Britain (around 1951-70), as well as in its various front organisations. One of these was a yet-to-be-recognised forerunner of the World Social Forum, the World Youth Festival. These were held every couple of years from 1949 and I attended four of them. I also worked twice for international Communist front organisations, the International Union of Students and the World Federation of Trade Unions, in Prague, in the 1950s and 1960s.

That was then. This is now.

Living in the Netherlands, my personal experience of this British vanguard party has been rather limited, but nonetheless almost entirely negative (I do know and correspond with a couple of future ex-SWP members).

At a Globalise Resistance event in London…um…early 2001?…I found myself, as a casual visitor, verbally assaulted by heavy-breathing, shiny-eyed SWP members, hard-selling SWP publications in a manner that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have abandoned as counter-productive. It was quite difficult to make out whether one was at a GR event or an SWP Congress.

When I publicly questioned SWP Top Gun, Chris Harman, on his opposing of reform to revolution, with what I considered an apposite quotation from Karl Marx, I was ignored. (Marx, no particular reformist, had called the 10-Hour Act in Britain, around 1838 I think, the first victory of the political economy of the working class over that of the bourgeoisie). When, in a panel on labour internationalism, I said one could not ignore the role of the International Labour Organisation and the international trade union organisations (of which I am a long-standing and public critic), I was jeered by ranks of enthusiastic SWP members - who showed no particular familiarity with either.

And my attempt to engage Chris Harman in printed dialogue over labour internationally, within the SWP journal, International Socialism, (Waterman 2002) remains unacknowledged. Cheerfully challenged on this matter at WSF3, Harman grimly replied with the Blairite, or Enronesque formulation, ‘I am not responsible for that decision…’.

Forearmed with information about my personal prejudices, readers may either switch to another channel or continue to watch this one…

There exists, around the World Social Forum, a problem of  traditional Leninist vanguard parties that operate according to two agendas, one public, one…um…less-than-public. This Leninst party practice has been customarily justified by notions of a privileged capacity to understand and struggle against capitalism (and the limited capacity of everyone else to do so).

This phenomenon takes significant form in Britain, where the Socialist Workers Party (which must also, by its separate existence, consider itself also a privileged interpreter of Trotskyism) dominates a classical ‘front organisation’ called Globalise Resistance. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a front organisation is one initiated or dominated by The Party, which nonetheless pretends to autonomy, and of which the Non-Party leaders/affiliates are distinguished by their silence concerning control by said Party). Politely these used to be called ‘Fellow Travellers’; rudely ‘Useful Fools’. Let one such person question the nature or role of The Party, s/he will then be subjected to charges of ‘sectarianism’, or ‘splitting the movement’ or, even worse, of being a representative of the same class to which the SWP leadership belongs (this is the ‘petty-bourgoisie’, members of which are customarily also characterised as ‘wavering’).

The US ZMagazine/ZNet, initiator of the ambitious Life after Capitalism (LaC) programme at the WSF3, invited three leading members of the SWP/GR (no fellow travellers here) to speak – more than three times – within LaC. But SWP/GR was also present elsewhere in the Forum. Thus, the most sophisticated of the SWP/GR leaders, academic Alex Calinicos, presented the SWP line on socialism, but signed this off in the name of GR (www.zmag.org/calinicospol.htm)! So much for the separation of powers. (Calinicos also managed to speak of socialism without mentioning women – 51 percent of the world population at last count – or feminism – the emancipatory discourse developed by women struggling against both patriarchal capitalism and the archaic socialist sect of machismo-leninismo. Indeed, he only mentioned one woman, Rosa Luxemburg, though one has to assume this was because she was a Marxist rather than a Woman). Although others are aware of the problematic relationship of this Party/Front to the Forum process (SCHNews 2001, Adamovsky 2002, Hodkinson 2003), WSF3 revealed its hidden agenda in open form, if at different moments and with a certain division of labour:

Part One: Chris Nineham, a somewhat humourless orator, whose political vocabulary seemed largely limited to adjectives of size, strength and priority, was talking to a panel about problems of developing the anti-globalisation movement in the UK, and urging it to rather concentrate on the immediate war danger than to disperse itself over the wide range of issues it currently encompasses.

Part Two: Chris Harman, a similarly humourless orator, but one whose political vocabulary draws from the Marxist classics of the 19th-20th centuries (but with little notable influence of Gramsci), was considering the necessity - of what he preferred not to call a vanguard party - because of its unique capacity to cover the complete range of issues necessary for social transformation.

Now:  if it looks like a vanguard party, if it barks like a vanguard party, if it smells like a vanguard party, and if it avoids critics like a vanguard party, one might reasonably assume that it is a vanguard party (if shame-faced). In so far as the SWP does not seem to respond to critique, it seems to me a fair object for polemic. (Response from the SWP would be, of course, welcome. Both to the present piece and to the other items referred to).

The logic of the two-part policy is as brilliant as the strategy is devious.

The SWP apparently wishes to shape, or at least to see, the ‘movement of movements’ as a series of single-issue ones (either simultaneous or successive) so that it can reserve for itself the Hegemony of the Whole (see, again, Calinicos, www.zmag.org/calinicospol.htm). There is a long SWP history that illustrates this practice.

But there is now a new, if short, history which says: ‘hey, folks, a new emancipatory hegemony, a new radical-democratic commonsense, can today be created without a Party, an Ideology and a Charismatic Leader (or even those with a seriously negative quantity of charisma)’!

Other Trotskyists, from the tradition of Ernest Mandel (who may be turning in his urn) have recognised this, to the extent that they have become effective leaders/interpreters of the new movement (notably, I believe, Christophe Aguiton, Michael Löwy, Eric Toussaint). The SWP leadership looks unlikely to be able to do this. Though one lives in hope. (I mean, look at what all that newspaper-flogging energy could do if put creatively into making another world possible!).

There is, now I recall, a third element to the SWP’s revolutionary strategy, at least as pronounced by Chris Harman at the Life after Capitalism event. He did not talk about Revolution (which possibly now, at least in Europe, has an even more problematic odor than that of the vanguard party). What he talked about was the inevitability of Counter-Revolution by capital and state when (if?) there is a mass democratic threat to their power.

Now, some parties are borne Revolutionary, some parties become Revolutionary, the SWP, apparently, is going to have Revolution thrust upon it.

(That capital and state did not turn to violent repression – with the major exception of the USA - on February 15-16, 2003, has to be explained, in SWP terms by the ‘partial’, ‘reformist’, or at least ‘non-revolutionary’ character of the movement. Others will say it was because too many people turned out, and/or because capital and state are smarter than the SWP gives it credit for, and – with the US exception - smarter than the SWP).

Again, it seems to me, that the ‘movement of movements’ offers us a post-19th century alternative. The notion of revolution (as an insurrectionary act or moment) is one that reflects not the strength of the masses but their weakness: the world has to be turned upside down immediately and totally (with opponents strung up on lampposts, sent to Siberia, parroting Little Red Books, exiled to Miami, accused of petty-bourgeois reformism) if emancipation is to occur at all.

Today, it seems to me, the task of the revolutionary is to make such a revolution unnecessary. And, thus, the counter-revolution (which has occurred successfully against all instances of ‘socialist revolution’ bar North Korea, Laos and Cuba) impossible. (Trotskyists, of course, will say that these were not real socialist revolutions, or that they were but that they were then betrayed. To the less dewy-eyed of us these may again appear political rationalizations rather than theoretical explanations). The notion around today is rather one of multiple revolutions in everyday life, where people have most control, claiming and extending the commons, imposing an economy of solidarity against that of the market, enforcing civility on the uncivilised, enforcing, hopefully, peace on the warmongers. This is the language of the Forums.

My underlying problem with the SWP-cum-GR is, however, a lack of trust.

I do not trust a political party or movement that - or person who - cannot laugh, and, particularly, is totally lacking in a relativising self-mockery. My idea of a Trotskyist joke is: ‘A Stalinist slipped on a banana skin…’, or ‘A Social-Democrat slipped on a banana skin…’ This is because the idea of a Trotskyist slipping on a banana skin is inconceivable (unless placed there by a Stalinist or a Social Democrat…or possibly by a Trade Union Bureaucrat).

I do not trust the SWP, further, because despite a certain amount of relevant reading  and searching, I have been able to form even an impression of how its policy is formed – for example on GR or the WSF. Are there discussions? Debates? Majorities and minorities? Factions? Self-criticism? Or does policy emanate, like ectoplasm, from a consultation with the SWP’s oracles (all of them dead and dumb for at least half a century, some for a century or more).

I do not trust the SWP, finally, because I have yet to see a statement from it about what it has learned from – I mean been taught by – the new movement.

I here make the same kind of demands on the SWP that I make on the WSF itself. But whereas the WSF is not only capable of responding to criticism and even of expressing and encouraging such, the SWP signally fails to project this image.

One wonders, finally, whether its young and active membership, heavily involved in the WSF (and in so far as they are either witnessing or involved in pluralism and horizontality) would in a crisis, prefer a SWP, full of sound and fury signifying very little indeed, to a movement that is full of joyful sound, brilliant light, sharp debate and, notably, experiences and ideas to which the Marxist classics of the 19th and 20th century may contribute some  necessary concepts or methodology, but could not possibly have provided sufficient guidance.

Buenos Aires/Lima

February 2003

References

Adamovsky, Ezequiel. 2002. ‘Imágenes de la nueva y de la vieja izquierda: Impresiones de viaje (Londres, Génova, Moscú, Buenos Aires)’ (Images of the New and Old Left: Travel Impressions (London, Genoa, Moscow, Buenos Aires)), El Rodaballo, No. 14, Winter, pp. 41-50.

Hodkinson, Stuart. 2003. ‘Another European Social Forum is Necessary’, Red Pepper, February. http://www.redpepper.org.uk/

Sen, Jai. 2003. ‘The Long March to Another World: Porto Alegre – Hyderabad – Porto Alegre, ‘Two, Three, Many New Social Forums?’, Special Issue, TransnationalAlternativ@s, (Transnational Institute, Amsterdam), No. 0. www.tni.org.tat.

SchNEWS. 2001. ‘Monopolise Resistance: How Globalise Resistance Would Monopolise Revolt’, http://www.schnews.org.uk/mr.htm.

Waterman, Peter. 2002. ‘Harmanizing the Workers of the World: Reasserting a 'Classical and Simple' Working Class in the Face of a Complex Global Justice and Solidarity Movement’. http://www.nu.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?3,28,11,491

Waterman, Peter. 2003a. ‘From the Agreements of Comrades to the Reinvention of Emancipation: The 3rd World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 23-8, 2003’, http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/wsf/waterman_poa.htm, http://voiceoftheturtle.org/show_article.php?aid=324

Waterman, Peter. 2003b. ‘Place, Space and the Reinvention of Social Emancipation on a Global  Scale: Second Thoughts on The Third World Social Forum’. (Unpublished. But, who knows, it may appear one day in The Voice of the Turtle and other irreverent websites.)

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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