SWP Crisis: Sectarianship, A User’s Guide.
Sectarianship, A User’s Guide.
“In one of the unpublished notebooks of Rilke there is an unpublished phrase….‘If you’re not one up (Biztleisch) you’re one down (Roteleisch).’”
Stephen Potter. Lifemanship.
As the SWP heads towards the March 10th Special Conference, feelings are running high. Public reticence by the opposition In Defence of Our Party faction (IDOP) has not stemmed the flood of allegations of sexual abuse, or the intensity of inner-SWP conflict. Unhelpful contributions, without the best interests of the SWP at heart, appear on the Internet, exploiting this newfangled device to spread their poison.
Yet there were happier times on the left. An epoch, now dimly remembered, when Alex Callinicos could play croquet with Tony Cliff, on grandfather Lord Acton’s lawn. House-guest Gerry Healy would hit in the face anybody who got in the way of the ball. Other luminaries of the left, from Peter Taaffe, Tariq Ali, to Sean Matgamma, would often pop over for a pleasant weekend.
It is no coincidence that the classic guide to the British Workers’ movement, ‘As soon as this Pub closes’ appeared during this period. It instructed a generation. It may need updating (no reference to the Weekly Worker, Permanent Revolution, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, to start with) but it remains a monument.
Is all this to be lost amongst more sordid revelations and fisticuffs?
There are signs that something of the spirit of those glory years has not gone away. Comrade Dave Dudley remains active. Splintered Sunrise/Soviet Goon Boy has proved himself (there is no higher praise) a worthy successor to ‘As soon as’. By describing the SWP Treasurer as a master of Father Crilly economics, Andy Newman has tapped into this rich vein
As the SWP falls into the sear yellow leaf comrades must defend this, the British ‘sectarian tradition’.
(Below: Extracts from ‘Sectarianship.’ Tendance Coatesy. 2013)
What is a Sectarian? “You, you and (especially) you”. That is the answer. But there is another reply. It is to be found in the practice and unceasing struggle of accredited Sectarians, licensed to be so named. We are a large group, and a growing one, formed at our Ipswich ‘Centre’ (123 full-timers). Our graduates have been active in the SWP battles and indeed elsewhere.
Stephen Potter is, as we say, “our look me up to”. He defined Sectarianship (which he called ‘Lifemanship’ pre- our epistemological break) as “how to make the member of another faction feel that something has gone wrong.”
Some think the purpose of factional fights is win a sect’s ‘line’.
But the true Sectarian, with or without rudeness, is out for another goal. Such a trained individual is able to make the other person – or ‘class enemy’ – feel ‘one-down’ (Roteleisch, also a term used by the Frankfurt School and the Platypus Society). That somehow She or He may be prey to serious political errors.
Our other master is James P. Cannon. Some might have heard tales that the founder of the American Socialist Workers Party (not to be confused with the above SWP) was the type who spent his life telling people how he’d got one over on his enemy of the moment. That, and the fact that after his death his party has ended up as a New York Real Estate company with 30 members, could lead to the conclusion that he could not be trusted in telling a child how to tie its shoe laces correctly.
We disagree. Cannon was highly skilled in Sectarianship. He remarked in the History of American Trotskyism (1944) that, “when it is a question of fighting for some political idea, Trotskyists can stay awake longer and speak longer and more frequently than people of any other political type.”
Cannon knew a sectarian when he saw one, often in the most surprising places. In 1930 he waged a “bitter fight” against admitting somebody to the New York Branch on the justifiable grounds that we wore a corduroy suit, had long hair and sported a “trick moustache”. That the man later became an Oehlerite proves Cannon’s worth.
The Trotskyist leader fought such “weaklings”, “traitorous gangs” “labour skates” for so long that he developed an unerring talent. Talking of later in the 1930s Cannon described his one-time allies in the US Socialist Party as follows, “They were inexperienced and untested. They were ignorant, untalented, petty-minded, weak, cowardly and vain. And they had other faults too.”
Cannon’s skills were put to good use in the 1950s. He linked up with Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert in that decade’s struggle against Pabloite liquidationism and its “spineless lackeys” engaged on “cadre-wrecking” expeditions on his home turf. The SWP leader left his imprint on a golden moment in the history of Sectarianship and of International Trotskyism.
The current (UK) SWP leadership has much to learn from Cannon who also said, “Party membership implies the obligation of 100% loyalty to the organisation, the rejection of all agents of other, hostile groups in its ranks, and intolerance of divided loyalties in general.” (The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. 1943) If only IDOP would listen and confine itself to sectarian – and cromulent - opuscules against Christopher Hitchens!
One can but hope to emulate the masters.
This seems a daunting task.
But it is not so!
Let us take a simple example.
Somebody who has signed the SWP ‘loyalty pledge’ is holding forth. She or He has got going on the numbers of Socialist Workers sold by the branch (normally exaggerated by a factor of three), and that the local workers were gagging for a General Strike.
Here we recommend Stephen Potter’s Canterbury Block.
Quietly add, “Absolutely it’s very encouraging, but not in the (add name of workplace).”
Since the SWPer is unlikely to know more about this workplace than its name, she or he is caught off guard. The flow is interrupted. An element of unease is introduced. Others may be encouraged to speak up, and point out that the call for a General Strike has had fewer echoes amongst the masses than Posadist’s programme for interplanetary socialism.
“But not in..” is a useful tool ….