Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Mark Steel, the SWP and Respect

One of my abiding memories of radical left activism in the UK came at the fag end of the 1984-85 miners' strike. It was a bitterly cold February morning - even London was snowbound - and I'd joined a mass picket of a coal-fuelled power station.

The strike was beginning to fray at the edges; even previously solid pits were seeing the first trickle of strikers back to work. Men who had given their all, exhausted all they'd got, physically and emotionally, were being driven to think the unthinkable.

We knew in our hearts that the strike was close to being broken. The coal stocks at the power stations had remained dispiritingly high. Electricity supplies had continued uninterrupted. If we couldn't shut down a single power station, or bring about a single power cut, even during the worst cold snap of the winter, what hope would there be with the onset of spring?

And then I heard the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, and the leader of the Labour left, Tony Benn, rallying the troops. One last heave was the gist of their message. The coal stocks were about to run out, they said explicity. The coal board and the government was on the verge of defeat. Two weeks later it was all over: there wasn't even enough strength left in the movement to negotiate the terms of our surrender.

Now I'm sure Scargill and Benn didn't see their rallying cries as dishonest, but that is certainly what they were. And I've felt ever since that one of the major failings of the left, in Britain and worldwide, has been its failure to acknowledge the scale of the defeats it has suffered over the past few decades. Those defeats have been both tactical and strategic, practical and intellectual. And few people who have remained true to any kind of alternative socialist vision of society have been honest enough to admit as much.

It doesn't really matter whether this is self-deception or outright lies. Until the left has the intellectual honesty to face up to the scale of its many defeats and failings, it doesn't have a hope in hell of moving beyond them.

From time to time, I come across people who define themselves as being of the left who have the personal and political honesty to confront these issues. Among others, I've found the Red Pepper bloggers Pennyred and Probablyblonde to be a breath of fresh air in this respect. And now, too, I can add the Socialist Workers Party stalwart, author and comedian Mark Steel to my list. The following is how he opens a commentary for the SWP internal bulletin about, among much else, the current split in Respect. It's such a refreshing read that I've posted the whole commentary on the Red Pepper forum.

Ah, the British left - what do we do to ourselves?

When I joined the SWP in 1978 I was instantly impressed by so many aspects of its ideas and methods. But one of the most decisive sides to its character was its honesty. We were proud of what we could achieve and what we could influence, but wary of the exaggerations. In particular, Tony Cliff exhibited an almost impudent scepticism towards any stories that appeared too glorious to be true. But one result of this outlook was that every success reported, no matter how apparently tiny, was genuine and a source of enormous pride.

How desperately we need a return to that honesty today. For by whatever criteria you wish to use, our party has shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago. In many areas where the SWP once represented a chaotic pump of activity that connected with all that was vibrant, energetic and rebellious in the city, now the meetings are tiny, bereft of anyone under forty and attended out of duty. Not many years ago, in most towns you were never far from a line of hastily slapped-up Socialist Worker posters, so they were almost an accepted part of any city centre, and there must be people who supposed the council was obliged to ensure they stayed up, on grounds of maintaining local heritage. But you'd have to conduct a diligent search now to find anything of the sort ...

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3 comments:

Mat C said...

Well, yes ... but I am equally annoyed by those (usually liberal-lefts or ultra-lefts) whose only contribution to the strugg, and probably only pleasure in life,is to insist that everything is awful.

Trotters who vie with the neocons, for instance, in damning Cuba and predicting its imminent demise (having done so daily for the last 30 or 40 years); lefties who prefer to pretend that the very considerable left advances being made right now in various parts of the world either don't exist or are (in some mysterious way) actually bad news.

We have indeed been clobbered in this country in the last 25 years. But against that, can any socialist over 40 remember a time when our basic beliefs, and even policies, were so universally shared by our neighbours? You can certainly remember when defending nationalisation would get you sectioned; now, I literally don't know anyone (including people who voted Tory in 1992, and people hwo didn't vote at all last time) who doesn't want the trains brought back under patriotic control.

Pretending that our current difficulties are a) unprecedented or b) universal seems to me to be self-indulgent, ahistorical, and Euro-centric. And arse.

As for Mark Steel - very funny man, but I wish someone would tell him that when he goes on the News Quiz he shouldn't just recite his stand-up act from memory: that's not how the programme works.

Freda People said...

I would feel a lot easier about celebrating the Cuban revolution if it didn't have the highest number of journalists outside China in prison.

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