Part One – Prestige Politics: The Infantile Disorder
“A Matter Of Prestige”, published August 2019, looked at aspects of the degeneration of the CWI and the SP into bureaucratic centralism, prestige politics and rule or ruin sectarian opportunism. Under the leadership of Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the latter for over fifty years prior to his resignation in late 2019, these processes developed over an extended period of time and were contrary to the principles and method upon which the CWI was originally formed. Part One of this contribution examines the destructive role of the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP) in the United Kingdom civil service and outsourced workers’ union Public and Commercial Services union (PCS).
The split between the SP leadership and its leading rank and file activists in PCS occurred when the latter opposed the re-election of SP member and PCS Assistant General Secretary Chris Baugh to that position. Baugh had consistently undermined the union’s socialist general secretary Mark Serwotka and his own SP comrades in the union’s lay leadership and consistently demonstrated a conservative approach to industrial and political strategy, including advocacy of selling members’ redundancy rights to show the union “could do a deal” with the government. He also refused to abide by the workers’ wage and other key principles of the CWI. The rank and file activists in PCS were summarily expelled from the SP when they refused to support Baugh for breaking the “party line”. Months later a wider split took place in the CWI itself resulting in the mass expulsion of the Majority opposition and the “expropriation” of the international name, brand and finance by the Minority faction led by Taaffe.
There are serious lessons to learned from these events. History is littered with failed attempts to build an effective revolutionary party, including within the Trotskyist tradition. Certain events tend to expose the real nature of a party’s regime in the most concrete terms. For the SP it was the split in PCS. Their actions in PCS were neither an isolated phenomenon nor a mere aberration and further destructive interventions in the movement will inevitably follow. Multiple instances of the SP’s destructive behaviour in PCS exist, including an attempt to sabotage the union’s national pay campaign. The two examples given below should be of particular concern to anyone serious about building genuine left unity in our movement. They also serve as a warning to the left in our movement and not least of all those struggling to build a genuine international on the principled basis the CWI was originally formed.
A) PCS General Secretary Election & General Election 2019
Spitefulness in general plays the worst possible role in politics – V.I. Lenin
The Tories called a general election in late 2019 that coincided with the PCS general secretary election. With the overwhelming support of activists in PCS’s broad left organisation, Left Unity, Mark Serwotka sought re-election for a fifth term. The union’s Independent Left grouping that had split from Left Unity many years previously stood a candidate. So too did the Broad Left Network (BLN), the SP’s electoral front. BLN decided to split from Left Unity rather than expose their leading candidates to humiliating defeat in Left Unity elections and a number of their nominated candidates withdrew from the process. BLN then decided to stand SP member Marion Lloyd against Serwotka.
Lloyd’s candidacy was not based on any serious objective political differences but on the SP’s status driven objective to extract vengeance following their defeats over Baugh’s re-election and within Left Unity. Serwotka’s is widely regarded as an outstanding socialist union leader of a union regarded as a “beacon of resistance” against cuts and privatisation. Lloyd’s candidacy was based solely on sectarian, factional considerations aimed at de-stabilising the union’s respected socialist leaderships, whatever the cost to PCS members. PCS election addresses are enclosed with ballot papers and sent to all PCS members. Lloyd’s was the SP manifesto for the union, fully endorsed by its leadership and drafted with their full participation. Before quoting a key extract from Lloyd’s election address a short explanation of how PCS’s political strategy developed is required.
PCS Political Strategy
The union’s political strategy was decided through extensive consultation with strategic objectives and priorities democratically decided by members and activists, and fully endorsed by the union’s annual delegate conference. The core aims of the political strategy were endorsed in the membership ballot held under the previous New Labour government. The political strategy was a direct response to Blair’s vicious programme of civil service job cuts and privatisation. It was also a response to that government’s propaganda campaign aimed at demonising unemployed and disabled workers inorder to justify policies aimed at the systematic dismantling of the social security system which is, along with the National Health Service, a key pillar of the welfare state.
The tactics of delivering the political strategy were never intended to be set in stone but built on the core strategic principles of defending PCS members interests, our class and the public sector and to also advocate and fight for policies to improve it.
Under the slogan of “Austerity” David Cameron’s Coalition government, elected in 2010, intended to carry out a programme of huge cuts in the public sector and mass privatisation and to launch an attack on trade union rights with the purpose of making the working and middle classes pay for their crisis. Although many trade union leaders were cowed PCS quickly responded by producing two key policy initiatives, the Economic Alternative and the Welfare Alternative, both aimed at opposing the message from the Tories and the media that there was “No Alternative”. These “Alternatives” were an object lesson how, on the basis of a transitional approach, a socialist trade union leadership could both expose the nature of the attacks on our class and also present concrete policy alternatives and demands.
Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader in 2015. PCS’s political strategy was then orientated toward the election of a Corbyn-led government. PCS had a long history of working with both Jeremy and John McDonnell and in the 2017 general election the policies set out in the PCS Alternatives were strongly reflected in the Manifesto. This Manifesto gained considerable support but, as we now know, the opportunity to elect a Corbyn-led government was sabotaged by the right-wing Labour bureaucracy.
Here is the full quote from the relevant section of Lloyd’s election address.
“Political independence: “no” to Labour Party affiliation
I am desperate to see the back of the Tories. I am a socialist and believe a Corbyn government would improve our pay and conditions.
But my opponents in this election have got it badly wrong by telling you to vote for all Labour candidates in England and Wales. We should not support MPs who have attacked our terms and conditions.
Mark Serwotka has placed his personal loyalty to the Labour Party above members wishes.
I will ensure that we retain an independent political voice. I oppose Labour Party affiliation unlike my opponents. I will work with those in the UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly who support us.”
The “strategy” set out in Lloyd’s election address stresses opposition to voting for “all Labour candidates in England and Wales”. This directly conflicted with SP policy and approach in other unions. SP material in other unions supported the election of a Corbyn-led government with no indication they disagreed with the universally accepted view that workers should be encouraged to vote Labour in all constituencies in order to achieve this outcome. Only in Lloyd’s election address do we find that view openly contradicted.
Leading SP member and former Labour MP Dave Nellist who, as Chair of the SP’s electoral front the Trade Union & Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in the 2017 general election clearly and correctly stated: – “But this election is different, giving working people the opportunity to drive out the Tory government and, on this occasion, put a socialist in No.10”. He went on to say that getting 326 or more Labour MPs elected would not stop the Blairites and concluded “But defeating the Tory government would be seen as such a victory for Jeremy Corbyn it would inspire and give confidence to millions that a different society is possible”. He also correctly pointed out that Corbyn’s election would greatly strengthen his position in the Labour Party and would be a major setback for the Blairites.
Nothing of any substance changed between the 2017 and 2019 general elections to invalidate these statements. No socialist could disagree with Nellist except, apparently, the SP itself, and only in relation to its material in PCS. In telling PCS members not to vote for all Labour candidates the SP showed they were prepared to countenance the election ofa Tory government as a price worth paying in order to pursue their vendetta against Serwotka and their former comrades in PCS.
If electing a Corbyn-led government was genuinely no longer seen as an SP imperative and voting for all Labour candidates was no longer a necessary condition for electing such a government why then did they not explain their reasoning to the wider movement? If their approach had genuinely changed then why did they not pursue this by standing candidates against those Blairite MPs they were asking PCS members not to vote for? Why didn’t they advocate TUSC stand against the Blairites? To merely pose these questions is to answer them. Nowhere else in the entire movement except in PCS did anyone advocate the formulation used in Lloyd’s election address, including the SP itself.
Following the publication of the leaked report that revealed the corrupt behaviour of right-wing officials who sabotaged the 2017 general election in order to prevent the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government UNITE union’s general secretary Len McCluskey wrote: “Even the most demented sectarian on the left has not championed a Tory election victory to win an inner-party argument.” While Lloyd’s election address clearly doesn’t “champion” a Tory election victory, it nevertheless sets out in unequivocal terms that PCS members should not vote for all Labour candidates despite the fact any fool knew that to elect a Corbyn-led government this was what had to be done.
An Appeal To Conservative Sentiment
The election address was a calculated and opportunistic appeal to the most conservative and antisocialist elements of the PCS membership itself – the very social base upon which the right-wing Moderates had rested prior to the victory of the left. It remains a Tory objective to destroy the socialist leadership of PCS. Under the Coalition government they made an all-out to attempt to smash the union through the withdrawal of the check-off facility, an attack the union met head-on and defeated. The British ruling class and its security forces like MI5 have always had a deep interest in controlling and manipulating the direction of civil service trade unionism. While the right-wing currently has no organised formation in PCS the SP campaign to de-stabilise the union will be seen by our class enemies as an opportunity to create the conditions for the re-emergence of an organised right-wing, which in this period would most likely coalesce around Blairite elements who have gained confidence from the election of Keir Starmer as Labour Party leader.
PCS’s leadership explained the political strategy to secure a Corbyn-led Labour government with due regard to differing political circumstances in the devolved areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. PCS called on members in England and Wales to vote Labour, with appropriate explanatory material to Welsh members. In Scotland, the union call was to vote to get rid of the Tories, a view supported by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and particularly those on its left wing. In Scotland, the SP’s attacks on the union strategy were based on a cynical appeal to what was an understandable antiLabour sentiment due to the party’s failure to address the national question. Disgracefully this was also designed to appease a tiny grouping of anti-English ultra-nationalists in the union who had allied themselves to the SP.
Affiliation To The Labour Party – “Half The Lies They Tell Aren’t True”
Lloyd’s election address claims Mark Serwotka advocated PCS affiliation to the Labour Party. There is not a grain of truth in this assertion – it is a calculated lie. A lie made all the worse for being a further conscious and direct appeal to conservative sentiment in the union. As the humorous old saying goes “Half the lies they tell aren’t true”.
Militant, the SP’s predecessor, like a number of other left parties and groups, supported Labour affiliation in PCS’s predecessor union the Civil and Public Services Association in the 1970’s and 80’s. This demand was dropped in the wake of the Kinnock witch-hunts that cleared the path for the emergence of Blairism. Serwotka himself left the LabourParty as a result of these developments. When Labour affiliation was raisedin a PCS membership consultation only six percent ofrespondentssupported it. A considerable portion of union members and some activists believe that affiliation to Labour would breach the rule that civil servants should be politically “independent” in discharging their duties. This view reflects a conservative and confused mentality amongst elements of the union’s social base. Serwotka and the left in PCS have worked hard to dispel this false view by explaining that while civil servants should carry out their official duties without bias that clearly does not extend to legitimate campaigns against, for example, the closure of an office, a fight for adequate resources etc., or to support and vote for politicians who support union policies.
The SP leaders know fine well the question of Labour affiliation has never been proposed by PCS’s leadership, including Serwotka. In consciously and persistently repeating this deliberate lie The SP is employing the self-same tabloid method of the right-wing press which has no place in our movement. Lloyd’s claim that Serwotka “placed his personal loyalty to the Labour Party above members wishes” is nothing more than a spiteful, personalised, spiteful lie.
Failure To Orientate To Corbynism
The SP leadership was initially elated when Corbyn became Labour Party leader but this gave way to a gradual realisation that their profile and ability to recruit was being compromised and diminished by the surge toward Labour. Their demand for a new workers’ party was reduced to a fringe view now the traditional mass political party of the working class was led by a socialist. The SP’s central task was to develop a strategy and tactics that orientated towards the class battle being played out in Labour between the left and the Blairites who dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party. But SP leaders were incapable of developing such a strategy, they were manacled hand and foot by their bunker mentality, conservative formalism and prestige politics.
Over the years the SP’s full-time bureaucracy developed a culture in which the “line” was handed down to a membership that had little or no input in developing or even seriously debating the policies they were expected to advocate. Party strategies and tactics were formulated by a small group around Taaffe, adopted by a supine Executive Committee and National Committee, the latter composed almost entirely of full-timers. SP members were conditioned in the repetition of axiomatic formulations and sloganising. The SP leaders have a disdainful, withering contempt for all other trends and tendencies within the movement. This arrogance was imitated and imbued in the approach of many of their members. SP members had little or no experience of consistent work within the wider organisations of the working class, especially the trade unions. They were utterly incapable of effective intervention in the living struggles in the Labour Party.
The SP focused on extolling past achievements, like the Poll Tax victory, rather than on genuine engagement with left forces within Labour on the priorities and issues of the day. Campaigns such as those demanding the re-entry of Militant members expelled in the Kinnock purges and for equal affiliated status to Labour on the same basis of the Cooperative Party were status driven initiatives entirely focused on party building.
As previously referred to in “A Matter Of Prestige” SP leaders sought to justify their approach in PCS by arguing in internal debates just prior to the split that as both Corbyn and Serwotka were “reformists” a Corbyn-led government would buckle under pressure from the ruling class and Serwotka would sell-out PCS members in the process. This cheap smear was at odds with Serwotka’s record. Contrary to “selling out” he and PCS’s lay leadership and its militant activist base would far more likely have been the bedrock of resisting any such pressures from the ruling class. This is a sharp little cameo of a so-called revolutionary party in sectarian freefall. The SP leadership’s approach and methods are evidence of precisely the “Infantile disorder” Lenin himself showed so much contempt for
Disorientated and staggering from one failed “initiative” to another, the SP became even more isolated from the class battle in the Labour Party and were reduced to the position of by-standers, shouting from the sidelines. They were just not equipped to play a key role in building a fighting socialist left in the Labour Party. A result of this self-inflicted isolation led SP leaders to regard Corbynism more as a threat than an opportunity.
The split in PCS deepened the SP’s erratic mindset toward Labour. Their leaders cold-bloodedly calculated there was considerable factional and electoral opportunity and advantage in attacking PCS’s support for a Corbyn-led government. While not accurate to say SP’s leadership welcomed a Tory victory it is true that it suited their narrow sectarian interests. For them the Tories election victory and Corbyn’s defeat marked a return to old certainties. They calculate opportunities have now opened up for them to grow and develop their influence now the left reformist “distraction” of Corbyinism is out of their path. Like the Bourbon kings of old they learn nothing and forget nothing.
The Petty Self-Interests Of Sectarianism
Sectarianism has multiple features and pathologies of differing significance and impact. In its more extreme manifestations it assists the interests of the ruling class rather than those of the working class. In a state of almost perpetual denial the sectarian retreats into the bunker of so-called ideological purity, covers their eyes to all the evidence of the deleterious impact of their actions and screams that they were representing working class interests, of which they are the sole legitimate voice.
No amount of spin or “gaslighting” can justify the SP’ telling PCS members not to vote for all Labour MPs in the 2019 general election. The subsequent defeat of Corbyn does not validate their stance but only serves to highlight that their unforgivable actions were not about upholding socialist principles but serving their own petty interests. Every single vote in every constituency was required to elect a Corbynled Labour government – telling PCS activists and members not to vote for all Labour candidates was at best an irresponsible and reckless act or, at worst, a conscious act of class betrayal.
B) Sectarian Opportunism – The Voice Of The Cult
During the government lockdown in response to the Covi-19 pandemic an article appeared in the Socialist newspaper entitled “Should the Socialist still be produced during the Corona virus.”
The background to this was that following full discussion with PCS’ senior officers and with the subsequent full endorsement of the union’s national executive committee Mark Serwotka, in April 2020, had written to Hannah Sell, newly appointed SP general secretary, expressing concern about an SP paper sale conducted at a civil service office in Stratford, East London, on March 31st, at the beginning of the lockdown itself.
Serwotka’s letter addressed issues raised by union reps whose members expressed dismay and concern at the paper sale. These concerns included the potential for increasing the risk posed to members by the Covid-19 virus and further pressure being placed on NHS staff and services. Members felt that the sale demonstrated a “dangerous disregard” for health and safety. Serwotka explained the union was engaged in “hard negotiations” with Civil Service employers to ensure protection for members but nevertheless regarded the government’s guidelines as the minimum that should be followed to “safeguard our communities” and that while they were “..not enough” they would “save lives in this situation.”
Dismissing PCS Members Health And Safety Concerns – Spinning The Narrative.
In responseSell claimed the article raised “broader points” about the role of labour and trade union activists during the crisis. She said the government guidelines allow the buying and selling of newspapers and claimed social distancing was maintained at all times at the sale and those taking material were at no more risk than people buying newspapers at a kiosk. She said that if PCS reps had concerns the SP would be happy to speak to them. She went on to lecture Serwotka on the importance of articles in the Socialist paper and how they would be of interest to civil service workers. Then, in a logic-defying leap Sell goes on to scold Serwotka by saying she hopes that he is not “suggesting that the socialist press should face great restrictions than those placed on media that does not have the interests of workers at heart.”
PCS responded by stating the SP did not understand the government guidelines and were dismissing workers’ legitimate health concerns and had failed to address the union’s request not to repeat their actions. They were also reminded the guidelines clearly stated people should stay at home and that: – “…..whilst PCS is highly critical of the government’s response to the crisis, following these simple rules will mean fewer people will contract Covid-19 and fewer people will die than if they are not followed. You seem to have misunderstood this basic point or you have chosen to ignore it.”
Serwotka answered the SP’s attempt to deflect attention from the central issue in attacking the union’s campaigns by firmly stating “These are matters for our union, not an external organisation such as yours, and are determined through our democratic processes. Your comments are irrelevant to the question of our members statement.” The response ended by stating again – “PCS reps in Jubilee House have expressed serious concern to us and it is a matter of the utmost importance that you do not engage in such actions again.”
In a further response Sell drew on her original parallel between the sale of capitalist and socialist newspapers claiming “.. the fact you dismiss this can only lead to the unfortunate conclusion that you do, indeed, believe that the working class press should face greater restrictions than those placed “on media that do not have the interests of workers at their heart.” She asserts “And if this is so for the workers’ movement, then what are the implications for workers’ independent organisation generally, including the ability of PCS members and reps to organise on behalf of their fellow workers? Should they too face greater restrictions on their ability than the employers?” And finally, “Obviously not, in our opinion. Clearly, there are profoundly different viewsbetween us on these vital questions of how the labour and trade union movement should operate in these extremely challenging times, which is in the interests of the movement to discuss out.” (Our emphasis).
So there we have it – in PCS daring to raise the legitimate health and safety concerns of workers in the midst of a pandemic the SP draws the bizarre conclusion that the union’s real aim is to shut down the workers’ press and, furthermore, restrict workers right to self-organise. Regretfully there is no polite way to say this – these wholly manufactured “differences” are symptomatic of an irrational mindset so disturbingly disconnected from reality that SP’s leaders seem to believe any accusation made by them, no matter how deranged and dishonest, against those they regard as political opponents is permissable.
It should not be necessary to set out these self-evident facts but the SP’s accusations requires we do: –
- It was PCS members who raised the issue over the paper sale, not Serwotka. Both he and senior officers had a duty to raise these concerns with the SP. Serwotka’s letter was fully endorsed by the union’s national executive committee. He was not writing in a personal capacity nor expressing his own personal opinion but wrote in his capacity as general secretary of the sixth biggest union in the UK.
- The letter was clearly not initiating a “debate” on the role of the socialist press. The letter did not raise nor give even the hint of a suggestion the Socialist should not be produced during the pandemic.
- The letter was raising an extremely serious matter of health and safety and protecting lives.
- The letter was not published publicly. It was private correspondence raised in order to resolve a serious health and safety issue.
- The purpose of the letter was to resolve the issue and gain an assurance no further breaches of the government’s guidelines occurred as they would compromise the health and safety of PCS members
Questioning The Legitimacy Of Workers’ Health And Safety Concerns
Any rational socialist would have simply acknowledged those serious concerns and the matter would have ended there. But not the SP. Instead they consciously launched a public attack on the union’s exemplary record in fighting for its members’ interests. They manufactured a phoney “debate” based on the lie Serwotka and PCS were advocating restrictions on the socialist press and even workers’ rights.
The SP’s request to speak directly to the union reps and members at Stratford was an attempt to underplay and even question the legitimacy of their concerns over the paper sale. The SP was clearly implying the reps, and their members lacked the political understanding as to why the sale was so important but that they were graciously prepared to educate them on the matter. This tone-deaf arrogance and detachment from the concerns of real workers were both insolent and deeply offensive. PCS’s Stratford reps are very experienced activists who, to their credit, acted properly when members raised safety concerns by raising the matter with their union leadership.
A key aim of the sale was to collect union members names from the signature sheet on the SP table in order to harvest that information for use in PCS internal elections. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such factional activity which all groups in the union participate in and which is part of a functioning internal democracy. But to do so in the midst of a pandemic demonstrates the same type of self-entitled, reckless and irresponsible mentality, Dominic Cummings, himself displayed. Just like him, they consider themselves so important they were above the rules that applied to everyone else.
The SP’s paper sale was also linked to their view PCS should have continued with its annual national and departmental group elections. By its very nature such activity would see paper sales and leaf-letting outside workplaces. The PCS national executive committee took a decision to postpone the elections on the basis the overwhelming priority of reps at that time was the health and safety of members.
Increased activity resulting from the elections at the very time the casualties and fatalities from the virus would have been at their peak was the union’s major concern. PCS reps and members did actually lose their lives during exactly this period. The SP were literally the only grouping in the union who opposed the postponement of the elections, they did not even get support for their position from the small number of activists in their Broad Left Network front.
The SP persist in their view the elections should have gone ahead and is the basis for their accusations, shorn of any context, of “anti-democratic” behaviouron part of the socialist PCS leadership. This is despite the fact that the SP gave full support for cancelling these same elections previously due to the exceptional circumstances of the Coalition government’s attempt to smash the union through the withdrawal of the check-off system. Both the postal workers’ union CWU and the education union UCU took decisions to postpone industrial action ballots due to take place after government lockdown measures were put in place. The SP’s position on these decisions was that they “understood” the reason why they were made. Did the SP berate these union leaderships and accuse them of “parking demands” or “denying members their democratic rights”? Of course not. The SP’s priority in conducting their campaign to de-stabilise the socialist leadership of PCS took precedence over any other consideration, including members’ health and safety.
Malice, Insincerity And Manufactured Outrage
If the SP genuinely believed PCS had an agenda of restricting the workers’ press and even the right of workers to organise why then did they not seriously challenge such a nefarious attempt to attack these fundamental rights of the working class? Surely such a serious threat warranted a far more robust response than merely an article in their paper that few would read. Why not, for instance, continue the sales and in-fact, increase them to other workplaces and to members of other unions? Why not highlight an illegitimate attempt by a major trade union to stop the sale of socialist newspapers by exposing the conspiracy to other left union activists and union leaders by directly corresponding with them? Why no outraged appeal to the wider movement to condemn PCS’s actions? Why no motions condemning the plot to union branches in PCS or elsewhere?
The malice, insincerity and manufactured outrage so transparent in the SP responses to PCS is sharply underlined by the fact they actually abided by the union’s demand not to conduct paper sales outside offices where PCS members worked. Other than at Stratfordthe SP did not carry out papers sales outside workplaces where other unions had members, nor have they done so throughout the rest of lockdownbecause theythey would not in such a cavalier fashion have risked alienating such unions’ leaderships, activists or members.
The angry response of a former SP member to a SP Facebook post at the time of the sale neatly summed up the attitude of activists toward the Stratford paper sale: – “How sad that a once solid political party has turned into this. No doubt any criticism of a blatant disregard of our members or the public health will be batted off with some idiotic political slur. Also thanks for potentially putting further pressure on the NHS and its workers too. Top tip I’d disinfect the money donated as it is a petri dish of germs. The new office must be costing a lot to upkeep if you are that desperate for donations.”
How prescient these comments were, became apparent when the SP article was shared on social media. Here is a little taste of the “political” comments of SP’s foot soldiers: – “Do you think Mark Serwotka would be bothered if people were selling the Sun.”, “Socialist Party members are among so many other workers who are in the front line. Where it is sometimes impossible to adhere to social distancing. Our members are also putting their lives at risk on a daily basis. How dare Mark Serwotka question us in this regard.”, “I remember being told by Right-wing Labour hacks that I could no longer sell the paper outside meetings despite being on a public footpath.”, “The right-wing have always tried to stop us selling our paper and spreading our ideas. The reason is these ideas are getting a resonance.”, “You can try to silence us. You can try to bully us into hiding our ideas, But you will not succeed.” Then this, “You see my problem here is what will be the next step – that the “Socialist” cannot be sold in a public space inhabited by any PCS member in a public meeting or demonstration or outside a picket line and so and so forth: because a PCS committee does not like it. I had all that in the Labour Party years ago when they dictated to me when and where I should sell the Militant and that ended up in a withchhunt against the ideas of Militant, and this is what this thread has turned into.” In another comment Serwotka is compared with Barry Reamsbottom, the vicious right-wing leader of the Moderate group and elsewhere as a “Quisling”.
It is significant these comrades didn’t even refer to PCS members’ health concerns and when challenged by PCS they resorted to accusations of victimisation and bullying against them. To top all this they claim PCS advocates the Socialist may be banned from demonstrations and picket lines and, of course, this will result in witch-hunts. Here we have the authentic voice of a sectarian cult.
Had the sale been carried out by raw young activists it would have been serious enough but might be excused as an error made through an overdose of enthusiasm and revolutionary fervour. But it wasn’t; it was carried out by Sell herself and highly experienced industrial organiser Rob Williams. This in part explains the SP’s reaction – they would not dream of giving the slightest concessions to a union leadership they considered in the light of recent history their mortal enemies no matter how reasonable the union’s action in writing to them actually was.
A socialist organisation may have a fighting chance of reorientating and correcting its course from quite serious errors and deformities, but none can recover from status-obsessed prestige politics. This represents a complete abandonment of Marxist method and a descent into a personalised, vengeance-driven mentality that strips the party of its capacity to analyse circumstances objectively and dispassionately. It leads to exactly the type of destructive and dangerous behaviour exhibited in SP’s actions in both the general secretary election and the episode of the paper sale.
Whether an innate trait or one developed over time, it is a distinctive psychological feature of those who capitulate to prestige politics that they have the most fragile and hypersensitive egos, for them, everything is personal. For SP leaders, their humiliating defeats in PCS induced a pathological embitterment than precluded any rational considerations – Lenin himself stated: “Spitefulness plays the worst possible role in politics.” Prestige politics in a socialist organisation is not just an infection, it is a terminal condition for which there is no cure.
A Negative Influence
The relatively high regard of the SP on sections of the left and with some left union leaders in recent years was due in large part to the example and record of leading PCS lay activists like Janice Godrich, union president for seventeen years and current president Fran Heathcote, two of the most outstanding socialist woman trade union activists and leaders of the past twenty-five years. But the SP’s antics and negative influence in PCS have shocked many socialists in the wider movement and caused real damage to its reputation, destroying trust built up over the years. There is real anger and contempt over their calculated decision to target Serwotka and PCS’s lay leaderships, a union regarded as a “beacon of resistance”.
Over recent years the SP prioritised building its status in the trade union movement through an unhealthy concentration on securing senior positions in unions without doing the hard, long-term work aimed at building a solid presence in the workplaces. This was is in complete contradistinction to the fifty years of consistent work based on a principled application of the united front strategy and tactics that built a powerful left in PCS and led to the defeat of the right-wing Moderates.
A Warning To Socialists
The SP’s actions in PCS represent a serious warning to socialists generally and particularly those in the trade union movement. As they sinking more deeply into a morass of a sectarian, status-obsessed mentality they will increasingly pursue in other unions similar” strategies” to that in PCS. This trend will be reinforced and deepened and will be an impediment to building principled left unity in the current period.
Distortions and deformities developed over an extended period of time within the SP regime are now so ingrained it has rendered them incapable of playing any consistently positive role in building left unity or establishing themselves as a significant Marxist tendency within the unions. The SP will exert no real consistent influence in developing united front work in the movement and it is also ruled out they can build a genuine Trotskyist international capable of meeting the enormous tasks facing our movement and our class.
Millions of workers are looking for answers. It cannot be ruled out in such circumstances the SP could experience some growth and even a degree of influence, but this would be of a spasmodic and temporary nature. Without a major change of approach, they are not capable of developing a cadre of politically educated youth and workers that could, on a consistent basis, intervene effectively in the mass struggles that will characterise the period opening up. Party loyalty and adherence to the “line” handed down from its narrow and isolated bureaucratic leadership is, in the final analysis, the overarching feature of its culture and regime.
Features Of A Sect
There is an element of comedy in SP’s knockabout dismissal of those of us who fought them to defend correct methods of orientation towards the trade unions in PCS as” ex-Trotskyists” and even “exsocialists.” This is redolent of a fanatical Calvinist sect that decrees only its faithful adherents will enter the Kingdom of Heaven and condemns all the other sinners to the other place. There is a reason for this mindset. By characterising opponents as heretics who have abandoned the faith they are essentially trying to frighten their members into toeing the line or join the damned. This is a cult mentality. Internal SP culture is designed to both control and reassure its members there is no need for them to make any attempt to exercise independent thought, scrutiny or analysis.
SP leaders suffer from a profound lack of political confidence: this is a consequence of their abandonment of a Marxist method which has distorted any ability they may once have had to respond to events either theoretically or practically in an objective, considered fashion. They are now reduced to concocting easily digested narratives with the prime aim of bolstering their authority with their members rather than confidently reaching out to the wider movement. The Taaffe regime has created a leadership not of confident revolutionaries but institutionalised apparatchiks. They now talk only to themselves and, as a result, are increasingly divorced from the workers’ movement they aspire to educate and lead.
Under the current leadership, the CWI is incapable of reorientating itself to the mass organisations of the working class, its activities in PCS are concrete evidence of this. Their shrinking membership base has within its ranks some very self-sacrificing comrades who have given many decades to the movement, and they deserve the greatest respect and not a little sympathy. There are two broad categories in SP’s rank and file membership.
There are those who are the product of two decades of miseducation in which activism was elevated above education, theoretical study, discussion and internal democracy. A firm theoretical understanding is the basic foundation of any revolutionary’s understanding but in itself is of little or no use unless verified, steeled and directed toward effective action on the basis of consistent work and participation in mass organisations of the working class, particularly the trade unions. Here is the tragic nature of sectarianism. Sincere people join a revolutionary party only to be misled and conditioned by “leaders” who are pathologically fearful of dissent, disagreement and debate. For them compliance and orthodoxy are the key aims of “cadre-building.”
Then there are those lay members who have proud records and considerable experience in the mass organisations of the working class, including past involvement in the Labour Party. This older and diminishing band of SP members are fully aware that the strategy and tactics used in the PCS dispute and the SP’s behaviour outlined above were wrong on just about every level. But for them party loyalty is above any other consideration, so they either remain silent or are openly complicit. Their refusal to challenge this descent into sectarianism is accelerating that very process. These comrades are shirking their political duty. And that is more than an error – it is a crime.
The SP’s actions in the PCS and CWI disputes are a warning to other forces on the left of the dangerous role it will continue to play. The causes and processes that formed the basis of their descent into sectarianism is not the result of an aberration that is capable of correction. On the contrary, these negative features are now written into its DNA.
The second part of this contribution will focus on some features of the Majority expelled from the CWI and touch further on orientation to the mass organisations of the working class.