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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

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Financial Appeal

The politics of anathema in the IS Network

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Recent controversies inside the IS Network have foregrounded the problem of personalised anathema inside the organisation. We think this is necessarily and intrinsically linked to the danger of becoming a small sect, as we will spell out later. Irrespective of the truth of that, personalised politics has always been a particular danger for us. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, we bring with us certain habits taken over from the SWP, where a hierarchical culture was underpinned in part toward personal spite towards those perceived as deviating from the line, and personal favour toward those perceived as capably upholding it. Many of us can probably name several points in the last five years or so when we have been fed an obnoxious line about someone deemed to be beyond the pale. Even when the line contained elements of truth, it was obvious that this was no way to handle serious political differences. Nonetheless, the practices continued. In the context of the SWP crisis, many of us were astonished to learn that we were not just anti-Leninists, but also centrists, reformists, autonomists, creeping feminists, sell-outs, allies of the Daily Mail, and so on. These habits continue in the IS Network, albeit with different inflections.

Second, we are a very small organisation, and becoming smaller. An organisation of some reasonable size, such as the SWP, cannot be entirely sustained by favouritism or individual spite. Yet, the smaller the numbers of those actively involved in the organisation’s material existence, the more activity will revolve around tight networks of people who know each other, or who are part of the same social circle. This makes it more vulnerable to networks of like-minded, socially imbricated people setting an agenda of inclusion and exclusion, often on the flimsiest political pretext. This is not to argue that there is no politics to such practices; there is, and we shall return to this. It is to say that the political justifications cited for anathematising individuals are usually not convincing.[1]

For the same reason of the relative weight of the organisation, the network is also particularly vulnerable to prominent individuals setting a tone that then becomes normal. Particularly problematic are those instances where members of the steering committee have been involved in such conduct. Unless we are to import another habit from the SWP, in which leading members are unaccountable for their actions - because they are deemed indispensable, or whatever - this needs to be addressed as a political problem for the organisation.

Third, the SWP was held together by a shared meta-discourse - not just the formal ideologies, but the informal culture and behavioural expectations - which acted as an adhesive, and contained the tendency toward political questions being resolved on the basis of spite or favour. This informal culture was profoundly hierarchical, and as a result the dissemination of gossip tended to be top-down and driven by a bureaucratic agenda rather than social closeness; it was also sectarian in a structured way, resulting in spite being directed at organisations and hate figures outside the organisation. That meta-discourse has now collapsed. We can no longer agree on the basic coordinates of what a political organisation should look like, much less a political strategy. The risk, in this circumstance, is that nothing is left to bind people beyond personal ties and grudges. 

This story is studded with certain harsh ironies. Some of the behaviour reeks of precisely the macho behaviour that we began to problematise when we left the SWP. That we should not only reproduce some of the worst elements of the SWP’s culture, but do so in a way that puts off not just our ‘fellow travellers’ but those still in the SWP opposition, is staggering. Of course, much of this is because, owing to the peculiar conditions in which we emerged, we are much more forthright about abusing one another on the internet than would be considered usual in left organisations. But presumably, when we insisted that the culture of the far left needed to be far more internet-savvy and libertarian, we did not intend to go on and satirise the argument in this manner. 

The deployment of enlightening epithets such as ‘reformist’ or ‘liberal’ is bad enough in a culture where there is some agreement, some sense that we know where we are headed and what the solutions are to our dilemmas. In a situation of generalised breakdown, acute crisis and urgent rethinking on the far left, we can no longer claim to know what the answers are. So even if these labels contained any element of truth, to denounce political differences as if they were personality flaws worthy of execration reeks of the politics of the sect.

The solution here is not simply to ‘be nice to one another’. It is not that at all. The passive-aggressive insults and epithetic schtick are manifestations of real sectarian tendencies inside our organisation. This is the bleak political truth of the situation. Any small, rootless organisation aspiring to a revolutionary politics is pulled in two directions. One is toward rightward lurches, opportunism and accommodation to more powerful forces. The other is toward sectarianism, abstract propaganda, and ultra-left vituperation of anyone perceived as cleaving to the right of the organisation. This is putting it schematically, and there is no pure expression of either tendency in any organisation. Nonetheless, the IS Network at the moment tends toward the sect model. If the dominant forces inside the organisation cannot forbear from abusing and insulting our own members, what does this betoken about our relationship to the outside world? What does it say about our ability to relate to the SWP opposition who, whatever disagreements we have with them, are essentially on the same side as us? What does it say about our ability to approach regroupment seriously? And what does it say about our ability to operate seriously inside wider left organisations like Left Unity and the People’s Assembly? 

If we continue down the sect road, we shall be a very small sect. At best, we can be an occasionally productive irritant of the existing institutions, from Stop the War to the union ‘broad left’ groups. But eventually, even that would run out of steam, as we would become the stereotypically sectarian, eminently ignorable posers on the margins. At worst, we can obstruct, sabotage and discredit the useful processes of rethinking and regroupment by our behaviour. Lest anyone thinks this overwrought, the point here is that these are tendencies, and tendencies are not static - what looks today like an unhelpful and off-putting culture of vitriol can easily turn into outright cult fodder tomorrow. 

This is therefore a statement of concern, and a warning. We urgently need to reconsider our internal political culture, particularly as regards how this relates to the way we solve political problems. 

Jamie A

Charlotte B

Kevin C

Magpie C

Simon K

China M

Adam M

Ciara S

Richard S

Len T

Rosie W

Tom W

[1]We note, for example, the peculiar way in which forms of anti-oppression politics have been mobilised in this cause. One of us was publicly denounced for ‘alienating’ women comrades by ‘shouting’ during a speech; the use of the word ‘trauma’ in a pre-conference document was deemed ‘ableist’. Such tactics seem not only to vulgarise important arguments, but actually diminish the anti-oppression politics being invoked.