Friday, 17 April 2009

What's Going On?

I borrowed Mark Steel's 'What's Going On?' from someone the other day. I've only read parts of it, but it turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected. His previous books have been excellent, and I've seen him onstage several times and he's always been very funny, but I'd avoided his most recent book. This was influenced by knowing it partly concerned his departure from the Socialist Workers Party after 30 years' membership - and the disillusionment and bitterness which goes with it.

Alex Callinicos, a leading SWP member, damned the book with a stroppy review in Socialist Review (Callinicos has, for good or for ill, developed something of a line in stroppiness) which I initially took to be an accurate account. Actually, while I find Steel's decision regrettable and think he makes some serious errors of judgement, his reflections are very illuminating.

For one thing he provides a sense of why it is so many people drift away from commitment to a revolutionary organisation. And 'drift' is the appropriate word - there's no sudden rupture or conversion to a different way of thinking. His politics remain very similar and his final decision to cancel his subs is the culmination of a long process of becoming largely detached from his party anyway. It is worth taking this kind of process seriously, not just as a mark of respect for people who have previously contributed so much to your organisation, but in order to reduce the likelihood of them leaving (and then - if they unfortunately have a book contract - slagging you off in print!).

The recurring theme in Steel's account is disillusionment with the SWP's failure to grow combined with exasperation at what he sees as the party leadership's failure to talk honestly about this. He exaggerates terribly about how much the organisation (and the far left more generally) has supposedly declined. He makes claims about attendance at the annual Marxism event collapsing that simply aren't accurate, for example. But he has a point when he urges socialists to face reality and be truthful with themselves. Only in this way can we evaluate anything accurately and plot a course for the future.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Callinicos took a defensive approach, rather than engage with this properly, as it is at least insightful into a process thousands of people have - in their different ways - experienced. Steel also reminds us of just how confusing and disorienting many activists find it when something goes wrong, as with the crisis and split in Respect. Those who follow extremely closely might just about make sense of a crisis like this, but for most it is simply strange and confusing. The book fails to find clarity out of the confusion - something its author readily admits - but the confusions are at least thought-provoking.

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