Tuesday, 28 May 2013

On theory

This is a guest post by J. R. Hartley

The recent developments of the SWP and Socialist Worker websites have been mixed blessings for those of us who have long been critical of the party’s online presence,. For years we have argued that we need to up our game in terms of the internet, pushing for more resources, calling for the formation of commissions to make best use of the undoubted and untapped talents of so many comrades. Time and again we have been not only denied but denounced: traduced as cyber utopians who sought to abolish the paper and forgo true revolutionary activity. So three cheers for progress, I guess.

The makeover of the SW site is remarkable for the simple fact that it now appears to be worse than before – no mean feat given how it looked previously. While some neat touches have been added (such as the ‘tag’ and ‘popular’ tabs on the right-hand sidebar) the website looks half-baked, as though a beta version had been launched long before the finished version was ready to launch.

Far more interesting is the newly expanded “Theory” part of the main party website. After years of apparently randomly selected articles being highlighted in a decidedly haphazard fashion – almost as though my nan had wandered onto the site and absent-mindedly left them around with no rhyme or reason – the section finally adopted a systematic and organised approach. Clicking on the tab takes you to links for 246 books, articles and pamphlets, split into 38 categories such as “Economic Theory”, “Religion”, “Culture” and “The Fight Against Fascism”.

In many ways it is a highly useful resource even if it does duplicate links that are available in other places – most notably the monumental labour of love that is the Marxist Internet Archive. Treated as a suggested reading list it will doubtless be of value to anyone stumbling across revolutionary politics for the first time and experienced comrades alike, and collates some of the finest pieces of Marxist writing from the past 150 years or more.

But the “Theory” section, as initially launched, perhaps reveals more about the state of the party than one might expect. Not least it adds to the feeling that the party is old, reliant on the political capital of theories that were once indispensable, but now less relevant. Before I raise these points, however, I feel it’s necessary to state that I see the reading of Lenin, Trotsky, Cliff, Harman et al as being of huge importance. Let me say from the outset: I actively encourage comrades, old and young alike, to read (and re-read) the classics from the Marxist tradition. These are not only works with invaluable analysis and insight – the best examples also show how to effectively communicate the ideas of socialism and revolution to a mass audience. Any list of theoretical resources must carry these works. It is just a sad sign of the times that anyone raising concerns and criticisms feels the need to pre-empt the inevitable, unthinking rebuttals that pass for debate inside the organisation these days.

On social media some have already pointed out some of the notable omissions, for instance the comparative lack of Paul Foot; the complete absence of Widgery and Sedgewick. As S Wells said in this post: “There is no danger of any reader inadvertently being guided to the publications of the party’s more libertarian (and livelier) past.” No doubt some of you have already compiled mental lists of works you feel deserving of inclusion. Comrades, I would suggest, should be contacting the centre with recommendations at every opportunity.

Others might point to the relatively small amount of debate that gets flagged up. Only rarely do we stumble across articles written as replies to other people in the tradition: the debate between Harman and Kidron from the late-1970s, Choonara and Davidson discussing permanent revolution, the three way argument around the question of art and alienation. More links to debates would be most helpful. Surprisingly, given the questions raised recently, the debate from the mid-1980s on the question of whether working class men benefit from the oppression of working class women for instance is missing. Re-reading the theoretical disagreements between Harman, Callinicos and Hallas on the issue of base and superstructure makes you realise how important open debate is to our political tradition. Far from being staid and unchanging it becomes a constantly evolving theory, reacting and developing, growing through constant discussion.

Yet what strikes me most about the new Theory section is how many of the links take you to pieces written before 2000. Of the 246 pieces only 81 – less than a third - were written in the last thirteen years.  Much of these are to be commended (sections on disability, Latin America); some are specific to recent events (austerity, Arab spring). But there is not one single article written since the start of the new millennium listed in the sections on the Labour Party and Reformism, Leninism and the Party, The State, Trotsky(ism), or Alienation. Only one post-2000 article is linked to in the each of the following sections: The Working Class, Trade Unions and Strikes, Revolutionary Lives, Imperialism, or Students.

How can this be? Is there nothing that can be added to our understanding of the Labour Party after the years of Blair and Brown? Or did we fail to produce a piece that was of sufficient quality so as to be included in our section of must-see theoretical articles? However good John Molyneux’s Marxism and the Party may be, are we really to believe that the arguments it contains are beyond re-appraisal? In the context of sustained neo-liberal assaults, how can it be that Chris Harman’s article, Workers of the World, written in 2002 is the most recent piece we link to in the section entitled ‘The Working Class’?

Obviously the recommended pieces within the ‘Theory’ section do not exhaust the contributions made by party members to theoretical debate, historical investigation or revolutionary activity. They are, rather, the select and chosen few. And that they were chosen, while others were left on the shelf, says a lot about our organisation. Looking through that theory section one is left inspired by what the IS legacy represents but also increasingly, painfully aware that the world moved on. Has the living, breathing tradition of the International Socialists really so little to say on these matters since the start of the new millennium, or are we so certain to the point of complacency in our belief that all such questions were resolved long ago, never more to be the subject of enquiry, discussion and, where necessary, revision?

J. R. Hartley


  1. The fact that 'the party' refuses to acknowledge other ideas outside of the orthodoxy demonstrates what kind of revolting Hell Hole 'socialism' would be if 'the party' ever got a sniff of power. For a start, the base and superstructure 'debate' between Harman and Molyneux had already been magnificently superceded by the author Derek Sayer in his magesterial Marxism and Abstraction. But say that out loud after the revolution and you will be sent off to some god forsaken camp.

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