Reds in Tooth and Claw

published 03 Jul 2015

When people look at the confusing patchwork of organisations and ideologies that exists on the far-left, a common reaction is to wonder why they fail to unite. On an ideological level, they have much in common, especially when compared to non-socialist political ideologies. On a practical level, they have even more in common. They all share the fundamental short-term goal of improving the position of the working class with respect to their employers and spreading socialist ideas through society. It is quite obvious to most people that their ability to achieve this goal would be immeasurably improved were they to unite and present a single face to the world. So why don’t they?

The obvious answer is that the various organisations involved are in competition with one another and this competition is strong enough to overcome the ideological and pragmatic advantages of cooperation. This competition does not exist because there is anything wrong with these organisations or their members. Indeed their supporters and the majority of members are inherently inclined to cooperate. Such situations follow a simple and inescapable Darwinian logic. Far-left organisations exist within a cultural niche. In order to survive they need to attract resources from this niche. When an organisation fails to compete effectively for resources, relative to its rivals, it shrinks and eventually dies. An organisation that decides to be a model citizen and chooses cooperation over competition signs its own death warrant. It is expending precious resources on helping its rivals who can use these resources to compete for a greater share of the limited resources.

The primary resource that organisations need is recruits, but there are others: supporters, money, access to venues for meetings, access to printing and other publication resources, connections to sympathetic celebrities and general goodwill are all important too. All of these resources are in seriously limited supply as the political-theory laden, extremely-committed nature of far left organisations ensures that only a very small proportion of the population are potentially within reach. In the long run, whichever organisation manages to secure more of these resources than its rivals will come to dominate and this holds regardless of the overall level of cooperation.

For example, in certain times, in particular in the run-up to elections, far left parties form cooperative coalitions which have the potential to increase the pool of resources for all. However, the problem is that whichever party most effectively competes rather than cooperates within these coalitions will come to dominate, creating a ‘race to the bottom’ situation. The same holds for extremely un-cooperative situations, where each organisation seeks to grab whatever resources it can and actively attempts to destroy any resources that it can’t secure – for example aggressive recruitment tactics which have a very low hit rate but scare the failed targets away from the far-left for ever. These tactics make sense, because even if they reduce the potential pool of resources available overall, they damage their less aggressive rivals more and their rivals are the only real threat to their existence.

This competition among rival organisations to secure a slice of the limited resources available within a particular cultural niche is the dominant dynamic on the far-left. It pervades everything and is outside the volition of the participants. Those who do not compete die. It is not surprising – it is the basic evolutionary dynamic that started with the first replicating molecules and repeats itself at all levels of biology, all the way up to human societies. What is interesting about this competition on the far-left, however, is the form that it takes. While the organisations distinguish themselves from one another on the basis of ideology, competition takes place in the realm of group psychology and ideology plays almost no part in this. In order to make this discussion less abstract, and to give it some context, I will first present a brief overview of the competitive landscape of the far-left as it was in the late 1990s in Ireland.

The Anarchists

Although the WSM was the only anarchist group with a presence in the Republic of Ireland, this isolation was amazingly not enough to prevent inter-group rivalry. There were three significant anarchist groups in Britain and one small group in Belfast and they were all highly suspicious of the WSM, which held them in low regard in turn. The rivalry had ideological, cultural and personal roots.

The ideological division stemmed from the fact that the WSM was part of the platformist strand of anarchism and had a particularly structured and formal mode of operation, which was seen as suspiciously close to Bolshevism by anarchists beyond its ranks. In return, the WSM considered the non-platformists to be organisationally shambolic, barely capable of organising their members to meet for a pint.

The largest British group in terms of membership was the Anarchist Federation, which was aligned to the ‘synthesist’ current – meaning that they aimed to unite all strands of anarchists and had a much looser mode of operation. The next most prominent British group was the Solidarity Federationanarcho-syndicalists, whose strategy focused on creating new trade unions with anarchist structures. They considered both the synthesists and the platformists to be purely political groupings that had little in the way of links to ordinary workers. The third British Group was Class War, a group who had risen to relative prominence during Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s and were in terminal decline by the late 1990s. Their politics were less well-defined, but can probably best be summed up by their favourite catchphrase “bash the rich”. Finally, there was the Belfast-based group, which went through a succession of names – including the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation and Organise! (the exclamation mark was part of the name!). Their politics vacillated between anarcho-synthesism and anarcho-syndicalism and they were sometimes close to the Anarchist Federation and sometimes closer to Solidarity Federation, but always hostile to platformism.

The cultural divisions stemmed from differences in the national, religious and class backgrounds of the various organisations’ membership. The thorny question of the ‘correct’ political line to take on the conflict in Northern Ireland was the surest way of bringing this division to the fore. The British Anarchist Federation tended to focus on denouncing the IRA for being bourgeois nationalist, the WSM, based in Dublin, and predominantly from catholic backgrounds, generally considered this focus to be borne from ignorance and sub-conscious imperialist assumptions, while the Belfast group, whose most influential members came from protestant backgrounds, would in turn see the WSM’s position as stemming from ignorance of the situation on the ground and sub-conscious Irish Nationalism. Meanwhile Class War were often sympathetic to the IRA, but mostly because they blew stuff up. Across this division, there was an underlying hostility to the idea of being subsumed into a larger group from a more populous state (or statelet in the case of Northern Ireland).

The class-based divisions were slightly more subtle and difficult to describe precisely, but the WSM was certainly considered by the Belfast based group to be dominated by middle class intellectuals, while Class War considered all of the rest to be middle class wankers and everybody else thought they were little more than a mob of anti-intellectual lumpen proletarians, run by narcissists who also happened to be mentally unstable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there were significant personality clashes between the most prominent theorists of each group. I can’t speak with any conviction on the details of these personality clashes, as they didn’t involve me and predated my involvement, but I do know that they existed and ran deep.

The geographical distance between the groups meant that the hostility and rivalry was generally maintained at a low level – mostly manifesting itself in spats on Internet mailing lists and forums. In keeping with each group’s stated desire for anarchist cooperation, the groups would occasionally invite representatives from the other groups to their events, while in the background each group was attempting, albeit ineffectively, to establish satellite groups in each other’s territory. For example, my first encounter with Organise! was when I accompanied Andrew Flood to Derry to try and convince their sole member from the city, John Black, who was disaffected with their anti-republican line, to join the WSM. We failed – he soon took up a position as national organiser of the IRSP, the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army, considered at the time to be as close as you could come to a pure Republic terrorist group.

Trotskyists

When it came to the non-anarchist far-left, the rivalry was much more immediate due to geographical proximity. There were two substantial Trotskyist groups which dominated the Irish far left – the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Both were off-shoots of larger organisations based in Britain. They probably had no more than a couple of hundred members each, of which perhaps 20 or 30 were ‘cadre’ – long term members, often employed as ‘full-timers’ by the party, who had a reasonable idea of their organisation’s politics and could be trusted to carry out tasks without supervision. The rest were either students from whom the party would squeeze as much paper-selling and demonstration-attending labour as possible before their revolutionary vigour faded, or were relatively apolitical individuals who had some sort of personal loyalty to the party leaders who were based in their communities and had led local campaigns.

The difference between the parties was mostly a function of them primarily targeting different groups for recruitment. The SWP concentrated on students and consequently adopted a breathlessly excited hyperactive tone in all they did. The SP focused on recruiting community members and adopted a dour, grey and serious tone, concentrating on the dullest bread-and-butter issues that they felt best reflected the values of the “ordinary workers” they targeted. Attending events organised by either party was always a bizzarely disconcerting experience as one was presented with a group of people who appeared to have gone simultaneously mad in exactly the same way. At SWP events, you could reliably find a room full of people who all appeared to believe that the population was on the cusp of erecting barricades on the street (and were extremely excited about it). At SP events, one would find a group of people who all dressed in similarly drab clothing and spoke in the same flat accent that was superficially similar to a Dublin working class accent, but somehow wrong, droning on in the same lifeless tone.

In any case, weird as they may have been, both parties were larger than the WSM by an order of magnitude, both in terms of membership and organisational capacity. They could organise demonstrations, public meetings and single-issue campaigns that might attract a few hundred people, which was far beyond our capacity. This made them effectively the public face of the far left and we despised them for it, but still not as much as they despised one another (we were too small to garner anything but contemptuous condescension). Just like the anarchists, both parties were officially in favour of cooperation with other far-left parties and just like the anarchists, they needed ideological reasons to explain why they habitually acted like bitter enemies to one another. This was a delicate dance in which each party would attempt to portray themselves as earnestly seeking cooperation, only to be spurned by the bitter sectarianism of their rivals. Probably the most amusing example of this dance occurred in the run-up to the local elections in 1999. At this point in time, the Socialist Party had a far higher electoral profile, having succeeded in having a member, Joe Higgins, a high-profile figure in the successful 1990s campaign against a water tax, elected to parliament in 1997. The SWP duly wrote a letter to the SP, proposing a non-aggression pact, where they would agree not to compete with one another in local election constituencies, in order not to split the left vote.

Now, it was clear to all informed observers even relative newcomers such as myself, that an electoral alliance would be beneficial to both parties, but it would be much more relatively beneficial to the SWP, who had almost no electoral profile at the time, and hence the SP would refuse it on purely competitive, pragmatic grounds. It was also clear, from precedent, that the SP would make up some ideological excuse for doing so. However, what came next was so absurd that it still makes me chuckle. The SP's response was to publish a pamphlet, in magazine format, which they attempted to sell at public events, detailing a long list of ideological errors of their rivals. Much of the content was taken up with a discussion of their theoretical differences on the Soviet Union, which had ceased to exist 8 years before, and their differing interpretations of Trostky’s “permanent revolution”. The ludicrously pompous tone is made all the funnier when one reads it today – it is full of utterly confident predictions that have turned out to be completely and utterly wrong. It’s also a good example of how the need to compete with their rivals took precedence over all else – trying to sell this pamphlet to the public make the SP look totally bonkers, but they could not resist the urge to attack their rivals from their relative position of strength.

"A new period is now opening. The economic crisis in Asia, Russia and Brazil will spread to the rest of the capitalist world. The working class and the youth will once again take to the road of struggle. They will do so with the effects of the collapse of Stalinism diminishing, and with the failure of capitalism an everyday reality. Trade union activity will increase and the working class will attempt to rebuild for itself a political voice." - Socialist Party, The Struggle For Socialism Today (1999)

Beyond the SWP and the SP, there was a variety of other, tiny parties that were influenced by Trotskyism: the Sparticist League, Socialist Democracy and a few others, they concentrated mostly on castigating the ‘big 2’ for their ideological heresies. None of them ever attained any influence or size and they were treated as purely comic fixtures by the rest of the left, with the occasional propensity to be annoying at meetings by droning on about something somebody said in the 1930s. They were so inconsequential that they considered even the tiny WSM as being worth the odd polemic. On one of my first political demonstrations, for example, we held a picket outside the US embassy calling for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal from death row. One of the Sparts approached me and harangued me for being a conservative chauvinist, on account of the fact that I was offering copies of Workers Solidarity for sale. I was confused until somebody eventually explained to me that this was in response to an old issue of the paper which had called for “paedophile priests out of the schools”. The sparts, it turned out, considered anti-paedophilia to be bourgeois moralism.

In addition to the Trotskyists and the anarchists, there was a smattering of unaffiliated Marxists who habitually attended far-left events. In total the milieu accounted for only a few hundred people in the entire country. There were, of course, other left forces: the social democrats, the communist parties who had supported the Soviet Union and a wide variety of left republicans. They, however, all existed in different cultural niches altogether and they rarely came into contact with the far left and were largely irrelevant to its day to day activity. This activity was utterly dominated by the competition for resources between the rival groups and, as I said above, ideology had very little influence on the form that this competition took. The next post will look at the details of this competition in more detail.

Comments (6)

Tom O'Brien

Hey Chekov,

You fancy coming on the 'From Alpha To Omega' podcast to talk about your experiences of/in the radical left? You can find the podcast here to see what it is all about:

http://fromalpha2omega.podomatic.com

You can email me here: alpha2omegapodcast ( at ) gmail ( dot) com

Anonymous

very darwin-esque alright. Great photo.

Peter

Excellent blog Chekov. I only discovered it yesterday and I've already read several articles. I find what you said about micro groups especially interesting. Have you ever heard of these guys? They seem closer to anarchists than Trotskyists or Leninists. They were apparently more active in the north and may have been before your time.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Socialist_Party_(Ireland)

Peter

Better question actually. Where would the pro-Soviet groups fit into this? I know the communist party is tiny, but the workers party isn't. Where would they fit within this competition on the left?

chekov's picture
chekov

Hi Peter,

The old communist parties occupy a different niche in my model. I talked about it here: http://www.chekov.org/blog/what-left

I think the WP occupy a different social niche than the far-left parties.