Reds in Tooth and Claw. Part 2
This is the second part of an article about competition on the far-left. The first part can be found here
In order to survive and thrive, political organisations need a steady stream of new recruits. Existing members drop out from time to time, or become inactive for a range of different reasons. If the organisation can’t replace these lost members with at least as many new members, the organisation will shrink and eventually die. What’s more, as it takes time for new members to gain experience and become practically useful, in order to maintain organisational capacity, the flow of incoming recruits must be greater than the outflow of dropouts.
One source of potential new members is the existing membership of rival organisations. These have the distinct advantage of already being somewhat knowledgeable about socialist theory and political practice, when compared to an average member of the public. The disadvantage is that they are already indoctrinated into the conceptual model of a hostile organisation, and this always includes a dose of inoculation against their rivals. The inoculation is effective: if one was to ask several members of the SWP or the SP or the WSM what the main ideological faults of the others are, the similarity of their respective responses would be uncanny. The members of far left organisations spend a considerable amount of time and energy writing polemics against their rivals, generally in an effort to show that there is a significant gap between their stated principles and their activities. However, it almost never works, the ideologies of any group that persists for any period of time is sufficiently internally consistent to survive hostile polemics.
The only real exceptions are when members are disaffected and on their way out of the party – in such situations they can sometimes be wooed by a rival whose ideology appears to resonate with the reasons for their discontent. However, such situations are rare. Most disaffected members drop out of politics – in the 20 or so years that I was around the left, I know of only a handful of individuals who changed teams and kept on playing. In addition to members of rival organisations, there are also a number of individuals active within the far left milieu who have chosen to remain independent. Some of them started out as members of some organisation or other, others have remained resolute in their independence since becoming politically active. In any case, any independents that have been active in left wing politics for any length of time have typically successfully resisted recruitment from several suitors and have effectively become immune to their advances. They are thus a poor source of recruits.
The next potential source of recruits are the ex-members of far-left parties: a group which has long been many times more numerous than their current membership. Once again, they have the advantage of having some level of experience and knowledge of left-wing political theory. However, in the great majority of cases, people drop out due to a general disillusionment with either the political practices of the left or the viability of revolution. Starting from a point of disillusionment, absence rarely makes the heart grow fonder. When people leave the left behind and immerse themselves in mainstream society, the political discourse tends to reinforce their disenchantment and drive them further away. This is particularly the case when their membership of the left coincided with the youthful idealism of student life, as is often the case. The decidedly non-idealistic practice of surviving in a competitive society can have the effect of making left-wing ideology seem impractical and utopian. Hence, although there are some exceptions, it is relatively rare for ex-members who have dropped out and been inactive for a number of years to decide to rejoin a far-left organisation.
The great majority of the competition for recruits is thus focused on attracting new-blood. The world constantly throws up a stream of people who have been politicised by some event, radicalised by the injustice of the system’s response to that event, and become determined to do something about it. These people become, temporarily at least, susceptible to joining a far left organisation. Mostly such people become politicised by some particular conflict or issue and have little detailed knowledge of left-wing political theory or organisations. Most activity in attempting to reach them is focused on the issues and campaigns that tend to attract newly radicalised potential recruits: wars, revolutions, labour disputes and community campaigns. Whenever there is an issue in the public consciousness that has the potential to radicalise, far left organisations will hold and attend public meetings, establish and join campaigns, organise and attend public demonstrations and produce articles, leaflets and posters about the issue. All with the earnest intention of persuading those who had been politicised by the issue that “the best way to win your fight is to join our fight”. The competition is decided by marketing not ideology. Success in recruitment is dictated by the strength of the brand and the organisation’s capacity to reach potential recruits, influence them and build personal connections with them.
The capacity of a small, coordinated group of people to influence a large, uncoordinated, loose crowd is limited only by the skill of the small group. Unopposed, a handful of skillful people acting in coordinated fashion can decide in advance what a crowd will do within reason. Control of a small number of key functions can give tiny groups effective control over much larger organisations, all without most people needing to know that the small group even exists. Popular issues which politicise heretofore inactive, inexperienced members of the public thus present well-organised far left groups with the possibility of exercising significant influence over large numbers of potential recruits. However, the larger the audience, the greater the competition for their attention and this competition makes it considerably more difficult to reach and influence the newly politicised. Over the years, elaborate tactics and techniques have been developed for playing this complex, multi-sided game, with each player trying to use each issue to improve their own reach and influence over potential recruits while hindering their opponents from taking similar advantage.
The simplest approach is to hold a meeting about the issue in question and advertise it to the public. This has the advantage of giving the hosts free-rein to orchestrate the meeting to suit their primary purpose of drawing potential recruits closer to them. The public nature of such meetings allows rivals to intervene disruptively, but control of the agenda, the list of speakers and the chair allows the impact of such interventions to be minimised. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to attract large audiences to meetings of far-left political parties.
To get around this perception problem, the most common solution is to use a front organisation to brand the party’s intervention in particular issues. Front organisations are branded as autonomous issue-based campaigns, with no obvious link to the mothership, but are effectively controlled by the party. They are often an effective solution in providing access to greater numbers of potential recruits, as people are generally far less wary of issue-based campaigns than they are of far-left political parties. Fronts can be politically broad, and are ideally packed full of celebrities, intellectuals and well-known independents. However, as long as there is only one small coordinated group in position to pull the strings, it remains an effective instrument of that group: the others - "useful idiots” to use Lenin’s phrase, provide the appearance of political broadness and openness without threatening the party’s control. The downside to this tactic is that the organisation must devote sufficient resources to make their front appear large enough, competent enough and representative enough to give it a plausible claim to be the true voice of the issue. Smaller, weaker organisations must make do with joining their larger rivals’ front and trying to use their hobbled structures to disrupt their control and poach some of their potential recruits. Unless the front is so out-shadowed in size and prestige by its competitors that it looks like a splitter, it is a useful vehicle in increasing a far-left organisation’s access to potential recruits and hence is adopted wherever viable. Over the period of my involvement in politics, dozens of fronts came and went, leaving little but a stream of acronyms behind them: ARC, ANL, IAWM, GR, CAHWT, GG, DGN. Although the WSM had a principled stand against fronts in the 1990s, as soon as it grew large enough to create viable fronts, it effectively did so and channeled its interventions in issues through them.
The situation is somewhat complicated in issues that involve organised forces from beyond the far-left, such as the trade union movement. In such situations, far left groups will typically seek to build loose umbrella alliances with such forces, while concentrating their energies on using the issue to build their fronts. Where possible, they will try to increase their control over the alliance and effectively turn it into a front. The presence of other organised groups makes such alliances much more difficult to control than fronts, however, and they are thus home to some of the most elaborate examples of Machiavellian scheming and bureaucratic manoeuvring that humans have yet devised. In their struggle against one another, each organisation deploys a steady stream of moves and counter-moves constantly seeking small advantages.
As I was writing this post, two meetings about a particular issue in Ireland (cuts to single parents allowance) were announced for almost exactly the same time in central Dublin, one organised by People Before Profit, a front of the SWP and the other by Rosa, a front of the Socialist Party. I don’t know whether one of the organisations decided to schedule their meeting to directly challenge their rivals or not (it makes competitive sense for a bigger rival to purposely call a simultaneous meeting). However, even if it was coincidence, it demonstrates the keenness of the competition between the groups when it comes to establishing influence on a newly relevant issue: neither is willing to give way.
The meeting scheduling chess persists irrespective of whether there are alliances or not. I recall an example from the campaign against the bin tax in 2003. The local Stoneybatter campaign group had organised a meeting and did some last-minute leafleting to support it. The SWP members from the area didn’t show up – they were busy postering for their own party meeting the following night, and had surrounded our meeting hall with advertisements for their own meeting instead of helping us leafleting. We were not impressed. These sort of manoeuvres were a constant feature of interactions between different groups on the Irish left, but nobody would ever admit to them – as a rule the party in question would put forward strongly principled reasons for their actions and defend them vigorously.
During my first year of membership of the WSM, we were involved in the Anti-Racist Campaign alongside the Socialist Party and a smattering of independents (the SWP had their own front, the Anti-Nazi League, which they used to compete for anti-racist recruits). Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy was taking off and, for the first time in living memory, immigrants were arriving in large numbers. We thought that opposing racism was important at this juncture. I attended several of the ARC meetings in the Irish Vietnamese centre on Hardwicke Street – they were typically gentle affairs, a dozen people or so mostly trying to support asylum seekers traumatised by the state’s punitive system of refugee detention. The second or third time that I attended, I brought a friend, Phil, with me, hoping that ARC was the sort of thing that he might become involved in. It turned out to be no ordinary meeting. The Socialist Party had held some sort of internal reappraisal of their anti-racism work and had decided that ARC needed to be restructured with an executive committee. To ensure that their proposal was successful, they sent about 8 members, many more than their usual delegation of 2 or 3, several of whom had never attended an ARC meeting before. This practice, known as meeting-packing, is extremely common on the Irish left – whenever a major vote of a campaign is scheduled, various parties often suddenly increase their involvement manifold and bring large numbers of previously unseen members along for the vote.
By chance, the turnout was bigger than usual anyway, with about 20 people present. This meant that the SP’s coup could be resisted. What followed was a long and tense game of cat and mouse, in which the most experienced WSM member present firstly got everybody to reveal their party affiliations, in order to make the SP manoeuvre obvious to the inexperienced present, and then debated strenuously in favour of retaining the current, flat structure, narrowly winning the most important votes along the way. I came out of the meeting somewhat elated at the victory for our democratic way of organising, but Phil’s reaction quickly chased the elation away. He declared himself horrified by the infighting and petty party politics that he had witnessed and incredibly alienated by the need to state his political affiliation. In the end the victory was hollow anyway – the SP effectively removed their participation leaving ARC as just the WSM and a few individuals, which was not enough to keep it going. It soon withered and died.
In any case, this incident demonstrated to me how ineffective the WSM’s approach to dealing with such manoeuvres. The principled strategy espoused by the WSM was to always declare their party identity before speaking and, whenever possible, bringing party machinations to the attention of the meeting. However, in practice, it all looks like unpleasant petty party political bickering to the inexperienced, and everybody involved looks bad, but the exposer looks worst of all for starting it. Furthermore, some organisations had developed very effective counter-measures to such exposure. For example, although their membership waxed and waned, the SWP always had the largest number of members who could be mobilised to attend campaign meetings in the city centre and they used this fact frequently to assert their control and frustrate their rivals in campaigns and fronts. One favoured technique was to position their members in different places around the audience and have them comment from the floor, one after the other, each echoing the opinion of the former, each representing themselves as some variety of “ordinary worker” who was speaking on behalf of their friends and neighbours in whatever suburb they came from (who were normally demanding a protest march on the issue). On the few occasions when I saw somebody attempt to point out to the meeting that all of the speakers were in fact members of the SWP acting in concert, whatever senior SWP members were present would immediately launch into an impassioned denunciation of red-baiting and McCarthyism, backed up by supportive howls of outrage from all of the “ordinary workers” present. This defence almost always proved effective.
I should say that these types of manoeuvres are not at all confined to the left – they are common wherever people act collectively. I have a management book with a chapter devoted to using such tactics to manipulate a company board and I recently attended a meeting given by the head of Science Foundation Ireland, in which he skilfully deployed a sequence of orchestrated interventions from representatives of state agencies in order to defuse a rebellion against his policy by a room full of senior scientists. However, the intensely competitive nature of the left, with several groups deploying different strategies against one another, and the focus on recruiting the freshly politicised, which reduces the risk that practicing deception might damage future recruitment prospects, makes left wing politics particularly rich in experimental group psychology.
Still, the educational value of the various experiments was significantly dulled by the sanctimonious defences that were always put forward to motivate and defend competitive moves. Huge volumes of rhetoric were regularly produced, replete with elaborate diversion, obfuscation, exaggeration and confusion, to demonstrate why my organisation’s actions were, in fact, the most selfless cooperation in support of the working class, while our critics were merely carping due to their sectarian competitive nature. Everybody seemed to have absurd double standards, where they genuinely believed that their own organisation’s motives were always pure and cooperative, while also immediately assuming competitive motives on the part of their rivals. Intelligent people would happily insult your intelligence when it came to describing the noble motivations of their organisation and otherwise principled people would brazenly lie to your face and denounce your motivations in public. In any case, it produced an atmosphere that was toxic to constructive collaboration. I do not miss it.
The competition between organisations reaches its zenith and nadir at public demonstrations. These can constitute unusually large concentrations of freshly-politicised potential recruits and thus rival far left organisations compete vigorously to make an impression on this audience with a very broad range of tactics – from handing out branded placards to increase their presence, to mass paper-sales, eye-catching banners, witty placards, coordinated clothing, branded posters lining the route and so on. Everything is contested. Scuffles sometimes break out in determining the relative position of each organisation’s section of the march. In the 1990s, when demonstrations often ended in the Central Bank Plaza, there was a particular railing behind the speaker’s podium which was suitable for hanging banners and often appeared in media photos of protests – as demonstrations approached the end, rival groups would sometimes break off and race to claim this coveted spot for their party’s banner.
The sad thing about such micro-competitions is that they probably matter. A photograph in a national newspaper, branded with the party banner, could easily lead to several new recruits for your party rather than the opposition. Inexperienced, newly-politicised people may simply contact whichever likely-looking organisation they see in the paper, and there will be some such people amongst the large audience of a national newspaper. And a few extra members could be the difference between death and dominance. Particularly in a period when the overall supply of potential recruits has been in decline for a long-time a failure to compete effectively for potential recruits quickly leads to decline and death.