Monday, 12 March 2007

Confessions of a Student Wanker

Over on Journalology Matt Hodgkinson is talking about the close links between the RCP/Living Marxism/spiked crowd and a number of "pro-science" advocacy organisations such as Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre.

All this talk of these political groupuscles reminded me of my student dalliance with the Socialist Workers Party. I never actually joined the party itself because, (a) I differed rather drastically from the party line on some major doctrinal issues, and (b) they make you do even more activism if you actually join, but I did join their student organisation. At the time, and in my locale I thought they were genuinely engaged in progressive activism. Although I drifted away from them partly through pure bone idleness during my post-graduate years I was particularly peeved with their opportunistic split with the short lived Socialist Alliance platform (incorporating a significant proportion of the socialist left) to form the Respect party with Galloway and various Muslim groups.

I still remember selling the paper in town one day when a family of American tourists walked by, one of them noticed the title of the paper ('Socialist Worker') and said to the others "that says 'Socialist', is that legal? Shouldn't we report them to someone?".

The SWP, as with many of the other, even smaller, far-left groups (such as, say, the AWL) operates very much like a cult. It demands huge amounts of your time (and a goodly proportion of your salary) which inevitably leads to burnout or complete submersion into the group. When you encounter your average SWPer 'selling the paper' (aah, the memories) they may seem to be almost zombie-like in their slavish parrotting of the party line, but this is only partly right. Thanks to that wonderful Leninist principle of democratic centralism members are essentially required to repeat the line handed down from on high in public whilst being allowed to challenge it (to a limited extent) within the party's own structures. There was actually something of a groundswell in favour of greater democracy within the party a few years ago, but I think most of that movement was suppressed and/or purged. (The Communist Party of Great Britain paper the Weekly Worker is a great way to keep tabs on the infighting in the far left.)

You really have to get inside one of these organisations to understand the mindset of its members. Most of the people I encountered were good people, and I still see a few of them bellowing down megaphones at rallies on TV (or, on the odd occasion, in person). They essentially divided into three types, the soon to leave fellow travellers (like me), who didn't buy into enough of the party line to suppress their dissent, the cult-members, who would think whatever the party told them to (and would have probably been just as happy in a fundamentalist Christian sect had things turned out differently), and the bulk of the rank and file members, passionate socialists with independent ideas who nevertheless adhered to a common party line for the sake of a united front and disciplined party.

For the majority of people the incessant pressure to organise and campaign, combined with the rather odd double think that democratic centralism requires, means that they drift (or run) away from the party. The rank opportunism of the party doesn't help with members forced to abandon the latest front organisation and new comrades to jump onto the bandwagon of the new flavour of the month (currently still Respect and the Stop the War movement - hey, anyone remember Globalise Resistance?). I was still getting phone calls for years after I left, and I recall members saying how they would ring up ex-members on old contact lists to discover that quite a few were now in the army, or the police (and surprisingly still keen on progressive politics - see, they aren't all bad).

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