SWP faction fight: How to argue

October 12, 2013 at 11:30 am (ex-SWP, John Rees, Lindsey German, posted by JD, reformism, Respect, sectarianism, stalinism, SWP)

By Ross Spear (taken from Facebook). It should go without saying that us Shirazers don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s opinions, and we didn’t seek his permission before publishing this, as it was already in the public domain:

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How To Argue

The crisis inside the SWP has long been peppered with calls to conduct the debate in a comradely fashion inside the organisation. What goes unsaid is just how difficult this has been made. It takes two to tango, and the leadership has expended considerable effort destroying any possibility of a reasoned debate on the events of the past year. Its interventions on the subject are more akin to the smear tactics found in tabloid newspapers than the kind of debating you would expect to have amongst comrades. I take here the Charlie Kimber/Alex Callinicos article in the most recent ISJ as an example of this sort of behaviour. I stress that this is only that of an example, for the writings of the SWP leadership on the crisis are riddled from top to bottom with the wilful distortions that characterise their approach to ‘debate’. That this is their modus operandi only goes to show that their aim is not to convince their opponents so much as it is to discredit them. They aim to publicly sow confusion in order that the relevant facts are accorded a degree of ambiguity in the minds of their readers.

For anyone closely involved in the SWP crisis the various diversions, distortions and omissions are always plain to see. For those looking on at a distance this is likely not always so clear, thus why the opposition has been forced in to a rear-guard action so as to publicly set the record straight at every twist and turn. David Renton has already comprehensively dismantled the claims in the first part of the article that refers to the two cases. 65% of the article, however, is not concerned with this but deals with refuting what Callinicos and Kimber believe to be the mistaken politics of the opposition. They seek to take the debate “onto a political terrain where the issues can genuinely be clarified.” What emerges, however, is precisely the opposite.

Their main claim is that the opposition is subject to the deviation of ‘movementism’. That is to say that it, or at least a sizeable component of it, has renounced class politics and, specifically, the primacy of the working class as the agency of socialist change. This is what underpins the current split within the organisation, and is a common thread running through each split since the 2007 Respect crisis. It is through this lens that Kimber and Callinicos understand the opposition.

Argument by diversion

In reality, there is little indication that any drift towards ‘movementism’ is a defining aspect of the opposition. It is certainly not a unifying element of this heterogeneous bloc, which is unified solely in its disagreement with the systematic covering up of rape accusations. The opposition remains unified by this, and probably this alone, in spite of any protestations by Kimber and Callinicos to the contrary. In order to achieve their ideal target of an argument with ‘movementists’ they pursue diversionary tactics, away from what the opposition is talking about and towards what Kimber and Callinicos would like to talk about. They are unable to produce a sustained argument that would vindicate the SWP in its handling of two serious disputes, thus they move us on to something that they are confident talking about: the importance of the working class. The structure of the piece betrays this, for they quickly put forward their (incorrect) version of how the allegations were handled before launching in to a lengthy diatribe about movements, class and the united front.

If this is intended to be read and digested by the opposition then they merely waste paper, for that is not the dispute we are having. But this is not, of course, the purpose of the article. The diversion here is so absurd that one struggles to think that Kimber and Callinicos believe their own fantasy. There is certainly a time and a place for putting the arguments of revolutionary socialists as to the importance of the working class out in public, in order to convince people of our ideas. An article seeking to understand why a large portion of the SWP’s membership is resistant to the endemic sexism present in its handling of rape allegations is not it.

Argument by distortion

This diversion is achieved by way of presenting two pieces of evidence, provided to the reader as if they were telling examples of SWP members gone bad. For the first, they paraphrase the view of Richard Seymour: “Neoliberalism has entered the very soul of the working class, crushing class solidarity and identification, engendering acceptance of market relationships and hollowing out resistance.” According to Kimber and Callinicos the claim put here by Seymour is that neoliberalism “has totally gutted working class power.” It must be left up to Seymour to clarify his own ideas, but based on Kimber and Callinicos’ own summary he has said nothing of the sort. It is a well-known fact of the last thirty years that social attitudes have changed considerably (in what thirty year period do they not?) and that the working class has been on the back foot in the class struggle. Identifying the nature of this is the first step to changing it. Kimber and Callinicos are surely not yet so far fallen from revolutionary socialism that they would deny Marx’s postulate that the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class – and yet this is all Seymour’s claim really amounts to. Thus Seymour is presented as a heretic to revolutionary socialism not by the use of supporting evidence but by asking the reader to make a leap of faith, to trust in Kimber and Callinicos to know what he is really getting at. The authors travel swiftly from what he did say to what they would have liked him to have said, and then they comprehensively rebut that instead.

Their second target is Renton, whose crime is to contend that “’Core’ public sector workers… having final salary pensions arguably have as much in common with MPs and bankers as they do with the nine out of ten workers who rely on private pensions or no pensions save the state pension.” Once more a jump is made by Kimber and Callinicos, who transform this statement – that the minority of workers who have decent pensions have something significant in common with other social strata that do also – in to a moral claim on Renton’s part that these workers are somehow bad because they have attained this level of security. Renton is said to be ‘directing fire’ at groups of workers. Unfortunately for Kimber and Callinicos, the quoted passage does not make the argument that they go on to counter. They are once more left to argue against a target that they have constructed themselves. If I make the observation that those who have been to Russell Group universities and become workers have something in common with lots of non-workers, like MPs, I am not ‘directing fire’ but making a potentially valuable statement about a certain lived experience. That this is a fact does not make those involved any less working class, but may nonetheless be of use in understanding the lived experience of workers if socialists wish to lead them. The ruling class has consciously pursued stratification within the working class, attempting to break down its bonds of solidarity. The least we owe them is to acknowledge this.

Perhaps Kimber and Callinicos stopped reading there. They should have continued. Renton goes on to say:

“I’m not saying any of this in order to denigrate the left in general or my comrades in particular. I’m just trying to spell out… some of the ways in which more honest and deeper theorising could lead us to notice other kinds of working class experiences, and make the left open to a much wider set of people than it is at present.“

His argument is for a more expansive left constituency that takes in to account the fact that being working class is not a homogenous experience. Not a particularly shocking point after all, and far away from the attempt to brand better off public sector workers as “reactionary” that is attributed to him by Kimber and Callinicos.

These types of distortions have been present throughout the SWP crisis. They involve ‘reading between the lines’ of what, in more ‘normal’ times, would be perfectly innocent remarks. It is not possible that statements by oppositionists may be important original points, or particularly succinct ways of putting things we already knew, what must lie underneath each one is a steady retreat from class politics. It does not matter if they deny this, or even whether they actually said what they are treated as having said. It is true because Kimber and Calllinicos say it is true. For them, disagreements with the SWP CC are only explicable if they are based on moving away from Marxism.

Argument by omission

The final weapon in the arsenal of the Kimber-Callinicos school of debating is that of conducting their argument by making what would seem to be, in appearance, reasonable points. Each time, however, they lack a crucial detail that, when included, places these points in quite a different light. Once we reintroduce the relevant qualifiers a different picture emerges.

The first offender appears early on. Kimber and Callinicos write, correctly, that “political differences cannot be resolved administratively.” A lapse of memory is immediately apparent. Those of us who recall further back will remember the expulsion of four members of the SWP for alleged ‘secret factionalising’ nearly a year ago. The rub of that particular episode has always been that the evidence never did say what they claimed it did, another use of the method of ‘argument by distortion’ as above. This was precisely an incident of attempting to resolve political differences through administrative measures – carried out, and subsequently defended, by none other than the authors themselves.

Serious omissions are present once more when they come to quote Chris Harman as part of the well-rehearsed argument against ‘permanent factions’:

“Few things are more stultifying for debate in a revolutionary organisation than a “government-opposition” arrangement by which one section of the organisation feels that it is compelled as a matter of principle to oppose the elected leadership on every issue: this makes it extremely difficult for either the leadership or the opposition to learn from the concrete development of the class struggle”

When the benefit of hindsight becomes available and the opposition may take stock of where it went right and went wrong, it must surely consider the possibility that it fell in to this trap. But that is exactly what is absent here: that the stance of ‘government-opposition’ was set up as a trap. Right from the beginning it was demanded that the faction produce alternative perspectives on a variety of topics, and was labelled as ‘not serious’ until it did so. The standing of oppositional comrades as proper revolutionary socialists was placed in to question because they had plenty to say on internal matters (“navel-gazing”) but no fresh comment on, say, Unite the Resistance. Who could forget John Molyneux telling the faction that ‘it had no basis for a faction’ precisely because it had not produced alternative perspectives. Thus it was demanded of the faction by the leadership and its supporters that it perform the task of the ‘government-opposition’. No mention of any of this is present in the article in question. In my view the opposition has done a good job of resisting this call, time and time again bringing the debate to the salient issue of rape allegations. However, if Kimber and Callinicos are ultimately shown to be right and the faction has fallen in to a “’government-opposition’ arrangement” then they have only themselves to blame. It is precisely this for which they aimed; it being is easier to dismiss such a thing than it is to confront the rot at the top.

Additionally, it is worth noting that if the opposition is guilty of this mistake then surely the CC more so. For it is they who wish to acknowledge their interlocutors so little that they produce an apparently major article on the subject, of which well over half is irrelevant to the actual issues at stake.

Conclusion

As Kimber and Callinicos say themselves “controversy over the case [sic]” has become “surrounded by a fog of gossip, innuendo, distortion and plain lies.” Indeed, not only the two cases but, additionally, the entire array of disagreements that have become enmeshed with them are subject to these. The source of many of these distortions and plain lies has not been the bourgeois press or ‘the internet’ so much as it has been the SWP CC itself. Their latest article repeats some already well-rehearsed lies, but also peddles some fresh ones. Kimber and Callinicos only discredit themselves – and perhaps, most regrettably, the ISJ by extension – by publishing such intellectually dishonest work.

Both Kimber and Callinicos are experienced socialists. They know how to carry an argument properly. But they are also seasoned factional operators, for one does not stay at the top of the SWP very long otherwise, who know how to discredit an opponent. That is what has occurred here. They offer us platitudes of ‘comradely debate’ but instead provide learn-by-rote: repeating basic axioms of Marxism over and over alongside claims that their opponents deny these, thereby creating a new ‘truth’ in the process. This is achieved through the three pillars of their method: Argument by diversion, distortion and omission. They omit important details in order to charge others with errors that are actually their own. The views of their targets are distorted quite plainly and openly, attributing to them positions that they are not demonstrated to actually hold. All of this is done in order to shift the discussion away from territory on which they do not have a leg to stand on, and back on to more comfortable ground. The result avoids dealing with the thorny issues head on. Instead, rudimentary orthodoxies are reasserted in order that the targets become less comrades with something of value to contribute and more heretics to be exorcised.

Kimber and Callinicos must learn that their evasiveness is futile. Thanks to the internet we do not have to wait three months until the next ISJ to set the record straight on their tangled web of deceit. Their readers can be informed immediately as to their falsifications. I hope they will return in the future with a stronger effort that engages in the same conversation that everybody else is having, rather than one of their own choosing. Next time they could do worse than to heed the advice of Antonio Gramsci, and take the opposition on their strongest arguments rather than by misrepresenting peripheral points as being the mainstay of the discussion at hand:

“One gets the impression that the author wants to combat only the weakest of his adversaries and the weakest of their positions (or the ones which the weakest adversaries have maintained least adequately), in order to obtain facile verbal victories – for one can hardly speak of real victories. The illusion is created that there exists some kind of more than formal and metaphorical resemblance between an ideological and a politico-military front. In the political and military struggle it can be correct tactics to break through at the points of least resistance in order to be able to assault the strongest point with maximum forces that have been precisely made available by the elimination of the weaker auxiliaries… On the ideological front, however, the defeat of the auxiliaries and the minor hangers-on is of all but negligible importance. Here it is necessary to engage battle with the most eminent of one’s adversaries.” Antonio Gramsci, SPN, pp.432-433

7 Comments

  1. SWP faction fight: How to argue | OzHouse said,

    […] Oct 12 2013 by admin […]

  2. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    If that quote does reflect Richard Seymour’s actual views then I agree with him.

    Shit.

    • Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

      but they had a post up here ridiculing wott seymoUr Dick sed on that subject not too long ago Roger.

  3. Adam said,

    I’m heartened to see the use of my bitstrip as illustration to this article, as it was after reading the original, and some other stuff in Facebook that I made it. However Id just like to put on record, for when I get expelled from the SWP, that I didn’t give permission for its use here, although I think I did share it publically so more fool me. In which cars carry on, permission granted.
    I’d hope that at my ‘hearing’ they’ll take into account what I wrote to Alex, on his timeline before he defriended me, rather than the fact that my image was used by “those sectarians in the AWL” (I’m assuming their words).
    I was feeling quite bitter at the time of making it, and I don’t really consider him to be a moron, although some of his actions recently have certainly been moronic.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Very philosophical, Adam. Hope we haven’t added to your troubles…

  4. Howard Fuller said,

    There seems to be silence from both sides on the latest allegation:

    http://howiescorner.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/another-swp-rape-case.html

    How anyone can remain in this organisation is beyond me.

    The SWP is so far beyond the pale that anyone with an ounce of decency should leave immediately and no one should work with them any more.

  5. Not Exactly Relevant Here But Still Amusing As It's On "The Newman" said,

    Other news:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2456413/Andy-Newman-Labour-hopeful-says-Stalin-improved-living-standards-Berlin-Wall-great-success-Ed-says-party-HASNT-lurched-Left.html

    Why no picture of Chinese Sailor Army Ladees In “Sexy” Uniforms To Accompany The Piece, the picture Newman likes to use? It would be perfect for the Mail.

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