International Socialist Network: politics or therapy?

June 9, 2013 at 9:48 am (AWL, left, political groups, reblogged, socialism, SWP)

By Martin Thomas at the Workers Liberty website:

ISN yet to work out politics

IS Network

On 8 June the International Socialist Network – the group formed by some of the 200 to 400 people who quit the SWP after the SWP’s special conference in March – held its public launch meeting in London.

About 50 people, maybe 70 at the peak, were at the meeting: ISNers; people from the two groups with whom it is discussing unity, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (a group mainly of ex Workers’ Power people) and Socialist Resistance (remnants of the old “Mandelite” group); and leftists who came from curiosity.

The meeting was organised in three sessions, one after the other – fighting oppression; anti-cuts; and where next for the left?

The speaker panels were:

First: Toni Mayo (ISN), Laurie Penny (Independent and New Statesman journalist), and Brenna Bhandar (a law lecturer at QMUL).

Second: Ian Llewellyn (ISN) and Sarah Murdock (a former SWP full-timer who quit recently, but introduced as representing PCS).

Third: Simon Hardy (ACI), Terry Conway (SR), and Richard Seymour (ISN).

Toni Mayo described the ISN’s stance as: “We’ll set up a network and work out what we are about after that”. Laurie Penny lauded “network politics”, by which she meant chatting with like-minded people on blogs and other web forums as distinct from activity in workplaces, door-to-door, etc. The internet, she announced, makes all “party lines” impossible, and newspapers “defunct”.

Toni Mayo also placed great stress on opposing sexism, homophobia, prejudice against disabled people, etc., though it was not clear what this opposition would involve other than people telling each other over the web how pro-liberation they were.

Other speakers questioned some of these themes. But they set the tone for the meeting, together with China Miéville’s introduction in which he located the failing of the “traditional left” as not being sufficiently keyed in to “angry young bloggers”, “Laurie Penny’s constituency”.

Another tone-setting contribution was the first from the floor, a “Generation Y” type speech in which an ISNer said how glad she was to be free of the SWP and declared that for her, “politics has always been about what my needs are”.

I thought the most substantial contribution was Richard Seymour’s. He argued against facile optimism.

Neo-liberalism, he said, is now stronger than we think – woven into the fabric of everyday experience. To understand that, we should read Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall. (Hall was the first editor of New Left Review in 1960, and then a staple of the Eurocommunist Marxism Today in the 1980s).

The left has had much of its infrastructure cut away by the “increasing privatisation of life”. “Network politics” is not an answer: it provides only a “short-term buzz”. Nor is the invocation of “new social movements”. Unlike other ISN speakers, he saw “serious difficulties” in the People’s Assembly approach of rally after rally, “top-down”.

A couple of speakers from the floor questioned Seymour’s praise for Hall, and instinctively I sympathised with them. Maybe I am “sectarian” from memory of the polemics of the 1980s, and looking back at them I would find valuable ideas in Hall’s writings under the rightward-moving Eurocommunist politics. I don’t know.

To my mind, Seymour’s contribution pointed to the need for systematic, consistent socialist propagandist activity in workplaces and working-class communities. I don’t know whether any such conclusion is in his mind. He said only that we need a “convivial democratic organisation or system of organisations with a mass base“.

That would be nice. What a small band of socialists can achieve now he didn’t say. Whether he is privately drifting to the conclusion that it can do nothing I don’t know.

Brenna Bhandar’s speech also had substance, though from a political stance distant from AWL’s. As a model of where the left has done well, she cited India, on the grounds that the Communist Parties there have been in government.

She explained, however, why Laurie Penny’s “network politics” are inadequate. Social media circulate information fast. But real change comes from consistent organising, which requires “thicker and deeper” connections.

Bhandar centred much of her speech around a denunciation of a seminar she had attended on 6 June at Birkbeck College, addressed by socialist-feminist academics Nancy Fraser, Lynne Segal and Nina Power. All of them are white, she said. That shows that socialist feminists are way behind non-socialist feminists on addressing issues of racism.

Speakers from the floor took up the theme. No doubt, they indignantly declared, the panel had also failed to include disabled women, lesbians, etc… I don’t know what Fraser, Segal, and Power said, but I think they were entitled to discuss without including representatives of all oppressed groups in their panel, and I don’t think it possible for an individual to “represent” all the world’s billions of non-white women in a theoretical discussion.

Somewhat on the same wavelength, one ACI speaker said that “lots of people” (including himself, he suggested) saw the Woolwich murder as a reasonable “act of war”, and young people smashing up their neighbours’ houses or nearby corner shops in the 2011 riots as the sort of political action that “the left has to engage with”.

After the meeting, a socialist who is friendly with ISN members said to me: “It was more like a therapy session than a political meeting”.

Cruel, but true. In many hours of talk, no-one spoke about plans for active interventions by the ISN in workplaces or in campaigns.

Apart from Sarah Murdock and Ian Llewellyn (from Sussex University), almost no-one spoke of recent struggles in which they’d been active or of events in their workplace.

No-one spoke of the political basis for ISN-ACI-SR unity. Simon Hardy of the ACI said: “We [ACI, SR, ISN] haven’t really talked about politics yet, and we have to do that”. He said he was confident that there was much agreement, but cited as agreed only the idea that they all want a democratic left that doesn’t burn people out.

Within Left Unity, ACI people back Nick Wrack’s push for an explicitly socialist and working-class platform, and SR backs the plan of Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson for a “softer” political programme akin to Die Linke in Germany. There were echoes from that dispute in the 8 June meeting, but there was no arguing-out.

No-one proposed specific ISN policies (many seemed to think that anything like that would be the dreaded “party line”).

The activists quitting the SWP recently were mostly young, but few people in the meeting looked under 30. The ISN has picked up a few older people who left the SWP long ago, or were never in the SWP. Despite much proclamation of feminist virtue, the meeting was no less male-dominated than other left meetings.

Though you would expect ACI and SR to be excited about the prospects of merger with ISN, few of them turned up apart from their platform speakers. A scattering of other leftists (including at least a couple of SWPers) were there from curiosity, but no-one other from us AWLers sold literature. We sold only a little: refusals to buy our papers and pamphlets were often not the courteous “no, thanks” we get on the streets or door-to-door, but instead “no chance!”, “absolutely not!”, etc.

I spoke from the floor, near the end, about the ISN’s letter to the AWL refusing to discuss with us on the grounds that the differences are too big. If ISN doesn’t want to talk with AWL, I said, too bad. AWL has plenty else to do. But if ISN insists that “big differences” rule out discussion, then it has cut its own intellectual throat.

The person who refuses even to discuss ideas very different from her or his own, and remains content with general enthusiasm for “networking”, will never progress politically.


  1. Andrew Coates said,

    It doesn’t sound very serious, does it?

    I liked Hall’s original ideas about authoritarian populism and the Great Moving Right Show when they were developing in the late ‘seventies and the very start of the ’80s (I was at CCCS after all).

    They always tended, even so, to over-emphasise the ideological/cultural. The idea of the ‘national popular’ was weak on concrete references. As somebody once said, Hall never sued, however critically, coarse things like opinion polls.

    Hall’s politics in the late 1980s and the mixture of what they called ‘post-modernism’ and ‘post-fordism’ have not worn well at all.

    As for – I assume Martin’s sticking point – the way he jumped on the kind of tactical-voting Charter 88 ‘anti-Tory’ national popular New Times project, well, I think Hall’s spent some time after Brown and Blair trying to cover his tracks .

    Welcoming left therapy for me I would add, would not include sitting in the same room as somebody who thought that “the Woolwich murder (w)as a reasonable “act of war”,.”

    It would be interesting as well to know in NIna Power’s forthcoming book on Badiou will contain a discussion of his unrepentant support for the Khmer Rouge.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      “the Woolwich murder (w)as a reasonable “act of war”,.”

      If someone comes out with that sort of thing and nobody challenges it (or even tuts loudly in middle class English fashion) you know that you are just in the wrong place and need to leave immediately.

      I felt this in a biggish Socialist Alliance London event just after 9/11 where multiple variations on ‘they had it coming’ came from the platform and audience and went completely unchallenged – and that for me was it as far as the far left were concerned,

      • Mark H said,

        This is a misrepresentation of what the ACI supporter said. He was stating that many young angry British Muslims think that Woolwich was a reasonable act of war. The suggestion referred to by the words “including himself, he suggested” emanates entirely from the author of this article.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        But one could make that point (which to my mind is a monstrous libel of young British Muslims when the quantifier you choose is ‘many’ rather than ‘some’ bit that is an argument probably not worth having) and add ‘and they are wrong’…..

      • Mark H said,

        Why should I take lessons in what people should or shouldn’t say from someone who will use the hackneyed sleight of hand of giving someone’s report of other people’s opinions as their own opinions and then when caught out on it does not withdraw their point but instead uses that other hackneyed sleight of hand of shifting their argument to a related but different point?

  2. John said,

    The SPGB was also giving out leaflets but these ex-SWPers don’t seem to be going anywhere though I suppose one or two might end up as future Labour MPs.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      The SPGB has been hanging around outside other peoples meetings giving out leaflets since 1911 or whenever it was they split off from the SLP.

      Indeed if you haven’t attracted an SPGB leafleter you’ve probably not publicised your meeting very well.

      • DW said,

        The SPGB have also debated the AWL in the 1990s, something the much smaller AWL don’t seem keen to mention or repeat. So much for “Ideas for Freedom”.

  3. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Laurie Penny lauded “network politics”, by which she meant chatting with like-minded people on blogs and other web forums as distinct from activity in workplaces, door-to-door, etc. The internet, she announced, makes all “party lines” impossible, and newspapers “defunct”.

    To quote Seinfeld just when you thought you’d worked out how shallow Laurie Penny is there she goes and lowers the lake another few inches.

    As for China Mieville he just seems intent on proving my theory that there is almost always an inverse relationship between artistic talent (I rate his novels very highly indeed) and political intelligence.

    And Seymour:

    He said only that we need a “convivial democratic organisation or system of organisations with a mass base“.

    That ‘convivial’ really defines the whole academic pseudo-left mindset – this is not a struggle for existence for them but a means of passing the time between seminars and faculty meetings and dinner parties.

  4. Rosie said,

    Going by this, I’m glad my activism is engaged with cycling in Edinburgh. You are given sensible instructions on how and who you should lobby. The discussions on the internet are often highly practical about how junctions are controlled and cycle paths situated. I flog off quite a few maps at stalls and have pleasant conversations with the public. There have been actual concrete results in the number of cyclists and the direction of transport policy. My organisation, Spokes, doesn’t make up statistics.The base isn’t “mass” but it is effective. In fact, I’m surprised the SWP haven’t tried some entryism there.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    “This is a misrepresentation of what the ACI supporter said. He was stating that many young angry British Muslims think that Woolwich was a reasonable act of war. The suggestion referred to by the words “including himself, he suggested” emanates entirely from the author of this article.”

    Right, ‘Mark H’: so the person suggesting that “many young angry British Muslims think that Woolwich was a reasonable act of war” had no sympathy with that opinion himself?

    And neither do you?

    Do you think we’re fucking idiots?

    • Mark H said,

      Well, if you insist on ascribing opinions to a person without them expressing such opinions, then you are either an idiot, or worse. I see now you are ascribing opinions to me also, despite your knowing nothing about me. That way madness lies.

  6. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    He said he was confident that there was much agreement, but cited as agreed only the idea that they all want a democratic left that doesn’t burn people out.

    Again incredibly revealing language – these people are not engaged in serious politics (as for all their absurdities and now actual crimes the SWP are) but are mere bourgeois looking for entertainment and ‘self-realisation’.

    Carl Schmitt’s essay Political Romanticism had these people sussed back in 1919:

    For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things. As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae. ‘Reversing one’s position between several realities and playing them off against one another belongs to the nature of the romantic situation,’ Schmitt writes. Political romantics are ostensibly self-sufficient yet also have a desperate need for human comradeship. ‘In every romantic we can find examples of anarchistic self-confidence as well as an excessive need for sociability. He is just as easily moved by altruistic feelings, by pity and sympathy, as by presumptuous snobbery.’….Schmitt says that the problem is it produces only gesture politics, and that ‘the romantic wants to be productive without being active.’

    (I quote David Runciman’s rubbishing of Christopher Hitchens in the LRB which for all its mean-spiritedness is I think very perceptive in applying Schmitt’s concept but misses the degree to which Hitchens is an exemplar rather than an outlier and the whole left was poisoned by this romanticism from its very inception).

  7. Jim Denham said,

    The unspeakable smug stupidity and banality of these people (exemplified by China Mieville, Laurie Penny and Chris Nineham) can be witnessed here:

  8. Waterloo Sunset said,

    One of Laurie Penny’s “angry young blogger” constituency-

    An extract.

    Some of it is just that I don’t want a totemic media representation of people my age at all and if I must have it, I don’t want it to be her. I’m a great big complicated, angry adult and I don’t romanticise my own youth nor the fucking terrible experiences of those younger than me. Or indeed older than me. I especially don’t do it just because of their gender. I never elected anyone as the gratuitously representative 25-year-old in Britain and I wish the media would stop pretending that somehow we all did just because lots of people in their 40s found her student protest riot reportage quite saucy.

    It surprises me how much some of the left seem to have entirely taken Laurie Penny’s self-created image at face value. I’m not sure she actually has much influence outside her little upper-middle class Twitter bubble.

    • Jimmy Glesga said,

      This must be a cunning plan to bore capitalism to death.

      All Zawahiri wants a new Caliphate and to wage a Holy War against Israel and that wee shoite Haig wants to arm the islamic nutters. Haig is as stupid as the hard left Islamic apologists.

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