Sunday, 31 December 2006

Left Behind: 2006

2006 was a funny year for the left.

The crisis of political representation has deepened as Labour continues to shed members like they're going out of fashion. It carries out policies that kick its electoral base in the teeth, and then moans about the disconnect between parties and the wider public,

The BNP did pretty well during the year's council elections and scored a massive publicity coup with the stupid and unsuccessful prosecution of Nick Griffin and Mark Collett.

There have been stirrings in the trade unions with an increasing willingness to take action. For the most part these are led from the top and tended toward stalemate. This means everyday bread and butter struggles are particularly vulnerable to the interests of union bureaucrats. Take Unison for example. The bureaucracy has singularly failed to take a serious lead in the fight against the government's programme of NHS cuts. The pattern has been repeated throughout the country - Unison is willing to lead threatened staff out on a march but beyond that, forget it. It has been upto grassroots activists, rank and file workers, patients and others to link up the increasing number of local struggles. This is often in the face of bureaucratic opposition and is nothing short of disgraceful. But should we be surprised their concern to ease Gordon Brown's path to coronation comes before members interests?

On the subject of Labour, 2006 finally saw some movement from the Labour left. Only the most blinkered of sectarians would not have welcomed John McDonnell's decision to stand for the party's leadership. If his challenge has succeeded in mobilising people around left wing politics, even when the arena is the husk that the Labour party is these days, this is a good thing. But it is doubtful McDonnell will make it onto the ballot, let alone win the contest! Nevertheless of those outside the Labour party most of the left have struck the right attitude towards this development. The Socialist Party for instance, takes the principled position of urging remaining Labour lefts to get involved in the John 4 Leader campaign and argues all trade unionists should back him. This to me makes far more sense than merely calling on people to leave Labour and get involved in the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. But nor should we let these comrades off the hook - every John 4 Leader activist I've spoken to have refused to be drawn on their plans after the campaign. My hunch is even if they fail to get McDonnell on the ballot, most will remain in Labour because there's nothing sufficiently viable outside to most of their tastes.

Well, that is not strictly true. The Greens have had a good year. While the BNP grabbed the headlines the Green Party had made good, if quiet advances. There's two reasons for leftists to be cheerful about its progress. First was June's successful launch of the party's ecosocialist platform, Green Left. Second, one of its leading activists, Derek Wall, was elected male co-speaker (chair) in November. The left here are on the march. I certainly look forward to the Greens deepening their commitment to social justice and turning their back on a strategy aiming to "green" capitalism. There are problems around the Green's sandals-and-muesli image. Their consensus-based party structure is also a major albatross in my opinion. There are lessons green lefts can learn from the Trotkyist movement on this score but one hopes without going through the sectarian excesses that has so deformed its potential.

Speaking of excesses by far the most depressing domestic political event has been the split in the Scottish Socialist Party. Like many my first instinct was to hail Tommy Sheridan's court victory over the News of the World. The celebrations didn't last long in the BC household. As the days went by after the case it became increasingly apparent it wasn't as clear cut as matters immediately presented themselves. I'm not going to rehearse these arguments as they're in the public domain. But considering the bitterness existing between the anti-Sheridan and Sheridanista factions they couldn't really cooperate effectively. As regrettable the split was, I don't think there was any alternative but for Sheridan and co to launch Solidarity. One would hope that comrades would try and build as many bridges as possible to put the split behind us, but if Solidarity's embarrassingly self-aggrandising new year statement is to go by - don't hold your breath.

This is not a sectarian dig, but it does look like Respect has hit the buffers. The capacity to get councillors elected where it is strong stands testament to the roots the coalition has managed to put down. The big but is the decline in membership and the increasing dissatisfaction independent activists and on-off SWP allies, the ISG are having with Respect's centralised but ramshackle structure. Chief among their beefs is the lack of control the organisation has over its representatives. The Celebrity Big Brother fiasco with George Galloway is one memory that won't be going away in a hurry, but according to the Weekly Worker and internet gossip a number of local councillors tend to do as they please. If Respect is to be more than a small but moderately successful then the accountability issue has to be sorted out. Liam MacUaid's analysis is one all Respect activists and supporters should seriously reflect on.

Things haven't been particularly fantastic for the rest of the revolutionary left. I'll leave the SP's year for a future post. But those mighty titans the International Bolshevik Tendency have done well - their recruitment of former SP youth NC member, Michael Wainwright has brought their UK membership perilously close to double figures. Will they be able to add another comrade to their ranks before he clears off? But this was eclipsed by THE left story of 2006. No not Sheridan, I'm talking about the split in Workers' Power. The most entertaining aspect of this falling out between uber-bolsheviks was the publicising of WP's international membership figures. The internet feeding frenzy just had to be seen to be believed!

Groping for something of an overall verdict I'd say 2006 was a year where the left stood still. This is simply not good enough. The BNP's turn to far right populism has given them the name recognition they could only have dreamed of 10 years ago. We should be appalled at the failure to make ourselves the natural alternative for all our class to turn to. I doubt we will be able to in 2007, but if we keep this objective in mind we can make a significant stride toward it.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Death of a Dictator

"Hanged at dawn - Saddam Hussein has been executed in Baghdad".

This was the headline greeting me on the BBC this morning.

Well, I for one won't be mourning for this tin pot tyrant. But I cannot bring myself to celebrate his demise in the same way I did with Pinochet. First I am opposed to the death penalty - even for the most vile criminals like Hussein who've used state power to inflict murder and suffering. Second, despite all the blather about his execution being the decision of the "sovereign state" of Iraq, this blighted country is anything but. Finally it puts a question mark over the judicial accounting of his crimes. Is it coincidental Western support for the regime prior to the invasion of Kuwait wasn't put into question?

Blair, Bush & co will hail this as one favourable outcome of the war (though expect some hand wringing from the government over the use of the death penalty). But as Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell, donning a leftish cap, has correctly said, this does not vindicate the war in any way.

On a final grisly note, images of the execution are to be released later on. Will it be long before we see Saddam's death throes on YouTube?

Edited to add:

Regardless what you think of George Galloway, his short piece on Saddam's execution hits the nail on the head.

The stupidity of the Baghdad puppets beggars belief. First, they commission a kangaroo court which refuses to consider charges relating to the invasion of Iran in 1980, or the gassing of the Kurds or any other event in which the Western powers were complicit.

The farcical trial itself allowed Saddam, in the eyes of the mass of people in the Middle East, to replace the humiliating image of his capture with him as the confident accuser from the dock. The perfunctory dismissal of the appeal and the dossier of complaints from international jurists only added to the perception of "victor’s justice".

Then they film Saddam Hussein’s last moments. The newsreaders seemed perplexed at his composure. Did they want him to rant and rave or collapse in a blubbering heap or in some other way play the allotted role of pantomime villain?

It's all of a piece with the infantilised fable which public opinion has been fed on for a decade and a half.

In truth, just about no one imagines this tawdry execution will diminish the violence in Iraq. On the contrary, it will increase manifold. Ominously, the latest communique from the Iraqi resistance said the execution would be be met with swift and terrible vengeance, exacted "everywhere".

The Bush/Blair blunder in Iraq becomes more extreme by the day. They have already succeeded in strenthening Iran in southern Iraq and the the region - which Saddam's US-backed invasion was meant to forever forstall. Now in the eyes of tens of millions of Arabs they are turning Saddam into something he strove but failed to be - a hero.

Thursday, 28 December 2006


On Jacob Marley, Ebeneezer Scrooge observed there was more gravy than the grave about his ghostly guest. Likewise this belly ache was a nocturnal visitor induced by a dodgy meal. This post came to me in flashes during the night, as I drifted between dreaming and wakefulness.

Every so often my partner and I venture down into the bowels of Stoke to visit our favourite balti house. After last night it was probably the last.

We've been going there for almost as long we've been together. We had work socials, postgrad meet ups, birthdays, nights out with friends and even our engagement do there. In that time it has seen owners and staff come and go but overall it has maintained a well-deserved reputation for a decent curry at a price that's hard to beat. It has enmeshed itself in my experience of the, erm, Stoke experience, I once put pen to paper and gave them a very favourable review for an (allegedly) trendy free local mag for bright young things.

Now I'm doing the opposite for my blog.

Originally there was going to be five or six of us heading to the balti place but for a variety of reasons they couldn't make it. I'm glad they didn't now. My opinion on curry matters would have been reduced to nought if they'd sat through our meal.

That we were the only people in the place should have acted as a portent of things to come. Out came the starter. Not wanting to smell offensive in the morning I passed over the onion mix and solely topped my poppadum with mango chutney. Or rather I should say mango water. The thick rich spicy fare of old had become a bland and runny imitation. But still, one cannot judge a place on the basis of the free appetiser. Unfortunately it turned out to be the best thing about the meal.

I went for a mushroom and spinach balti madras and a peshwari naan while Cat ordered a mushroom and spinach chana (chickpeas) with egg fried rice. The culinary accoutrements arrived and I was immediately struck by my naan. It was, well, shiny. I don't know what had been done to it but its look and consistency had more of the deep fat fryer about it than the oven. And then, the curries. Sad to say the balti itself was by far the worst I've had. Okay, I can almost forgive the oil slick the curry sat in. Sometimes it happens. But since when is a balti ever too salty? I can think of one occasion and that's when the patrons have earned the chef's displeasure. But I've no reason to believe we are or have done anything deserving of his special "seasoning".

All in all it was a bad balti. Very bad. Out of politeness I ate about half but that was it. We paid up, left a tip for the waiters and busied ourselves home.

It doesn't take a Marxist to realise nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Lately our take aways from the same place have not been upto standard. One of the guys tells me it has something to do with the new owner. When he came in the curry quality made a leap forward but behind the scenes his petty authoritarianism drove staff away. This has proved to be his undoing. Now most nights the restaurant sits silent as the kitchen staff can't be bothered to make an effort any more. Who can blame them? Why should they when the boss treats them like dirt?

We're not a charity either. Next time I'm flushed with curry money we'll be heading round the corner.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

PhD Thesis: Why SP and SWP?

Big post warning!

In the comments section on my original post about my PhD, Eddie Truman writes
It seems very strange to me that this research should exclude many thousands of people who are in neither organisation but who have decades of experience in UK left politics. The very foundations of your research appears flawed from the start.
No need to pull your punches comrade!

The general email I send to prospective respondents reads,
I am focusing on SP and SWP members because they continue to be the most influential, visible and successful organisations to come out of the British Trotskyist tradition. Both parties are active across a large number of campaigns and often play key mobilising and leading roles.
Let me elaborate on this.

In part I'm addressing a huge gap in the academic literature on social movements. When researchers engage with this field of study the empirical cases tend to be around community/environmental campaigns, NGO social movement organisations, direct action groups and the anarchist/autonomist milieu of what can loosely be described as the anti-capitalist movement. In British case studies the role of Trotskyist organisations in mobilising and sustaining campaigns are usually passed over in silence, or when they are touched on it is usually to rubbish their contribution. The point is without the SWP would the Stop the War Coalition and before it the Anti-Nazi League have been as high profile as they are/were? Same too with the SP, is it or is it not true that Militant provided the necessary organisational backbone the Anti-Poll Tax Federations required? The same applies across a large number of campaigns. From my own experience in the struggle against this year's spate of NHS cuts it is the SP that has often taken the initiative in forming groups where it has activists on the ground - yet the anti-cap/NGO milieu privileged in the literature have been largely absent.

My other interest is with the question of persistence. The academic left has since the 80s bemoaned/celebrated the decline of class and the labour movement and have generally predicted radical politics would become fragmented around identity and/or marginal interests. Hence (in my opinion) the academic focus on disparate and fragmentary protest and social movements. These appear to be an empirical confirmation of the post-industrial/post-fordist thesis. And yet Trotskyist parties - supposedly relics of the past - continue to play the roles I've outlined above. Nevertheless post-fordist doom-and-gloom mongering is correct, upto a point - the labour movement has declined in terms of influence and active participants. How have the SP and SWP responded to this political crisis? Or rather, how have active members come to grips with this change? Have the parties facilitated a turn to new forms of activism or is it a case of business as usual? How has the practice of long-term members who were radicalised during the battles of the 70s and 80s changed, if at all? Are the issues they find particularly salient shared with newer and/or younger members?

So far this doesn't really answer Eddie's question. True there are thousands of socialists who adhere to no organisation. Just look at the UKLN, the majority of contributors are independent activists. But my overall objective is to shed light on the intersection of organisational and individual political identities. We all know there is a relationship, how often have we taken political attacks on our respective organisations as a personal affront? Speaking for myself there have been plenty of incidences over the years when a critique of the organisation I happened to be involved with at the time really got me going. But our parties are more than that - they offer a network of like minded comrades with a set of common political objectives. This can be an incredibly powerful resource and influence, and is something not unique to the far left.

It just so happens the SP and SWP retain the bulk of organised Trotskyist activists in England and Wales. As I'm concerned with making an intervention in current debates in social movement research, no one can deny their respective weight. I would have a far harder time justifying my funding and research if I concentrated on the various micro groups who only are hardly visible. Pretty much every academic active in this field would have heard of the SWP but few of Workers' Power, for instance. Another problem I have is lack of finance - for cost reasons I'm sticking with comrades in the West Mids and North West, and here the SWP and SP absolutely dominate in terms of far left membership and influence. I'd venture to say there were more people at Stoke SP's social the other week than there are organised Trotskyists outside the 'big two' in the entire West Midlands.

The thing to remember is this project cannot be exhaustive. I am undertaking in-depth interviewing with 20 comrades remember, but I hope what will come out of it is a number of useful conceptual tools that can be used in other contexts to ask questions about adherence to organisational identities. For instance I've been long fascinated by how and why managers (in the main) come to identify with the companies they work for - it cannot be solely down to the better salaries and perks they get (though of course these will play a part).

If anyone else has questions please feel free to ask.

Monday, 25 December 2006

An Alternative Christmas Message

Every year since I was yay-high I've managed to avoid Elizabeth Windsor's annual address to her subjects.

For 2006 I've decided to flip over to C4 to see the 'alternative'. Presented by Khadijah, a white English woman who converted to Islam 10 years back, the choice of a veiled Muslim woman to deliver a message was a provocative decision. Especially considering the crap whipped up by the bourgeois media over this issue.

She praises the tolerance British society has traditionally displayed toward minorities and then rounds on the likes of Jack Straw for seeking to make cheap political capital out of the veil.

But the main theme was Islam's relationship to Christmas and Jesus, reiterating the point lost amidst the media swill that the two religions are united by the worship of the same God.

All very nice.

There's bound to be a political point in there somewhere but the annual xmas headache is a heavy burden upon my brow, so I'll leave you for the chrimbo Deal or No Deal special.

Enjoy what remains of your christmas!

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Happy Christmas

Just a quick message to wish all the readers and contributors to the comments boxes a very happy christmas!

Saturday, 23 December 2006

Another Own Goal

BBC News 24 frequently annoys me but often it is the faux neutrality reporters assume rather than the stories they cover. But on a slow day such as the last saturday before Christmas this sparkler really rankled.

To recap the story as told on the news, a couple of elderly god-botherers were affronted by leaflets "promoting" lesbian and gay lifestyles produced by the local council and stocked in the town library. Convinced of the immorality of all things LGBT they complained to the council's diversity officer and asked if it was permissable to stock Christian leaflets alongside them. (Note - to their credit they did not ask for the LGBT literature to be removed).

Unsurprisingly the bureaucrat said no, believing their presence likely to offend LGBT people. At that point our protagonist Joe Roberts let it be known he thought the leaflets and homosexuality generally went against biblical teaching and therefore the will of God.

Fair enough. Anyone with half an inch of sense would write him off as an irredeemable homophobe and leave it at that. But not this intrepid diversity officer! Subsequent to the phone call he informed the police who popped round the Roberts's to put the frighteners on them for voicing a hateful opinion!

12 months on, the council and police have apologised to the couple and awarded them £10 grand, who the Roberts plan on donating to the barmy Christian Institute "charity". What a blow struck for progressive politics! Not only has this affair cheapened efforts at LGBT liberation, it makes all of us - the left - look like a bunch of PC-deranged simpletons. Be sure the reactionaries in The Mail, The Sun, Talksport and so on will have a field day.

This story didn't surprise me either. There is a layer of individuals scattered throughout local government and public services bureaucracy who imbibed leftish values at some point in their lives but for whatever reason have come to disassociate them from the labour movement generally and socialist politics in particular. In a sense you can understand this. The defeats of the 80s continue to cast their shadow on todays left, which almost everyone would agree is not what it used to be. Increasingly these bureaucrats look to the power that comes with their middling positions to push their values and take action against those that fall foul of them.

In this case it was entirely proper for Wyre Borough council to put stuff out on LGBT rights. But it was criminal of the diversity officer to punish a couple of neanderthals for expressing what is their heartfelt opinion by getting the cops in on the act. It bolsters the amorphous right wing populism the Littlejohns, the Davidsons, the self-proclaimed anti-PC brigade and the BNP leech off.

One lesson this bureaucrat and others need to learn and fast is no matter how well intentioned they are, attempts at imposing agendas in top-down fashion are at best likely to be ignored by the wider populace, or at worse alienate them from the very values we struggle to make concrete through our movement.

When we talk about socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class that is precisely what we mean. The muck of ages won't be washed away by cack-handed attempts at social engineering by well meaning but clueless do gooders.

Friday, 22 December 2006

On Blogging

It’s the time of year everything starts winding down. Most people I would imagine broke up from work today, and if they’re lucky they might not be back in until the 2nd or 3rd. To those who work in retail and will probably only get Christmas and boxing day off, I’m with you in spirit. Having been in that position myself many times in the past I know how galling it can be.

But this isn’t going to be a meditation on Christmas working. Now everyone's gone home and won't have a dinner time to waste surfing the blogosphere I think I can get away with a vanity post. I’ve looked through other leftist blogs and all at some point take the time out to reflect on blogging. I know mine is young but I might as well join the club. And besides, I'm stumped for anything else to write about.

Most bloggers claim only to be writing for themselves, be it to help them think through ideas they have, practice their prose, talk about their lives and what have you. These are things I want to do to. For me this is rooted in a longing to be a diarist. From about the age of 8 to 27 I regularly tried to keep a journal but they would succumb to an attack of “Oh I can’t be arsed” in the end. I always felt slightly daft writing about stuff that only I would likely to be read too. Perhaps the spur of a small but growing audience will help me plod on, in the same way interminable UKLN debates carry on and on and on because participants know their rants are at the least likely to be read by scores of subscribers. Well I've been at this blogging lark a week and half and AVPS is still going strong!

No doubt much to the relief of those of you who know me I will not be going down the Abby Lee/Audacia Ray route of laying my life bare. This isn’t because I’m coy about such matters – it’s just that my life is far removed from one long debauched rollercoaster of promiscuity and fornication. If I was younger and/or single it might have been worth doing anonymously. I'm sure an Adventures in Horizontal Recruitment would be a massive hit. If anyone wants to take up the cudgels ...

Sadly, unless sociology and sectariana is your bag you will find this blog wanting in the titillation stakes. Readers searching for a deep exploration of the human condition are also likely to be disappointed. I’m a happy chap of a permanently cheerful disposition. I have no desire to acquire a slanty fringe and a hatred for my parents. You can keep your AFI and My Chemical Romance thank you very much. This blog is proud to be a razor blade free zone.

But whatever our motivations and protestations to modesty, we blog because we feel we have something unique to offer. As far as I’m concerned I don’t really know what this is and doubt I ever will. I’ll leave that to others to judge.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

The Crimbo Quiz

You didn't ask for it, but like I care. It's my blog and I'll quiz if I want to.

Answers are in the comment box. Don't cheat, and post your scores!

1) Which party leader resigned his position after admitting a drink problem?
2) Where did the 2006 World Social Forum take place?
3) In what month?
4) Who in 2000 released Sing When You're Winning?
5) What 2 countries have been threatened by the "international community" for their pursuit of nuclear technology? (Full official titles please)
6) What is the name of the Socialist Party's TD in the Irish Republic?
7) Who sang You're as Cold as Ice?
8) Who was the first group to have a UK number one with Eternal Flame?
9) What year was the NHS set up?
10) What month?
11) Which 70s rock band had a hit with Breaking the Law?
12) In what year did the October Revolution take place?
13) Which Latin American country has recently nationalised its gas industry?
14) Which dadrock band has a hit with Smoke on the Water?
15) Who denounced Satan at the UN earlier this year?
16) And who was the Devil?
17) Who wrote Empire Defeated?
18) And what country is the book about?
19) Who authored the 1902 pamphlet, What is to be Done?

I bet there's plenty of you out there who thought that was easy. Turn then to the answers and see if you got 100% ...

That Was The Branch That Was

It's Thursday evening. I've just come home smelling of booze and fags. That can only mean one thing. Stoke Central SP has resumed meeting in the pub. The room where we gathered has seen some sights this year. I've heard the stools creek under the Suttons' corpulent frames. We've had absurd union bureaucrats arguing for keeping the NHS SOS campaign non-political. It was also the scene where I briefly cut a dashing figure on Sky News. And after this evening the final branch meeting of 2006 can be added to this list of esteemed happenings.

Cde Neil opened the proceedings with a short lead off on the polarising processes underway at present in Bolivia, which opened out into a discussion on the nature of solidarity, the relationship between classes and the lessons that can be drawn from the struggle there for our own political practice. Then came a short break before Andy introduced a timetable for the branch's activity in the coming months. The first meeting of 2007 will be dealing with our election plans, and judging by the v short but extremely lively debate that erupted it sounds like the branch has interesting times ahead.

The final item on the agenda was the famous SP socialist xmas quiz! Questions to help brighten your last day at work will come after this has been posted. But I'm proud to say I avenged by miserable 3rd place from last year and saw the opposition off without any trouble. Thank you comrades for the prize - if you don't mind I'm going to dedicate my bottle of wine to the juche idea and the memory of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il-Sung.

PS Wicked whispers reach me of scandalous behaviour at Loz's party. As this is a family blog euphemisms will be used to preserve its good and decent reputation.

* Who proved very keen to help Loz set up the decorations but was nowhere to be found when the cleaning up came round?

* Which up and coming radio star so scared the children present with her inebriated behaviour that they had to go home early?

* Who had to take their number one out the window because the bathroom was occupied by a just-met couple keen to display their affection for one another?

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Trial by Media

Steve Cooke, a cpgb comrade posted this on the UK Left Network last night. IMO he is absolutely spot on. I used to regularly view Murdoch's 24 hour rolling propaganda channel, Fox News. This limp excuse for a news channel regularly prejudiced cases by going into detail about suspects, possible evidences and motives and what have you, and hypocritically moaning about the difficulty of finding jurors uncontaminated by media coverage!

I smugly thought it couldn't happen here. How wrong I was.

I've just read a Guardian article about the second man arrested as part of the Suffolk serial killings investigation. See here

The media coverage of the arrests is absolutely appalling.

Hopefully the police will find the culprit, but the consequences for the lives of any innocent individuals arrested in the process could be severe.

This man's personal information, his date of birth, the street he lives on, career history, personality traits, hobbies, everything are being detailed and speculated upon in the above article, as will presumably be happening in the other papers too.

Not only that, but they've written extensively about his partner, named and detailed his father's marital history, and printed all but the house number of his son's address.

Even if he turns out to be completely innocent, this man's life will be damaged.

Some of the people he knows will probably treat him quite differently now on the basis that there's no smoke with fire, you can't be too careful, etc.

The other people named in the article are bound to be looked upon by people as associated with the crime too.


Steve Cooke

So much for the right to a free and fair trial. It's high time the presumption of innocence was legally enforced to cover the accused from the moment of arrest up to the conclusion of the legal process.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The Trouble with Richard Dawkins

I have to thank Rod Liddle, that darling of the Graunistas for taking the time to appear on my telly last night. In The Trouble With Atheism the Rodster takes a big agnostic stick and gives the godless a good provocative poking. His thesis is that for all contemporary atheism’s courting of reason and logic, it is beginning to resemble the religions it so despises. Atheists are shown to be haughty, dogmatic, dismissive and contemptuous. Atheism is demonstrated to have its own sacred texts and places of worship. And like all religions it has its fundamentalist zealots.

He does have a point. One of Liddle's main protagonists is celebrity scientist and page 7 atheist pin up Richard Dawkins, whose hyped best seller is billed as giving religion both barrels. Now, I haven’t read The God Delusion nor am I likely to after seeing its contents laid bare in forests of book reviews and a 3-part advert/C4 documentary. From what I can gather he argues science is superior to religion because the latter relies on mystery, faith and dogma over investigation, reasoned argument and evidence. Okay, no problems there. He goes on to make the obvious point that religion excuses people to be beastly to one another and justifies all manner of violence toward the unbelievers. Again, an incontrovertible point. But it’s when he extends his argument that he runs into trouble.

It essentially boils down to this. He cannot understand why religious people cannot see through superstition when he, his mates and a smug band of Dawkins groupies can. By way of an explanation he likens religion to viruses. These ‘memes’ gain an echo down the centuries because they offer the promise of a purpose to existence and a life beyond death. This, despite protestations to the contrary, implies atheists are more logical and have greater strength of character than their theist brethren because they can face down oblivion. But the flipside is he holds out the hope that people can be won away from religion by force of debate and reason.

Unfortunately he falls into the familiar trap of unreflective thinking. Despite his atheism and scientific writings on evolution, philosophically his position is simplistically materialist and thoroughly idealist. On the one level Dawkins accepts Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that “the world is all that is the case” but for him this remains a contemplative position. This might be enough to see him through his studies of genetics but an abstract nod to a godless world is unsuited for understanding the sensuous and active world in which we live. We cannot grasp the pull of religious ideas without simultaneously being aware of the real, historical existence of the people who adhere to them. It is not enough to suggest religion speaks to universal human concerns. That cannot begin to explain why, for example, the Palestinian militant is more likely to adopt fundamentalist Islam than the Orthodox Judaism of the Israeli settler. But also mundane everyday life is, for the overwhelming majority, profoundly alienating. Those who sell their labour power for a wage or a salary give themselves over to a power outside themselves for a set period of time, which shoe-horns them into a circumscribed role, directs their pace of work and then denies them access to the full fruits of their labour. When society is subordinated to the demands of a blind alien power, when people are atomised, individuated and powerless, the belief we are but feathers buffeted by a divine wind can make more sense than salvation lying in our own self-activity as beings capable of consciously making history.

But this was the great unsaid in The Trouble With Atheism and Dawkins' assault on religion. Conceding the demise of religion in itself wouldn't necessarily lead to a more peaceful world. Dawkins and Liddle both blame war and destruction on that old canard human nature. Not once do they entertain the possibility that our "nature" is intimately bound up with the characteristics of this society, characteristics that arise from concrete historical processes that at the same time are made by social relationships dependent on and independent of human activity. In fact it's hardly surprising that, given their agreement on this point, when Liddle does venture into pop sociology, the crimes of Stalinism and fascism are laid at atheism's door. The very strong implication is despite its faults and appalling record religion sacralises human life: strip that away and raw human nature sets us on the path to the gulag and gas chamber.

For all Dawkins' reason and logic his atheism alibies capitalism. His 'scientific' standpoint is only materialist in the sense that our immutably destructive human nature is hard wired into our genes. Substitute this explanation for The Fall and in essence you have the same argument. Bourgeois materialism and religious idealism are 2 sides of the same capitalist coin. Both justify the order of things that sustain them and therefore have to deny the possibility of change. But because Marxism fundamentally breaks with these views it sees capitalism for what it is - an antiquated system whose decomposition threatens our survival as a species. Marxism not only affirms our capacity to build a new society, but demands it.

Monday, 18 December 2006

PhD Thesis

Last week Brian C asked me what my PhD thesis is about. Hopefully this extract from the letter I send out to prospective participants/victims makes matters clear and will provide background to the abstract I posted up the other day.

I might as well use the occasion of this post to fish for some participants. If you're a current SWP member with 3 or more years membership under your belt and fancy being part of the project do get in touch! (Sorry SP comrades, I'm over-subscribed already!)

Research Project – Information for Interviewees

Subject: Socialist Activists in Britain – Radicalisation and Commitment

October 2005 – September 2008 (doctoral thesis funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).

Researcher: Phil BC – involved in labour movement politics since 1995, former T&G shop steward. From January 2006 a member of the Socialist Party.

Background: As an activist who is involved in a variety of campaigns I am particularly interested in how socialists have managed to retain a commitment to independent working class politics at a time when socialism has dropped off the mainstream political agenda in Britain. I believe the academic study of social movements can provide a number of useful concepts to understand how radicalisation can develop into long-term commitment, as well as identify obstacles that tend to crop up in the course of an activist’s career.

Socialist Activists: There has been a lot of debate within social movement theory over the last 20 years about the decline of class-based mobilisation and the emergence of new kinds of politics ostensibly concerned with ‘post-material’ issues. Though there is some truth to this I believe the case is often overstated. For example if these claims were true how to account for the dogged persistence of Trotskyist activism not just in Britain, but also across most advanced industrial societies?

Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party: I am focussing on SP and SWP members because they continue to be the most influential, visible and successful organisations to come out of the British Trotskyist tradition. Both parties are active across a large number of campaigns and often play key mobilising and leading roles.

Commitment: A lot of talk in academic circles often cites the persistence of networks among activists as an explanation of sustained commitment. The best way to investigate this is by talking with individual activists. In addition, unlike the kinds of activists who are the subjects of much empirical social movement studies organised Trotskyists are part of a disciplined political party. I’m particularly interested in the personal and political ties such membership entails.

Generation, Education, Class, and Gender: As no two activists are the same I wish to compare accounts along these lines, both within and across parties. This will help determine whether there are significant commonalities or divergences pertaining to radicalisation and commitment.

Methods: This project is primarily qualitative in character. Speaking to and spending time with people can only really answer the kinds of questions I’m interested in. The research will also be making use of various materials published by each party, but these are for describing party histories and current political positions. At times key events held up by the party will inform some of the questioning.

Life history interviews: People’s biographies, views on socialist activism in general - each transcribed, anonymised (where the participant so wishes), and made available to the interviewee.

Participant observation: Going to meetings and participating in party actions – not a major part of the study but can be used to illustrate particular styles of activism indicated by interviewees.

What use is this research to activists?

For socialist activists in particular the project will have a number of outcomes:

Showing how experience of activism can change people by empowering them.

The life histories this will provide can serve as a record of the oft-neglected role Trotskyism has and continues to play in a number of working class struggles and social movements.

The comparison of life histories across generation, education, class, gender, and party could help socialists develop a more systematic awareness of the issues activists are likely to face during the course of their life. It is also to be hoped that it can contribute toward collaboration and trust between socialists from different traditions.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Communist Party at Loz's House

Stoke's progressives converged on Loz's gaff for the annual Socialist Party xmas do. In the biggest left party this side of Margaret Thatcher's death SP comrades got very social with assorted NUJ bureaucrats, Labour bods, a delegation from Spain and everyday Stoke folk.

In the best traditions of News of the World I made my excuses and left early. But when I did it was shaping up to be something of a corker.

In my circulation around the soiree I learned one of our comrades had been approached by the LibDems to stand for them in May. He was all for telling them to bugger off. But hold on a moment I thought, why doesn't he accept their invitation but insists on standing in Abbey Hulton? Once his nomination has been accepted by the party he could conveniently forget to file the relevant papers with the council so the Abbey would miss the opportunity to vote for a yellow candidate and clear the field for us. Worryingly he seemed quite receptive to the criminal subversion of the electoral process!

Other heady topics included the usual lefty gossip, McDonnell campaign happenings, the Suttons and my conversion to sartorial socialism. The music was stylishly provided by comrades Loz and Miles of the NUJ, brother Cessford of Manchester SP and were followed by a sing-along acoustic set.

Another highlight was my discovery of a hitherto unknown culinary wonder. You know those minging 4-sauce dips you can get from most supermarkets? It's always puzzled me why people buy them because they're often overlooked at buffets. Cheese and chive gets mixed up with the seafood sauce and other people's food detritus. Nice! Well that wasn't the case last night. The tasty solution are carrot sticks! I couldn't believe how well the humble root vegetable combined with the dips. It almost made up for the lack of cheese and pineapple on sticks ;)

Highlights I missed out on were the magician(!), scandalous occurrences, the fighting fund whip-around and cde Helen's come down from the paralytic heights she'd reached.

But it was a superb party. Don't ever let it be said that socialism is a grey affair.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Chatting at Socialism 2006

For the first time in over 2 years I've had something appear in the Weekly Worker.

You can read my short letter here – just scroll down to 'boring'.

Don’t get me wrong it was good to chat with Tina Becker again - last time was about 4 years ago! But there were some things she said that about summed up the cpgb's skewed grasp of reality for me.

We chatted about the Socialism 2006 sessions we’d attended. She noted the debates she'd been in weren’t particularly interesting or wide-ranging. That and the observation SP comrades showed an uneveness of political clarity. Well I wasn’t in a position to comment as I had attended discussions other groups didn't bother coming along to. It’s not easy to score sect points in materialist dialectics, anti-BNP strategy and LGBT liberation you see.

But she does have a point. In a sense. The average ceepeegeebee, spart or ittie-bittie is more likely to be clued up on Marxist theory, history of the workers movement and sectarian trivia than a typical Socialist Party comrade. On the other hand I'd suggest our members are more able to relate to people outside Britain's far left bubble. This is not to do down our efforts at educating our members and supporters. Rather it reflects the fact that the political level of our membership is uneven because we mostly recruit people fresh to socialist politics. So small wonder the debates weren't upto the cpgb's exacting standards.

When I pointed this out to TB she had skepticism written all over her face. But it is true! For example of the members Stoke branch has recruited this year I'm the only one who has a background on the revolutionary left.

Well Tina might not believe me. Never mind. But allow me to venture this observation.

People who come into their organisation, buy their paper and chat to them tend to be leftists of one stripe or another. cpgb activists concentrate their organisation's resources on trying to influence other activists. The result is in the group's theory and practice the left have come to be substituted for the working class as a whole, hence the reason why TB found it difficult to grasp my point. The "real" working class, largely untouched by socialist politics lies outside the cpgb's frames of reference because it never engages with them.

Once this is grasped it's easy to understand why the experiences of the class are off the cpgb's radar. A more perfect example of being conditioning consciousness is seldom found.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

A Question

Can anyone tell me why The Sun and The Mirror are referring to the Suffolk serial killer as 'The Ipswich Ripper'?

I only ask because as far as I know the murderer has not taken to mutilating their victims.

Have Fleet Street standards fallen so low? Or has cheap sensationalism trumped any semblance of journalistic and editorial integrity?

Coffee Morning ... and a little bit of Politics

The life of a PhD student isn't a constant round of seminars, pub visits and moaning. We do find the time to fit in the occasional coffee morning too.

And so it was yesterday. For unfathomable bureaucratic reasons PhD'ers in Keele's Institute of Law, Politics and Justice are concentrated in two locations. The first is the top floor of a delightful structure called Hornbeam building, a cold and leaky hole with growling radiators situated in the centre of campus. The other is on a lane named The Covert (pourquoi?). This is a converted student house and really is as snug as a bug in a rug. The only thing wrong with it it's bloody miles from anywhere. Well when I say miles I really mean 500 yards off the beaten track. But it might as well be the other side of the Earth for all the visits they receive from Hornbeam'ers and lecturers. So to overcome their isolation and encrouage some fraternisation these good people arranged a coffee morning and invited all the other postgrads around. Never one to pass up a freebie this writer made sure he was there bright and early.

Well it all went swimmingly. I schmoozed with people looking at the problems Cyprus poses for EU enlargement, the relationship between social justice and sustainability, crime amongst Crewe's burgeoning Polish community and the illegal trade in antiquities. It was a strange relief to learn I'm still the only sociologist in this postgraduate village.

There was one conversation worth talking about in depth. Daniel, one of the Marie Curie research fellows is looking at whether the liberal democratic state can force capitalism to adopt environmentally sustainable practices. His answer is a big no. When the state does promote green measures it never challenges the fundamental logics of the system. For example the government's big initatives generally revolve around persuading consumers to be more environmetally friendly. Instead of tackling the market taproot of these problems they're using it as an opportunity to generate new "green" markets.

Such observations shouldn't be news to socialists but neither is it for increasing numbers of green activists. Red-Green convergence is happening. Socialists and environmentalists have realised social justice and environmental justice are intertwined. Looking at the revolutionary press barely an issue goes by without reference to green issues. Similarly the programme of the Green Party is to all intents and purposes a left reformist document, and given the growth of the left in the party signified by Derek Wall's election as male co-speaker I believe the party will continue to evolve in the right (left!) direction.

However convergence is only really taking place at present at the level of ideas. Socialists and Greens may cooperate in the Campaign Against Climate Change, chat to each other on internet forums and agree to electoral non-aggression pacts but our practice still stays true to our roots. For example here in Stoke the Socialist Party has for the last year concentrated on NHS work, the Greens on the widening of the M6. Activists from both parties have attended meetings held by each campaign but the focus remains on the areas with which they are familiar. Speaking for the SP I would say lack of activists prevented us from engaging with the M6 campaign, and for the Greens who have less active members I would imagine a similar calculation was made. But nevertheless our choices reflect our political DNA.

I don't think dilemma would have been overcome if either group simply had more activists. It goes a lot deep than that. There are serious differences in the way socialists and greens approach politics but the main problem is how to get millions of people to take up our ideas. There in lies the rub.

I'll revisit this in a future post.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

In the Abstract

No not a piece of modern painting. I'm talking about the academic convention. There's a postgrad conference taking place in Newcastle on January 20th and I hope to unleash some aspects of my research on my peers. The main problem is they're a bunch of politics types and I'm not. But like I care! I've sat in many a political science seminar without being able to understand the proceedings and now it's payback time!

Here it is:

Walking the Tightrope: Some Political and Ethical Dilemmas of a
Movement-Relevant PhD

Abstract: The American Sociological Association’s endorsement of ‘public sociology’ has dominated debate in American sociology and has spilled over into other English-speaking national sociological fields. The call for sociology to seek a wider audience appears attractive but there are a number of problems too. One key criticism is that public sociology overlooks how the methodology of existing sociological research empowers participants in contrast to the top-down practices implicitly bound up with the ‘populist turn’ to public sociology. Unfortunately sociological research that aims to be relevant to movements cannot escape power effects notwithstanding the intentions of researchers. This dilemma is heightened when producing a thesis that is geared toward movement relevance but with the additional objective of obtaining a PhD. This paper confronts the spectre of 'liberal surveillance' by looking at the responses of far left activists to the author's research. The central dilemma is whether the value of movement relevancy outweighs the benefits institutional and counter-movement actors would gain from its liberal surveillance effects.

Guaranteed to be the talk of the town I'm sure.

In the words of a much-maligned UKLN'er, comments on the above most welcome.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

What a Performance

I've just got home eager to blog about the evening's doings but I just can't get my head together for the moment. Why?

My wife is watching the Royal Variety performance.

Now light entertainment has never done it for me. In fact I find it quite horrific. And this years show for the benefit of Charlie and Camilla Windsor is no exception.

Since coming through the door I've seen one "comedian" prattling about his walk, Paul O'Grady uttering some safe banalities, and the spectacle of Barry Manilow putting us through a tortuous medley without once moving his surgically enhanced top lip. And if things couldn't get worse we've had choreographed karate set to music.

A grimmer vision of hell is seldom visited upon this Earth.

Edited to add: I've had enough. My brain's given up the ghost. I might blog about the wonderful time me and Stoke SP legend Andy B had on a stall tonight. Then again, I might not.

Monday, 11 December 2006

The Dark Heart of (Bourgeois) Table Manners

One of my office mates burst into the room today full of passion and righteous fury. She’d been on a jolly at some International Relations conference in Bloomsbury or something and found the whole experience an exercise in pretentiousness and snobbery.

Judging by her account of what transpired most of the presenters and panellists were very keen to display their post-structuralist credentials and elaborated their various analyses on the state of IR in the early 21st century. Though aghast at the (f)utility of treating sectarian bombings in Baghdad or Israeli assaults on Gaza as texts open to the infinite play of interpretation, it was in fact the events of that evening’s dinner that raised my friend’s ire.

Braving the no doubt scintillating level of dinner table conversation it came to the totting up of the bill. As this was Bloomsbury her glass of wine, slice of cheese and chocolate truffle came to £16, but as is apparently customary in these heady circles it was decided everyone should pay the same. Hence her bill was further inflated to 27 quid! Not being English she was imprudent enough to challenge this and say she couldn’t afford it.

There was uproar around the table! These post-structuralists, so keen to deny the efficacy of material struggles over material interests in the material world were horrified to learn that not only was one of their number out of pocket, but is a hard up PhD student who isn't wealthy in any way. This was too rude a reality check for these poor souls.

In his famous study Distinction, Bourdieu exposes the relationship between class and consumption, style and cultural habits. Though the empirical data’s a touch out of date (it was published in France in 1979) some of his observations remain spot on. For pretty much of what us Marxists would call bourgeois culture it is absolutely taboo to talk about money. It is as if the poor dears have been too busy extracting surplus value all day that the last thing they want to be reminded of in polite society is the money that sustains their luxurious lifestyles. Money is dirty and vulgar; hence the bourgeoisie spend so much of their time appearing to be motivated by anything but money. This aversion pervades bourgeois culture from the arts, philosophy, literature to everyday countenance and etiquette.

My friend's refusal to subsidise the more expensive meals of the well-renumerated professors exposes the squalid heart of bourgeois table manners. That they were keen to hide their stingey moves behind the democratic gesture of sharing the bill out equally, their attraction to post-structuralism comes as no surprise. Its faux ultra radicalism and attacks on the tyranny of "totalising" theories that actually try to make sense of the world is nothing but a sophisticated denial of bourgeois material interest.

PS In the end my friend struck a blow against bourgeois propriety and only paid what she owed. :)

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Burn Baby Burn!

General Augusto Pinochet died today. Shame.

A Guilty Pleasure?

Me ode mucker Paul Hunt from Coventry posted this little gem to the UK Left Network a couple of days ago:
Yeah this group is a bit strange, but there are hell of a lot of closet lurkers who read it avidly.

A few years back when I used to post more regularly on this list, quite a few of my comrades would take the piss out of UKLN and the fact that I went on it. Seconds later they would then proceed to tell me about all the arguments and debates taking place - proof that they read it all the time.

The same with the Weekly Worker, the people that say they never read it but do are basically repressing themselves unnecessarily.

Thats why I invite all comrades to join with me in my new campaign- 'LeftOUT', a campaign which seeks to unmask the hypocrisy of all those closet spotters, sect watchers and lovers of left sectariana.
Bourdieu has noted us sociologists have an interest in appearing disinterested as a means of securing the prestige of the discipline (sociologists in Britain might be tempted to ask what this "prestige" is he speaks of?)

Surely something similar has to be going on with leftists and their relationship to leftist trainspotting.

A couple of weeks ago Stoke Socialist Party branch was visited by one of our better known activists. But what brought him here? Was it a desire to view first hand the progress Stoke branch has been making, listen to comrades' experiences of Socialism 2006, or was it to hear the report back from the International Bolshevik Tendency's fringe meeting? Well I don't want to prejudge the comrade but of all the topics that got him most animated, this was it. And yet ask him and I bet he will admit to nothing more than a passing fancy.

Then there is one leading SP activist. He absolutely adores sectariana but for him it is very much a guilty pleasure. One suspects he'd be more comfortable to be seen with a copy of Razzle than Workers' Hammer. Does he think confessing his passion for Trot minutiae will take away from his standing as a prominent militant?

It's interesting. Perhaps it's got something to do with the older comrades joining the organisation when it was a more closed outfit than it is today. Back in the days of Militant perhaps sectariana was frowned on as a petit bourgeois distraction from the class struggle.

But there is a serious point in all this. I know a lot of leftists who don't see this as a harmless bit of fun. Some organisations really take a dim view of it. Their logic goes a bit like this. If you haven't got the time to sell papers/study the revealed truth then you haven't the time to read rival publications. Or, even worse, there's always the danger of being contaminated by different ideas. Scary stuff!

But hold on, it shouldn't be like this. The point is isn’t it unhealthy for socialists not to take an interest in what other socialists are saying and doing? Isn't it a bad thing when dedicated activists become little more than a transmission belt for the ideas of the leadership? How can we hope to hold leading members to account, let alone understand and intervene in the world around us if we don't seriously look at the theory and practice of others? Just look at the works of Lenin and Trotsky. Strip out the polemics with other activists and tendencies and you would be left with very little, and yet no one dares to suggest these two were wasting their time penning screeds against opponents.

It's time this nonsense was left behind. Reading and discussing ideas of other trends in the labour movement shouldn't be a guilty pleasure. Provided it doesn't become the be-all and end-all of activism, it is in fact vital to the health of socialist politics.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Vote For Me

The other day I received a canvassing email from Sally Hunt, one of the contenders fighting to be the first elected general secretary of the University and Colleges Union.

Her email pledges her to do this and that; you know the usual stuff we’ve come to expect from an electoral communication. But there were a couple of things toward the end that leapt out at me.

Writing on the academic boycott of Israel she makes the reasonable point that it should be put to the membership. Given the slim majority the boycott motion won on the old Association of University Teachers Council (which was later overturned) and the support for a conditional boycott passed at the last National Association For Teachers in Further and Higher Education conference in the summer it makes no sense to oppose such a move. I do however suspect that Hunt’s agenda has little to do with raising the understanding of UCU membership via the medium of democratic debate.

Indeed one does get the sense this is the last thing on her mind. The final substantive paragraph reads “I believe that UCU should be a politically independent, industrially confident union and I am disappointed that political parties such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and others are seeking to influence this election. I think they should leave the decision to you - the members”.

Shiver me timbers! We can’t have political parties going round trying to influence things now can we? People getting together on the basis of shared ideas and then acting in concert to win people to those ideas is well, dangerously democratic! It’s purely coincidence of course that SP, SWP and others on the UCU left have been her most vociferous critics over her handling of the action we took earlier on in the year. Hence her dark hints at a witch-hunt, in the interests of the members of course.

Well Sally I hope your half-baked populism fails. I’ll be voting for Roger Kline, and I urge everyone in the UCU who wants a bottom up democratic fighting union to do the same.

A Very Public Sociologist

Marx once noted that beginnings in science are always difficult. He ought to have tried blogging. Pioneering a whole new continent of social science is child’s play compared to the dilemmas aspiring bloggers face. First there is the question of what platform to use. For tech-neanderthals like me always whingeing about my precious time it had to be something simple. So I’ve gone with good old Blogger. My wife tells me the blogging community aren’t too keen on it. Being an avid photo blogger herself and techie whiz kid she recommended all this really fancy software. But the thing is technology scares me. I’ve only just mastered Yahoo Groups and that’s after moderating a successful forum there for nearly seven years. But who really gives a monkey’s about the “blogging community”? It reminds me of the internet in the late 90s when someone could look down on you for having an AOL account. Well I'm not about setting the blogging world alight with fancy bells and whistles so they’re welcome to their snobbery – my Bourdieusian game operates with entirely different stakes.

Which brings me to the next dilemma: what to call it? Should a blog name reflect your personality, your politics, your hobbies? Should it be broodingly serious, pretentious even? Of course it should. Contrived zaniness just isn’t me, but then neither is super seriousness. With this in mind two names popped into my head. The first was Workers’ Dreadnought after the best-named paper ever to have come out of Britain’s revolutionary movement. But at the same time it could suggest this blog be limited to socialist “issues”. If I wanted to have a moan about the vagaries of academic life then doing so on a blog purporting to be the vessel of working class aspirations would be inappropriate to say the least. I need my self-indulgences. The other was Activist/Scholar as it’s an upcoming term in sociological activisty academe, but come on, it is simply hideous. A blog that makes its author want to puke every time they log in can't be the best idea.

So why plump for ‘A Very Public Sociologist’? The title came to me while I was reading the debates erupting from within American sociology this last couple of years for my PhD. I won’t bore you with the details of the latter, well not just yet. Anyway this debate centred on then American Sociological Association president Michael Burawoy calling on sociologists to re-engage with non-academic publics with a view to raising the quality of debates in civil society. That and a call for sociologists to climb out their ivory towers and get stuck into (leftist) activism, and write about it. Well I’m a sociologist, a baby-eating communist active with the Socialist Party, and working on a thesis on far left activists. By Burawoy’s definition I’m already a public sociologist. And now I’ve elected to enter the blogosphere I guess I’m ‘very public’.

Perhaps I could have come up with something better but it will do.

What about the template? Well I'm not even going to go there for the moment.

The final decision to vex any intrepid blogger is what to write for their first post. Well as you can see it wasn't much of an issue for me. I can draw on that fine sociological tradition of saying a great deal about very little, which combined with the British left's equally cherished verbosity should mean that yours truly is a veritable word machine. But I do promise to write about interesting things from time to time. Honestly.