Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Do They Mean Us? #9 & #10*

Two for the price of one: A brief resumption of what has always been an irregular series.

Via the yahoogroup, Leftist Trainspotters, comes the news that there is now a page on ETOL especially dedicated to the late John Sullivan's wonderfully witty writings from the eighties that satirically skewered just about every British far left group that ever had a batch of unsold papers overstuffed in the magazine rack at Housmans Bookshop.**

Pride of place naturally goes to his two pamphlets, 'Go Fourth and Multiply', published in 1981 under the pseudonyms of Mo Klonsky and Chas Aguirre, and the pamphlet that updated and overtook GF&M, 'As Soon As This Pub Closes', published in 1986 but this time using the pseudonym of Prunella Kaur. (I bet I got the pseudonyms mixed up.)

Bob Pitt's What Next? had previously published 'As Soon As This Pub Closes' on the net, (the late Al Richardson's obituary for John Sullivan that appeared in What Next? can be read here), but it's wonderful that both pamphlets are now together on the same link, alongside a piece, 'Rolling Your Own', that I'd previously never read before.

'Rolling Your Own' dates from the same period as 'As Soon As This Pub Closes'***, and is a handy bullet pointed guide to kick starting your own sect. Think the SWP's Rebel Guide Pocket Pamphlets, and then toss that thought out the window. . . the analogy doesn't work.

I have one minor quibble, however, with Sullivan's essay; his list of forgotten theoreticians included in bullet point, 3.2, in the section entitled Ideology. What about a Menshevik Internationalist franchise based around the writings of Martov? It could have been a contender.)

I could overwork the cut and paste button on the keyboard reproducing choice nuggets from both pamphlets where Sullivan hoisted the left on its very own piss-poor petard - just the subheadings should be evidence enough of the wittiness of Sullivan's pen: "If you enjoyed the 1950s, you’ll love the NCP" . . . "The Agonies of Being English" (about the RCG) - but as this post is supposed to be part of the SPGB series, Do They Mean Us?, I'll confine my cut and paste to Sullivan's gentle barbs lobbed in the direction of the SPGB:

From 'Go Fourth and Multiply' (1981):

"THE Socialist Party is in some ways the most extreme of all left organisations. It stands for nothing less than complete socialism now and has no time for Labour governments, Alternative Economic Plans, or any kind of transitional strategy.
On the other hand, the SPGB can be seen as moderate. Its activity consists of contesting elections, selling its publications and giving lectures. It abhors violence and sees no reason why the socialist society should not be smoothly inaugurated once it gets a parliamentary majority. It is this legalism which has prompted the gibe that they are the Small Party of Good Boys.

The SPGB is sometimes ridiculed for having so few members after 77 years’ work. (This gibe surely loses force as the groups formed in the 1960s settle into middle age without having found a way to the masses.) . . .

From 'As Soon As This Pub Closes' (1986)

". . . People have the impression that a group bound to a doctrine first enunciated in 1904 must be composed of dogmatic robots. Nothing could be further from the truth! The SPGB was, until recently, full of the most delightful and varied eccentrics one could hope to meet. The reason for this is that although the D of P is sacrosanct, it covers only the question of how the socialist society will be brought about. The party, in contrast to many other sects, does not try to regulate its members’ domestic lives, eating habits or personal relationships . . .

. . .However, the D of P, inflexible as it is in the area which it covers, does not specify what the society of the future will be like; consequently, SPGB meetings, whatever the ostensible topic, quickly tend to gravitate towards discussion on precisely this theme. Under socialism will we be vegetarian, monogamous or not? Will we still live in cities? Will we use more or less water, and will goods still be mass produced? Visitors to SPGB meetings, expecting to hear solemn Marxists discussing how to overthrow the bourgeoisie, are usually surprised and charmed. No speculation is forbidden by the D of P, so imaginations can soar, unfettered by the tedious discussions on tactics and strategy which form the content of most socialist theory. Even the least imaginative of the speculations are more appealing than descriptions of the Christians’ dreary, male chauvinist heaven . . .

. . . As we reach the fag end of the twentieth century, thoughts inevitably turn towards the centenary celebrations in 2004. Conway Hall has been looking a bit dowdy in recent years, but it is a central spot with many associations for socialists, so it might well be the site for the festivities. A committee will be set up to determine the precise form which these will take, as the party does not believe in arbitrary decisions by authoritarian leaders. It can look forward with quiet confidence. Membership has grown from a mere 100 founders to nearly 700. In contrast, most of its early rivals have passed into history, and later competitors are in disarray. The Communist Party is splintered and in apparently terminal decline, while the Labour Party has abandoned whatever socialist rhetoric it once employed to deceive the masses. The Socialist Workers Party no longer attracts intelligent young people as it did in the early 1970s, so the SPGB can look forward to having the field to itself. The apolitical sociologists asking boring questions about the party’s social composition are a nuisance, but the D of P has nothing to say about them."

Poor John . . . if only he was about today to write up the sequel to the sequel. No idea what his pseudonym would have been this time around, but perhaps he could have toyed with the idea of calling the updated pamphlet, 'We Started Something We Couldn't Finish'. Twenty-One years is a long time waiting for a revised edition. And a hell of a lot can happen in the intervening period . . . even in the case of the 'Small Party of Glasgow Bookies'

*Hat tip to the Phil Evans cartoon that I've lifted so shamelessly from the online version of 'More Years For The Locust', by that other seriously funny writer from the Trotskyist tradition, Jim Higgins.

**On the left side of the picture, sandwiched inbetween 'Workers Action' and 'Marxist Review' - and to the left of the 'Jewish Socialist', naturally - is the 'World Socialist Review', the occasional printed journal of the World Socialist Party of the United States. Why no Socialist Standard in the picture? As it looks like an oldish pic of the magazine rack in Housmans, I'm guessing that either the infamous Max placed it under the counter as an act of Stalinist intervention or some embittered ex-SPGB member hid that month's batch behind the ICC titles. OK, I'm lying. Comag probably fucked up the delivery . . . again.

***Named after the Alex Glasgow song of the same name.

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