This is similar to what I think about Continental philosophy and philosophers. Of course not many people read Derrida, Foucault and That Lot. Not even many (English) lecturers read anything by these philosophers. What does happen is that their work trickles down to less capable and original minds. That is, to lecturers, students and even to the man on the street. What they end up getting is third-hand stuff. But it’s still has a strong influence. I know for a fact that they many never read Derrida, Foucault and the rest. They don’t even read the second-class derivative stuff from the ‘philosophers’ at Neasden Polytechnic. However, their ideas were most definitely passed onto them when they were at university. Such philosophers are or were in the air, as it were. This is what the SWP is doing – or at least trying to do. Nick Cohen is right. The SWP is dead, qua the SWP. Even the SWP know that it is dead qua the SWP. Thus it is all the more important to do as much infiltrating and taking-over as possible. In these respects, the SWP is far from dead. They are not dead, in the Islamist case, because when I hear Salma Yaqoob, and other Islamists, I hear the words, phrases and ideas, and even the timbre and tone, of the SWP and its speakers.
So, in these senses, Cohen and the rest are wrong about the ‘death’ of the extreme left.
Let’s get to the core as to why the SWP, and all other extremist political parties, including Islamist ones, are utterly obnoxious entities. This is a quote from the SWP’s Master and Lord, Trotsky:
‘Comrades, none of us wishes or is able to be right against the party. The party in the last analysis is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems. I know one cannot be right against the party. It is only
possible to be right with the party and through the party, for history has not
created other ways for the realisation of what is right.’ (57)
That passage is frightening stuff. Indeed, even if what it says is, or was, true, it would still be frightening and dangerous stuff. That absolute confidence that one has the truth. This is not just a case of the Party, a reified and metaphysical entity by any account, having the Truth, but an individual, Trotsky, also having the Truth – the Truth that the Party has the Truth.
And all that Hegelian metaphysical nonsense about ‘history’, or History, too. That’s why Trotskyism, and Marxism, are, in fact, so old-fashioned – that Hegelian and Platonic bent for reification (e.g., the Party, the Truth, the Proletariat, the Jews, the Press).
In the end, even if John Rees or Chris Harman or Lindsey German (or even Bin Laden) admits to being wrong on certain (probably ‘inconsequential’) issues, it will still be the case that his Party, the SWP, cannot be wrong on any issues – or at least not on the big issues (e.g. that ‘capitalism is bad in every way’). I mentioned Platonic metaphysics. This Trotskyite stuff, as well as the passage itself, is also religious in nature. The claims for the infallibility of the Party and so on. No wonder Marxism and Trotskyism fell out of fashion, even with the intellectuals, from the 1960s onwards (though certainly not all intellectuals!). This is such old-fashioned metaphysical and – perhaps, more interestingly – religious stuff.
There are basically only two types of people who still support the SWP: middle-class students and those older people who actually run the SWP. Thus, even though the SWP is insignificant qua the SWP, its leaders still have power and many of them still earn a decent living from books, articles, lectures (to students), etc. by selling the idea of revolutionary socialism.
Finally, just as we can see Trotsky explaining how the Party cannot be wrong and that it is the embodiment of the ‘consciousness of the working class’, it is surely just one small step to go as far as Gerry Healy, of the Workers Revolutionary Party, did:
‘You are doing this for the party and I am the party.’