Dave Isaacson reviews Mark Steel’s What’s going on? (Simon and Schuster, 2008, pp252, £12.99)
Mark Steel is one of Britain’s most prominent socialist comedians, known not just on the stand-up circuit, but also for his appearances on television and radio (not least his ‘Mark Steel lectures’ series) and as an author. Before this book he had published two previous memoirs – It’s not a runner bean (1996) and Reasons to be cheerful (2001) – and a hilarious book on the French Revolution – Vive la révolution (2003).
Mark Steel’s latest offering, What’s going on?, is a much less optimistic book – many have referred to it as “dark” – though Mark does end on a note of hope. I found it to be less consistently funny than his previous offerings, though that is not to say it will not get you laughing. I found it very difficult to connect with much of comrade Steel’s material on what he calls the “mid-life madness” he has suffered since he turned 40. Perhaps this is just down to us being of different generations, but I found many of his ruminations on this – one of his main themes – to be more moany than insightful or funny. At times I wanted to grab hold of him and tell him to get a grip. But, while this made me lose interest at times, it did not ruin the book or make me give up altogether.
There are plenty of passages which make you laugh out loud – it certainly did me. Mark is as brilliant as ever in taking on the political establishment and making a mockery of them. But this fact will be of no surprise to anyone already familiar with his material. What is of particular interest is that he also uses What’s going on? to look at the left – not least in giving his take on the Socialist Workers Party. Here too, Mark ably makes the ridiculous appear … well, ridiculous.
Comrade Steel was a member of the SWP for around 30 years up until leaving the organisation roughly a year ago. In the period before he left, he had become increasingly disillusioned with the dishonest accounting for problems and mistakes and most of all with the mendacity of its leadership. Like any honest person, Mark noticed the dwindling number of active members and the decline of the organisation’s public presence. There are many brilliant examples of this, and the bizarre levels of denial that existed within the SWP.
Mark tells us that “at one regional meeting for the whole of South London there were around 50 people, of which none was under 30. These meetings used to attract four times as many, so I hoped there’d be an attempt to explain how this could be rectified. Instead four people began their speeches by saying, ‘This is the most exciting political time of my life.’ To which the only sane response was, ‘What – this?’ Were they really thinking, ‘Nelson Mandela being released was so-so, but I never thought I’d experience 50 middle-aged people slouched in a church hall’” (p43).
And, while the membership was in a worrying state of denial, the leadership was engaged in outright lying. Numbers for the SWP’s Marxism festival have been going down pretty much year on year over the recent period. When Mark attempted to get one of the organisers to explain what was going on, they responded by “telling me the figures certainly weren’t down and more people than ever had come from Leicester, and I must be imagining things, when I found myself almost banging my head on the table and shouting, ‘Can’t you see – the bar’s empty?’ with the desperation of someone telling an anorexic that they’re not fucking fat” (p45).
But alongside the decline of the SWP comrade Steel saw other movements around anti-capitalism and Stop the War being able to reach out to the public, particularly young people. Why were organised socialists failing to do the same? “I found myself listening to people from a variety of campaigns, movements and parties, and really listening, not just to argue with them, but saying, ‘Hmm, I think you’re right.’ This was a weird sensation, like your first joint or how I imagine you feel the day you become a Buddhist” (p115).
But where are these movements even now, Mark? They come and go. Stop the War is the only one still around, sustained (but also strategically crippled) by the organised socialists (the SWP), who keep it ticking over between imperialist or Zionist outrages on an endless diet of marches. Certainly socialists should be involved in and seek to guide spontaneous movements and engage in an imaginative and open-minded way. I was in the SWP at the height of the anti-capitalist movement and saw first hand the way our undemocratic way of working pissed off countless activists.
But alternatives like consensus decision-making were not the way forward either. SWPers were happy to use them when it suited them, such as at the European Social Forum meetings, where they were a stubborn minority. Groups like Schnews were right to dub the SWP’s Globalise Resistance front ‘Monopolise Resistance’, but they offered nothing better. The idea of a principled revolutionary socialist party organised along democratic centralist lines is not the problem. The problem is that the SWP is not one.
Of course, the SWP has been thrown into turmoil since Mark left. The war that broke out between two wings of the organisation’s leadership led to the collapse of the SWP’s version of ‘collective cabinet responsibility’ – used to keep the membership in the dark about differences on the central committee. Leading members such as Lindsey German now reveal that out of the SWP’s paper membership of 6,000 only about a tenth of this can really be considered active. Of course, comrade German did not release this information for the benefit of the membership, but for the factional advantage of the CC minority.
However, all this has allowed space for the membership to become involved in a debate about the future of the SWP. Whilst those around Neil Davidson do not go nearly far enough in their calls for a more generous democracy, it is a good sign that they are beginning to speak up for themselves.
It was just over a year ago, in the last round of pre-conference discussion bulletins, that it became apparent that Mark Steel had become so fed up with the situation inside the SWP. Prior to this, while the SWP leadership was supporting Tony Blair’s anti-democratic Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, Mark had used his column in The Independent to rightly slam it as an attack on free speech. Previously he had always appeared as a loyal SWPer in public. Then late in 2007 he submitted an article for the Pre-Conference Bulletin questioning why the SWP was in decline and why the leadership was trying to hide this fact from the membership by telling them things like, “We have to redefine the definition of a member” (p172). Those who leave the SWP are kept on the books for two years as ‘unregistered members’!
After submitting his article, comrade Steel tells us: “I received a reply that almost made me clap with admiration. The article couldn’t be printed, I was told, because according to their records I hadn’t been a member for the past six years. You had to acknowledge its effective, crude simplicity” (p189). Membership had obviously been ‘redefined’ again. The leadership, having claimed that Mark had not been paying his subs, eventually had to back down and publish his submission, along with a reply denouncing it.
As most members continued to go along with the leadership, Mark began to ask if the SWP had always been like this. “Was I like someone in the Conservative Party suddenly screaming, ‘Oh my god, my own party has decided to support business making huge profits and some of them want to slow down immigration! What’s become of them?’ Had I been behaving like this all these years, and only just realised?” (p190).
The SWP leadership is not comrade Steel’s only target for criticism. He also lays into George Galloway – in particular for the Big brother episode, but also for his ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ politics, specifically his support for Saddam Hussein – an approach “obviously riddled with problems” (p178). But since leaving the SWP Mark has given support to Galloway’s Respect Renewal – he has performed benefits and was a guest speaker at Respect’s last conference. Respect Renewal is also the only political party Mark has a link to from his blog.1 In the SWP this has been used as evidence of Mark moving to the right and it has been said that “The only principle one can detect here is that the SWP is always in the wrong”.2
Comrade Steel may well be shifting to the right – he now seems unsure of the need for a revolutionary party at all. But he certainly does not share the SWP leadership’s brittle schizophrenia, whereby alliance partners cannot be criticised, while those outside the alliance can be ritualistically denounced. Referencing this to the Respect split, Mark writes that “veering between these two extremes, the hierarchy deny all problems with their allies on the way up, then exaggerate them all wildly on the way down” (p242). He believes that socialists should be upfront about our concerns rather than seek to deceive people. But he does not question the fact that Respect was a political party based on cross-class (as opposed to working class) politics. However, this does not invalidate in any way the points he makes about the SWP’s internal regime.
For some reason this year’s Pre-Conference Bulletin contribution from central committee majority member Alex Callinicos, which lays into John Rees and Lindsey German of the minority, has the same title as Mark Steel’s book.3 Comrade Callinicos also wrote a brief and disparaging review of Mark’s book for the SWP monthly Socialist Review.4 It appears to me that his main purpose in doing so must have been to discourage SWP members from reading it. He typically fails to deal with any of Mark’s political arguments and instead seeks to picture the book as the disillusioned screed of someone moving to the right and out to damn everything (the SWP, along with his ex-partner) that was once dear to him. To call this a gross oversimplification would be giving Callinicos too much credit.
The fact that for the time being some space for debate has opened up inside the SWP does not make the information contained within this book any less relevant to SWPers, and those on the left more generally. It makes it more so. If you have not yet read What’s going on?, then you should do so. It is both informative and funny.
As for comrade Steel, where he is heading it impossible to say for sure. Some of the arguments he makes place him to the left of the SWP – over the Racial and Religious Hatred legislation, and the criticisms of Galloway outlined above. But we did not, unfortunately, hear him stand up for the principles of open borders, women’s and LGBT rights, republicanism, and working class socialism when they were under attack in Respect. Whilst he did write an article for the Pre-Conference Bulletin in 2007, he did not take his fight in the SWP any further than that.
On the party question real slippage to the right is clearly visible. He tells us that “the very worst course of action”, given current circumstances, “would be to set up a new far-left socialist group” (p248). Instead he places his hope in “a new socialist movement”, which will resist “the current world order without demanding that everyone agrees with a traditional style or set of ideas” (p248).
Whilst I would certainly agree that adding to the number of sects that litter the British left would be of no service to the working class, what we do need to do is fight for revolutionary unity. A united Communist Party, based upon a revolutionary programme and with a democratic internal regime which encourages the open discussion of differences, is needed now more than ever. But comrade Steel’s experience in the SWP has led him – like so many others burnt by the bureaucratic centralism of sects large and small – to oppose it.