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Alex Callinicos: a reply to Laurie Penny’s reply

This article is over 11 years, 5 months old
I hadn’t intended to respond to Laurie Penny’s reply (A response to Alex Callinicos) to my piece on Comment is Free (Student demonstrators can't do it on their own), which in turn was a response to her original Guardian article, which appeared on Christmas Eve (Out with the old politics). But there has been such a flurry of criticism and support all over Fa
Issue 2233

I hadn’t intended to respond to Laurie Penny’s reply (A response to Alex Callinicos) to my piece on Comment is Free (Student demonstrators can’t do it on their own), which in turn was a response to her original Guardian article, which appeared on Christmas Eve (Out with the old politics). But there has been such a flurry of criticism and support all over Facebook (and no doubt elsewhere) that I felt I couldn’t stay silent.

Let me emphasise that I see this as a friendly discussion among people who are on the same side. So the answer Laurie’s concluding question – ‘are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?’ – is: of course, and more than that – we have been part of the tens of thousands from the start of this movement. Indeed, the argument is largely about the terms on which the SWP participates in this movement.

It’s unfortunate that Laurie should have ignored the old adage ‘When you’re in a hole stop digging’, and devoted so much of her reply to Socialist Worker.

This explains the anger in some of the comments. I can assure Elliott Eisenberg that there has been no conspiratorial effort, ‘coordinated’ by the SWP Central Committee, to ‘gang up’ on Laurie.

I accept that her original comparison of Socialist Worker sellers to cockroaches was intended as a witticism – a bon mot that was best left in the pub, and shouldn’t have been perpetuated online or in newsprint (particularly in the Guardian editorial pages, surrounded by apologies for New Labour and even the coalition).

But SWP members took it as an insult, and reacted spontaneously. It’s interesting that many of the angriest are young women activists who have been involved in the student movement – people, in other words, very like Laurie.


Laurie criticises us for continuing to produce and sell a weekly newspaper. I agree that no organisational practice is sacred, and how we communicate has changed in recent years: thus we now put a lot into our website, though no doubt we should do a lot more.

But Socialist Worker allows us to have an organised weekly dialogue with thousands of other activists. One of its advantages is precisely that it doesn’t just exist in cyberspace but is a physical product that has to be sold in a specific time and space – this particular neighbourhood or workplace or picket-line or demonstration – and that involves face-to-face interaction.

This allows us to develop continuing relationships with other activists that, we believe, strengths both us and the broader struggle.

Laurie also seems to regard the presence of Socialist Worker sellers on student protests as a claim to ‘own’ and dictate to the movement. This is absolutely not so. We understand that to defeat the coalition, let alone to overthrow capitalism, will require a mass movement of millions, far deeper and broader than the biggest revolutionary party.

In this, we are acting on our understanding of the Marxist tradition, at the heart of which is the self-emancipation of the working class. So when Laurie says, ‘Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It’s far bigger than that’, of course we agree. We never imagined anything different

But we also believe that we are entitled to consider ourselves as an organic part of the movement, not alien outsiders. As Laurie acknowledges, activists from the revolutionary left (not just the SWP) have been involved in building the protests from the start.

The Education Activist Network, which brings together students and workers in higher and further education, and which the SWP helped to initiate at the beginning of the year, has played an important role. One of the movement’s most prominent spokespeople, Mark Bergfeld, is a member of the SWP.

None of this implies that we think we have the right to lead. Influence has to be earned and is best exercised in dialogue and cooperation with others.

In any case, Socialist Worker is a side issue. As they said in 1968, this movement is just a beginning. Laurie and I agree that to succeed it has to get much broader and, in particular, to fuse with the world of labour.

The question, to repeat what I said in my CiF piece, is how to do it – and without the great carthorse of the trade-union bureaucracy snuffing out the students’ militancy and imagination. This requires a much wider discussion than is possible here.

I simply want to say that the cult of novelty isn’t particularly helpful in addressing this question. Sure, things have changed since the 1980s, let alone 1917.

But we still confront all too solid structures of class power.

Demos, however creative and inclusive, won’t be enough to crack them. So we have to address problems of strategy. And this raises all sorts of questions: for example, how does the Labour Party (with which Laurie’s original piece began) fit in? If it doesn’t, is there a place for a different kind of party organisation? Or is that ‘somehow not 2.0 enough for us’?

I don’t have much patience with this rhetoric of newness partly because we have been through the recent experience of the movement for another globalisation. Exactly the same rhetoric was used about it – down with the anachronistic ‘old left’, the Internet can replace traditional forms of organising, and consensus-based democracy will do the rest.

But, certainly in Europe, that movement is more or less dead – partly because it was unable to address some tough political questions, partly because consensual decision-making proved a recipe for paralysis, conflict, and manipulation: see Chris Nineham’s and my article at

Ali Alizadeh has written the best comment on my own piece:

For me the piece is about the necessity of mediating between and providing the platform for joining the forces (if not synthesizing) of two forms of politics, with two sets of temporality (student movement with its openness of future and lack of history and trade unions with too much experience of the past and slower pace) in order to produce an actual viable force against the coalition.

The meeting point of these two temporalities lies in the dimension of politics. As Daniel Bensaïd (the first anniversary of whose death we will soon be remembering) showed so well, it is here that social contradictions are both concentrated and displaced according to a specific logic irreducible to these contradictions.

Intervening in this domain requires more that talk of novelty and creativity. It requires strategic analysis, methodological organisation, cunning, patience, and the readiness to leap into an unforeseen turn in events. This is the art of revolution. It also demands the ability to listen. This is one reason why I regard this discussion with Laurie as fruitful.

Alex Callinicos, 28 December 2010


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