The uses of paranoia

The Professor contemplates his next move

The King’s College Professor of European Studies contemplates his next move

Readers of a certain age may remember the late Mehmet Shehu. Or possibly you’ve read Ismail Kadare’s classic novel The Successor, which is closely based on the Shehu story. For everyone else, here’s a potted biography.

Mehmet Shehu was a legend of the communist resistance in Albania during the Second World War, a Spanish Civil War veteran whose personal courage, ferocity in battle and skills as a military tactician were invaluable in ending the Nazi occupation of the country. Which is not to say that Shehu was a nice man. After liberation, he became the number two figure in Enver Hoxha’s über-Stalinist dictatorship, serving as prime minister for 27 years and gaining a reputation for being even more brutal than Hoxha, if such a thing is possible.

All this ended on 17 December 1981, when Albanian state media announced that the prime minister had committed suicide. It’s widely supposed, however, that he was in fact murdered on Hoxha’s orders; a theory supported by the fact that his entire extended family were rounded up and imprisoned, and that histories of wartime Albania were summarily pulped to remove all reference to Shehu’s military prowess, with his victories being retrospectively reassigned to Hoxha. Well, if it was a purge, Shehu himself had plenty of experience of conducting purges.

What lends this a bizarre postscript is that the following year Hoxha published his book Titoites, which contained an extremely long and extremely strange harangue to the effect that Shehu, for pretty much all of his forty-year association with Hoxha, had been a quadruple agent, a sort of Kim Philby squared, in the pay of the CIA, the KGB and Yugoslav intelligence. While this is just about possible – anything’s possible in Balkan politics – it can perhaps be seen as the definitive sign that Uncle Enver had gone completely doolally, and his paranoia about malign foreign forces, manifested by the 700,000 bunkers dotting the country to ward off invasion, had reached certifiable proportions.

All right, you say. That’s an episode from the history of Stalinism, and a peculiarly weird Balkan version of Stalinism at that. What’s it got to do with the price of fish?

Let us now turn to that disgraceful old man Gerry Healy, as remembered by his former American franchisee Tim Wohlforth, now better known as a writer of mystery novels. In the mid-1970s Wohlforth’s group, the Workers League, had been pushed to the point of disintegration by Tim’s over-enthusiastic implementation of Gerry’s bright ideas. At this point the Master of Dialectic made a great logical breakthrough that will serve well as an illustration of how Healy’s mind worked:

P1. The Workers League is collapsing;

P2. The CIA would quite like the Workers League to collapse;

C. It therefore stands to reason that Tim Wohlforth is a CIA agent.

To the rational observer, the conclusion does not at all flow from the premises, but Healy put his case so forcefully that Wohlforth was indeed removed from management of the US franchise. Indeed, in a scene reminiscent of Darkness At Noon, Tim was actually prevailed upon to vote for his own expulsion.

Healy, who like many sect gurus had the entrepreneurial instincts of a small businessman, was so pleased at the success of this wheeze that he went on to make a cottage industry of it. Soon he was embroiled in the grotesque Security and the Fourth International campaign, which largely consisted of Healy, abetted by his new American wunderkind Dave North, defaming everyone on the left who’d ever disagreed with Healy as an agent of the KGB, the CIA or, if you’d particularly displeased the great man, both.

Now, these are extreme cases. And if I’m being honest, one of the things I liked about Cliff was that he very sensibly saw that a spy-hunting atmosphere could do more damage than an actual spy. “If there is a spy,” he’d say, “at least we can be sure of getting good work out of him.” So at least one feature of the current crisis is that there’s been a relative lack of one side denouncing the other as state agents. This would not necessarily be the case in other traditions.

Not a complete lack, though. The Pre-Conference Bulletins contained a rather strange contribution from Donny Gluckstein (who really should know better) musing about the importance of the party keeping its internal workings private, with reference to the security services’ apparent desire to smash up the SWP. Now, even if we think the security services would consider it worth the effort to smash up a small party that’s already doing a good job of smashing itself up… it’s very likely that the spooks are well aware of the party’s inner workings. The leadership’s fetish for operating as if it was an underground movement trying to overthrow Tsar Nikolai only succeeds in keeping things secret from its own members. Which, a cynic might suppose, is very handy for said leadership.

It’s also the case that one of the CC faction’s attack dogs, the charming Mr Simon Assaf, has recently developed a penchant for trying to finger oppositionists as police narks. One hopes this isn’t the start of a trend.

No, there’s a story here involving paranoia and how it feeds into the atrocious mishandling of the Delta case, but it’s a slightly different sort of paranoia. And it has to do with infighting in the leadership over the last decade or so.

That bloke who presents Timeline on the Islam Channel

That bloke who presents Timeline on the Islam Channel

As we know, the CC likes to observe a sort of cabinet responsibility, always presenting a united face to the members. Behind the scenes, it isn’t like that at all. The CC is in fact severely factionalised and has been for as long as anyone can remember. Even when Cliff was still with us, workers at the centre were well aware that the weekly CC meeting not infrequently degenerated into a shouting match; on occasion, the late Julie Waterson would emerge ashen-faced and in urgent need of a drink. All that cabinet responsibility meant in practice is that knowledge of divisions at the top was confined to a thinnish layer of comrades on the inside track.

This has led over recent years to some quite strange political gyrations. Let’s go back to the Respect split in 2007, which people should be remembering as some of the same tactics were played out then. You will recall that this blew up when George Galloway, discovering that the administration of Respect was a little on the shambolic side, made some mild criticisms of then Respect national secretary John Rees, and even (the horror!) suggested appointing someone else to work alongside Rees, someone who hadn’t alienated as many people. Immediately, the SWP CC pressed the nuclear button and moved to smash up Respect. It seemed that they were prepared to tolerate old Gallows sucking up to Saddam Hussein or impersonating a cat on Big Brother, but not criticising John Rees. That was intolerable.

At the time, the SWP CC was unanimous, indeed ferociously so, in holding to the position that criticism of Rees was a witch-hunt of the party, and had to be totally resisted even if that meant torpedoing the entire Respect project. So rank-and-file members were somewhat baffled in 2009 when the CC abruptly dumped Rees, and heaped a whole lot of opprobrium on his head for the failures of recent years. (Though, touchingly, they still argued that that they had been correct to break up Respect in response to Galloway’s ‘witch-hunt’.) And so born-again anti-Reesism became the unanimous position of the CC, and Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

On reflection, this seems rather silly. One knows the CC likes its aura of infallibility, but would it really have killed them to admit that Chris Harman didn’t like John Rees very much and had serious doubts about the Respect project? Those in the know were well aware.

Anyway, this is all by way of background. Because, as you know, John Rees, Lindsey German and that indie drummer whose name escapes me departed the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire, whom I am told do the finest ham and cheese sandwiches on the British left. The following year their CC ally Chris Bambery also left to form his own Scotland-based group (although Chris is still resident in London, weirdly enough). In neither case were the numbers leaving big – though they were enough to form viable groups – but, and this is the important point, the CC has retained not merely an animosity (which may be understandable) but a quite unreasonable fear of the departed leaders.

The timing is an issue here. Delta, a CC member at the time, was heavily involved in both leading the charge against the Reesite-Germanite Counter-Revolutionary Centre and also in driving through the post-Rees perspective. But what happened in between the departures of Rees and German on the one hand, and Bambery on the other? What scandal began to break in the latter half of 2010? You’ve guessed it.

This puts into perspective a curious aspect of The Transcript. We find this remark from Candy Udwin on observing confidentiality:

Unfortunately information about this complaint wasn’t kept confidential in the way that we had asked. In fact, people outside the party, such as Chris Bambery, members of Counterfire, members in Unite Against Fascism, who then told Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of PCS – all these people knew about the case within a week of the hearing, before we’d even finished our final report. Now that is obviously unacceptable, but it also, we understand, put comrades in an extremely difficult position, because they were having to defend something that they hadn’t heard about from the party.

And later we have this from Pat Stack:

The idea that Bambery or Counterfire would get hold of any information about this case is something that fills me with horror.

On first reading your author thought “Hold on, Pat, that’s the very last thing you should be horrified by.” And yet…

The case was being very widely gossiped about on the SWP’s unofficial grapevine. And it’s one thing to want to protect the anonymity of Comrade W, to which she is absolutely entitled; the fact remains that details did become known, and the shocking inadequacy of the party’s response, combined with an insistence on strict secrecy (and combined, we might add, with the leadership brazenly lying to the members) stoked up speculation even further.

Now, put this in the middle of a quite febrile factional atmosphere. Some people in the CC camp got the idea, and seriously convinced themselves of this, that the whole thing was a Counterfire sting operation, that this was John and Lindsey and Chris making their final play to retake the party. Some people actually believed this flapdoodle; others knew the truth, but were prepared to quite cynically use the factional atmosphere to deflect attention from the leadership’s monstrous mishandling of the case.

Was any of this plausible? Give it a moment’s thought, and it doesn’t really pass the smell test. Do we need to believe that Chris Bambery was leaking from the CC, something he denies? Enough people in the affected district knew about the case, and there are also those modern inventions like “e-mail” and “the inter-net” which so baffle Charlie Kimber, and allow news to spread like wildfire. Equally, is it necessary to believe that every mishap to befall a CC member is a Counterfire plot? Not at all. Those guys know the SWP’s senior cadre inside out. They know who’s a drunk, who’s a shagger, who’s a stoner, who’s got chronic money problems. They may conceivably be willing to stir the shit, but they don’t actually need to run elaborate stings that would tax the abilities of much bigger organisations. As I’ve said, the SWP is quite capable of disrupting itself.

But this paranoid atmosphere may actually help to explain how a situation that was almost impossible to handle well ended up being handled so unspeakably badly. And, among the ranks of the CC loyalist faction, the paranoia now seems to be reaching clinical proportions. Professor Nostradamus, with his talk of lynch mobs and of a grand cabal of Richard Seymour, Historical Materialism and the ISO who want to force the comrades to read Bob Jessop… it really doesn’t bode well if the party’s most distinguished intellectual is doing an uncannily accurate impersonation of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “The uses of paranoia

  1. Sam64

    Good stuff apart from the dead doppelgänger for Stallinicos – he’s far too good looking!

    • Andrew Coates

      I could almost forget the Italian election results, dominated by Jiminy Cricket and Benny Bunga, after being cheered up by the latest rewrite of As Soon as This Pub Closes..

  2. Richard Searle

    As always illuminating. It also explains, what I can reveal now.
    During the Respect split of 2007, the late Julie Waterson was in constant contact with us in North Manchester Respect.

    She confirmed the various on-going shenanigans of the CC during this ugly period, things that were being denied by SWP members on various blogs.

    Crucially, she gave us the tip off of the move by the SWP to ’take back control’ of the North Manchester Respect branch at a meeting to take place the 6th December 07
    ( http://socialistunity.com/last-night-in-north-manchester/#.USxybDB62So )

    This afforded us a little planning time and allowed us to come out on top

    What puzzled me and other Respect members, was that knowing the behaviour of these carpetbaggers and snake oil purveyors, Julie decided to remain in the organisation.

    It was clear to us that what driving her at the time, was her absolute visceral hatred of Rees & German

  3. It’s near the top of Page 1 of Playbook for Autocrats – when under threat, whip up an external threat to rally the masses and smear all internal opposition as agents of that external threat. “Jones will come back! I mean John Rees!”

  4. oh dear oh dear oh dear

    It was my understanding that Assaf had originally taken an oppositional line. There’s nothing quite as bad as ex-smokers, except people who had temporarily grown a backbone. Perhaps someone took him for a coffee.

  5. So Counterfire lit the blue touchpaper and then stood back and laughed. It figures.

    The alleged sex abuse is only a sympton of a deeper malaise and a logical conclusion of what happens when one group of people regard another group of people as dispensible, disposable and exploitable things — of which there are numerous examples.

  6. Excellent stuff. And now Nick Cohen is saying he has further details of rape allegations in the SWP and the revolutionary Left overall. That should not be a shock in the least. Power relationships, age, cliques and so on are a potent recipe for abuse. Vulnerability and powerlessness play a part too especially with age. I am amazed people are shocked, I am not because over the years I have met women who have been harassed, abused and raped. It was either covered up, ignored and/or victim blaming was indulged in. The revolutionary left is not hermetically sealed off from oppression, it will reflect those dynamics. There have been times I have thought that many of these groups (not just SWP) operate as little more than harems. People are now complaining that Nick Cohen is indulging in “red baiting” and some are dissecting the claims (funny when it’s ya own group objective thinking goes out of the window). Whatever Cohen’s motives it doesn’t detract from the fact he has been contacted. But again SWP loyalists can’t handle this. How much more will come out only time will tell but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is just the tip of the iceberg!

    • Roger

      “There have been times I have thought that many of these groups (not just SWP) operate as little more than harems”

      Auberon Waugh said he’d disapproved of Gerry Healy when he thought Healy was a revolutionary, but now it turned out Healy merely wanted to have sex with young women, Waugh rather admired him.

    • Perhaps comrades got the idea of contacting Cohen when he was a frequent speaker at Marxism?
      The terrified horror being affected across the web at the idea of nick Cohen writing n the spectator reminds me of an Orwellian daily hate- in comparison with the coverage being given to lord Rennard surely gives the lie to paranoid fantasies about ‘aright wing witch hunt against the SWP’.
      I suspect that the spectator indulges Cohen with his wittering about tiny left sects as the price for his other writing, nobody outside of our ever decreasing circle of trots and extrots cares, with the exception of the families of the women abused.

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  8. Comrade, I must object to the distortions in the presentation of the matter of Mehmet Shehu. When slanderous rumors (Shehu gunned down at a Politburo meeting, &c.) appeared in the western bourgeois media–the Guardian covered it–the Albanian comrades clarified things by releasing Shehu’s suicide note. It read, if memory serves: “Comrades, please! Don’t shoot!”

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