Sunday, 13 January 2013

Left on the shelf

I am not and have never been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. The Party is currently in difficulties following a botched attempt to resolve an accusation of rape against a leading member of the Party. Grim stuff, and for those who like grim the best place to start is, with the posting on Friday 11 July. The blog is run by SWP member (well, for the next few minutes anyway) and author, Richard Seymour. Though there are many good people in that party it is hard to be too sympathetic to them organisationally (there is a "but" coming along if you want to wait). Here's one small example of why not... In 1994 the Nottingham bookshop I then worked in was turned over by about 50 Nazis. Their action made the news internationally. The SWP - through their front organisation the Anti-Nazi League - immediately set up street stalls "in support" of the bookshop. They collected signatures on a petition of support and donations. Nobody at the bookshop ever saw the petitions and, well, it would be interesting to know what happened to the donations. The SWP/ANL called a press conference without talking to anyone at the bookshop, though they did invite the staff to send a representative - their kind offer was declined - at which they announced a street demonstration the next Saturday and, again, the staff could send a representative to speak if we wished. Again the offer was declined and the demonstration was poorly supported. There was no discussion with the staff about the SWP plans, nor was any other organisation consulted. In the immediate aftermath of the attack we were pretty busy putting the shop back together again, but we were also busy talking to many groups about organising what turned out to be the biggest anti-fascist demonstration against fascism in Nottingham since the 1930s, involving dozens of groups, a week or two after the SWP's damp squib. This small, largely forgotten piece of SWP sectariana or self-importance is one of the reasons I find it hard to get too upset about their party problems. Anyone else who has been around the left could come up with similar tales.

But they do run a bloody good bookshop, and have done for decades. Bookshop staff, ranging from Fergus Nicol, who also ran the Radical Bookseller from 1980-1992, through to the recently departed Sarah Ensor were all great to work with. Five Leaves has had a number of events in their shop, Bookmarks, over the years and we and our audience have always been welcome. Every time I have been there I have found a very attractive range of books. And the Party has produced some excellent authors. I don't read SF but most people really reckon on China Mieville (though his remarks about the current crisis, quoted in the New Statesman might indicate he is not long for the SWP world). Going further back, there was Paul Foot. Foot's book Why You Should Be a Socialist drew many people to the left and his Red Shelley remains an important read. My own favourite SWP writer was the late David Widgery, whose 1989 set of essays, Preserving Disorder, is an essential book for anyone interested in left and alternative culture during the previous two decades but it is also a moving description of Widgery's day job as GP in one of the poorest parts of London. That book was published by Pluto, a major left publisher which originated in the SWP milieu while Red Shelley is published by the Party publisher Bookmarks, which has produced some excellent material over the years. It would be a terrible shame if these good babies were thrown out with the rather grubby bathwater currently engulfing the Party as a whole.


roland-rance said...

I worked in the early 1980's at Fourth Idea Alternative Bookshop in Bradford. It was on a small back street, between the Co-op car park and the pub where the BNP used to drink. Every Saturday when Bradford City played at home, the fascists would come in to the shop and attempt to attack it and us.

One week, the local SWP came to us and said that they wanted to support us. They planned to set an ambush; to mobilise several people to lie in wait in our upstairs room, and then to attack the fascists when they entered. We replied "Yes, certainly. And of course you will come back next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and every other today to defend us against a revenge attack". "Er, no..." they muttered, so we didn't allow them to set the trap. Then they denounced us for not being prepared to confront fascism!

Ross Bradshaw said...

Well, that's what you get for being a woolly liberal, Roland. I got some of that too and once the SWP picketed the bookshop though none of us could work out why - we ignored them, as did our customers and they went away, though they did spray SWP on the shop front once. That helped. Just don't get me started on how they related to other anti-fascist organisations in town (or in Aberdeen). I seem to pick places to live where they are difficult. I don't think that is the case everywhere.

Unknown said...

Good piece Ross. Yes the SWP have often hijacked others' causes and travails to their own ends. I've never been able to work out if this some kind of undirected collective cynicism or a deliberate policy of building themselves up at the expense of others.