Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Mark Steel's What's Going On?

It took me two days from receiving Mark Steel's new book What's Going On? to finishing it and passing it on. I'm always excited when Mr Steel produces something new, if it's books or radio I'm right there, TV less so as I tend to forget when things are on.

"What's Going On?" essentially entwines three running stories together in a very personal, funny and, at times, heartfelt way. Essentially we get the story of Mark's travels through the downs and further downs of the New Labour government, his gradual and painful separation from his long term partner and the just as painful divorce from the Socialist Workers Party, an organisation Mark had been a member of for something like two decades.

Most of the reviews I've seen have been good and the appreciation on Splintered Sunrise is particularly worth reading. Mark's old mukkas in the SWP have been less effusive in their praise though, which does tend to fit the pattern that socialist reviews have a tendency to tell you more about the party line than the book or film they are reviewing.

I mean I don't think Alex Callinicos in the Socialist Review would have said Mark "evinces a kind of grandiose ignorance" of the anti-war movement this time last year. I'm sure he would have been evincing something quite, quite different. But whilst Alex may think "The only principle one can detect here is that the SWP is always in the wrong" you should not believe it for a minute. Not just because it's just factually incorrect, in that Mark praises the SWP a number of times throughout the book, but because he's at his best when in full rant mode against New Labour, the petty mindedness of bosses or the thousand other insanities of capitalism.

When I first started reading Socialist Worker, in 1995, Mark Steel and Paul Foot used to alternate each issue and it was these two brilliant columnists that kept me reading what could otherwise be a turgid, formulaic mess. I hope it isn't any disrespect to Foot that every issue I used to turn immediately to page eleven (I think) and a little thrill would go through me if it was a Steel week. Since then I've always sought him out whenever he appeared at a media outlet near me.

Actually, John Molyneux used to have an ABC of Socialism column which I found very useful for my political education, and I shouldn't forget to mention that I've always been a bit of a fan of Tim Saunders who now also cartoons for the Independent - so there were other things in SW that appealed. What all of these had in common were that they were conveying radical ideas in a fresh and interesting way. They thought rather than simply regurgitated.

Sadly, as Mark notes in his book, as time went on that tendency of socialist humanism seemed to wane and another tendency - that had always been present - that of dogmatic and puerile insistence that everything was always fantastic began to dominate. The weird thing about those who make out we should all be constantly, unblinkingly enthusiastic is, if your situation doesn't seem to be that great, you end up thinking you're just rubbish. So a tactic intended to motivate actually ends up demoralising activists whose local area can never match up to the unfeasibly glorious picture that is being painted for them.

These sections of the book are probably highly enlightening for those who don't know the inner workings of a hard left party, although for me it was like a nostalgic trip back to an abusive relationship where every positive had to balance against more and more negatives until, in the end, you have to say it doesn't matter how many years you've put into this - it's got to stop. In that sense when Mark parallels his relationship with the party to his ex-partner there is a real insight there. Walking out isn't simple by any means, you're changing your whole life.

What's Going On is an excellent book, although I will temper that by saying I've enjoyed his previous books more - and I think that's because some of the subject matter isn't as close to the bone for both him and me. I left the SWP sometime before Mark, around 2002-3 I think, but for very similar reasons and the experience of leaving is an interesting one. At first you worry that you'll be unable to continue politically, and indeed many do just drop out but, as your eyes begin to clear, you realise what bullshit that is.

As you begin attending broader events, with more open minded agendas you start to realise that whilst the SWP provides its recruits with training in a fantastic set of skills (or at least it used to, maybe it still does) it also force feeds you many bad habits that you need to unlearn. You also notice how normal people, with left wing ideas, are suddenly a lot more interested in talking to you!

So I was really pleased to see Mark speak earlier in the year at the Green Party spring conference and I hope he'll be speaking at other green events in the future, as well as on a whole range of other campaigning and left field platforms. For refugees from hard left organisations that contact with independent minded activists is so invaluable. You begin to realise that having the wrong grandiose strategy for overthrowing international capitalism is so much worse than saying I don't know where we go from here, let's try whatever comes to hand.

But whilst it takes some time to deprogram yourself there comes a moment when you look back and think, as Mark does, Christ if I was like that why on Earth couldn't I see it? Or is this something completely new? As is often the case with this sort fo thing - it's probably a bit of both.


Sue Luxton said...

You make it sound like a cult - was it really that bad?!

Jim Jay said...

There are lots of great things about the SWP - and I learned a lot from them. I'm also greatly bored by the people who seem to have a great hatred for them, particularly when they say things about them that are blatently not true.


Whilst cult is pretty strong, sect would not be far off the mark. There is definately a group think that is difficult to detect when you're in the mix - but once you're out you come to a slow realisation as the programming begins to unravel...

Anyway, I should write a post about how brilliant they are as I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm one sided on the issue.

Roobin said...

"But whilst Alex may think "The only principle one can detect here is that the SWP is always in the wrong" you should not believe it for a minute",

Be fair, Alex was refering to Mark's apparently reawakened interest during the Respect split.

I've read a fair chunk of the book, so, granted not all. It did confirm what I suspected (1) Reasons to Be Cheerful was his goodbye to activity book. Read the again, it's clear. (2) He was in a very poor position to judge what had happened in the last seven or so years.

I know this is tantalising but I can't say how I know but I can tell he was effectively no longer a member from around about the time you formally left. His reasons are his business. Lots of people have left the SWP, very few have been given licence to write a book about it.

Roobin said...

That should read "read the end again,it's clear"

Jim Jay said...

Hi Roobin, thanks for this. People should read the Alex C review for themselves to check I've not been unfair and I'm not suggesting he said there was nothing good about the book... although he clearly did not like it!

"he was effectively no longer a member from around about the time you formally left" He clearly couldn't bear to be parted from me - poor thing.

Actually I think it's clear from the book that he was doing a lot of gigs and speaking at demos and events and part of his analysis was the fact that he noticed there were less SWP members there, that SWP members were more distant from many political events, like the arms tade stuff...

Mark was involved in politics during this period - not least because he was writing a weekly column in a national newspaper - however if he scaled back I'm not surprised to be honest. Many members reduce their *party* activity before leaving - it doesn't mean they have nothing worth while saying.

I didn't sell the paper for six months before leaving - although I did continue to organise campaigns, meetings, do my union work, etc. The fact I wasn't selling it was part of the process of leaving.

"Lots of people have left the SWP, very few have been given licence to write a book about it."

Very few do - although many could, but choose not to - why I'm not sure - usually because, like Mark, they don't reject their time in the party entirely and do not wish to harm the left by attacking one part of it. It's one of the reasons I rarely talk about the SWP - I don't want to contribute to sillyness of the anti-SWP sectariania whilst, due to profound political disagreements if I was to write those pieces they would often be why I think the SWP are wrong about such and such... which would be taken for sectarianism in some quarters.

So I usually stay clear.

Tim said...

This is all interesting stuff for those like me who have never been part of the SWP or anything akin. (In fact, I'm generally not a joiner of things.) I've always been intrigued by SWP people, but also rather scared of getting sucked in --- they do set off my sect-radar. But I've also long felt that I've missed out terribly by not having been through the sort of skills training and political education that you mention. (If you want to do your bit to help remedy this, Jim, you could help by naming the ten books which have been most important in forming your political outlook. How about a post on that?)

Roobin said...

"Mark was involved in politics during this period..."

Granted, although I'd say it's an exceptionally rarified form of activity. As I say, from what I know of his activities, they put him in a poor position to judge what the SWP was up to, and it shows, at least from what I've read.

James said...

Roobin, that's crap. The classic reaction to someone who's left the SWP is to devalue their political activity. Even if he wasn't "building Respect in his workplace" or whatever, it wasn't difficult to find out what was going on. I left the SWP in 2003 and I knew what was going on with Respect. I haven't read Mark's book yet, though I will. I agree completely with what you've said about the SWP though Jim, and would add that the fact that you "worry that you'll be unable to continue politically" is partly because that idea is specifically fostered within the SWP. All else is liberal or ultra-left, and the SWP are the only ones that actually do anything. You certainly get asked to do a lot, but in retrospect most of what I did in my 6 years in the party was a waste of time...

Jim Jay said...

It seems to me Roobin that very few SWP members knew what was going on - and it showed. At least Mark was thinking for himself.

Anyway, it's so common place for ex-members to be smeared that when it takes place most people see it for what it is and the process only serves to distance SWP members from other leftists - although I'm sure it's still hurtful if you're on the recieving end.

You might like to think about that before saying things that many of us have heard a hundred times before when someone leaves (or is being sidelined in the party). You never know - it could be you one day.

Roobin said...

"It seems to me Roobin that very few SWP members knew what was going on - and it showed."

It seems to be we better be agreed about 'what' we're referring to. A lot of SWP members are aware of 'what' is happening... generally.

"It's so common place for ex-members to be smeared that when it takes place most people see it for what it is and the process only serves to distance SWP members from other leftists..."

Well no one's smeared anyone, at least not here and not yet. I will use the example that has stuck in my mind.

Mark has often noted a lack of flyposting going up for events and demos etc. I remember this because it used to be a large part of my activity.

Around 2006 the tide very much turned. There has been a clampdown. If you put a poster up in London one evening you'll be lucky to find it there in the morning... not to mention lucky if you don't find a bill heading your way.

It seems to me, if your in touch with anyone, involved with any kind of organised activity you'd know this. Like I say, that's Mark's prerogative. However, this time last year he involved himself in an internal debate. His intervention was poor because he had spent many years detached from the organisation. No one I spoke to about it was particularly swayed by his argument.

Whatever he does I hope he stays in organised politics. I fear he may not.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I thought the book was really good. For me the fact that Mark's chapter where he discusses working in the retail sector caught very well what that experience is like - and this to me shows that he isn't out of touch, perhaps with the SWP, but not with the everyday experiences of ordinary working people.