Tom Unterrainer reviews Strategy and Tactics by John Rees (Counterfire).
At a time when the abject disarray of the British left is its overwhelming feature, we would normally appreciate some – any – effort to ‘think things through’. But when the ‘thinking’ is little more than a screed of dishonest mysticism and self-congratulation – as is the case with John Rees’ new book – we should be wary.
At the SWP’s ‘Marxism’ event immediately after Rees’ magnificent severing of links with George Galloway and Respect, you could overhear long-standing members comment on “the biggest joke” of the year. What was the joke? A session titled ‘Strategy and Tactics’ presented by … wait for it … John Rees.
Many SWP members took the Respect debacle hard, not celebrating its end as most rational citizens of the left did. They were confused and upset, perhaps a little bitter, at Rees and the party leadership. What they didn’t understand, quite obviously, was that behind the political chaos lurked a method.
Timing is important, you see, and in order to get things right you not only need to act but to understand what you’re doing. Nothing wrong with that, right? Sounds like the sort of thing Lenin could have said or written, no?
If the Bolsheviks had organised for September or November rather than October, history would have a very different landscape. As it was for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, so it is for John Rees and his new ‘network’ of revolutionaries in Counterfire. Rees has form – a decent temporal pedigree, if you like – and he’s not shy of reminding his readers of the fact:
“[H]ad revolutionaries [ie. Rees] not decided to launch the Stop the War Coalition within days of the attack on the Twin Towers, it is unlikely that it would have had the same galvanising effect that it did.”
Nothing glaringly inaccurate in this claim. But remember, timing is not even half of it. To get things right, you need to understand what’s going on. You need to apply a method. You need to think as John Rees thinks, you need dialectical thinking:
“At the point where revolutionaries took the step of initiating the Stop the War Coalition in 2001, we undertook an analysis something like this. We had already understood the nature of the new imperialism from theoretical work at the end of the Cold War, during the First Gulf War, and during the war in the Balkans. We understood the contradiction between expansive US military power and its relative economic decline. We judged, from preceding experience in the anti-globalisation movement, that there would be a mood to resist and that the left might not be divided in the way it had been in the Cold War.”
The fact that John Rees and his one-time comrade Professor Alex Callinicos appear to disagree on the exact “nature of the new imperialism”, that the SWP significantly mis-judged the political ramifications of the end of the Cold War (the demands for a general strike in 1992 being a key marker) and that they capitulated to reactionary Serb national-chauvinism during the Balkans war all have a bearing on the politically poisonous mess they created after 9/11.
John Rees may be able to think and act. His timing may be very good. He’s obviously a skilled dialectician. The question is, what sort of dialectic? When Rees calls for “social, economic and political contradictions” to be analysed, through what objective and subjective lenses are they to be viewed? Between what forms do these contradictions manifest themselves?
As Rees notes himself, the fundamental contradiction of society is between labour and capital. For Marxists, all else flows from this contradiction. But you don’t need to be a Marxist to note this basic fact. You can develop any number of contending views and conclusions dependent upon your politics. So rather than siding with labour in the contradiction, you could become a defender of capital. Or alternatively, you could seek to resolve the contradiction through forms alien to both classes: an ‘intellectual elite’ for example.
If we honestly assess Rees’ record – using his greatest triumph, the Stop the War Coalition – what conclusions can we draw? This organisation combined a host of reactionaries with would-be revolutionaries into an ‘anti-war’ leadership. Working class politics and working class concerns were not only sidelined but systematically argued against and excluded. Is John Rees’ dialectic working class orientated as with Marx? No number of quotations from Lenin can veil the essential truth: the actually existing working class does not feature.
Strategy and Tactics is nothing more than an exercise in self-justification, a tool for mystification and obfuscation, something to mis-educate future recruits and to protect ‘deep thinkers’ like John Rees from organisational scrutiny. Works like this and ‘revolutionaries’ like John Rees intend to preserve the discreet ‘star system’ of leadership familiar to SWP members and old-time Stalinists alike. Counterfire members are to be guided by Rees’ light no matter how dark the destination.