Simon Evans/Harry Steele & Straight Left forgetfulness

October 11 2005 at 3:58 PM
Guy Burgess 

Response to The Guardian - Don't pretend Harry's exit is just coincidence

The "Norman Johnson" column in the Guardian is apparently a send-up of David Aaronovitch's drivel, though Slime thinks the target is himself. Some say it's penned by Catherine Bennett, another Guardian worthy.

"Harry" naturally likes to draw a veil on his career in Straight Left (which he calls "the Artists") so perhaps its useful to recall what he said not so long ago in a reply to me on the old "formers" site:

On the Artists (again)
by Harry Steele

A response to comrade Burgess' view on the Artist's:

Guy Burgess can be forgiven for his inability to truly understand the strategy and positions taken by the Artists – there was no written programme, no detailed policy statement (if we discount the CPGB congress documents and statements which were inevitably a reflection of a tactical battle for control of the Party) nor was there a policy making forum which would give us some clues.

However he is wrong that few outside the close Nicholson circle could have much idea of what SL was all about. I have tried to explain before that the Artists were an umbrella group, which united a surprisingly broad range of views and any attempt to understand them in the traditional manner – organisational structure, leadership, programme, policy etc is doomed. They were (are?) far more sophisticated than manner people give them credit for.

If for the sake of brevity I must find some neat expression to sum up the SL strategy it would be “political sleepers”. I presume that most comrades here are familiar with the use of the term “sleeper” in relation to intelligence work (I am sure Guy and Kim are!) and the Artists (a number of whom were not without some knowledge/experience of intelligence work –allegedly) applied the same strategy to politics.

It is, as Guy points out, superficially similar to the Trotskyist “entryist” strategy but there are crucial differences. For a start the project was carried out with subtlety. Did you ever see an Artist standing outside meetings with their paper? Did you ever see posters? There was a “fighting fund” of sorts but that too was discreet. The only time the group resembled an orthodox organised political unit was at the CPGB congress. Meetings were held prior to congress and efforts were made to gather the maximum number of votes for SL-backed candidates.

The sleeper strategy involved select individuals gaining key positions within certain bodies. But, and this another difference with classic entryism, the aim was not necessarily to take over but to take up a “holding position” and slowly build influence until the time came to activate those key people and those selected organisations. The activation might be done in a period of social unrest, a rise in militancy in the working class, or a threat to the peace during the cold war. In the meantime the short-term aim was to develop progressive policies and outlooks, that would assist the struggle for peace, oppose destructive forces and strengthen the broad left, while attempting some raising of consciousness.

This strategy necessitated a different approach to recruitment. If people were to be trusted with holding a sleeper position for a lengthy period of time, building relationships, both personal and political, then they must be reliable, intelligent and effective individuals. The Artists did not recruit openly, nor did they accept all those who wished to become part of their circle. They took the concept of a revolutionary vanguard seriously and were building an elite group of cadres. The Artists were rarely among the rank and file in any organisation they were involved in – they were invariably holding top positions, although not in the CPGB.

Guy is of course right when he says the “secret society” approach ruled out the opportunity to “win over the masses to their cause”. But perhaps, they were unique among the left in realising that in late 20th century Britain, the masses were not about to be roused and rush behind the banner of Marxism-Leninism. The 57 varieties of the ultra left have been trying to “win over the masses” since World War Two and utterly failing. The NCP and CPB were attempting to rouse the British proletariat without much joy. We were not, and probably have never been, in a revolutionary situation in Britain.

In a hostile cold war environment, given a truly internationalist perspective, and having Marxist understanding of the development of global capitalism was it really such a strange approach to concentrate resources and energy on developing a small, disciplined revolutionary core which could obtain influence over the labour movement and communities in general by winning confidence on a personal basis? Flag waving does not appear to have had a great track record in Great Britain.

My involvement with communist politics in Britain ended in 1991, I would be grateful for any comrades who could enlighten me and others on how and why the Artists took up camp in the CPB. We have still yet to have any real explanation of those more recent events on this forum.

Posted on Sep 14, 2000, 11:16 PM

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  • The f word - CoppiceCamp on Oct 12, 2005, 9:05 AM
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