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21 January 2009

What's going on? The meanderings of a comic mind in confusion

New book by comedian Mark Steel

Mark Steel at Socialism 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

Mark Steel at Socialism 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

Mark Steel was one of the new wave of political ('alternative') comedians who emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were radicalised by the industrial struggles and anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns of the 1970s and the election of Thatcher's Tory government in 1979.

Ken Douglas

A long time member of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), almost alone of that generation of stand-up comedians Mark Steel has maintained an overtly political and left-wing comedy. In recent years he has attempted to popularise short histories of revolutions and radical figures from the past both on the radio and as a touring show.

Commendably, he has done this against the worldwide tide of pro-capitalist propaganda in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist regimes. He withstood the pressure from the media to reject socialist ideas as irrelevant and unfashionable. What's going on? - his latest book, describes this very well.

The title of the book refers to the 1971 ground-breaking album of the same name by soul singer Marvin Gaye. The album is a cycle of songs that reflected the social unrest and injustice in the US at that time, including the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggles. Gaye said of the record: "I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that reached the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world."

In a way this is Mark's attempt to do the same thing, woven into a narrative about the breakdown of his marriage and his growing disenchantment with the SWP, both ultimately leading to divorce.

The book is subtitled 'The meanderings of a comic mind in confusion'. Mark Steel recognises that the time is ripe for the development of mass opposition to globalisation and neo-liberalism. He highlights the anti-capitalist movement and organisations like the Campaign against the Arms Trade. He is amazed by the reception Tony Benn receives at Glastonbury: "Then he shuffled onto the stage and a roar went up that made me wonder whether I had one of those peculiar neurological diseases, and that what I thought was Tony Benn was actually the White Stripes."

But he despairs that a period seemingly ripe for the growth of a party like the SWP, instead sees its decline.

He describes his first encounter with the SWP as the beginning of a love affair: "...and when it said 'I think the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe aren't socialist, but dictatorships governed by profit just like the West,' it was one of the most romantic things I'd ever heard." Enthusing about the excitement and optimism of those early years he says: "We had a set of ideas that made sense of the world, not in order to pass an exam but as a means of changing it."

He contrasts their approach under the then leadership of Tony Cliff as an 'honest accounting', compared with the present day regime in which mistakes and failures are covered over and forgotten and successes are exaggerated.

Branches which were 'chaotic cauldrons of activity' in the 1980s were reduced to twos and threes in the 1990s. Similarly the turnouts at the SWP's main annual public event, Marxism, throughout the 1990s: "gradually became smaller, until in recent years it's been possible to amble to the bar and order a drink as if you were in your local on a Tuesday."

Mark Steel's history of political activism is that of the SWP itself. The book therefore inevitably deals with a whole range of issues in a way with which the Socialist Party disagrees, but there is not the space here to deal with them.

Fundamentally the book is about Mark trying to understand the decline of the SWP, but he struggles because he has come up against a reality that the SWP has been denying for years. A central root of their mistakes lies in Tony Cliff's theory that the political and economic system in the Soviet Union was 'state-capitalist'.

In other words that there was not much difference between the capitalist US and the state capitalist USSR; their slogan at the time was "neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism". The Socialist Party opposed the brutality of Stalinism with its undemocratic one-party regimes, while defending the planned economy against the model of chaotic capitalism.

To many on the left at that time the debate on the nature of the Soviet Union might have seemed abstract and irrelevant but its collapse and that of its satellites had profound implications for the social democratic parties in the West and for the workers' movement.

However the SWP welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a triumph for democracy. Because they said that the Soviet Union was already capitalist, no consequences flowed from its fall - it was a sideways step from one form of capitalist regime to another.


Having rejected any form of electoral politics in the 1970s and 1980s they saw the gains made by the Socialist Party and particularly the Scottish Socialist Party, formed in 1998. They joined and then took over the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, but did not make the big breakthrough they expected.

In reaction to their lack of success and failing to see that their reduction in size was part of the process set in train by the collapse of Stalinism, at the start of the current decade they swung in another direction.

They buried the ideas of socialism, closing down the Socialist Alliance for what they saw as the more voter-friendly formation of Respect where socialism was hidden in the title and took short cuts to make what have turned out to be temporary electoral gains. They also ensured that while the voices of capitalist politicians found a platform at the huge Stop the War demonstrations, in front of audiences of tens of thousands of young people looking for a coherent explanation and a solution, Socialist Party speakers were excluded and there was no mention of socialism as an alternative to war and poverty.

The SWP's zigzags and opportunism are partly a result of their theory of state capitalism and failure to understand the effects of the collapse of Stalinism. Mark appeared to be groping towards this conclusion in an internal document he wrote to the SWP at the time of the crisis in Respect but he does not mention that in this book.

George Galloway was elected as a Respect MP in 2005 but the Respect 'unity' coalition was soon on rocky ground. Mark outlines how Galloway's bravura performance in front of the US senate committee was then almost completely negated by his performance as a cat on Big Brother. He thinks this had a big effect on Respect supporters and how the organisation was seen; people were ringing him up saying they would never leaflet for Respect again.

However, he doesn't mention the founding conference of Respect where the Socialist Party's calls for a democratic, federal structure and for the accountability of public figures, including standing workers' MPs on a workers' wage, were met with jeers and catcalls orchestrated by the SWP.

Then followed the dramatic split in Respect and the crisis within the SWP itself. Instead of a sober analysis of the experience, the past was swept aside for the next opportunity: "It was like having a friend who announced he was getting married, held a huge stag party, then never mentioned the wedding or the woman again, but a few weeks later said, 'Guess what, I'm getting married,' and it all started over again."

Errors can be corrected but a revolutionary party has to honestly account for its successes and failures in order to overcome setbacks. Mark highlights the SWP's undemocratic internal regime and the poor political education in the organisation; this means that issues cannot be discussed democratically and the membership cannot act to correct the leadership.

This is a funny book which is also depressing, dealing as it does with a sad part of someone's life. However, the real tragedy is that just as the Respect debacle is now used to argue against the viability of building a new mass workers' party, so this book will be used to support the idea that revolutionary politics is irrelevant and in terminal decline.

Events will show that this is utterly wrong. At the very moment of capitalism's greatest crisis since the Great Depression, when the analysis of Marx and Engels is vindicated and socialist ideas are back on the agenda, Mark should, along with other revolutionaries disillusioned by the mistakes of the SWP, rededicate himself to building revolutionary socialism.

What's going on?
The meanderings of a comic mind in confusion
by Mark Steel
12.99 + 10% p&p

Socialism and left unity: A critique of the Socialist Workers Party

by Peter Taaffe
6 + 10% p&p

This book is for socialists who are aware of the policies of the SWP, including SWP members who can still be won to genuine Marxism. The wrong methods of the SWP hinder the task of rebuilding the labour movement on socialist and Marxist lines.