Cannonist FI sections (was re: seating arrangements)

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Thu Nov 21 19:28:53 MST 2002

Louis wrote:
> I think part of the problem in my discussion with Richard is that he did
> not see the SWP from my perspective, something we've discussed offline.
> I first ran into Richard back in the late 1960s when he was a staff
> writer for the Intercontinental Press, a fine publication that Joe
> Hansen (Trotsky's bodyguard and top SWP theoretician) ran. If you were
> in such a position and privy to the social networks enjoyed by people on
> staff, this could be quite a nice life. I have an old friend who was on
> the NC for many years who is quite open about this aspect of party life.
> He says that the chance to work side-by-side with really interesting
> people and away from the daily grind of corporate or factory life was
> not lost on him. If you are willing to live on somewhat of a pittance,
> being on full-time was quite enjoyable. Your personal life could often
> be richer as well, since the opposite sex would naturally find somebody
> who was successful in the party to be sexually irrestible as well.

I think there is also a division here between different types of
full-timers, the proletarians of the full-time staff and the bourgeoisie
of the full-time staff.

This has become much more pronounced in recent years, with the
robot-workers at Pathfinder keeping the presses running 24 hours a day,
while King Jack, in possession of the party credit card, sits in his
season box seat at the New York Opera and dines out at fashionable
eateries, or disappears who knows where for weeks on end.  However,
there was always a marked degree of division.

For instance, when I was a full-timer for two years in NZ I worked on
the paper, a 12-page fortnightly called 'Socialist Action'.  I edited
the international pages, including writing an article most issues, I put
together the 'In brief' section, I often did a 'Learning About
Socialism' column, and I usually wrote one other article per issue on
some current political event or whatever.  However, apart from all that,
I also typed up - using an old varietyper machine - anywhere up to
two-thirds of each issue of the paper.  Plus I and another comrade
proof-read the entire paper and did all the corrections.  I worked 11
days out of 14, and in the last few days before it was ready for the
printer that often involved working not only all day but well into the
night, sometimes until 4am or 6am.  We would finish the paper on
Wednesday night, which may mean that 4am or 6am on Thursday.  I would
have Thursday off but most of it would be spent sleeping because of
working the previous nights.  On Friday I would spend all day working on
the mail out, as every individual subscription copy would have to be
handwrapped, with the wrapping paper being pasted around the newspaper.

On top of this I sold the paper each Friday night, in a string of
working class pubs.  When the National Office was in Wellington, this
meant getting a train out to Porirua (half an hour by train), then going
by foot around a string of Maori and pacific Island working class pubs
and then getting the train back to Wellington.  In Auckland I did
similar sales, when the National Office moved there.  I also did early
morning sales at union meetings, sales at demos and sales on the street
in town.

If, however, you were one of the more shall we say 'elevated'
full-timers your work week was substantially less.  Although the wages
were all the same.  And if you were the national secretary you made your
own hours.  If you fancied not coming in for a week or two, you wouldn't
come in.  You'd just stay at home, doing whatever you pleased.  We were
blessed with what I thought at the time was a particularly vile subhuman
as national secretary, a violent, misogynistic, homophobic thug called
Russell Johnson, who subsequently became barnes' chief lieutenant in
this part of the world.  Later, of curse, I learned that Johnson was not
merely an individual (actually I hesitate to even describe him in human
terms which suggest he was a person) but a *type* which is to be
frequently found in the post of national secretary of Trotskyist (and
certain other kinds of) far left groups.

Johnson's workweek was perhaps 10 hours, although I can't say that in my
two years as a full-timer, working a huge workweek, I ever really saw
him do a scrap of work.  On those occasions when he did make an
appearance in the national office, he would sit in his own office for an
hour or two, sharpening pencils or whatever, and then, like a child, get
bored.  So he'd come into the 'Socialist Action' office, begin farting
and try to stick the room out.  Sometimes he would go over to the desk
of another member of the leadership, George Fyson, pick something up off
the desk and drop it on the floor and make George pick it up.  I think I
was still in my teens at this stage, and it was quite an eye-opener.

Every second Friday when people like me were sat at a table wrapping up
3,000 individual newspapers to go to subscribers, and the whole city
branch had to be brought in to help at different times of the day,
Russell would bowl in, sit in the room and put some paste on maybe half
a dozen sheets of the wrapping paper and then get bored.  So he'd start
annoying people.  he'd get up and change the radio station that we were
listening to, or turn it off altogether.  He'd start nudging people so
that they got paste in the wrong place.  I recall one time him sitting
next to me and he did it to me twice.  The first time I let it go.  The
second time I turned round to him and said for them all to hear, "You do
that again and I'll ram that glass full of paste into your face."
No-one said a word, and Johnson never did it again.  When you're dealing
with wild animals, there's no point in pollutes.

The division between the proletarian wing of full-timers and the
bourgeoisie wing of full-timers was manifest in other ways, such as the
jet-setting trips to Paris and New York and London and so on, all paid
for by the ranks.  It was also manifest in who did stuff like sell the

Despite Johnson's workweek being about one-fifth as long as mine,
probably less, I can never recall ever seeing him do a paper sale.  My
only memory of him coming in contact with a paper sale was when he would
come and visit the comrades who were doing door-to-door sub-selling
during our huge annual subscription drives.  Grunts like myself would
spend a day door-knocking, trying to sell introductory subs.  At
lunchtime Johnson would cruise out to check on progress and belittle any
comrade who hadn't been very successful, all, of course, in front of the
other assembled comrades.  Then, having had his amusement for the day,
he would drive off and we might not be blessed with his presence for
another week.

If you were in his position you could pretty much do anything.  For
instance, at a party one evening, Johnson violently assaulted another
member of the leadership, who lived in that particular flat.  The scrap
happened because Johnson was showing off in front of his girlfriend (the
one who was elevated to the national leadership after having been in the
SAL for a matter of months).  Johnson went for the other comrade, took
him to the ground and laid into him on the ground.  The 'pretext' was
that Johnson had not been able to get his way over what was playing on
the stereo (it was, after all, the other comrade's flat).

This assault took place not long after I had moved to Wellington to work
full-time on the paper.  I was horrified and wondered what would happen
as a result.  Surely, johnson would have to be removed as national
secretary?  Nope!  Not a thing was done about it.  Johnson got away with
it and, indeed, afterwards his position was more secure than ever.  He
ruled the roost for another two decades before finally losing his
position (after the organisation had lost most of its membership).

And what has happened to the rest of the leadership of the SAL?

Well, Louis comments in relation to the US SWP:
> I
> really never had any aspirations to move up the hierarchy in the SWP.
> Most of the full-timers reminded me of student government types anyhow.
> One character in particular, who showed up at a 1969 YSA convention in a
> natty gabardene suit, looked to me like the IBM salesmen who serviced
> whatever corporate site I was working at at the time. Years later this
> character wrote a bristling denunciation of the Sandinistas for not
> "taking the Cuban road". Only six months later, he had dropped out of
> politics altogether.

This struck a real chord with me as well.

You see the leadership which created Johnson, made him national
secretary and kept him national secretary for over 20 years, the people
who oversaw the total degeneration of the SAL and the destruction of an
entire generation of radical-minded young people, then just walked away
and retired to private life.  These toe-rags who labelled as
'petty-bourgeois' blah blah anyone who dared dissent from whatever line
which came down the blower from New York any particular week, these
toe-rags who oversaw the destruction of the largest and most vibrant
left organisation in NZ and its conversion into a minuscule zombie-cult,
with the destruction of a generation of human beings and a generation of
resources, just walked away into the sunset.  Not one of these people is
still involved in revolutionary politics in NZ - not one!  Not one of
these 'leaders' have produced a balance sheet on what happened to the
SAL, let alone their own culpability in it.

Despite all their more-proletarian-than-thou rhetoric they turned out to
be the worst sort of petty-bourgeois imaginable.  You know, the typical
petty-bourgeois type that never takes responsibility for anything becoz
they're so used to everything being laid on for them in life.

To end on a lighter note.  One of the people in our extended political
circle around 'revolution' is a retired engineer.  He was in the SAL in
the early 1970s before having a gutsful of their control freakery and
domination from New York.  When he left the outfit, one of the central
leaders of the SAL said, "X, the way you're going, you'll end up in
bourgeois politics."  One guess where that SAL leader is now?  Yep, he's
a bourgeois politician.  And comrade X is still a communist.

So, Richard, I think it may be time to take the blinkers off and have a
think what it was like for those of us who did not occupy rarefied and
privileged leadership positions and niches, those of us who were in the
trenches then and are still in the trenches now.  Those of us who had to
start our personal and political lives again from scratch, with
literally nothing but the clothes on our backs and who have continued to
work our asses off as communists and try to build something new and
something a damn sight better than, as Lou put it, "the truly fucked-up
organisation" that was the US SWP - and its mindless little hand-raiser
underling groups in New Zealand and Canada.

Thinking again about my old mate Ken McLeod's comment about the US SWP
truly being 'The Great Satan', it was spot on.


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