When people look at the confusing patchwork of organisations and ideologies that exists on the far-left, a common reaction is to wonder why they fail to unite. On an ideological level, they have much in common, especially when compared to non-socialist political ideologies. On a practical level, they have even more in common. They all share the fundamental short-term goal of improving the position of the working class with respect to their employers and spreading socialist ideas through society. It is quite obvious to most people that their ability to achieve this goal would be immeasurably improved were they to unite and present a single face to the world. So why don’t they?

The obvious answer is that the various organisations involved are in competition with one another and this competition is strong enough to overcome the ideological and pragmatic advantages of cooperation. This competition does not exist because there is anything wrong with these organisations or their members. Indeed their supporters and the majority of members are inherently inclined to cooperate. Such situations follow a simple and inescapable Darwinian logic. Far-left organisations exist within a cultural niche. In order to survive they need to attract resources from this niche. When an organisation fails to compete effectively for resources, relative to its rivals, it shrinks and eventually dies. An organisation that decides to be a model citizen and chooses cooperation over competition signs its own death warrant. It is expending precious resources on helping its rivals who can use these resources to compete for a greater share of the limited resources.

The primary resource that organisations need is recruits, but there are others: supporters, money, access to venues for meetings, access to printing and other publication resources, connections to sympathetic celebrities and general goodwill are all important too. All of these resources are in seriously limited supply as the political-theory laden, extremely-committed nature of far left organisations ensures that only a very small proportion of the population are potentially within reach. In the long run, whichever organisation manages to secure more of these resources than its rivals will come to dominate and this holds regardless of the overall level of cooperation.

For example, in certain times, in particular in the run-up to elections, far left parties form cooperative coalitions which have the potential to increase the pool of resources for all. However, the problem is that whichever party most effectively competes rather than cooperates within these coalitions will come to dominate, creating a ‘race to the bottom’ situation. The same holds for extremely uncooperative situations, where each organisation seeks to grab whatever resources it can and actively attempts to destroy any resources that it can’t secure – for example aggressive recruitment tactics which have a very low hit rate but scare the failed targets away from the far-left for ever. These tactics make sense, because even if they reduce the potential pool of resources available overall, they damage their less aggressive rivals more and their rivals are the only real threat to their existence.

This competition among rival organisations to secure a slice of the limited resources available within a particular cultural niche is the dominant dynamic on the far-left. It pervades everything and is outside the volition of the participants. Those who do not compete die. It is not surprising – it is the basic evolutionary dynamic that started with the first replicating molecules and repeats itself at all levels of biology, all the way up to human societies. What is interesting about this competition on the far-left, however, is the form that it takes. While the organisations distinguish themselves from one another on the basis of ideology, competition takes place in the realm of group psychology and ideology plays almost no part in this. In order to make this discussion less abstract, and to give it some context, I will present a brief overview of the competitive landscape of the far-left as it was in the late 1990s in Ireland.

The Anarchists

Although the WSM was the only anarchist group with a presence in the Republic of Ireland, this isolation was amazingly not enough to prevent inter-group rivalry. There were three significant anarchist groups in Britain and one small group in Belfast and they were all highly suspicious of the WSM, which held them in low regard in turn. The rivalry had ideological, cultural and personal roots.

The ideological division stemmed from the fact that the WSM was part of the platformist strand of anarchism and had a particularly structured and formal mode of operation, which was seen as suspiciously close to Bolshevism by anarchists beyond its ranks. In return, the WSM considered the non-platformists to be organisationally shambolic, barely capable of organising their members to meet for a pint.

The largest British group in terms of membership was the Anarchist Federation, which was aligned to the ‘synthesist’ current – meaning that they aimed to unite all strands of anarchists and had a much looser mode of operation. The next most prominent British group was the Solidarity Federationanarcho-syndicalists, whose strategy focused on creating new trade unions with anarchist structures. They considered both the synthesists and the platformists to be purely political groupings that had little in the way of links to ordinary workers. The third British Group was Class War, a group who had risen to relative prominence during Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s and were in terminal decline by the late 1990s. Their politics were less well-defined, but can probably best be summed up by their favourite catchphrase “bash the rich”. Finally, there was the Belfast-based group, which went through a succession of names – including the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation and Organise! (the exclamation mark was part of the name!). Their politics vacillated between anarcho-synthesism and anarcho-syndicalism and they were sometimes close to the Anarchist Federation and sometimes closer to Solidarity Federation, but always hostile to platformism.

The cultural divisions stemmed from differences in the national, religious and class backgrounds of the various organisations’ membership. The thorny question of the ‘correct’ political line to take on the conflict in Northern Ireland was the surest way of bringing this division to the fore. The British Anarchist Federation tended to focus on denouncing the IRA for being bourgeois nationalist, the WSM, based in Dublin, and predominantly from catholic backgrounds, generally considered this focus to be borne from ignorance and sub-conscious imperialist assumptions, while the Belfast group, whose most influential members came from protestant backgrounds, would in turn see the WSM’s position as stemming from ignorance of the situation on the ground and sub-conscious Irish Nationalism. Meanwhile Class War were often sympathetic to the IRA, but mostly because they blew stuff up. Across this division, there was an underlying hostility to the idea of being subsumed into a larger group from a more populous state (or statelet in the case of Northern Ireland).

The class-based divisions were slightly more subtle and difficult to describe precisely, but the WSM was certainly considered by the Belfast based group to be dominated by middle class intellectuals, while Class War considered all of the rest to be middle class wankers and everybody else thought they were little more than a mob of anti-intellectual lumpen proletarians, run by narcissists who also happened to be mentally unstable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there were significant personality clashes between the most prominent theorists of each group. I can’t speak with any conviction on the details of these personality clashes, as they didn’t involve me and predated my involvement, but I do know that they existed and ran deep.

The geographical distance between the groups meant that the hostility and rivalry was generally maintained at a low level – mostly manifesting itself in spats on Internet mailing lists and forums. In keeping with each group’s stated desire for anarchist cooperation, the groups would occasionally invite representatives from the other groups to their events, while in the background each group was attempting, albeit ineffectively, to establish satellite groups in each other’s territory. For example, my first encounter with Organise! was when I accompanied Andrew Flood to Derry to try and convince their sole member from the city, John Black, who was disaffected with their anti-republican line, to join the WSM. We failed – he soon took up a position as national organiser of the IRSP, the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army, considered at the time to be as close as you could come to a pure Republican terrorist group.


When it came to the non-anarchist far-left, the rivalry was much more immediate due to geographical proximity. There were two substantial Trotskyist groups which dominated the Irish far left – the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Both were off-shoots of larger organisations based in Britain. They probably had no more than a couple of hundred members each, of which perhaps 20 or 30 were ‘cadre’ – long term members, often employed as ‘full-timers’ by the party, who had a reasonable idea of their organisation’s politics and could be trusted to carry out tasks without supervision. The rest were either students from whom the party would squeeze as much paper-selling and demonstration-attending labour as possible before their revolutionary vigour faded, or were relatively apolitical individuals who had some sort of personal loyalty to the party leaders based in their communities, who had led local campaigns.

The difference between the parties was mostly a function of them primarily targeting different groups for recruitment. The SWP concentrated on students and consequently adopted a breathlessly excited hyperactive tone in all they did. The SP focused on recruiting community members and adopted a dour, grey and serious tone, concentrating on the dullest bread-and-butter issues that they felt best reflected the values of the “ordinary workers” they targeted. Attending events organised by either party was always a bizarrely disconcerting experience as one was presented with a group of people who appeared to have gone simultaneously mad in exactly the same way. At SWP events, you could reliably find a room full of people who all appeared to believe that the population was on the cusp of erecting barricades on the street (and were extremely excited about it). At SP events, one would find a group of people who all dressed in similarly drab clothing and spoke in the same flat accent that was superficially similar to a Dublin working class accent, but somehow wrong, droning on in the same lifeless tone.

In any case, weird as they may have been, both parties were larger than the WSM by an order of magnitude, both in terms of membership and organisational capacity. They could organise demonstrations, public meetings and single-issue campaigns that might attract a few hundred people, which was far beyond our capacity. This made them effectively the public face of the far left and we despised them for it, but still not as much as they despised one another (we were too small to garner anything but contemptuous condescension). Just like the anarchists, both parties were officially in favour of cooperation with other far-left parties and, just like the anarchists, they needed ideological reasons to explain why they habitually acted like bitter enemies to one another. This was a delicate dance in which each party would attempt to portray themselves as earnestly seeking cooperation, only to be spurned by the bitter sectarianism of their rivals. Probably the most amusing example of this dance occurred in the run-up to the local elections in 1999. At this point in time, the Socialist Party had a far higher electoral profile, having succeeded in having a member, Joe Higgins, a high-profile figure in the successful 1990s campaign against a water tax, elected to parliament in 1997. The SWP duly wrote a letter to the SP, proposing a non-aggression pact, where they would agree not to compete with one another in local election constituencies, in order not to split the left vote.

Now, it was clear to all informed observers, even relative newcomers such as myself, that an electoral alliance would be beneficial to both parties, but it would be much more relatively beneficial to the SWP, who had almost no electoral profile at the time, and hence the SP would refuse it on purely competitive, pragmatic grounds. It was also clear, from precedent, that the SP would make up some ideological excuse for doing so. However, what came next was so absurd that it still makes me chuckle. The SP’s response was to publish a pamphlet, in magazine format, which they attempted to sell at public events, detailing a long list of the ideological errors of their rivals. Much of the content was taken up with a discussion of their theoretical differences on the Soviet Union, which had ceased to exist 8 years before, and their differing interpretations of Trostky’s “permanent revolution”. The ludicrously pompous tone is made all the funnier when one reads it today – it is full of utterly confident predictions that have turned out to be completely and utterly wrong. It’s also a good example of how the need to compete with their rivals took precedence over all else – trying to sell this pamphlet to the public make the SP look totally bonkers, but they could not resist the urge to attack their rivals from their relative position of strength.

“A new period is now opening. The economic crisis in Asia, Russia and Brazil will spread to the rest of the capitalist world. The working class and the youth will once again take to the road of struggle. They will do so with the effects of the collapse of Stalinism diminishing, and with the failure of capitalism an everyday reality. Trade union activity will increase and the working class will attempt to rebuild for itself a political voice.” – Socialist Party, The Struggle For Socialism Today (1999)

Beyond the SWP and the SP, there was a variety of other, tiny parties that were influenced by Trotskyism: the Sparticist League, Socialist Democracy and a few others, they concentrated mostly on castigating the ‘big 2’ for their ideological heresies. None of them ever attained any influence or size and they were treated as purely comic fixtures by the rest of the left, with the occasional propensity to be annoying at meetings by droning on about something somebody said in the 1930s. They were so inconsequential that they considered even the tiny WSM as being worth the odd polemic. On one of my first political demonstrations, for example, we held a picket outside the US embassy calling for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal from death row. One of the Sparts approached me and harangued me for being a conservative chauvinist, on account of the fact that I was offering copies of Workers Solidarity for sale. I was confused until somebody eventually explained to me that this was in response to an old issue of the paper which had called for “paedophile priests out of the schools”. The Sparts, it turned out, considered anti-paedophilia to be bourgeois moralism.

In addition to the Trotskyists and the anarchists, there was a smattering of unaffiliated Marxists who habitually attended far-left events. In total the milieu accounted for only a few hundred people in the entire country. There were, of course, other left forces: the social democrats, the communist parties who had supported the Soviet Union and a wide variety of left republicans. They, however, all existed in different cultural niches altogether and they rarely came into contact with the far left and were largely irrelevant to its day to day activity. This activity was utterly dominated by the competition for resources between the rival groups and, as I said above, ideology had very little influence on the form that this competition took.

In order to survive and thrive, political organisations need a steady stream of new recruits. Existing members drop out from time to time, or become inactive for a range of different reasons. If the organisation can’t replace these lost members with at least as many new members, the organisation will shrink and eventually die. What’s more, as it takes time for new members to gain experience and become practically useful, in order to maintain organisational capacity, the flow of incoming recruits must be greater than the outflow of dropouts.

One source of potential new members is the existing membership of rival organisations. These have the distinct advantage of already being somewhat knowledgeable about socialist theory and political practice, when compared to an average member of the public. The disadvantage is that they are already indoctrinated into the conceptual model of a hostile organisation, and this always includes a dose of inoculation against their rivals. The inoculation is effective: if one was to ask several members of the SWP or the SP or the WSM what the main ideological faults of the others are, the similarity of their respective responses would be uncanny. The members of far left organisations spend a considerable amount of time and energy writing polemics against their rivals, generally in an effort to show that there is a significant gap between their stated principles and their activities. However, it almost never works, the ideologies of any group that persists for any period of time is sufficiently internally consistent to survive hostile polemics.

The only real exceptions are when members are disaffected and on their way out of the party – in such situations they can sometimes be wooed by a rival whose ideology appears to resonate with the reasons for their discontent. However, such situations are rare. Most disaffected members drop out of politics – in the 20 or so years that I was around the left, I know of only a handful of individuals who changed teams and kept on playing. In addition to members of rival organisations, there are also a number of individuals active within the far left milieu who have chosen to remain independent. Some of them started out as members of some organisation or other, others have remained resolute in their independence since becoming politically active. In any case, any independents that have been active in left wing politics for any length of time have typically successfully resisted recruitment from several suitors and have effectively become immune to their advances. They are thus a poor source of recruits.

The great majority of the competition for recruits is focused on attracting new-blood.

The next potential source of recruits are the ex-members of far-left parties: a group which has long been many times more numerous than their current membership. Once again, they have the advantage of having some level of experience and knowledge of left-wing political theory. However, in the great majority of cases, people drop out due to a general disillusionment with either the political practices of the left or the viability of revolution. Starting from a point of disillusionment, absence rarely makes the heart grow fonder. When people leave the left behind and immerse themselves in mainstream society, the political discourse tends to reinforce their disenchantment and drive them further away. This is particularly the case when their membership of the left coincided with the youthful idealism of student life, as is often the case. The decidedly non-idealistic practice of surviving in a competitive society can have the effect of making left-wing ideology seem impractical and utopian. Hence, although there are some exceptions, it is relatively rare for ex-members who have dropped out and been inactive for a number of years to decide to rejoin a far-left organisation.

The great majority of the competition for recruits is thus focused on attracting new-blood. The world constantly throws up a stream of people who have been politicised by some event, radicalised by the injustice of the system’s response to that event, and become determined to do something about it. These people become, temporarily at least, susceptible to joining a far left organisation. Mostly such people become politicised by some particular conflict or issue and have little detailed knowledge of left-wing political theory or organisations. Most activity in attempting to reach them is focused on the issues and campaigns that tend to attract newly radicalised potential recruits: wars, revolutions, labour disputes and community campaigns. Whenever there is an issue in the public consciousness that has the potential to radicalise, far left organisations will hold and attend public meetings, establish and join campaigns, organise and attend public demonstrations and produce articles, leaflets and posters about the issue. All with the earnest intention of persuading those who had been politicised by the issue that “the best way to win your fight is to join our fight”. The competition is decided by marketing not ideology. Success in recruitment is dictated by the strength of the brand and the organisation’s capacity to reach potential recruits, influence them and build personal connections with them.

The capacity of a small, coordinated group of people to influence a large, uncoordinated, loose crowd is limited only by the skill of the small group. Unopposed, a handful of skilful people acting in coordinated fashion can decide in advance what a crowd will do within reason. Control of a small number of key functions can give tiny groups effective control over much larger organisations, all without most people needing to know that the small group even exists. Popular issues which politicise heretofore inactive, inexperienced members of the public thus present well-organised far left groups with the possibility of exercising significant influence over large numbers of potential recruits. However, the larger the audience, the greater the competition for their attention and this competition makes it considerably more difficult to reach and influence the newly politicised. Over the years, elaborate tactics and techniques have been developed for playing this complex, multi-sided game, with each player trying to use each issue to improve their own reach and influence over potential recruits while hindering their opponents from taking similar advantage.

Public Meetings

The simplest approach is to hold a meeting about the issue in question and advertise it to the public. This has the advantage of giving the hosts free-rein to orchestrate the meeting to suit their primary purpose of drawing potential recruits closer to them. The public nature of such meetings allows rivals to intervene disruptively, but control of the agenda, the list of speakers and the chair allows the impact of such interventions to be minimised. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to attract large audiences to meetings of far-left political parties.

To get around this perception problem, the most common solution is to use a front organisation to brand the party’s intervention in particular issues. Front organisations are branded as autonomous issue-based campaigns, with no obvious link to the mothership, but are effectively controlled by the party. They are often an effective solution in providing access to greater numbers of potential recruits, as people are generally far less wary of issue-based campaigns than they are of far-left political parties. Fronts can be politically broad, and are ideally packed full of celebrities, intellectuals and well-known independents. However, as long as there is only one small coordinated group in position to pull the strings, it remains an effective instrument of that group: the others – “useful idiots” to use Lenin’s phrase, provide the appearance of political broadness and openness without threatening the party’s control. The downside to this tactic is that the organisation must devote sufficient resources to make their front appear large enough, competent enough and representative enough to give it a plausible claim to be the true voice of the issue. Smaller, weaker organisations must make do with joining their larger rivals’ front and trying to use their hobbled structures to disrupt their control and poach some of their potential recruits. Unless the front is so out-shadowed in size and prestige by its competitors that it looks like a splitter, it is a useful vehicle in increasing a far-left organisation’s access to potential recruits and hence is adopted wherever viable. Over the period of my involvement in politics, dozens of fronts came and went, leaving little but a stream of acronyms behind them: ARC, ANL, IAWM, GR, CAHWT, GG, DGN. Although the WSM had a principled stand against fronts in the 1990s, as soon as it grew large enough to create viable fronts, it effectively did so and channelled its interventions in issues through them.

The situation is somewhat complicated in issues that involve organised forces from beyond the far-left, such as the trade union movement. In such situations, far left groups will typically seek to build loose umbrella alliances with such forces, while concentrating their energies on using the issue to build their fronts. Where possible, they will try to increase their control over the alliance and effectively turn it into a front. The presence of other organised groups makes such alliances much more difficult to control than fronts, however, and they are thus home to some of the most elaborate examples of Machiavellian scheming and bureaucratic manoeuvring that humans have yet devised. In their struggle against one another, each organisation deploys a steady stream of moves and counter-moves constantly seeking small advantages.

Rival fronts Both Rosa (right) – a front through which the Socialist Party works, and People Before Profit, (left) a front through which the SWP operates, are holding public meetings in Central Dublin on the same issue at the same time, even using the same image to advertise them! image: Facebook

As I was writing this post, two meetings about a particular issue in Ireland (cuts to single parents allowance) were announced for almost exactly the same time in central Dublin, one organised by People Before Profit, a front of the SWP and the other by Rosa, a front of the Socialist Party. I don’t know whether one of the organisations decided to schedule their meeting to directly challenge their rivals or not (it makes competitive sense for a bigger rival to purposely call a simultaneous meeting). However, even if it was coincidence, it demonstrates the keenness of the competition between the groups when it comes to establishing influence on a newly relevant issue: neither is willing to give way.

Blocking bin-trucks in Stoneybatter image: James O’Brien

The meeting scheduling chess persists irrespective of whether there are alliances or not. I recall an example from the campaign against the bin tax in 2003. The local Stoneybatter campaign group had organised a meeting and did some last-minute leafleting to support it. The SWP members from the area didn’t show up – they were busy postering for their own party meeting the following night, and had surrounded our meeting hall with advertisements for their own meeting instead of helping us leafleting. We were not impressed. These sort of manoeuvres were a constant feature of interactions between different groups on the Irish left, but nobody would ever admit to them – as a rule the party in question would put forward strongly principled reasons for their actions and defend them vigorously.

Anti-Racism Campaign

During my first year of membership of the WSM, we were involved in the Anti-Racist Campaign alongside the Socialist Party and a smattering of independents (the SWP had their own front, the Anti-Nazi League, which they used to compete for anti-racist recruits). Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy was taking off and, for the first time in living memory, immigrants were arriving in large numbers. We thought that opposing racism was important at this juncture. I attended several of the ARC meetings in the Irish Vietnamese centre on Hardwicke Street – they were typically gentle affairs, a dozen people or so mostly trying to support asylum seekers traumatised by the state’s punitive system of refugee detention. The second or third time that I attended, I brought a friend, Phil, with me, hoping that ARC was the sort of thing that he might become involved in. It turned out to be no ordinary meeting. The Socialist Party had held some sort of internal reappraisal of their anti-racism work and had decided that ARC needed to be restructured with an executive committee. To ensure that their proposal was successful, they sent about 8 members, many more than their usual delegation of 2 or 3, several of whom had never attended an ARC meeting before. This practice, known as meeting-packing, is extremely common on the Irish left – whenever a major vote of a campaign is scheduled, various parties often suddenly increase their involvement manifold and bring large numbers of previously unseen members along for the vote.

By chance, the turnout was bigger than usual anyway, with about 20 people present. This meant that the SP’s coup could be resisted. What followed was a long and tense game of cat and mouse, in which the most experienced WSM member present firstly got everybody to reveal their party affiliations, in order to make the SP manoeuvre obvious to the inexperienced present, and then debated strenuously in favour of retaining the current, flat structure, narrowly winning the most important votes along the way. I came out of the meeting somewhat elated at the victory for our democratic way of organising, but Phil’s reaction quickly chased the elation away. He declared himself horrified by the infighting and petty party politics that he had witnessed and incredibly alienated by the need to state his political affiliation. In the end the victory was hollow anyway – the SP effectively removed their participation leaving ARC as just the WSM and a few individuals, which was not enough to keep it going. It soon withered and died.


In any case, this incident demonstrated to me how ineffective the WSM’s approach to dealing with such manoeuvres. The principled strategy espoused by the WSM was to always declare their party identity before speaking and, whenever possible, bringing party machinations to the attention of the meeting. However, in practice, it all looks like unpleasant petty party political bickering to the inexperienced, and everybody involved looks bad, but the exposer looks worst of all for starting it. Furthermore, some organisations had developed very effective counter-measures to such exposure. For example, although their membership waxed and waned, the SWP always had the largest number of members who could be mobilised to attend campaign meetings in the city centre and they used this fact frequently to assert their control and frustrate their rivals in campaigns and fronts. One favoured technique was to position their members in different places around the audience and have them comment from the floor, one after the other, each echoing the opinion of the former, each representing themselves as some variety of “ordinary worker” who was speaking on behalf of their friends and neighbours in whatever suburb they came from (who were normally demanding a protest march on the issue). On the few occasions when I saw somebody attempt to point out to the meeting that all of the speakers were in fact members of the SWP acting in concert, whatever senior SWP members were present would immediately launch into an impassioned denunciation of red-baiting and McCarthyism, backed up by supportive howls of outrage from all of the “ordinary workers” present. This defence almost always proved effective.

I should say that these types of manoeuvres are not at all confined to the left – they are common wherever people act collectively. I have a management book with a chapter devoted to using such tactics to manipulate a company board and I recently attended a meeting given by the head of Science Foundation Ireland, in which he skilfully deployed a sequence of orchestrated interventions from representatives of state agencies in order to defuse a rebellion against his policy by a room full of senior scientists. However, the intensely competitive nature of the left, with several groups deploying different strategies against one another, and the focus on recruiting the freshly politicised, which reduces the risk that practising deception might damage future recruitment prospects, makes left wing politics particularly rich in experimental group psychology.

Still, the educational value of the various experiments was significantly dulled by the sanctimonious defences that were always put forward to motivate and defend competitive moves. Huge volumes of rhetoric were regularly produced, replete with elaborate diversion, obfuscation, exaggeration and confusion, to demonstrate why my organisation’s actions were, in fact, the most selfless cooperation in support of the working class, while our critics were merely carping due to their sectarian competitive nature. Everybody seemed to have absurd double standards, where they genuinely believed that their own organisation’s motives were always pure and cooperative, while also immediately assuming competitive motives on the part of their rivals. Intelligent people would happily insult your intelligence when it came to describing the noble motivations of their organisation and otherwise principled people would brazenly lie to your face and denounce your motivations in public. In any case, it produced an atmosphere that was toxic to constructive collaboration. I do not miss it.

Public Demonstrations

image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garycolet

The competition between organisations reaches its zenith and nadir at public demonstrations. These can constitute unusually large concentrations of freshly-politicised potential recruits and thus rival far left organisations compete vigorously to make an impression on this audience with a very broad range of tactics – from handing out branded placards to increase their presence, to mass paper-sales, eye-catching banners, witty placards, coordinated clothing, branded posters lining the route and so on. Everything is contested. Scuffles sometimes break out in determining the relative position of each organisation’s section of the march. In the 1990s, when demonstrations often ended in the Central Bank Plaza, there was a particular railing behind the speaker’s podium which was suitable for hanging banners and often appeared in media photos of protests – as demonstrations approached the end, rival groups would sometimes break off and race to claim this coveted spot for their party’s banner.

The sad thing about such micro-competitions is that they probably matter. A photograph in a national newspaper, branded with the party banner, could easily lead to several new recruits for your party rather than the opposition. Inexperienced, newly-politicised people may simply contact whichever likely-looking organisation they see in the paper, and there will be some such people amongst the large audience of a national newspaper. And a few extra members could be the difference between death and dominance. Particularly in a period when the overall supply of potential recruits has been in decline for a long-time a failure to compete effectively for potential recruits quickly leads to decline and death.

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