SWP: Hype and delusions
Peter Manson reviews Internal Bulletin No2
The second of this year’s Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletinsis, I am afraid to say, just as bereft of serious debate as the first. These documents, known as Internal Bulletins (IBs), provide the only opportunity for SWP individuals orgroups of comrades to present their views to the entire membership, but only a tiny proportion of them avail themselves of that opportunity.
IB No2 (October), one of the three bulletins to be published before the December 12-14 annual conference, contains 32 pages.1 But no fewer than 15 of them are taken up by the central committee’s own perspectives and exhortations, while a further seven pages carry organisational or presentational details. That leaves just 10 pages for the 12 contributions that have not been submitted by the CC. But even amongst these, seven are totally in line with CC thinking - telling us, for example, how wonderfully well Aberdeen branch or the Socialist Worker Student Society is doing.
The handful of comrades who consider they have anything worthwhile to say contrasts sharply with the official membership figure - an absurdly exaggerated 5,868. Admittedly, “This is down from 7,180 last year,” concedes the CC - partly because “some people left the party in the early part of the 2014” and partly as a result of the “thoroughgoing re-registration of party membership”, which was carried out at the beginning of 2014. As a result of this re-registration, the CC declared in IB No1, “We have taken over 1,000 names off our database”, so “We now have a much more accurate picture of the party membership, and we hope branches will now have confidence in their membership lists.”2
This re-registration exercise had been forced on a reluctant leadership by the constant complaints from local organisers (not to mention exposure in the Weekly Worker) that the majority of so-called “registered members” were actually ex-members or mere contacts - they may once have signed a membership application form, but they never actually attend SWP events or support SWP actions.
Of course, the CC could not be expected to come completely clean and so it continues to inflate the figure of actual members by a factor of four of five. This is illustrated by the admission last year that, of the claimed 7,180 members in 2013, only 2,147 - fractionally under 30% - paid regular dues. But even amongst these comrades there are hundreds who are really more like supporters - yes, they make a small, regular donation, but that is all.
This year the central committee does not reveal the proportion who pay dues, but it does state in a document headed ‘Building the party’: “Overall about 36% of our members are on direct debit.” Does this mean 36% of the claimed 5,868 (which would translate into a little over 2,000), or 36% of the real membership? It is impossible to say, since, although the CC refers the reader to the “full figures at the end of the document”, unfortunately such figures are nowhere to be seen.
However, despite the concession that the partial purge of the “registered membership” lists represents, the SWP practice of constantly replenishing those lists with yet more phantom “members” continues unabated. So we read that up to the end of September no fewer than 569 new recruits had joined since the beginning of 2014: “We are hopeful that, if last year is a guide, we should reach about 800 recruits” by the end of the year. A bit down on the average of 1,000 “recruits” who had allegedly joined the SWP in each of the last five years then, most of whom have, of course, disappeared into the ether. Once again, it has to be stressed that overwhelmingly these are people who have merely expressed an interest in the SWP by filling in a form.
‘Building the party’ also demonstrates this reality when it talks about the organisation of branch meetings. It starts by referring to the recent “period of deep internal division”. Fortunately, “We are recovering, but not every branch has expanded or feels that it is seeing more involvement by members.” What it means by that is, in particular, “more involvement” by the people who have filled in a form, but who have never been seen again since. And the CC thinks the way to get them to come along to branch meetings is to dumb down even further the level of political discussion.
It exhorts local organisers to “imagine you are coming to one of our meetings for the first time” and shape the agenda accordingly. So, while the first half of each branch meeting should deal “in a relevant way with the major political issues of the day”, the speaker should keep it simple: “Sometimes we need to use Marxist terms that are not in common use or are distorted. We should explain them wherever possible.”
And, just as importantly:
We also have to guard against comrades speaking for a very long time and making several points. It’s better normally to make one point well and, if there’s time, to return for a second contribution later in the meeting. It’s a bit intimidating if the norm seems to be five-minute contributions steeped in our tradition and experience of the last 30 years of class struggle.
Yes, you read it correctly: five minutes is a “very long time” for contributions from the floor, even in a branch meeting of five or six people.
But, just in case even this dumbed-down discussion is too much for the new “members”, the second half of the meeting, dealing with organisation and important forthcoming events, should consist of “a maximum of three items”. The poor things can’t cope with too much politics.
The CC document entitled ‘The potential for a fight’ urges comrades not to be downhearted by the “low level of struggle”, epitomised by the comparatively small number of days lost through strike action. Similarly, “There are half as many workers in trade unions as at the high point in the 1970s” and also “fewer workplace reps than 30 years ago”. Nevertheless, “it is possible to organise and win in even the most difficult and badly organised areas of an economy. It’s the political will to organise that’s needed.”
And that is where the SWP comes in. For instance, “The crucial issue is the role of the trade union bureaucracy, its relationship with Labour and its willingness to lead a fight.” However, “simply waiting to denounce the next ‘sell-out’ is missing opportunities. Creating a more confident rank and file is the only way to stop retreats at the top.”
And how do we do that? Well, Unite the Resistance is “central to our perspective” in this context: UTR is “not an optional extra” that only some comrades work to build. In the CC’s opinion, the November 15 UTR conference “couldn’t be better timed [despite clashing with the conference organised by Left Unity, for example] and it has a great line-up”. So has your branch been mobilising for it, asks the CC - have you approached local activists and tried to win trade union backing? “If we haven’t done these things in your town or city, we’re abstaining from any attempt to offer a strategy to workers; we’re abstaining from the debate.”
What? Failing to try and get people along to one small ‘conference’ is the equivalent of “abstaining”? Presumably everyone else apart from the SWP is abstaining then. Does the CC really think that its UTR ‘united front’ is so influential that the “strategy” it offers workers will have such an impact? Of course not. It is more a question of persuading the members that by mobilising for UTR (and possibly winning more of those “recruits” in the process) they are doing something highly significant.
At times the CC in its various documents appears to be heading in the right direction, when it talks about “the question of political representation” and the need for a “more united left”. But it actually restricts its brief comments to, firstly, the talk of some union leaders about a break from Labour and, secondly, the need for electoral unity around a leftwing alternative.
In its document, ‘Socialists and the 2015 elections’, the CC asks:
Does any comrade think it would be adequate to just say to those around us, even through gritted teeth, ‘Vote Labour without illusions’? Doing work around Stand Up To Ukip will be an important part of our intervention during the lead-up to the general election, but only raising anti-Ukip arguments is not enough. Elections still remain moments when a much bigger layer of working class people than normal discuss politics and we cannot afford to simply ignore the mood for better political representation than Labour offers.
I will come back to Stand Up To Ukip in a moment, but at this point let me just note the absurd implication of SWP claims about Sutu.3 As if this pathetic campaign, totally dominated by the SWP, could possibly make any discernible difference to the general election result across the country. For the moment, however, let me talk about the SWP’s thoughts about the potential for “better political representation than Labour offers”.
Incredibly the petty-bourgeois Green Party is discussed in this context. The CC remarks: “… the Greens’ record in Brighton council, where they have pushed through cuts, and lack of presence inside the organised working class raises questions about how far they can provide a real answer to the crisis of working class political representation”. How far?!
But there is another party which is also discussed in this way. In ‘Building the party’, the CC pontificates in connection with the Scottish referendum campaign: “It is not wild exaggeration to say there was whiff of Tahrir Square in the eve-of-poll rally in Glasgow. Now tens of thousands of people have flowed into the Scottish National Party and a variety of social democratic or more radical and socialist formations.”
Leaving aside the amusing comparison with Tahrir Square, it is important to note the reference to the SNP as part of a positive mood - unlike “In England and Wales”, where “a significant part of the fury at the establishment has been grabbed by Ukip”. We really should not have to point out to the SWP comrades that both Ukip and the SNP are nationalist formations. While one is clearly more reactionary than the other, both represent diversions from the struggle for a working class alternative.
But, according to the leadership,
… the mood that exists in Scotland is not essentially different to the one in the rest of Britain … This raises sharply the need for the left outside the Labour Party to get its act together - north and south of the border. As identification with Labour weakens, it is essential that we argue clearly for a more united left.
As I have pointed out, the SWP believes that the left should be “more united” only in relation to election contests. Therefore, the CC has proposed that “around 15 SWP members” should be adopted as general election candidates for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in May 2015. It states: “Standing for Tusc involves agreeing to a list of good, basic socialist demands” - although it has to be said that none of the examples listed, while entirely supportable, are specifically socialist. They include, by the way, “repeal the 2014 Immigration Act and all racist immigration controls” (my emphasis).
Which brings me back to Ukip. In its ‘Fighting Ukip’ document the CC declares that Nigel Farage’s party “profits from the racism whipped up by the Tories and, shamefully, followed by Labour’s leaders. It then pushes that racism further”. This “racism” apparently consists of the scapegoating of migrants as an essential component of the mainstream consensus against large-scale and unvetted immigration. Why then, if immigration controls are in and of themselves racist, does the SWP call for the abolition only of “racist immigration controls”? Is there another type after all? Or is the SWP ‘moderating’ its traditional opposition to all border controls in deference to its Tusc partners, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the RMT union?
Secondly, if that “racism” is “whipped up” by the Tories in the first place and is also “followed” by Labour, why single out Ukip for a special ‘anti-racist’ campaign merely because it is going “further”?
Anyway, the CC goes out of its way to avoid building up high expectations about the results of its 2015 electoral intervention:
There will be a real pressure to vote Labour to get rid of the Tories, which despite its sharp rightward shift remains a different kind of party to the Tories, particularly due to the continuing link to the trade unions. Labour will still attract a ‘class vote’, even if this is weaker than in the past.
As a result, we don’t expect to receive stunning results for our candidates in the general election next year, but want to be part of rallying opposition to austerity, racism and war and laying the basis for a bigger, more united, left challenge in the future.
What is missing from all this is the central need for a united Marxist party. What is the point of electoral unity if the SWP has no intention of trying to take it in that direction? What is the logic of left groups getting together at election time and then going their own separate ways during the rest of the year?
But, of course, there is no need for any new regroupment process, for the SWP is itself the proto-party. And, despite the debilitating crisis that followed the ‘comrade Delta’ affair and subsequent split, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the SWP version of ‘democratic centralism’.
That is basically the line of the CC in its ‘Response to the remitted motion’. This refers to a motion from Sussex district, proposing tinkering changes to the way the SWP organises, which was discussed at last year’s conference and referred back to the CC for further consideration.
Typical is the CC attitude to the 50-strong national committee, which, according to the SWP constitution, should meet “at least six times a year”. The constitution states:
The national committee assists the central committee in providing political leadership for the party and reviews the party’s political and organisational work between conferences. Its decisions are binding on the central committee.4
The reality is rather different. The agenda at every meeting of the NC is set by the CC, not by NC members, who in practice never seem to propose any alternative policy or take any initiative independent of the CC.
So Sussex proposed last year that: “In addition to motions from national committee members, local bodies of the party (branches and district aggregates) are entitled to send resolutions to the national committee on matters of national concern, which the national secretary will place on its agenda.”
While it seems obvious to me that NC members should decide their own agenda and discuss proposals from committee members, rather than act as a rubber stamp for the CC, the idea that branches, which are not represented on the NC, should determine the committee’s agenda is totally topsy-turvy. The CC’s response is: “Branches should be able to send in motions on matters of national importance. The NC should then decide by majority vote if it wishes to hear these motions or not.”
Fair enough, I suppose. But the CC goes on: “The NC should not be based on discussing motions, and we hope that branches will not become absorbed in discussing motions to the NC.” So, while it might be all right for branches to suggest a proposal for the NC to discuss once in a while, the NC itself “should not be based on discussing motions”: ie, it should for the most part stick to the agenda drawn up for it by the CC.
A further Sussex proposal was:
It is the responsibility of the national secretary to place on the agenda of the national committee all major issues on which the central committee has moved to a vote (excluding issues of special confidentiality). The national secretary will provide to the NC a report of CC meetings since the last NC.
Surely it ought to be uncontroversial for a body whose “decisions are binding on the central committee” to be informed of the discussions that have taken place on that central committee? How else can the CC be held to account in its running of the organisation, if its deliberations are not available to representatives of the broader membership? But no. The CC responds:
We are against the decisions or votes on the CC being automatically presented to the NC. A full discussion of the CC’s proceedings would take up a lot of an NC meeting. And reporting every vote might make CC members less likely to call one. We agree with the present position that serious disagreement on the CC should be reported to the NC.
The bulletin ends with two short contributions that do not toe the CC line. First “Marcus (Camden and Westminster)” - only first names are given in the IBs - has a piece entitled ‘No to a word limit in bulletins’ (members are now allowed to sign their name to submissions with a maximum total of 4,000 words in IB No1 and 3,000 words in the two subsequent bulletins).
Marcus concedes: “OK, some people waffle. Well, shouldn’t we train them not to waffle?” He adds: “If their articles don’t get read because they are not written well, so be it. Word limits will not change this: revolutionary training will.” More to the point, perhaps, would be the conscious structuring of debate, whereby the discussion and development of policy independent of the leadership is actually encouraged, and representatives of all the main currents and trends are encouraged to put forward their views. Yes, individuals must have the right to openly air those views, many of which will be valuable, but the SWP’s ban on permanent factions actually inhibits the ability of the organisation to debate in a structured, positive way.
The second contribution is from “Andy W”, who is described as a “national member” and who also had a piece in IB No1. This time, he concentrates on the SWP’s undemocratic disputes and disciplinary procedure, of which he is a victim. While Andy does not give any details of the allegations levelled against him, he does provide an insight into the way dissenters are treated:
In the SWP, members are not suspended, but are made ‘national members’ (which has the same effect, as they are banned from attending all SWP meetings except for Marxism). Certainly the current chair of the disputes committee has argued that being made a national member may not be disciplinary action, but a reasonable way out of a difficult situation.
He goes on:
There is no requirement for members facing disciplinary action to be presented with a ‘written statement of the case against them’. It is not really possible to defend yourself against unknown allegations. The details should clearly spell out what the comrade is alleged to have done wrong …
Generalisations, such as being unhelpful or disruptive, are not allegations which can be proved or disproved …
No disciplinary action should be taken unless a proper investigation has been undertaken and the comrade is give a proper opportunity to state their case, answer the allegations and provide suitable evidence to back up their case.
All of this, once again, ought to be totally uncontroversial. But not in the SWP, where the decisions of the CC cannot be seriously called into question.
For example, Andy alleges that the disputes committee - the body to which matters of a disciplinary nature are sometimes referred - may refuse to hear an appeal against disciplinary action: “… a formal appeal hearing may not be allowed if the disputes committee considers, for example, that the central committee went through the correct process in coming to its decision”.
Finally, let me end with an example of where the unquestioning attitude promoted by the CC leads. In line with the leadership’s hype about the potency of the SWP’s ‘united fronts’ is the contribution from “Paul (Barrow)”. In particular Paul is ecstatic about the achievements of Unite Against Fascism for the “massively significant result” in this year’s European elections, which he describes as “an inspiration to anti-fascists across Europe”. What is he talking about? Didn’t you know that, “while most European countries saw breakthroughs by fascist organisations in May’s Euro elections, in Britain we kicked the fascists out of the mainstream”?
Yes, former British National Party leader Nick Griffin lost his seat in the North West constituency - and it was all down to the likes of comrade Paul. After all, “Griffin’s defeat was not inevitable - he only needed seven percent of the vote to keep his seat”. So it was obviously “the result of UAF’s ‘Nick Griffin Must Go’ campaign”. What? It was UAF alone that succeeded in preventing Griffin’s re-election to the European parliament? Absolutely it was.
Yet “Some people struggled with this whole notion - usually people from outside the North West with no knowledge of the situation - arguing that the BNP were already finished and that the Nazis would never keep the seat. This was a wrong position.” Absolutely wrong. After all, “it was clear from the European elections in the North West that there is a hardened racist vote, which is sticking with the BNP and not going to Ukip”. In fact Griffin’s vote was reduced from 8% in 2009 to just 1.9% who ‘stuck with’ it in 2014. Anyway, thank god for UAF and all its consistent campaigning.
Wagging his finger, Paul chides the doubters: “We should be celebrating our victories. Nick Griffin’s subsequent resignation as BNP leader, and then expulsion from the fascist party, was not a result of implosion.” Or, he might have added, of Griffin’s infamous appearance on Question time in 2009. “It was caused by UAF’s ‘Nick Griffin Must Go’ campaign.” Well done, UAF!
Well, I suppose comrade Paul is an extreme example, but he does demonstrate what SWP methodology can produce. When ‘the party’ trains you to believe that there will be huge opportunities ahead if only the members comply with the leadership’s exhortations to rally to the latest ‘key campaign’, then such delusions are the logical consequence.
1. IB No2 is available on the CPGB website: www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/swpinternalbulletins/PreConf_Bulletin_ii_Oct_2014.pdf