We live in hope

Peter Manson reviews the SWP’s second Pre-Conference Bulletin and finds it wanting

Megaphone message - but precious little to say

“People are far more likely to remain members of the SWP if they feel the organisation, and they themselves, are playing an active role in transforming the world ...” So says the Socialist Workers Party’s central committee in the November Pre-Conference Bulletin, which was distributed to members last week.

It is difficult to know how to respond to such a statement. I suppose you could say that the efforts of the hundreds of leftwing sects all over the planet, in their totality, might retrospectively be judged to have contributed to the struggle for global emancipation, and in this marginal sense they are “playing an active role in transforming the world”.

But, of course, the SWP leadership is not quite so modest. It believes that its small forces already constitute “the party” in Britain. Sure, it aims for a much larger membership than the 5,936 claimed in this PCB, but it does not believe for a second that any forces other than itself will play a leading role in building the mass party required.

So how well is it progressing? Well, that membership figure is “very slightly up from last year”, so things are coming along. The CC states in a contribution entitled ‘Can the SWP build and grow in the era of Corbynism?’ that, “So far this year 435 people have joined the SWP, of whom 404 have remained members ...”

So what happened to the other 31? Surely they can’t all have resigned so quickly? In fact, that statement helps throw light on what the CC means by “members”. They are people who have filled in one of the application forms SWP cadre are encouraged to hand out to any activists or campaigners they come across. I suspect that the 31 are largely made up either of people who could not be contacted or of those who do not actually consider themselves to be members.

And that, in turn, gives you an idea of the numbers of those who make up what a Leninist organisation would consider the genuine membership - comrades who not only pay a subscription, but regularly engage in activity under its discipline. Well, the CC says that, of those 5,936 ‘members’, “Just over 2,000 … pay a regular subscription”. So, taking into account the likelihood that a good number of those are actually just supporting donors, the real figure for genuine, active members probably stands at less than a thousand.

The SWP’s actual recruitment process results in a kind of ‘revolving door’ - an extremely high turnover of ‘members’ - and this leads the leadership to state: “Even recruiting 12 or 13 means that your district is at very best standing still, but in reality is going backwards.”

As in the first PCB (October), the CC makes clear in its five separate contributions that the two priorities in SWP work in the present period are, firstly, linking up with and recruiting from the Corbyn milieu; and, secondly, prioritising its latest ‘united front’, Stand Up To Racism. As the CC states, “It’s central to our work to help build a genuinely mass anti-racist movement today.” So, even in its document entitled ‘Politics in the workplace and building fighting unions’, the CC emphasises that “Politics, and especially anti-racism, is central to the process of rebuilding our unions and renewing the network of union activists ...” (my emphasis).

However, as we have consistently pointed out, what the SWP means by ‘racism’ is in reality national chauvinism, particularly in relation to immigration. So in a third contribution, ‘Arguments about confronting racism’, the CC declares that the EU referendum campaign “was marked by racist scapegoating by both the official ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ campaigns”. “Racist scapegoating”? No, it was marked by a competition to see which of the two sides could be portrayed as the most reliable when it came to applying stringent controls on migration into the UK.

The ruling class narrative has it that Britain is a ‘small island’ and we just cannot cope with ‘unlimited numbers’ of outsiders coming to live here. Of course, even the UK Independence Party acknowledges that some immigration is useful to British capital, but it does not propose vetting would-be migrants on the basis of their nationality, let alone their ‘race’.

In fact central to that narrative is the idea that we Britons - white or black, capitalist or worker - have a common interest, as opposed to those of outsiders. In other words, nationalism, which today defines itself in terms of official anti-racism. But not for the SWP, for whom dogma is central. So the CC states: “The decline in support and funding for multicultural and anti-racist activities and projects highlights two critically important points, which we have always argued: namely that racism cannot simply be reformed away; and those reforms that have been won can be lost in times of austerity.”

After all, “racism emanated from the top of society in order to serve the needs and interests of the ruling class” and “it persists in order to serve the interests of a class that needs to divide working class people in order to maintain their power and has therefore evolved, as capitalism has changed and developed.” Yes, it has evolved - into official anti-racism, as everyone but the willingly blind can see. And that is why SUTR is so popular - everyone is anti-racist today, aren’t they?

Criticism

The CC document mentioned above - ‘Politics in the workplace and building fighting unions’ - also illustrates what support for Jeremy Corbyn means for the SWP. The CC writes:

Despite important differences between sections of the union leaderships, it’s important to recognise that not even the best of them are in any serious way building towards mass, coordinated strikes. The priority is instead to build the left in the Labour Party, organise the numbers drawn around Corbyn, and strengthen a side within Labour.

So, for the SWP, political questions such as ‘strengthening a side within Labour’ are of little relevance - certainly compared to the industrial struggle.

In this context, by the way, I should mention the only contribution in PCB No2 that is directly critical of the leadership. “Dave (Stoke)” - only the first names of individual contributors are given - complains in ‘The narrative on national strikes’ that “Our coverage of the ending or calling off of national strikes is usually denunciatory, reluctant to see any positives.”

However, he continues, “Most industrial disputes end in a messy compromise; there are few clear-cut victories and, fortunately, few total defeats ...” He specifies the University and College Union dispute in 2014, when Socialist Worker criticised the UCU for “de-escalating the campaign” by calling three two-hour strikes rather than the previous one-day walkouts. “Yet, ironically, these two-hour strikes, called at different times during the day, had more potential for union member involvement than whole-day strikes.”

True, the two percent pay rise eventually gained by the UCU was below the retail price index and followed successive pay cuts. “But it wouldn’t have hurt also to say that, despite all this, 2% clearly broke the 1% going rate in the public sector ... The outcome proved that fighting could break the pay norm, and that other unions should take notice.” In any case, “... when did we start believing that the union leaders could unlock the situation for us?”

I stated that the contribution of “Dave” is the only “directly critical” one, but four comrades - “Gary (Haringey), Harold (Lewisham), Moyra (Brent and Harrow) and Dean (Hackney East)” - imply a failing on the part of the leadership in their joint contribution, headed ‘From Black Lives Matter to socialist revolution’. They claim that SWP interventions in BLM have been characterised by an “inability to break from important branch routines”. They also criticise the black nationalism of a wing of BLM (including some who did not want to work with the SWP “rape apologists”) and inform readers that “Our group is now called the Black Lives Matter Movement, as distinct from BLMUK”.

For his part, “Adam (Harlow)”, in ‘Down with doing as you feel’, complains not about the leadership, but about members who fail to abide by the SWP’s version of democratic centralism. He begins by noting ironically: “Perhaps I have not been paying enough attention to party matters recently. It appears I missed our transformation into a loose, automatist formation”, for “there can be no other explanation for the behaviour of some comrades regarding the EU referendum”.

Even though the SWP came out for Brexit, “some comrades felt that this didn’t apply to them”. In posts on social media and letters to Socialist Worker they were “clearly supporting a vote to remain”. In fact during this year’s Marxism summer school, “A longstanding comrade stood up in Logan Hall and delivered a contribution detailing why he decided to vote to remain in the EU.”

Apart from these two, the 12 contributions from rank-and-file members are entirely uncontroversial. Six of them have headlines like “Building among students in Manchester” or “Student work in Bristol” and describe the brilliant results achieved when local branches act on the leadership’s guidance.

I suppose you can say that PCB No2 is an improvement on No1, in which there was only one submission not from the CC - this time just about half of the 34 pages are taken up by those other than the leadership. And don’t forget, the current three-month pre-conference period is the only time during the year when members are permitted to put forward their ideas before the whole membership.

Maybe PCB No3 will be more interesting - we live in hope!