SWP: Sign of the times

What’s wrong with ‘paraphernalia’, asks Tom Munday

As the Socialist Workers Party ratchets up its preparations for this year’s Marxism festival in July, it is still having to take the knocks. On university campuses the last month has seen the SWP treated to the proverbial double-whammy - most notably in the forthright refusal of the University of London Union to rent out facilities for Marxism, but also in the decision of the University of Sussex campaign, Sussex Against Privatisation, to request that SWP “paraphernalia” and “memorabilia” not be brought to its events.

Now, to be clear, the former very much eclipses the latter in terms of severity; for example, this type of tough-talking response is not afforded to organisations such as Lord Rennard’s Lib Dems (now there’s a scandal which seems to have gone suspiciously quiet), or spokespersons from the post-yewtree BBC, or the NHS, whose failings at the Whitechapel Havens rape centre led to the destruction/contamination of the forensic evidence given by victims, and which late last year was found to have consequently been party to a massive cover-up.1 Nor does it appear that, the federal structure of the University of London being what it is, the decision will necessarily have much weight in any of the signatories’ respective college unions, outside of the weird anomaly that is ULU. I do not think it is too much to conclude that Marxism 2014 will definitely happen, and will definitely happen in London.

This all said, the ULU ban, severe though it is, seems to be a fairly straightforward case of targeted proscription; a basic prohibition informed by a questionable analysis of the undesirability of a particular organisation. Perhaps contrary to my spasm of whataboutery above, I cannot summon the energy to feel particularly aggrieved about the situation, except in respect to the increasingly ban-happy attitude that such a precedent invites. It seems to me that it is well within the rights (not to mention nature) of any large public institution to refuse a platform to an organisation that, for whatever reason, it finds abhorrent. Foolish perhaps, but certainly its right: just as it is within the banned organisation’s rights to protest with as much spittle-flecked invective as it sees fit.

So the SWP is tabooed and forced from the limelight of legitimacy? Fine; it will simply continue to operate in shadowy illegitimacy. And who knows? It might even find itself bolstered by reprioritising to accommodate its freshly stunted reach: maybe taking a political sabbatical to properly analyse the class conflict and formulate a long-sighted programme, rather than just parachuting its grunts into every local library closure demonstration.

In fact, in terms of precedent-setting, the storm in the Sussex teacup may well be more interesting than the frothy-mouthed ULU frenzy. The outright ban is an old foe, but the ‘symbol prohibition’ is of a distinctly neoliberal vintage. Welcome to the bland, bland world of decaff politics: it tastes like the real thing (allegedly), but is really just hot, brown water. ‘Believe what you want to believe, so long as you don’t offend anyone or attempt to get them believe what you believe! Don’t bring anything that will identify you as who you are!’ Heaven forbid, comrades!

Now, I do not imagine that anything particularly sinister is actually at work here. Sure, some groups would/will/do jump at the chance to slay the SWP beast, but I suspect that Sussex Against Privatisation’s decision was an eminently pragmatic one. Contrary to the vindication that some felt in setting fire to copies of Socialist Worker a few months ago, I have a sneaking hunch that, for the vast majority, inter-left fisticuffs and competitive stall tipping make for poor spectator sport. There are, I would argue, better ways of making a demonstration feel like a ‘safe space’ for ‘survivors’ and everyone else than participating in a spot of light street brawling. The campaign, not thrilled at the prospect of a rematch, decided to ‘disappear’ the weaker combatant, gagging and burying them within the background throng. Out of sight, out of mind, it seems.

The official line - that the disgraced party has through that disgrace abandoned its right to affiliate (at least visibly) - is well-trod enough to serve as a plausible description of the campaign’s conscious logic. However, under a bit more scrutiny it all starts to look a little wobbly. The SWP’s banners are ‘triggering’, but its physical presence - its boots-on-the-ground, ‘rape-apologising’ membership - is not? Surely these will be known people and faces? Lord knows, the SWP as a whole spends enough time elsewhere trying to elbow its way into photos for various other campaigns’ Facebook pages.

Once again, I am not suggesting an ulterior motive. This is a clear-cut case of trying to have your cake and eat it. ‘We know that an outright ban will be controversial (see ULU), but so will inaction,’ churns the Sussex Anti-Privatisation hivemind. What it has opted for appears to be the most diluted type of proscription: a thin, watery gruel of politely asking people not to be a nuisance, as opposed to wearing your colours on your sleeve and slamming them for their wrongdoings. The benefit of this is, of course, that at no point do you have to explain your objections beyond a few shiny buzzwords. Even better: all can be forgiven in the future! Don’t worry, comrades, the decision isn’t permanent. It’s more of a three-match ban - we’ll have you back on the touchline and head-butting players before you know it! Naturally, this ‘of the moment’ prohibition can handily be rescinded when you next need the SWP to bulk out the numbers at an anti-racism rally. Even now, SWPers will presumably still be there on campaign demonstrations to lend their weight (and, as far a left groups go, it is one of the weightier ones) like so much leftwing filler.

But it is the language of the statement against the SWP that is particularly noteworthy and, I reckon, indicative of the underlying logic at work.2 The use of the terms “paraphernalia” and “memorabilia” particularly caught my eye. Paraphernalia and memorabilia are for fanatics and political fetishists, not for sane, normal people.

The UK state’s handling of the British National Party, and more recently the English Defence League, is a case in point: it corrals rather than bans; the scapegoating of immigrants is useful to distract from the free-for-all at the top, but it does not want to provoke a disruptive, ‘proper’ fascist response. Organisations that might otherwise blossom into real jack-booted nasties are thus suspended in a pseudo-fascist limbo, allowed space to vent and drone on about ‘White rights’ and ‘Muslamic rape gangs’, but they are bureaucratically engineered into accepting non-white membership (I wonder how the recruitment drive is going?) and wearing Topman suits. Hateful speech is protected as free speech so long as it never lapses into ‘hate speech’ or ‘incitement to racial hatred’, which are different ... somehow. Accordingly, everything in the state’s power is done to keep them present, but peripheral, leading to a situation where, turn on a television at the right time, you are bound to find a Tommy Robinson being mocked by a Paxman.

And then let us look at those groups’ iconographies! Most lefties might get squeamish in the presence of the union flag or the cross of St George, but these banners flutter from town halls (and the occasional house) the length and breadth of the country. Is there much appreciable difference between the BNP’s union heart and the Tories’ new-look union tree? For both plausible deniability is crucial. I once had an unlovely neighbour in Tower Hamlets who would hoist a bumper-size cross of St George whenever he heard the local mosque’s call to prayer: “Just proud to be English”. The message was clear.

Give the right a swastika and the story would change. Ask Greece or, more disastrously, Ukraine. So you proscribe against the unreformable, the Combat 18s, and you cautiously foster the manipulable, the BNPs, until the whole fringe is singing from your hymn sheet. They wear footballer’s suits, they bother to insist that they’re ‘not racist, but [insert racism here]’. Allowing them to organise around their own symbols and penchant for black, grey or brown is tantamount to letting them off of the leash. Nobody wants that: a tragic waste of counterrevolutionary cannon fodder. A fragile alliance holds; the attack-dogs stay muzzled.

Now, I am well aware that I appear to have full-on ploughed into Godwin’s law with nary a care in the world. I can assure you that it is absolutely not my intention to smear the well-meaning folks at Sussex Against Privatisation as some kind of draconian, fascist-loving bunch of watered-down neoliberal scumbags. Not at all. I certainly support their work and, to an extent, sympathise with the conundrum posed by the SWP turning up and stinking out all its events. Nor do I mean to suggest that what I would really like is the BNP and EDL to be allowed to cavort around, bricking mosques, garbling foreign words and running ironic tanning salons completely unimpeded.

The point is one of principle. The state mishandles the far right because it is cynical and they are useful. A small-scale campaign such as this mishandles the undesirable element because it has been inculcated into a bourgeois orthodoxy which views this as the most agreeable compromise. The fundamental problem is that it fails to recognise that the tools of the class enemy are specifically tailored to its class interests. It is in the interest of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie alone to silence debate and de-fang the uppity plebs, to sit them at the kiddies’ table - where they get their own culture, symbols and “paraphernalia” - whilst the grown-ups get down to the business of ‘running the country’.

Complain as I might about the ULU ban, there is a line drawn in the sand: here is where ULU is politically. It is, as the statement makes very clear, a ‘no bullshit’ approach (or bullshit of a different type, in any case). There is no illusion of compromise and, at the very least, it allows those of us who disagree with the decision (almost as much as we dislike the SWP) to hopefully thrash out the argument in an open forum. Whether we would make a dent in their egos is another matter; we know where we stand and I think we theoretically retain the right of reply. The Sussex campaign, by contrast, goes for the ‘I hope we can still be friends’ option; rejection, but with just enough compromise to leave you lingering around like a spurned lover.

It is no surprise that the first casualty here is theory and analysis - or thinking, as those not in the know tend to call it. ‘You can’t debate with rape’ is the rote response I am expecting. This is true, of course, but it does not for a second bring us any closer to understanding what went so spectacularly wrong within the SWP that it provoked the terrible sequence of events we are presently witnessing. It seems irrefutable to me that the SWP’s crisis was a product of its tangled mess of politics and operations; of a lofty and unaccountable elite completely disconnected from its cobbled together grassroots membership. Why for a second did anyone on the leadership think that meagre material conditions alone could handle such a grave and serious situation? In any case, ‘SWP=misogynists’ is a limp answer. Taking a page out of the Daily Mail’s school of explanation, the loudest critics are very loudly reading the symptoms as the cause.

For the left this should never be good enough. Why is Ukip surging towards the ‘fourth party’ position in politics? ‘Because they are racist meanies’ is a politically illiterate answer, which completely absconds from the left’s historic responsibility to engage the working class. Worse still, it drives yet more hard-up folk into their arms: ‘Of course you would say that. you middle class, liberal, elitist knob!’ Politics is hard, comrades; answers are hard. Your hyperbolic gut-responses do not change that.

In any case, bans on “paraphernalia” can only exacerbate these type of problems in the long run. Sure, putting the kibosh on the swastika might disrupt the self-identification of a neo-Nazi group, but it leaves the group itself intact; it cannot address the underlying reason for its existence. Is the BNP any more palatable after its ‘shirts, not skins’ conversion? Is the SWP less likely to consist of ‘rape apologists’ because its comrades are stopped from carrying felt-tipped cardboard signs attached to a two-by-four and their woolly, ‘right on’ paper. Whether their presence is more or less felt (‘triggering’ or not) by individuals is absolutely besides the point: either way, there still exists a substantial body of people who believe that the SWP does good politics, and that is not going to be changed by ‘smashing’ or ‘burning’ its comrades or politely requesting that they be quiet and not let anyone know what they really think.

This is what needs to be addressed and this can only be done through debate. OK, ‘Debate away the SWP’ is a rubbish slogan, but it is good practice; whittle down its numbers; speak to the embattled rank and file. But please don’t ban its “paraphernalia”, please don’t capitulate to the decrepit tactics of the neoliberal bourgeoisie. Otherwise - who knows - it really might become “memorabilia”: a distant future where an Alabamian hermit gets to lovingly showcase his collection of Callinicos key-chains to a bemused pop-journalist and his BBC crew.

And nobody wants that.


1. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-nhs-covered-up-scandal-at-whitechapel-havenfor-rape-victims-9026312.html.

2. http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/public-statement-regarding-the-decision-to-ask-the-socialist-workers-party-to-stop-bringing-their-paraphernalia-to-demonstrations.