SWP: Business as usual
Membership is officially down by a thousand. Debate has shrivelled to next to nothing. Peter Manson reviews Internal Bulletin No1
Looking at the first of this year’s Socialist Workers Party Pre-Conference Bulletins, you could be excused for thinking that the crisis that enveloped the SWP over the past two years had not happened. Gone is the raging, passionate debate and sharp divisions and instead we have a return to old-style SWP discussion, where a handful of loyalists tell their comrades how well things go when you toe the ‘party line’.
There are three such discussion documents every year in the run-up to conference, which in 2014 will take place over the weekend of December 12-14. These Internal Bulletins, or IBs, as they are commonly referred to, are “for members of the SWP only” and “should not be distributed or forwarded to others”. They represent the only opportunity for rank-and-file SWPers to put their views before the whole organisation. As national secretary Charlie Kimber sternly warns, “All pre-conference discussion should take place through the IBs, the aggregates and the party’s democratic structures, and not by other means.” So don’t even think about setting up a debating forum or circulating a critical document within the SWP.
However, the leadership felt that last year’s pre-conference discussion had got a little out of hand - the expression of real, heartfelt differences attracted widespread genuine debate and, as a motion to the SWP’s national committee in February noted in dismay, “The three bulletins prior to the December 2013 conference were respectively 91, 104 and 140 pages long.”
Obviously, such consideration of differences interferes with the rank and file’s duty to act unthinkingly: “… comrades often have considerable pressure on their time, through their work, study, trade union and other responsibilities, and their high level of political activity. To expect them to read 335 or so densely-typed A4 pages as a prerequisite for them to fully engage in the debates at conference is an impedimentto our democracy” (my emphasis).
It goes without saying that you do not have to read the lot. The quality and usefulness of the contributions varied enormously and most comrades are able to discriminate between those that are important to read and those that are less useful. But, no, for the CC it is the quantity, not the quality, that matters, and the successful NC motion stipulated that the total word count for articles signed by any one comrade, whether individually or along with others, should be limited to 4,000 in IBNo1 and 3,000 for the two following bulletins in November and December. For its part, however, the CC itself has the right to publish an unlimited number of 4,000-word contributions in every bulletin.
But if you look through IB No1 you cannot help wondering what they were worried about. It contains a mere 28 pages, just under 10 of which are either taken up with organisational details or are blank. Of the remaining 18 pages, almost eight are filled with the CC’s two perspectives documents. That leaves just over 10 pages for contributions from individual members, of which there are just 11.
But things are even worse than that, for no fewer than seven of those 11 individual contributions are from loyalists telling us how well things are going in their area. So we have pieces like ‘Building an interventionist political leadership in the Manchester district’, ‘Connected - branch building in Portsmouth’ and ‘Selling the paper, building the party’. Just like the old days!
Things are moving!
And it is just like the old days in more ways than one. In order to persuade the rank and file that it is time to ‘get active’ rather than wasting their time thinking, the leadership has traditionally pointed to the special, exciting circumstances in which we now find ourselves - circumstances that provide untold opportunities for revolutionaries.
This year is no different, for the CC’s main ‘General perspective’ document is subtitled, ‘a world in turmoil’. In fact, “This summer it frequently seemed like a world in flames,” the leadership informs SWPers - Gaza, Syria/Iraq and the riots in St Louis are mentioned to illustrate the allegedly unique possibilities that are opening up.
And in Britain too “we have witnessed two movements spill onto the streets and draw in tens of thousands of new activists. During the Israeli assault on Gaza the movement in solidarity with Palestine reached new heights. Then in Scotland we saw the ruling class rocked, as the independence campaign fused with the bitterness in the working class towards austerity, privatisation, inequality and imperialist war. It became a great social movement …”
So there was one large Gaza demonstration (and several much smaller ones) and this helped produce “tens of thousands of new activists”? And the nationalist-led ‘yes’ campaign “became a great social movement”? It is true that “a considerable section of the Scottish working class no longer believes that the British state works for them and instead looked to create a different state as a way of addressing class questions”. However, is it the job of revolutionary socialists to encourage such sectional, diversionary thinking? The CC clearly thinks so: “There is clearly a huge opportunity in Scotland to forge a new left on the basis of the red and radical strand in the referendum campaign,” it contends. Only if you are pro-nationalist then.
However, Scotland is not alone: “there there are also new opportunities in England and Wales”. And, to that end, “The CC believes that we should continue to be part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.” In fact, “We are for broadening the Tusc coalition and being alive to other possibilities - including a coming together of us all on the left …. The whole of the left outside Labour (including ourselves) should have a degree of modesty and admit that we haven’t found a credible and durable electoral vehicle” (my emphasis).
So, certainly south of the border, the CC sees left unity purely in terms of contesting elections - a hopeless trajectory. When it comes to a Marxist party, of course, it goes without saying that it is just a question of “building the SWP”.
Talking of which, although membership figures are not provided (they are usually given in IB No2), the leadership admits, without actually saying so openly, that the number of claimed members had previously been grossly overstated:
In the early months of this year we carried out a thoroughgoing re-registration of party membership, the first time we have done it for several years …
… the process has also revealed numbers of people who were recruited over the last decade who never became integrated members or we have completely lost contact with. We have taken over 1,000 names off our database. To clarify, these are not people who left over the SWP’s crisis. In effect many have not been members for some time. We now have a much more accurate picture of the party membership, and we hope branches will now have confidence in their membership lists.
So, just to make things absolutely clear, the leadership is admitting that “over 1,000” people have been removed from the SWP’s list of “registered members”, because they had long since ceased to be members or never were members in the first place. But in fact this is only the tip of the iceberg, for, as every local organiser knows, the re-registration process was rather less than “thoroughgoing”. Hundreds of people who pay no dues and attend no SWP events, many of whom have dropped out of politics altogether, remain on the list. They continue to receive official emails, including the weekly Party Notesand the annual IBs, both intended for “members of the SWP only”.
SWP and racism
The main CC perspectives document continues to plug SWP fronts such as Unite the Resistance, which “remains a key initiative” - it is vital for SWPers to attend the November 15 UTR ‘conference’ in order to “increase the pressure for further action” and “help to develop networks that can offer solidarity to those strikes that take place”. And, of course, the role of the SWP itself is central: “What we do now can help shape the terrain on which the next government takes office in Britain. This is the overarching task which frames our conference.”
However, as has been the practice in recent years, the leadership is continuing to stress a second SWP front, Unite Against Fascism - along with a new one, Stand Up To Ukip. And so the second CC document contained in the IB is entitled ‘Fighting fascism, racism and Ukip’.
It is a cornerstone of SWP dogma that the bourgeoisie must, everywhere and always, promote racism in order to divide the working class, and the leadership claims that, because of this, racism is on the rise everywhere, including in Britain. There is this remarkable passage:
… according to home office statistics in 1972, 86% of the population said they would not like a black family living next door. In 2012 this figure was almost reversed - with just 16% saying they did not want to live next to a black neighbour. Connected to the rise in racism …
Yes, you read it correctly. Immediately after the paragraph illustrating how racist attitudes have become less prevalent, the CC goes back to assuming that the opposite is the case. This involves stretching the meaning of the word ‘racism’ to a remarkable degree, so that it incorporates not only Islamophobia, but opposition to multiculturalism:
Without exception every European leader has denounced multiculturalism and preached a form of monoculturalism (the only way of life is the host’s culture). Muslims find their loyalty and patriotism constantly questioned, their religion denigrated as backward and at the same time they are accused of failing to assimilate and integrate.
“Without exception”? And the SWP appears to half-recognise that there might be a difficulty in dubbing the UK Independence Party racist because of its opposition to immigration. Thus we have the new phrase, “anti-migrant racism”:
Much of the anti-migrant racism is targeted at white, east European workers. This has created more complex arguments for anti-racists; it has allowed Ukip to go on a migrant-bashing rampage and at the same time claim it’s not racist. Also fear and competition for jobs and services has seen some black and Asian people support the Tories’ calls for tougher immigration controls.
But let’s not worry too much about such details. After all, “Over the last 10 years Unite Against Fascism has played a central role in defeating the Nazi British National Party and English Defence League.” You see, “Years of campaigning work paid off”, as “UAF, with the SWP playing a key role, has been pivotal in breaking the back of the BNP”.
In relation to the EDL, by the way, it is interesting that one of the two “key elements” in the SWP’s original anti-EDL “strategy” is said to have been “Labelling the EDL racist and fascist”. In fact, four years ago, when the EDL first came into being, the SWP denied it was fascist: “The EDL is not an open Nazi movement, nor is it free of political tensions and contradictions. But like the Brownshirts it could easily develop into a fascist movement” (IBNo1, October 2010). I am not sure quite when the transition took place.
Unfortunately, there is next to nothing from the membership attempting to engage in serious debate - for example, by taking issue with any of the CC’s foolhardy statements.
Take “Mark (Liverpool)”, who is concerned, despite the sterling work of UTR, about the seeming inability of workers to “stop the assaults that are pushing us down on every front”. He correctly states that “one more day of action will not stop what is happening to the working class”, but his ‘solution’ is: “working more consistently at the local level … as workplace-based revolutionaries”.
The only oppositional contribution comes from “Andy W”, who is described as a “national member”. For those unfamiliar with SWP terminology, a “national member” is someone who has faced disciplinary action (perhaps for speaking out against an SWP line) and has been ‘suspended’ (perhaps permanently!) from their local branch.
Andy complains that it is “now nearly five years since the democracy commission reported”, but its recommendations have not been implemented: eg, “the central committee should be more open about its disagreements and discussions”. He declares: “At the moment the central committee is only accountable to itself and not to conference. In practice, members of the central committee have only been removed by the majority of the central committee (when they step out of line).”
He notes that “The democratic culture of the organisation needs to be improved to ensure that debate, criticism and discussion are actually welcomed.” Yes, we need “unity in action”, but also “constant discussion”, he says. But “A rebirth of democracy in the SWP will not happen if delegates to our conference only reflect the views of the majority ‘faction’ in aggregates, and then mainly ‘loyalists’ are chosen to speak during conference debates.” It is important that the delegates elected “reflect the experience and views of all significant groups within the SWP”.
Andy is clearly not going to make very much progress on that one. And, to illustrate what he says about the self-perpetuating leadership, the outgoing central committee has nominated a slate of candidates for the new CC - it will be exactly the same as last year, except that “Esme C” (whose surname was given when she was first elected, but can no longer be provided for security reasons) is “unfortunately unable to restand”. So the CC is proposing that its number be reduced from 15 to 14.
In theory other members can propose a rival slate (delegates can only accept or reject each slate and are unable to vote for or against individual candidates). But don’t hold your breath on that one. Just about everyone who “thinks differently” has now departed, it seems - don’t ask me why “Andy W” didn’t join them.