Decline still much in evidence
Peter Manson reviews the SWP’s third Pre-conference Bulletin
I am afraid that the third and final Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletin only confirms the sad fact that there is now virtually no opposition within the SWP to the bureaucratic-centralist sectarianism of the central committee.1
It is true that in this Internal Bulletin (IB), as they are commonly known, a mere four documents have been submitted by the CC, taking up a comparatively modest seven of the 31 pages, whereas there are 19 contributions from individuals or groups of comrades. But these are, for the most part, either firmly within the bounds of current SWP mainstream thinking or of poor quality (or both). The December 12-14 annual conference is certain to be a deadly-dull combination of leadership lectures and rallying cries.
This general conformity to CC ‘wisdom’ and lack of individual initiative is, for instance, expressed by the fact that only 53 comrades are contesting the 50 available national committee seats. The NC is, according to the SWP constitution, the body which “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”.2 In reality, it has always been little more than a rubber stamp for the CC.
One of the candidates, however, is a certain “Andy W”, who is described as a “national member”. Andy (only the first names of contributors are given) had submissions published in both September’s and October’s IB, where he revealed that he has been suspended from his branch (hence the “national member” description) for an undisclosed disciplinary reason - no doubt something like voicing his disagreement with some policy or other. He is not happy with the current leadership and for that reason it is a certainty he will not be elected - the CC will ensure that even the most untalented individuals from amongst those standing will be voted onto the NC rather than having to put up with one lone oppositionist.
In this IB, there is only one contribution that expresses any serious differences with the CC, and that is from “Richard (Coventry)”, whose article is rather strangely entitled ‘A private-sector view on industrial perspectives’. Yes, he does deal with union work in the private sector, but his main concern is to challenge SWP shibboleths. Perhaps this dull and uncontroversial heading was provided by the IB editors.
According to Richard,
[SWP guru Tony] Cliff argued that we were experiencing the 1930s in slow motion. This created expectations that capitalism was in crisis and that an “upturn” or “breakthrough” would eventually arrive. But if capitalism has been in slow-motion crisis since the end of the long boom in the 1970s, shouldn’t we be bigger now? Shouldn’t the unions be stronger? ... Or maybe capitalism has not been in permanent crisis since the 70s.
Seems reasonable. Of course, the CC may well agree, but it is not the SWP method to admit to past errors - which is why it prefers to quietly drop such embarrassments rather than engage in any self-criticism.
Richard also points to another SWP frailty - its flirtation with ‘movementism’. He claims that “From Seattle till 2009 the party had an analysis that the movements and general politics would rebuild workplace organisation.” However, that clearly did not happen. Meanwhile, he says, the unions had an organising agenda during the very time the SWP was looking to the movements to create a knock-on effect in the workplace:
Yet we’re a party which insists “on the special role of the working class and on the struggle at the point of production as the most powerful weapon available to workers”.3 Shouldn’t we have engaged as an organisation with this organising agenda? Shouldn’t we have been part of initiating it? And wasn’t it movementism (not Leninism!) that stopped us from doing this?
But, as I say, Richard’s piece is about union work in the private sector, so it is unlikely that many comrades will pay much attention to it and there will be no need for a CC response.
Contrarily, another contribution whose title appears to indicate criticism is the piece written by “Gary (Swansea)”: ‘Socialists and the 2015 elections: a response to the central committee’. But this time it is fully in tune with the leadership line, while posing some mild (rightist) questions:
The central committee says we need to be flexible, open and ready to compromise - I agree. The question is, of course, what type of socialist coalition do we want to be a part of? As a party, how much do we commit to the project? Is this commitment a longer-term strategy to build an electoral strategy on the left? What about the need to have an electoral alliance with a principled Green or independent candidate standing in a constituency, for example?
The contributions on this subject take it as a given that cooperation amongst the left (leaving aside the question of whether ‘the left’ includes some Greens or not) should be for elections only. But “Simon (Tottenham)”, in a piece entitled ‘Taking elections seriously’, unwittingly provides some food for thought, when he comments on the SWP’s participation in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. In Tusc, as well as in previous electoral forays, such as the Socialist Alliance and Respect, “we have a huge, fundamental hurdle to overcome, in that, however much our ideas chime with people around us, we are not taken seriously.”
The reason for this is, of course, that most voters have not heard of the alliance in question, for the simple reason that the practice has been to effectively close them down in between elections. So Simon gets it completely wrong when he says that the key is to “run exciting, outward-looking and energetic campaigns - to project an image that we are fighting to win”. Once again, the CC would probably agree with him, but why should an enthusiastic, stunt-filled campaign have the effect of being “taken seriously”? Screaming Lord Sutch was known for doing that sort of thing too.
After all, the leadership itself writes in its ‘Political crisis in Britain’ perspectives document: “We need a much more united left that can build the resistance and put forward a credible challenge at elections” (my emphasis). It is the line constantly being peddled by the CC. No sign there of a permanent, partyist electoral contender aiming to create the only working class formation that has the potential not just to be “taken seriously”, but to rally workers to its banner: a united, democratic Marxist party.
The failure to recognise this reality leads Simon to a totally topsy-turvy conclusion:
Having a recognisable name helps, but it is not decisive in getting a good result. It is far more important that the candidate is known and respected in the local movement, that we involve as many people as possible from a wide array of groups and campaigns and that we run a serious operation. ‘Paper’ candidates with no roots invariably do badly, however much work you put in, which is demoralising for all concerned.
This is the conventional left take on contesting elections. At least Simon can see that having “a recognisable name” (like ‘Labour’, ‘Conservative’ or ‘UK Independence Party’, presumably) “helps”. But he seems to think that it is the individual candidates who swing it for those parties - candidates who are all “known and respected” and have local “roots”, obviously.
Of course, there are exceptions - George Galloway springs to mind. But the fact of the matter is that candidates are generally “taken seriously” only when they are known to belong to a party that is perceived to have the potential to make a difference.
Once again, Simon at first appears to be on the right lines when he writes:
Do not dumb down your politics. There is always a temptation to shy away from ‘difficult’ issues - to focus on what unites us all. We are not merely campaigning to save the NHS or a local school. We are also anti-racists standing up for migrants’ rights, opposed to imperialist war and in support of Palestinians.
One of the main reasons to stand in an election is to put forward the socialist alternative. In the coming election simply focusing on anti-austerity or single-issue campaigns without a sharp attack on racist scapegoating undermines our whole message.
I see. The “socialist alternative” consists of campaigning on international issues and opposition to ‘racism’ - no wonder the Stand Up to Ukip campaign is regarded as so important then.
Speaking of which, the leadership’s ‘Political crisis in Britain’, in which Ukip is given the usual label of “racist populists”, correctly asserts that Nigel Farage and co could well drive a long-term change in the political balance: “The CC believes we are seeing a serious, important shift and not just a momentary blip.” But it appears bereft of ideas as to how we on the left should react - apart from rallying to the SWP’s ‘united front’, Stand Up To Ukip (Sutu), of course.
On this, “Adam (Bury and Prestwich)”, in his ‘Stand Up To Ukip and a leftwing electoral alternative’, writes: “Sutu is obviously necessary to take on Ukip.” But, again inadvertently, he points to the actual reality, when he warns against “the rather cosy arrangement where Labour figures see Sutu as a way of organising people outside Labour to argue for a Labour vote”. Of course they see it that way, since Sutu is based on a negative - what we are against, not what we are for. And the fact that Ukip merely expresses a more consistent and extreme anti-migrantism than Labour (and the Tories and Liberal Democrats) is another reason why Sutu has it all wrong. Adam notes: “People are desperate for an alternative to the main parties on offer, and telling people to vote Labour just drives them back towards Ukip.” Telling them to do so uncritically or unconditionally (or, like Sutu, implying that they should) might certainly have that effect.
But, returning to the leadership and its attempt to respond to the ‘Political crisis in Britain’, it is only in relation to Scotland, where it supports the Radical Independence Campaign, that it writes with any confidence. It asserts: “It is not fantasy to think that a united Scottish radical and socialist group could achieve 10% of the vote or more at elections.”
This is clearly nonsense. More than that RIC represents a wholesale adaption to Scottish left nationalism. This is also reflected in the CC’s ‘Party educational work’, which waxes lyrical about the successes of such work in relation to Scotland:
We want each member to have access to the tools provided by Marxism so that they can make an independent assessment of the problems thrown up in the course of the struggle, discuss and debate how the party should respond to them, and derive the lessons of our interventions.
Take, for instance, the situation in Scotland in the wake of the Scottish referendum. Given the rage among swathes of the working class towards Labour, the prominence of some left figures within the Scottish National Party, the opportunities for the radical left, along with its tragic division into warring camps, our old slogan, ‘Vote left where you can, Labour where you must’, no longer fits.
Not that this slogan was ever particularly useful. Nevertheless, at least it represented an orientation to the politics of the working class, not to nationalism - which is, not unexpectedly, also prevalent in the contribution from “David S, Charis and David McA”, entitled ‘New members reflect on Glasgow in 2014’. Once again, the heading is misleading, since it is obvious that not all of the three are inexperienced recruits.
For them, “Being part of a revolutionary party that fought within a progressive campaign for independence ... was fundamentally key in the rapid political education of ... new members.” That is because “The independence campaign was not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’: it was the choice between two fundamentally different modalities of politics.” By this they mean that the ‘yes’ campaign was not driven by the main parties (the major role of the Scottish National Party is understated), but by an enthusiastic movement from below, which saw it as a “chance to fight back against ... Westminster’s austerity programme”.
They conclude: “The Socialist Workers Party needs to be the necessary glue that unites the weak and divided left, with the aim of building upon and extending further the repoliticisation of the working class in Scotland (and the rest of the UK).” The fact that this “repoliticisation” has been driving sections of the working class even further away from the politics of class and towards the politics of nationality appears irrelevant to the SWP - including its “new members” in Glasgow, who, it must be said, have quickly been convinced that the leadership was completely correct in its handling of the SWP’s own recent internal crisis.
For example, they know all about “the faction”, some sections of which “argued that the leadership was primarily to blame for the recent splits from the party, the crisis of the British left, and that the leadership created a dogmatic, loyalist atmosphere that quashed internal debate. However, as relatively new members, this picture of the party was both baffling and utterly alien to our experience as new comrades within the party.”
(Despite this picture of a totally democratic internal regime, they do provide a mildly amusing quote from an unnamed comrade, who said at the beginning of 2014: “All the skeletons have come out the SWP’s closet, but each skeleton has its own bone of contention.”)
For his part, “Mark (Chorlton)”, with his ‘Leninism, the party and the revolutionary paper’, represents a combination of crowing triumphalism and deliberate blindness about the nature of the SWP’s internal regime:
… the SWP has been built and tested over decades. We have built a democratic-centralist organisation, with a leadership role of a central committee, elected by and accountable to the members. The argument for the necessity of a revolutionary party, of a Leninist party, has now been largely won inside the SWP over recent years. The debate in the SWP at this year’s conference should move on now, to the question of how the party organises itself. This contribution will argue that the revolutionary paper, for us Socialist Worker, is central ...
The split was all the fault of the faction, evidently. Everything is just fine, now that the oppositionists have gone - although the “revolutionary paper” could do with some improvement (not that his proposals are very substantial).
Returning to the Glasgow comrades, they also write about their experience of the reaction to the crisis that erupted over ‘comrade Delta’, a former SWP leader who was accused of raping an SWP worker. According to the three comrades, “other movements on the left would sometimes publicly disturb paper sales and demonstrations with yells of ‘Rape apologist cult!’ These attacks unfortunately did affect the confidence of some of our comrades ...” As was intended, no doubt.
They also reveal how the leadership has advised members to deal with such incidents: “... we have always attempted to maintain an open and civil discourse with those that had genuine concerns with what had occurred, to ‘turn the other cheek’ if such attacks were passive-aggressive (namely, if they walked by and quickly muttered ‘rape apologist’ before walking away).”
This is confirmed by “Isabel, Noga and Abbie”, who are members of the Socialist Worker Student Society at Sussex University. In their ‘Building SWSS on Sussex campus’, they report: “We’ve met with resistance from a group of students and two staff members, who have been campaigning against us since September ... Their tactics have been dirty and aggressive.”
These opponents are referred to as “the sectarians” - a term usually used by SWPers for members of other revolutionary groups - although in actuality anti-SWPism is more prevalent among the student pro-‘safe spaces’, intersectionalist soft left. Anyway, they report that “the sectarians” proposed a motion to ban the SWP at an extraordinary meeting of the student union, but, thankfully, this was lost by 141 votes to 44.
Their self-comforting conclusion is: “As revolutionary socialists in a capitalist society, you’re always going to come up against resistance.” Somehow I do not think such motions emanate from agents of the bourgeoisie fearful for the future of their system.
Ironically, “Sally (Leicester)” seems to be more than a little influenced by the intersectionalist agenda. In her contribution, ‘Let’s stop emulating the oppressors’, she writes of the SWP, and the left in general: “Leading members talk at length to [rank-and-file] members. Its members talk at length to each other. We tend to talk at length to new people that come to meetings. People who cannot or do not want to talk at length get left out of the debate. These are generally people who are targeted by the many oppressions existing under capitalism - unless they are able to emulate the oppressors and talk in lengthy splurges.”
So obviously, the answer is not education, so as to rapidly increase the understanding of newcomers, but a certain dumbing down - after all, “talking at length” is what “the oppressors” do. Sally believes that “we should make meetings, conferences, Marxism festival, etc more inclusive, inviting and relaxed to encourage people who do not usually speak to speak up.” And she has a practical, proposal: speaker slips should carry a number of questions: eg, “Have you ever spoken in conference/Marxism before? Age? Sex? Are you white? Disabled?” That would “enable the chair to choose new and underrepresented people to speak”.
“Claire, Russ, Dean (Waltham Forest)”, in their ‘Supporting new members’, are also full of ideas:
We suggest new members should be issued with a welcome pack, a membership card and a badge as part of the process of joining the party. The pack would include a booklet giving an introduction to our politics and the party organisation, and also an outline of what is expected of them as members of an interventionist Leninist party.
See what I mean about poor quality? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that recruits know “what is expected of them” before we invite them to join?
The report from the SWP fraction in the Public and Commercial Services union is not without interest. The comrades write: “While the left dominates the union (not a single branch nominated an alternative candidate to challenge Mark Serwotka), it has little confidence that we can fight and win.”
In other words, this domination at the top, where in particular the Socialist Party in England and Wales has a significant presence, hardly reflects the influence of the left on the ground or the attitude of the overwhelming majority of PCS members. Although the comrades do not say so, the winning of leadership positions can only do so much in the absence of a fighting mood amongst the rank and file. In fact the fraction tends to the opposite conclusion - that the problem lies with the left’s “own lack of confidence or strategy”. They write:
Many of the union’s leadership fall into the trap of much of the left by focusing attacks on the failures of other unions, especially Unison. This often becomes a cover for their own lack of confidence or strategy and has meant that they have tailed other unions rather than giving a lead. This means that PCS did not join strikes by NUT and UCU earlier in the year. At the May 2014 conference NEC members argued not to name July 10 as a strike date because Unison might sell out.
All would be different, if only the SWP were in charge: “But the gap between the leadership we have provided [in some local disputes] and the overall strategy of the union is stark.” Unfortunately, “We are too small to have a decisive influence” (note the word “decisive”).
On the proposed merger with Unite, the fraction reports: “Our position had been to neither support nor oppose the merger in principle, but to decide on concrete measures of whether it would strengthen or weaken working class resistance.”
The contribution from “Paul (Newham)” is also revealing. In ‘The last gang in town’, he writes of the attempts by the English Defence League to organise demonstrations in Leeds and London and the unusual response of Unite Against Fascism:
Both efforts were futile - neither lasted more than 30 minutes, and were flops (no more than 50 dregs turned up for either demo). Comrades mocked their efforts in Leeds, whilst in London, we took the decision not to demonstrate, a rare decision. But, no-one in UAF expected more than 60/70 dregs and it was rightly thought a distraction to mobilise. This correct assessment was made after much thought ...
Well, that must be a first. Previously it had seemed almost a principle for the SWP, and its UAF ‘united front’, to organise a counterdemonstration whenever the EDL, British National Party and so on had called a public event. Whatever next? The relaxing of ‘no platform’? It is, of course, correct to decide on a case-by-case basis how to oppose the far right. But it does strike me: if UAF is no longer going to mobilise against every far-right demonstration, what is it actually for? What will it do instead?
The other two CC contributions are entitled ‘Fighting for women’s liberation’ (in which it explains the SWP’s “socialist feminist approach”) and ‘Our finances’.
I will not comment on the first, but the second reveals that the effects of the internal crisis are far from over. The CC states: “In the last complete financial year to April 2014 the party made a small operating loss.” An “operating loss”? That is a strange way of putting it. Surely it is normal for a revolutionary organisation to spend money at least as fast as it comes in. We are not in it to make a profit, are we?
Leaving that aside, the two pie charts provided with the article are interesting. The first shows that membership subscriptions provide just over half of the SWP’s income, while the second indicates that the wages of full-timers account for fractionally under half of all expenditure. In other words, it is literally true that membership dues are used to pay the leaders’ wages.
... we have over the last few years experienced a decline in the amount of money coming in from membership subs ... There are signs that this decline is slowing, helped by the higher percentage of new members that pay subs. For example, from April 2013 to October 2013 the subs base fell by 5.5%, over the next six months (which includes the last conference) the figure was 6%, and for the last six months the figure is 3%.
If I understand it correctly, this means that the proportion of members paying dues is still going down, even if the “decline is slowing”. Does this mean that in October of this year 3% less income was coming in from membership subscriptions than in April? If so, what is the explanation for this? Presumably it means the ‘Delta’ crisis still effects the ranks and continues to see old hands drop out.
So, despite the boast in IB No2 that in 2014 569 people had joined up to the end of September4, a “higher percentage” of whom are paying subs, it is clear that more people are still leaving than are coming in.
Perhaps this is the explanation for the following passage:
... there has been a shift in the way that most of our organisers are now operating - ie, they are based around colleges and universities rather than districts. In an ideal world we would also have more district organisers, and we may do so in the future, but for now we believe that this is the best way to employ our young full-time organisers.
This ‘turn to the campuses’ sounds to me like a desperate attempt to win the naive, the inexperienced, those with no knowledge of ‘comrade Delta’ and the SWP’s recent series of messy splits and divisions.
1. See IB No3: www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/swpinternalbulletins/PreConf_Bulletin_iii_Nov_2014.pdf.
2. See IB No1: www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/swpinternalbulletins/Preconf_Bulletin_i_Oct_2014_email.pdf.
3. A quote from the article by Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos, ‘The politics of the SWP crisis’ (International Socialism spring 2014).
4. For IB No2 see www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/swpinternalbulletins/PreConf_Bulletin_ii_Oct_2014.pdf