Do what you are told ... or else

Tepid support for Corbyn

Mark Fischer reports on the SWP’s Marxism school

First off, some general observations about this year’s Marxism, the annual school of the Socialist Workers Party that took place in central London over July 9-13.

Staffers of the various left organisations’ stalls outside Marxism tend to develop a sort of unspoken and limited group solidarity - we definitely represent ‘the other’ in the eyes of the loyal SWPers. Each group is busy with its own work, of course, but in the quiet moments in ‘Sectarian Alley’ (as SWPers contemptuously dub the stretch outside the Institute of Education where we all pitch our wares) people do wander, chat and engage in political exchanges.

Naturally, a recurrent topic (the equivalent of talking about the weather in wider society, I suppose) is the size of the event. Guestimates are pretty hit and miss, sometimes wildly inaccurate - much like weather forecasting itself - and it is safe to say that no-one but the gullible ever trust the SWP’s own figures,1 and the SWP leaders are the only ones actually in the know. However, there are three related points to make about this aspect of the 2015 event.

First, while this year’s gig may have been marginally bigger than 2014, the difference between the numbers attending pre-Delta to post-Delta2 remain significant. Even in the busy periods for our comrades - between sessions and at lunchtime - the walkways are no longer clogged with a solid stream of people, as in previous years. The gouge out of the SWP’s membership caused by the leadership’s inept and cynical handling of the Delta scandal has not yet been made good.

Second, and despite the numerical and reputational damage that Delta-gate continues to mete out, the leadership seems to have been fairly successful in its “turn outwards” drive - ie, to convince its loyalist cadre to ignore the political and organisational implications of the crisis that so recently engulfed them, act like nothing has happened and get back to recruiting/campaigning as usual.3 For example, it was noticeable that - particularly from the make-up of the ‘Marxism team’ stewards and general demographics of larger meetings - the group is still able to recruit young people new to politics and also (unfortunately) to instil in them from the get-go the general philistine hostility to others on the left that has been a hallmark of the Cliffite sect for some time.

Third, this antagonism was not just youthful excess. Concomitant with the organisation’s rise in confidence and the feeling that better times are just around the corner, it seemed to be official policy. For example, while the number of other groups attending was down this year anyway (eg, the CPGB did not prioritise the event or organise a fringe meeting), the SWP apparatus had clearly wanted to marginalise the ‘Sectarian Alley’ impact on their people.

Which is understandable. Most SWP members are generally intensely uncomfortable about being challenged on their politics from the left.This is a reflection of the machine-politics culture that the group inculcates in its comrades, which expresses itself as a frivolous attitude to the history and traditions of their own organisation, a passing acquaintance with Marxism, a contemptuous attitude that implicitly counterposes programme and principle to the demands of the next mobilisation, the next campaign, the next push to recruit ...

One of the slightly pitiful ways Marxism organisers have tried in past years to at least partially insulate conference participants from the dangers of alternative ideas was by block-booking stretches of ‘Sectarian Alley’ - setting up lines of pasting tables reserved for this or that SWP campaign front - and thus, they hope, pushing the sectarians out of what is a main thoroughfare during the event. I may be mistaken, but this seemed to me to be quite a bit more extensive this year.

These ‘reserve’ stalls remained unstaffed for the bulk of the time I attended. A few had a scattering of Marxism timetables spread across them, but clearly their primary purpose was simply to obstruct other organisations from using the space. This was confirmed by a near farcical moment when an old SWP comrade of mine from South Wales arrive a split second after a comrade I was with had rested her bundle of Weekly Workers on the edge of one of the almost bare pasting tables to pick up a programme. “This is a reserved table for the SWP,” he breathlessly told us: “You can’t have this.” He was reassured that we were just passing by.

Of course, what the SWP is trying to do with this sort of neo-Stalinite clowning is to reserve a political monopoly for itself at an event it sometimes has the chutzpah to dub a “festival of ideas”. Unfortunately, Marxism all too often actually resembles a corporate-sponsored recruitment fair - with all the cynicism and superficiality that implies.

Labour pains

Much of the timetable of this year’s events consisted of pretty familiar thematic fare, largely reflecting the current political and campaigning priorities of the organisation and its entrenched political method.

Thus, in the Dave Hayes-led session titled ‘Why we celebrate the Russian Revolution’, the comrade unsurprisingly offered a version of history that exonerates contemporary SWP practice. 1917 seemed to come from nowhere: “No-one expected it”. (That is, no mention of 1905 and the experience of the Bolsheviks and others as mass parties, with deep, organic roots in the class; the heavy implication being that the Bolsheviks had been a small group just like SWP, until they were suddenly catapulted to the heady heights of state power - so chins up, comrades!).

The Bolsheviks made the revolution on the basis of “simple slogans - land, peace and bread!” (Meaning - no need for programme or exhaustive discussions and clarifications on theoretical matters; keep things as undemanding as possible for the consumption of the masses to ensure their raw, revolutionary spontaneity is not dissipated by sectarian, factional discussions; that comrades should cultivate an ‘Etch-a-sketch’ consciousness that allows them to flit from one slogan and intervention to another, retaining nothing of the method or the arguments that informed the last. Or whatever ‘works’ to pull numbers is Marxism, more prosaically put.)

It would make for a repetitious article to give potted reports of a series of sessions, only to make the same point. However, given recent political developments, the session titled ‘Why did Labour lose and how can we win?’ promised to be one of the more instructive sessions and is worthwhile reporting in a little detail.

National secretary Charlie Kimber presented an interesting opening, a fair percentage of which it was easy to agree with. For instance, he mocked the notion that Labour lost the election because of its wild leftism: its near wipe-out in Scotland by the left-posing Scottish National Party made nonsense of that. No, Labour was punished by Scottish voters for its ‘Better together’ pro-UK state popular front with the hated Tories and this had been the decisive factor, he correctly observed.

Quite rightly too, comrade Kimber pinpointed the reason for Labour leaders’ bemused inability to answer the ludicrous charge that they were directly culpable for the recession in Britain (and, by implication, the world economic crisis). They were not about to lay it at the door of capitalism as a system, he observed.

He was on far shakier ground, however, when he discussed the significance of the Corbyn challenge for the Labour leadership and had to resort to some rather flatulent leftist posturing (hypocritical too, given the SWP’s actual practice in the movement) to excuse his organisation’s effective boycott of this important campaign. So, while comrade Kimber began his comments by telling us that the leftwing MP’s candidature was “welcome”, as it “partially” reflected anger and the willingness to fight from the rank and file, in his concluding remarks he told us - in direct response to a challenge from Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists - that he would neither be signing up as a Labour supporter himself in order to vote for Corbyn nor encouraging anyone else to. The “strategic question” was actually to build “something different” - which in practical terms, apparently, meant everyone should “join the SWP”, heaven help us.

For, although Jeremy Corbyn would agree with much of comrade Kimber’s analysis of the reasons for Labour’s electoral failure, the need for mass action and so on, he would not agree that “Labour had failed the working class” throughout its existence, he said. Indeed, one of the dangers of Corbyn is that he will persuade people that Labour can be transformed, can be won for socialism. In the contemporary world, although the SWP participated in a “credible left” alternative (!) in the form of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the “real power to deal with the Tories” was to be found in the “workplace”. Our situation, in that sense, was “the same” as in Greece: we need a movement of “strikes and protests”, with a revolutionary organisation at its “centre”.

Of course, we have dissected this unMarxist, economistic method many times in these pages, and this was one of the points I planned to make, had I been called to speak (not a conscious exclusion, I am sure: the large venue was packed out, so there were many disappointed would-be contributors). Others were rather more specific and, by way of a conclusion, here is a précis of what I would have said.

The SWP’s leftist abstentionism on Corbyn is justified by the undeniable fact that, in comrade Kimber’s words, in every major test “Labour had failed the working class” since its inception. OK, but that is not the result of the wicked mores of individual Labour leaders, but of the nature of Labourism. So then we come to Tusc, don’t we? - the apparently “credible” electoral alternative to Labour that the SWP participates in. This is a project that is implicitly about creating a Labour Party mark two, complete with the right of trade union bureaucrats to veto any policy decision.

This is hardly a secret. At Tusc’s founding rally in 2010, Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party in England and Wales told the audience that it stood for a “new, clean form of politics in the old tradition”. In case there was some naive soul present who had taken this “old tradition” as anything other than Labourism (eg, the ‘tradition’ of Bolshevism that both the SWP and SPEW claim adherence to), Hannah Sell of SPEW drew the parallel between Tusc and the “modest beginning” of the Labour Representation Committee, which resulted in the “mass force” of Labour.4

So the SWP refuses to engage with an important left-right struggle in the actually existing Labour Party (other than mouthing ‘wish you well’ commonplaces), because something radically different is needed than a party that has sold out socialism repeatedly. To that end, its electoral work consists of it being the junior party in a coalition that wants to create a Labour Party mark two on the basis of warmed-over Labourism.

I approached comrade Kimber after the session with a technical question relating to the recording of the meeting and I could not resist giving him a version of the above. How did they square it, I asked? The man smiled and told me that “Tusc is a site for struggle”.

Not that I have noticed, I have to say.



1. “Over 2,700” is the figure given by Socialist Worker (July 14 2015), compared to 2,600 last year and 3,000-plus in 2013.

2. ‘Delta’ was the not very effective code name given to Martin Smith, a leading SWP full-timer against whom rape allegations were levelled.

3. See ‘Apparatus uses fair means and foul’ Weekly Worker March 14 2013.

4. See Weekly Worker April 1 2010.