SWP leadership bans IS-List internet talks

By-passing the Central Committee on the internet is too risky for SWP

THE Socialist Workers Party Central Committee has banned members from using the IS-List on internet. This list is being used by comrades throughout the world to share information. This is now a disciplinary offence.

Sharing information and discussing politics is healthy in an organisation. It should be encouraged to the full. It should happen openly in papers, in journals, in books. It will happen in pubs, at people’s houses, on the telephone, through Her Majesty’s Royal Mail. In fact the more it is denied open expression the more it will have to take place in pubs and people’s rooms or on the internet. Under the Euro leadership our own comrades were subjected to similar banning techniques but we always published openly since we saw this as our communist duty.

If the SWP restricts democracy and bans any open discussion in its press on key questions then unfortunately comrades who are concerned to rescue the SWP for democracy and revolution will be forced to carry out that battle under banning orders.

A crime of the IS-List is apparently that it is a security risk. We would agree that security is vital for revolutionary organisations. Members’ addresses and personal details should not be common knowledge. But since the passing on of addresses (easily remedied without banning the whole list) is the only accusation actually levelled I can only assume that the SWP has a different concept of security.

In fact in the statement (printed here) they indeed complain that other left groups may “take part in discussions that do not concern them”. It seems that the SWP considers all discussion a private matter and openness in general a breach of security.

It is democracy which frightens the SWP, not the British state. Democracy and open discussion is certainly a more powerful weapon against a bureaucratic leadership than the state could ever be. Unity in the SWP is founded on adherence to a line set from above and organisational terror. It is not forged through a common struggle for unity in theory and practice. Hence it is a fragile unity. As soon as members start to organise, think and publish, all the flaws in Tony Cliff’s line soon become obvious.

The leadership fears this. Revolutionaries in the SWP should welcome it. Without democracy and debate which is open to the whole of the class, theoretical clarity leading to genuinely mass and united revolutionary action is impossible. SWP comrades will have to continue to look for all ways to develop their ideas and gain an audience for them inside the SWP, not to wreck it but to salvage what they can for revolution.

Helen Ellis

SWP statement on the IS List

For some time a number of members of various organisations belonging to the IS Tendency have been linked together on the internet through what is known as the IS-List. This arrangement seems to have been the result of a private initiative by comrades in various countries. As far as we can tell the leadership of their organisations were not consulted; certainly no reference was made to the SWP Central Committee. The justifications for this arrangement has been that it is a useful way of sharing information among comrades in different countries.

In fact, very little hard information is sent out through the IS-List, and what there is is usually banal or irrelevant (eg a message sent out by a British comrade announcing to the world that John Major had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party). Much of the content of the messages consists in trivialities and gossip about the internal affairs of various groups. Many of the keenest participants are inactive members of their groups; some are involved in oppositional factions.

Moreover, communications are carried out on the IS-List without considerations for the most basic question of security. We have in recent years taken steps to tighten up security, particularly with respect to comrades carrying around names and addresses on them when engaged in political activity, and to their use of the telephone. But users of the IS-List seem to subscribe to the fantasy that communication via the internet is fundamentally more secure than that on the telephone. This is, to say the least, an extremely naive attitude. One leading SWP advocate of the IS-List has already shown by his extremely irresponsible use of a comrade’s name on e-mail that he cannot be trusted with comrades’ security. This kind of attitude could seriously endanger our sister organisations operating under illegal conditions.

The highly dubious nature of the IS-List was confirmed by its users’ reaction to the meeting at Marxism 95 on the internet. One comrade who dared to challenge the media-promoted mania for the internet that seems to have affected some on the left was subjected to repeated, scurrilous attack, both at the meeting and on the list. The leaderships of the SWP and of other groups were accused of ‘technophobia’ and a desire to suppress debate.

The Central Committee has decided that members of the SWP should not use the IS-List. This is not intended as a blanket ban on comrades’ communicating by e-mail, though when doing so they should respect elementary considerations of security.

Our reasons for taking this decision have nothing to do with any alleged fear of technological innovation. On the contrary we are currently discussing arrangements which will allow our sister papers to get quick access to Socialist Worker on the internet. But we do not make a fetish of new technology. In particular, any sensible socialist should not fall for the immense hyping of the internet by papers like The Guardian, or for the postmodernist arguments that the net represents a radical democratisation of society. Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal, and conditioned by the bosses’ domination of the economy and the state.

Our reasons for specifically banning SWP members from participating in the IS-List are as follows:

1. Security: The internet is not a secure form of communication. Most comrades have access to the internet through their job. Their employers will therefore be able to read their messages. There is, in any case, no way of protecting communication via the internet from surveillance by the state. Moreover, though each new subscriber to the IS-List must be proposed by a current one, there seems no mechanism for removing people who leave an IS group from the list. As it is, some of the most enthusiastic British defenders of the IS-List after Marxism 95 are not registered members of the SWP. Hostile left organisations can therefore easily penetrate the list and take part in discussions that do not concern them.

2. Democratic Discussion and Accountability: Only a small minority of our members have access to the internet. This reflects the fact that internet users are, in general, concentrated in universities and in upper-echelon white-collar jobs. Consequently discussions take place on the IS-List from which most comrades are excluded. Moreover, the international character of the list makes its users even less accountable. The IS Tendency is not an international organisation but a current composed of independent organisations who share the same politics. We therefore lack the means to make the list accountable to the organisations making up the Tendency. Political debate is essential in a healthy revolutionary organisation. But that debate takes place through the party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades can participate directly or through their elected delegates. Irresponsible gossip by a self-selected and relatively privileged clique is no substitute for discussion in a democratic centralist organisation.

3. A Diversion: It is clear that some comrades, particularly in other countries, have exaggerated political expectations of the internet: they do not understand that building our organisations depends above all on the face-to-face discussion involved in selling the paper and recruiting new members. The technological novelties of the internet, the worldwide web, etc, seem to offer a short-cut, a substitute for the hard work involved in party-building. It is particularly alarming that members of some of our weakest groups are keen participants in the IS-List. It is a matter for the leaderships of other IS organisations to decide their attitude to the IS-List, but members of the SWP should do nothing to encourage these illusions.

Accordingly, members of the SWP are instructed not to use the IS-List. They are, of course, free to communicate by e-mail and to use the internet in other ways, but they should take the same care with security, particularly with comrades’ names and addresses, as they should when talking on the telephone. Comrades who disagree with this decision are free to argue for its reversal in the preconference discussion period that is forthcoming, but they are still bound by our decision. Any failure to observe it will be subject to disciplinary action.

Socialist Workers Party Central Committee
August 2 1995