Parroting the ‘party’ line
A genuine exchange of ideas is the last thing the SWP leadership wants, writes Peter Manson
The Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism school, held this year from June 30 to July 4, is still a significant event for the left, attracting large numbers - even though attendance is nowadays somewhat lower than before the 2013-14 splits.
Clearly, however, the organisation is continuing to recruit, including amongst youth, and one of the positive results of this is that many more SWP comrades are now prepared to engage in debate with others on the left. Even members of the “Marxism team” stewards were prepared to take the Weekly Worker and talk to us on the CPGB stall - something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The event this year came at an important time for SWP campaigning - that is, just a week after the narrow vote to leave the European Union. And, of course, the leadership likes to claim that the SWP played a significant role in winning a Brexit, even though it is fully aware that the main ‘leave’ campaigns were headed by reactionaries of the worst kind. One of the themes at Marxism this year revolved around the fact that such reactionaries had actually been boosted by the referendum outcome, inasmuch as anti-migrant national chauvinism (or ‘racism’, as the SWP labels it) is now rampant. Therefore, as speakers at just about every session reminded those attending, we must go all out for the July 16 London demonstration called by the People’s Assembly and the SWP’s very own Stand Up To Racism, which aims to link opposition to austerity to anti-racism.
One of the keynote openings was that of Alex Callinicos, editor of the SWP’s International Socialism quarterly, who spoke on ‘Brexit: a crisis for British and global capitalism’. Held in the 500-seater main hall at the Institute for Education, the meeting was packed out. During the course of his speech comrade Callinicos stated that “large numbers” had voted ‘leave’ for “racist reasons” and in fact the whole debate had been “framed in racist terms”. However, that does not mean that the referendum result was a “racist vote” - people had all sorts of reasons for voting ‘leave’.
Comrade Callinicos outlined his view that the result had provoked no fewer than six different crises - for international capital, British capital, the European Union itself, the Tory Party, the Labour Party, and the radical left. In his opinion, the USA had envisaged the EU as a “stable and prosperous junior partner” and the UK had had a “very important part” in ensuring that the EU played such a role, while not becoming “too successful”. As for British capital, it was in its interests to be part of the EU because of the “centrality of the City” and the fact that the British economy was dominated by international companies. As for the EU itself, comrade Callinicos predicted that the tensions between the leading powers would now worsen.
Moving on to the Conservative Party, he stated that its divisions over the EU did not reflect any split in the ruling class, and in fact those divisions had resulted in a referendum that “ended in disaster for British capital”. However, he continued to overstate the crisis for the Tories, declaring that, as the Brexit negotiations dragged on, the divisions would be exacerbated and the Tory Party would become “radically destabilised”. It has to be said that already it is clear that the Conservatives will soon unite around a new leader - probably Theresa May, who had actually been part of the ‘remain’ camp - and it does not appear to have entered comrade Callinicos’s head that a Brexit may not actually occur despite the referendum result.
Quite rightly Callinicos said that it was “ridiculous” for the Labour right to blame Jeremy Corbyn for that result: Corbyn’s mistake had in reality been not to provide a “lead from the left for Brexit” - and now there seems to have been a further retreat by Corbyn and John McDonnell over migration, he said.
Turning finally to the “crisis for the radical left”, comrade Callinicos said there had “never been an issue so divisive in my lifetime”. The SWP’s position had been that the EU was a “neoliberal organisation”, yet sections of the left thought it was “reformable”. Despite these divisions, Callinicos actually claimed that the Lexit campaign had been a “step away from the terrible fragmentation” of the left. So will the SWP now be seeking closer links with its Lexit partners, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Counterfire? Rather unlikely - he did not, of course, propose any measures to avoid such “fragmentation” and in fact thought there was a “danger that the antagonisms on the left will now be increased”.
Significantly, comrade Callinicos admitted that “voting either way” in the referendum had meant “siding with reactionaries”. This astonishing admission provoked a heckle from the audience from a comrade who wondered why, in that case, the SWP had not gone for a boycott. To which the SWP international secretary replied: “Boycotting means you’re not part of the biggest political debate in decades.” This ludicrous response demonstrated that comrade Callinicos does not know the difference between a passive abstention and an active boycott, centred around a campaign for a workers’ Europe - if the SWP had adopted such a position, that really could have been a “step away from the terrible fragmentation”; something around which the vast majority of the “radical left” could have been won to unite around.
Instead of which, following the Brexit vote for which the SWP had campaigned, there was “now a very real fear of the growth of racism”. One key issue that the SWP would now be campaigning around was, therefore, “the right of all EU citizens to remain” in the UK, but, in the immediate future, it was very important to mobilise for the July 16 demonstration and to “build Stand Up To Racism”.
In the following contributions from the floor, fellow central committee member Joseph Choonara emphasised once again “the scale of the crisis for the European ruling classes and for the British ruling class”. When (not if!) article 50 is enacted, he relished the thought of “two years of political crisis”, which would provide the SWP with a “huge opportunity”.
Very pertinently, he was followed to the microphone by the comrade who writes for the Weekly Worker under the name ‘Commissaress’. She pointed out: “Not everything that hurts one side helps the other.” She did not agree with the SWP line that Brexit was “not in their interests, so it must be in ours”. How, she wanted to know, does a 57% rise in racist attacks or a likely recession help the working class? The effect of withdrawal was to “rip away the top layer” of pro-capitalist institutions, while leaving untouched the pro-capitalist UK.
An SWP comrade responded to this by quoting SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber to the effect that “We have much more in common with people in ‘remain’ than the ‘leave’ camp” (Commissaress had stated she was for ‘remain’), but added rather ineffectively: “We don’t change society by ticking a box - it’s what we do.”
Comrade Callinicos in his own response congratulated Commissaress for her “incisive contribution”, but stated that it was wrong to view the EU as “just another supranational institution”. It was a “major imperialist entity” symbolising the “convergence of US and European interests”, which meant that “disorganising, weakening, disuniting this entity helps our side”. To quote once again the words of comrade Kimber, spoken in an earlier session, “we should not feel ashamed” of the SWP’s role in Brexit.
True, there had been an “upsurge of racism” following the vote, but this is also viewed as an opportunity, it seems, providing us with a “new front of struggle”. Comrade Callinicos concluded by repeating once again that the SWP would be fighting for “the right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain” - and, of course, as an immediate priority building the July 16 demonstration.
Since for the SWP racism is now an issue that is even more central than previously, it seemed a good idea to go along to the session introduced by Kate Hurford, entitled ‘White supremacy and the creation of “race”: where does racism come from?’
She started by stating that, of course, “we do live in a racist society, I think we all agree”. What is more, the ruling class “actively pushes racism from the top” - she mentioned “police racism” in this connection. For anyone who likes to think rationally, this struck me as most peculiar. How precisely is police racism pushed “from the top”? If there were official instructions to police officers ordering them to, say, mistreat black people, then surely we would soon get to hear about it. What we do hear about is instructions to the contrary and an emphasis on ‘race awareness’ courses and the like.
But perhaps the problem lies with comrade Hurford’s unorthodox definition of racism - she said it meant “emphasising cultural differences and treating people differently”. I would have thought that sometimes it is a good idea to “treat people differently” if their “cultural differences” mean that they have different requirements.
Her description of racism’s origins in the slave trade was fair enough, although perhaps she might have emphasised the role of colonialism as well. However, she went on to say that today racism has “changed its form”: the EU referendum showed that it is now no longer necessarily anti-black, but “racism against eastern Europeans”. And, she declared, the campaign proved that racism is “still actively pushed from the top of society”. She stated that “economic competition between workers” was one factor that feeds racism, but those workers do not seem to realise that viewing outsiders as rivals is a form of racism. If you try to put them straight, they say, “I’m not a racist,” continued comrade Hurford. At least that demonstrated one positive thing, however: “My generation sees racism as a bad thing.” So the attempt to push racism “from the top” has not been very successful then.
As one of the first speakers from the floor to be called, it fell to me to break this cosy, dogmatic consensus. Yes, I stated, racism originated in the slave trade and colonialism as justifications for those two forms of oppression, but why is there a need for such justification today? In fact the post-war ending of colonialism saw the beginning of a change in ruling class ideology, which today is obvious for anyone not imprisoned by dogma.
While apartheid South Africa was a clear example of “institutionalised racism”, I continued, with its laws imposing segregation, etc, that could not be said of Britain today, as comrade Hurford claimed. In fact the opposite applies, with legislation outlawing discrimination. And blacks are actively promotedto demonstrate the ruling class’s commitment to official anti-racism. I added that a more accurate term to describe resentment against immigrants would be “anti-migrant chauvinism”, and for economic rivalry between workers of different nationalities “national sectionalism”.
I concluded by asking, “What does it matter if we call anti-migrant chauvinism ‘racism’?” The answer is that people respond in the way comrade Hurford described - “What? Some of my best friends are black!” and we win no-one for internationalism and free movement.
As you might expect, several SWP speakers from the floor were keen to defend the official dogma, stating that it was actually “dangerous” not to call those who are against migrants racist, especially as, following the referendum, there had been a “huge increase” in racism. But comrade Hurford topped the lot in her own reply. To say, as I apparently had, that “racism has ended” is an “outrageous claim”.
To prove that it was still alive and well, she asked why there was no problem with American or Australian migrants. “Because they’re white and speak English,” came her own reply. Without seeing any contradiction, she went on: “It’s OK if the French or Dutch come here” (irrespective of whether they speak English?), but “it’s not OK for people from the poorer parts of eastern Europe”.
Without realising it, she had hit upon a truth - the anti-migrant resentment promoted in the referendum campaign had very little to do with ethnicity or language, but an awful lot to do with people from, say, Poland (who are white and may speak English) - people who are trying to escape unemployment and low wages by migrating to wealthier EU countries. Such people, as even Nigel Farage and the Tory Brexiteers pointed out, may be prepared to work for lower rates than those already here, thus depressing wages.
Of course, we agree with the SWP that the answer lies in trade union organisation, not sealing off the borders. But it is plain stupid to describe those who react instinctively in a sectionalist manner to such a possibility as ‘racist’.
And it got worse, as comrade Hurford went on. Because capitalist society was “founded on the slave trade”, that means that “racism and capitalism are intrinsically linked” - in fact “they build and sustain each other”, she declared. The result was the kind of racism she encountered as a black person born in Britain immediately after the referendum. “For the first time ever” someone had yelled at her: “Go back to where you come from!”
In my opinion, while it is true that the national chauvinism promoted during the referendum campaign had the additional effect of emboldening closet racists, it is nevertheless significant that comrade Hurford had never previously encountered such abuse - “Racists have been on the back foot most of my life,” she added. Which is very strange, when you consider that racism had been constantly and continuously “pushed from the top” during that whole period.
As well as racism, another key theme at Marxism was the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Although there were only three sessions specifically on Labour over the five days, the idea that we need to “defend Jeremy Corbyn” was promoted throughout. In fact, the latest SWP petition - available for signing at numerous stalls - is headed with those very words (perhaps that is why the Weekly Worker with its virtually identical front-page headline seemed to me to be regarded with less antipathy than has been the case in previous years).
However, the SWP’s “support” is rather platonic, it has to be said. That is because the last thing the SWP wants its comrades to do is join the fight against the Labour right where it is actually taking place - within the party itself. While the SWP is happy to go along to Momentum meetings and pro-Corbyn demonstrations, it actually boasts that its comrades were instructed not to sign up even as supporters during last summer’s leadership campaign.
That is because, as Karen Reissmann stated in the session entitled ‘From Benn to Blair: Labour from the 1970s to the 1990s’, “The real battles are outside the Labour Party.” The most important job for the SWP is to “build resistance against austerity”. In fact, said comrade Reissmann, “the battles inside Labour reflect those outside”. The party itself is so full of “contradictions” that “we have to up the struggle outside Labour if we want to change Labour”.
As is always the case with the SWP, the ideas expressed from the platform are repeated in different ways from the floor. So one comrade stated that “People’s ideas change in struggle”, not in Labour Party meetings - especially since Labour is “a contradiction” - a party that “works within the capitalist system, not to change it”. And Charlie Kimber, also speaking from the floor, pointed to the constant pressure on Corbyn to compromise - for example, on Trident and immigration. This, he stated, “shows where power actually lies” - ie, outside the party, on the streets - since Labour itself “has to compromise to get elected”. In fact even within Momentum SWP comrades should be careful. Momentum is actually “used to prop up the Labour Party”, one comrade said, and this “weakness” means it is extremely limited in what it can do.
This idea - support Corbyn from the outside - was consistently pushed throughout Marxism. For example, Paul McGarr of the central committee, speaking in a session intriguingly entitled ‘Solidarity! Politics and strikes in Britain today’, declared that, as well as militancy, there must be “politics in the workplace”. What that meant was that comrades must “take up political questions openly - anti-racism, refugees, what’s happening in the Labour Party ...” To do what exactly, comrade?
This session, by the way, lasted the usual hour and a quarter, but there were no fewer than five platform speakers, who each were given 10 minutes to start with, plus a right of reply at the end. But that did not stop the chair from coming out with the usual platitude about “plenty of time for debate”. In fact there were exactly 18 minutes available for contributions from the floor - nine comrades were squeezed in for two minutes each!
And that, of course, has always been the problem with Marxism - there is very rarely a genuine exchange of ideas. The maximum time allowed for floor speakers is three minutes and it is very off-putting to hear the chair tap on the microphone after you have only just started your contribution.
One thing that would help would be longer, but fewer, sessions - a mere 75 minutes (extended to a luxurious 90 minutes for the evening session only!) is plainly ridiculous. Why not double the time to two and a half hours, while reducing the session slots from five to three each day?
But, as I say, Marxism has never been about promoting a genuine exchange of ideas. The aim is to hammer home the line agreed by the leadership - which is why senior SWPers who speak from the floor in general merely elaborate on points the platform speaker has already made.