Fake democracy, bad theory
Peter Manson looks at the contents of the Socialist Workers Party's first pre-conference bulletin.
The Socialist Workers Party has just entered its three-month “pre-conference discussion” period, when members are permitted, for the only time during the year, to submit their thoughts, proposals and criticisms to their comrades across the country. As the next SWP conference will take place in London over the weekend of January 6-8 2017, the discussion period officially began on October 6.
To facilitate this, the leadership distributes to all members three Pre-Conference Bulletins (PCBs). The first one, issued last week, contains the following warning: “All pre-conference discussion should take place through the PCBs, the aggregates and the party’s democratic structures, and not by any other means” (original emphasis).
So, I suppose, if you and your partner are both SWP members, you must not enter into any discussion between the two of you with a view to formulating a proposal to be discussed across the organisation - unless, that is, you are both members of a temporary, pre-conference, officially recognised faction. As the SWP constitution (carried in this bulletin) explains, “If a group of party members disagrees with a specific party policy, or a decision taken by a leading committee of the party, they may form a faction during a pre-conference period by producing a joint statement signed by at least 30 members of the party.” Permanent factions are, of course, “not allowed”.
No wonder any debate that does take place is usually very hesitant and slow off the mark. So, despite the fact that submissions had been invited in the internal Party Notes for several weeks, PCB No1 contains just five discussion documents - four extended statements from the central committee itself, plus one short contribution from leadership loyalist Candy Udwin!
Before looking at what they contain, let me explain briefly how SWP ‘democracy’ works. While branches and official committees may submit motions to conference, these are not encouraged. In fact they “cannot be discussed outside the pre-conference period”. As this PCB explains, “The main method of discussion at conference is through what we call commissions. These are documents drawn up at the end of conference sessions which summarise the main strands of discussion and any action to be taken.”
Obviously the idea is to ensure that, as far as possible, the final content of agreed resolutions is controlled by the CC. And this control is also exercised in the way the CC itself is elected:
The outgoing central committee selects and circulates a provisional slate for the new CC at the beginning of the period for pre-conference discussion. This is then discussed at the district aggregates, where comrades can propose alternative slates. At the conference the outgoing CC proposes a final slate (which may have changed as a result of the pre-conference discussion). This slate, along with any other that is supported by a minimum of five delegates, is discussed and voted on by conference.
In reality, the CC is a self-perpetuating body - apart from two comrades (“Jo C” and “Paul McG”), who are “stepping down due to other commitments”, the CC’s slate for the incoming committee is identical to the existing one, with the addition of a new comrade, Lewis Nielsen, who “has worked in the student department and in a number of other roles”. This means that the number of CC members, including joint national secretaries Charlie Kimber and Amy Leather, will be reduced from 14 to 13.
Note, however, that members cannot vote for CC members as individuals - only for a whole slate. Theoretically, I suppose, it is possible to vote off individual members by proposing an ‘alternative slate’ that excludes them - but what if the other CC members decline to be nominated for such a rival slate? In practice, the CC election comes down to ‘take it or leave it’.
Two main strands
What of the leadership’s political proposals? In this PCB they are totally dominated by two issues, as can be gleaned from the title of three of the CC contributions: ‘Jeremy Corbyn, anti-racism and the struggle today’, ‘Racism and fascism’ and ‘The limits of reformism’ (the fourth CC document is entitled ‘Socialist Worker, the website and social media’). As a result, there is much overlapping and indeed repetition of ideas concerning the two main strands of discussion: the Labour Party and the SWP’s latest “united front”, Stand Up To Racism.
Dealing with Labour first, the CC states that “the socialist left is renewing itself around Corbyn and the Labour Party”, which means there are “major opportunities and important challenges”. In fact, “How the SWP relates to this is the crucial test we face over the coming period.” And how it intends to do so is unsurprising: “we insist that translating the mood around Corbyn into increased struggle on the streets and in the workplaces will have the decisive bearing on the outcome of that battle” within Labour. In other words, forget the politics - it’s the movement that counts!
There is, however, “a huge new audience for socialist ideas”, so SWP members must make themselves busy “finding out about key local CLP meetings - and developing contacts and a sense of what’s happening inside the local Labour Party - and selling Socialist Worker outside ...”
The CC asks: “How can we build a revolutionary party in the era of Corbynism?” The answer is that “we need to go on a journey alongside those enthused by Corbyn. Working with them, but discussing things like: What do we mean by socialism? How can it be achieved?”
This, in turn, leads to a discussion in ‘The limits of reformism’ on the importance of united front work - and one ‘united front’ in particular, of course. But first the CC tries to justify its position of keeping its distance from the struggle within the Labour Party itself: “… those activists drawn into the Labour Party tend to become habituated into the cycle of electoral work, canvassing, phoning voters, delivering leaflets and so on, potentially pulling them away from other battles in the working class”: ie, battles “on the streets” like building for the next demonstration.
Incredibly, the CC actually bemoans the fact that:
the focus of activists can become one of winning changes within the reformist party itself. So, while the SWP defends the idea of rightwing Labour MPs being deselected, if the major focus of large sections of the left over the coming months is to fight for this, at the expense of mobilising against racism or against austerity, it will weaken the very movements out of which Corbynism draws its support.
Although, in theory, it is “sometimes, though not always, tactically necessary to participate in broader left reformist formations”, that does not apply to Labour: what the CC describes as “collaboration between reformists and revolutionaries” should not “take the form of entry into the Labour Party”. Surely the idea of focussing on the Labour Party is to win over the reformists to Marxism, not keep them as they are for the sake of the latest SWP ‘united front’.
The CC even imagines a scenario where the Labour left wins the internal battle and the right departs. But, even in circumstances where “organised socialist groups” were allowed to enter the new party that emerges from such a split, “it is far from automatic that revolutionaries should attempt to join such a formation”. And, just to repeat, “Joint work with reformists will instead be based on the application of the united front tactic.”
Which, of course, brings us to SUTR. While “even our most successful united front, the Stop the War Coalition, could only draw in the most left elements of the Labour Party”, things are now looking better, after “the leader of the Labour Party, who has the active support of vast numbers of members, accepted an invitation to speak at the Stand Up To Racism conference, in which we play a crucial role”. Which means that “the arena where we are likely to come into the greatest contact with Corbyn supporters is around anti-racist work through Stand Up To Racism”.
It goes without saying that building this “key united front” - this “most important united front we are involved in” - is “a central strategic task”. After all, everyone knows that racism is on the rise as a result of the ruling class seeking to foment it - at least as far as the SWP is concerned. For example, “The Tory conference marked a shift by May away from pitching to enter the single market and towards a racist agenda of curbing immigration and hounding migrants.” Meanwhile, even Angela Rayner has said that “there must be ‘controls’ on immigration to address people’s concerns about ‘unvetted’ immigration”.
Against a background where “Institutional racism is a major factor in the lives of millions of people in Britain”, there was a further upsurge as a result of the EU referendum campaign: “The general level of racist rhetoric was so appalling that it helped to inspire the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by someone who claimed to be defending Britain against ‘traitors’.”
Leaving aside the fact that the SWP leadership is, as usual, conflating racism with anti-migrant chauvinism and national sectionalism, all this is said to underline “the necessity of building a mass anti-racist movement, as Stand Up To Racism is attempting to do”. The CC makes clear that Unite Against Fascism has very much been relegated. While “it is still crucial to build UAF and to mobilise whenever the Nazis take to the streets”, the priority right now is to make SUTR a major force: “Every time you get on a bus or a train there should be people wearing Stand Up To Racism badges and stickers (just like at the height of the [Anti-Nazi League] and Stop the War).”
In relation to SUTR, the CC explains: “The united front tactic has always been about attempting to unite revolutionaries with all or part of mass, reformist organisations around common struggle over key issues.” To do what exactly? Surely the idea is to expose the shortcomings of reformist leaders and win over the mass of their followers to Marxism. But not for the SWP:
The important thing is that, whatever our differences, we work and act together. This process of debate and discussion within a movement is a sign of its genuine breadth; it shows that it isn’t a ‘front’ for any one political group.
Of course not. Who on earth could possibly say that about SUTR? But, when it comes to unintentional irony, the above comment cannot quite match the description of the SWP’s paper: “Socialist Worker has bias - towards the working class and the oppressed - but is rigorous about telling it like it is and not exaggerating or fawning.”
Not exaggerating? Not even when it claimed that there were “more than 1,600” people at the October 8 SUTR event, although the hall they were in only holds “up to 1,000”?
But, returning to the ‘united front’ question, though the CC talks about it in theoretical terms as a tactic for engaging with reformists, this in practice merges seamlessly into the insistence that it is necessary to work with the leaders of organisations not connected to the working class movement, such as Muslim faith groups and Greens. The CC states:
We argue in SUTR to invite high-profile speakers …. We should encourage SUTR groups to write to all local MPs, MEPs and councillors to ask them to support SUTR locally …. Contact Muslim organisations in your area, such as Mend [Muslim Engagement and Development]. Think about other organisations and charities that help refugees and invite them” (my emphasis).
Far from being a tactic designed to strengthen and embolden the working class, in the hands of the SWP the ‘united front’ is merely a device to create and maintain the broadest possible organisation, from which the SWP itself can recruit