None of our business

THE ANNUAL conference of the Socialist Workers Party - the largest revolutionary group in Britain today - opens on Saturday.

Precisely because the SWP occupies such an important position in the revolutionary movement, the deliberations of this organisation, its decisions and debates are of importance to all of us in the movement. In fact, given that the SWP claims to be the Party, its discussions are properly speaking the property of the movement as a whole.

Characteristically however, the SWP leadership treats the arguments of this group as private property, as something to be hidden away in three ‘internal’ Pre-Conference Bulletins. Yet this article is not intended as an exposé of the splits in the SWP - in fact, as we will show, while there are latent differences in the group the debate at the moment is at a very low level and largely technical. We quote from the group’s ‘internal’ material in order to illustrate important political lessons for the workers’ movement as a whole. If the leadership of the SWP did not treat its organisation as a sect, this is a service it itself would be providing for advanced workers in this country.

Making a shift

The SWP central committee are placing the demand before conference that the organisation make what it calls “two major shifts” (Pre-Conference Bulletin No2, p4). First, a new “workplace orientation”. This is because “it is in the trade unions where there is the sharpest clash between expectations in Blair and the reality of Blair” (Ibid).

Secondly, it recommends a “a shift to address the sharpened ideological debates” that will confront the organisation during this period. If the branches cannot explain in more depth the unacceptable nature of the market or why individuals are alienated, then people will simply draw the conclusion “that if you want to save the NHS or improve our education then Blair is the answer”.

Essentially, the leadership is shifting the orientation of the organisation to prepare it for life under a viciously anti-working class Labour government (which it is committed to unconditionally helping into power, of course). With Labour as the government in waiting, “simply being anti-Tory provides no cutting edge”. Realistically, “for the vast majority of those who want the Tories out we are secondary players to Labour” (Ibid).

Here we have the central problem of the SWP - its political subordination to Labour. The “two major shifts” being demanded by the leadership are actually minor adjustments to the SWP’s relationship to a Labour Party under Blair that it is increasingly difficult to justify support for. In case anyone thought that the SWP leadership might actually be talking about presenting a more fundamental challenge to Labour than either industrial militancy or abstract anti-market propaganda, a central committee resolution underlines the ‘party’s’ permanent deference to Labour as the ‘natural’ party of the working class.

No to “ultra-leftism”, it trumpets! In the previous two elections, “there were some voices in and around the SWP” who argued against a vote for Labour “on the grounds that no one they worked with had any illusions” in Kinnock’s socialist credentials (PCB 2, p9). (And where was that argued out? Certainly never in the pages of the SWP’s open publications. Nor in the organisation’s internal bulletin - it does not have one.)

Today, it would a “disaster” for the SWP not to support Labour under Blair, argues the leadership. Despite the fact that past Labour governments have been “just as ruthless in attacking workers as the Tories”, when it comes to a choice “between the openly pro-capitalist party and a party which was founded by the unions”, the SWP will always pick Labour. Of course,

“the emphasis which we put on voting Labour may vary from election to election ... However, voting Labour has never for revolutionaries depended on the particular programme of the Labour Party” (Ibid, p10).

Some people ask

“how far would Blair have to go before we stopped voting for him? This is a wrong question. Our support for Labour has never depended on the qualities of its leader, or indeed its programme, but its links with the unions ...” (Ibid).

In other words, Blair can go as far as he wants to the right, trample on any democratic right, attack the workers with unparalleled ferocity - the SWP will vote Labour, come what may.

The democratic deficit

Now, this automatic pro-Labour position is important for all of us. In the view of our Party, it is thoroughly opportunist, a betrayal of the interests of the working class. The SWP thus tie a relatively huge number of the organised revolutionaries in this country to unconditional support for Blair, a tactic which in turn helps deliver our class to butchers.

Openness in the ideological and political affairs of the SWP would allow criticism and polemic against this harmful position, perhaps for it to be overturned by opposition from both within the organisation and without.

Fat chance. The SWP regime remains rigidly undemocratic, worse - as we have pointed out previously - than even the bureaucratic monstrosity spawned by the Euros in our Party in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly therefore, like last year’s pre-conference discussion, the main bone of contention between the leadership and what few open dissidents there are is party democracy.

For example, Jon Fanning and Liz Knight (PCB 2, p12) outline the “founding statement of a proposed faction for revolutionary democracy”, a move prompted by “the lack of internal debate and democracy”. Moreover, the authoritarian regime is not the result of “a few bad leaders”, but of “the politics and internal structure” of the SWP, although they do not go into details.

Similarly, replying to the leadership’s article on democratic centralism in the PCB 1, John Page criticises the central committee’s mechanical separation of ‘democracy’ and ‘centralism’. This false dichotomy, he argues, is leading to a “distortion of the inner-life of the party”, a passive, stunted membership and a “sterile repetition of the party line” in place of genuine debate.

Without avenues for proper expression, the democracy versus centralism debate in the SWP is taking the seemingly arcane form of a clash between leadership and a small number of opponents over the Internet and in particular the IS-List.

The IS-List is essentially a mailing list on the Internet for supporters of the Cliff tendency internationally. Use of the IS-List was banned by the leadership in August of this year (see Weekly Worker 107). In the Pre-Conference Bulletin No3, Alex Callinicos wades in to defend this incredible decision by the central committee. After employing some very lame arguments, including the supposed ‘security risk’ posed by the IS-List (as Mick Denton correctly answers in PCB 3, there is no such thing as a totally secure method of communication - the question is how it is used), Callinicos gets on to the central committee’s real objection. He uses the example of what happened to the leadership’s statement banning the IS-List as a salutory lesson of how ‘security’ can be compromised by the Net:

“[It] was posted onto the IS-L. From there it was taken by an ex-member of the SWP involved in a group hostile to the party and posted elsewhere on the Internet”, (PCB 3, p9).

... and eventually found its way into the pages of the Weekly Worker, he might have added.

The central committee statement (pointedly reprinted after a pro-IS-List contribution in PCB 2) puts it even more bluntly of course:

“Hostile left organisations can ... easily penetrate the list and take part in discussions that do not concern them” (see Weekly Worker 107, my emphasis).

In others words, pro- or anti-Labourism, the correct orientation in the trade unions during this period for all working class militants, or the need to develop a contemporary critique of capitalism - none of this is the concern of the entire advanced part of our class. It is the ‘concern’ only of the SWP central committee, the one body allowed to think, debate and decide.

These are not ‘security’ questions, comrades! They are the vital issues that our movement as a whole must debate.

SWP members must break this autocratic monopoly. It has reduced them for the most part to pliant footsoldiers for the shifting perspectives of the leadership - witness the generally low-level, technical contributions that predominate in the pre-conference ‘debate’ again this year.

Thus, this year’s conference is unlikely to see any major challenge to the leadership from an atomised opposition - complaints reach us already that it is once more planned as a rally rather than a genuine forum for the organisation to decide its course. Yet this opposition to the leadership - and it is certainly growing - must start planning a far more coherent political challenge to the central committee mandarins.

Before the SWP can be made a genuine organisation of the working class, it must be reclaimed by its own members. Given the central position of the SWP in the revolutionary movement, that struggle is an important one for all of us.

Mark Fischer