First Corbyn, then us
As the first Pre-conference bulletin shows, Labour presents a huge dilemma for the SWP. Peter Manson wonders if it has any answers
The annual conference of Charlie Kimber’s Socialist Workers Party will take place over the weekend of January 5-7 2018, which means that we are now in the three-month discussion period, when comrades are permitted to communicate with each other outside the official branch structure. There are three Pre-conference Bulletins, known as ‘internal bulletins’ or IBs, which are distributed to the entire membership - the only time during the year when groups of members may come together to promote or oppose a particular line. Should they do so outside the pre-conference period, they risk being immediately expelled for ‘factionalism’.
On very rare occasions in the past the IBs have been crammed with contributions. But these have been times of crisis and splits - notably in 2010, when former leaders John Rees and Lindsey German walked out following the Respect debacle, and 2013, when an SWP leader, Martin Smith, also known as ‘comrade Delta’, was accused of rape.
However, in normal times the IBs are largely ignored and the one just issued (October 2017) is no exception. Of the 18 A4 pages it contains, all but three are taken up by submissions from the central committee or by official announcements. All four contributions from individual members or groups of members are totally non-controversial, such as ‘The importance of fighting Islamophobia’ from “Sophie (Sheffield)” and ‘Building a new district and branch in North Yorkshire and Hull’ under the names of three local comrades (only first names are given for security reasons - although, of course, the IBs must not be passed on to non-members).
If the CC’s main perspectives document, entitled ‘Corbyn, anti-racism and debates around capitalism’, is anything to go by, the SWP’s continuing loss of membership has been exacerbated by the Corbyn phenomenon. According to the CC,
… there is now a massive pull towards joining the Labour Party. Many people, who may have joined us previously, have instead joined or are seriously looking at Labour. So how can a revolutionary party not only remain relevant in this period, but also grow?
Here we can be our own worst enemies. If we start from assuming that we cannot recruit to the SWP, then this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far too many branches have got out of the habit of even asking people to join the SWP (or in some places even having forms at meetings or on sales).
Nevertheless, “So far this year 505 have joined the SWP”, but the leadership warns that “Winning people to revolutionary and Marxist ideas takes politics and attention to detail to ensure that new members are won to our ideas and involved in activities.”
No, you did not misread that. First of all, SWP cadre are supposed to recruit anybody and everybody, and only then try to win them to “our ideas” and get them “involved in activities”. IB No2 will no doubt reveal the current official membership figures, but it goes without saying that the vast majority of such ‘members’ are little more than names on a contact list, who never attend meetings or pay dues.
Correctly, the main focus of this CC submission is the Labour Party. It quotes the Financial Times to the effect that “an intellectual revolution is taking place in British politics” and notes that the general election “showed that socialist ideas can be popular”. The leadership continues: “The rise of Corbyn was central last year, but it’s even more important now. Everything that revolutionaries do at the moment takes place in this context.”
But, when it comes to what revolutionaries should do, the conclusions are dire. In relation to Labour’s internal battles, the SWP does not propose intervening in any way. There is not a word about, say, the role of the unions - the need for the rank and file to pressurise the union leadership to take sides within Labour. All non-affiliated unions must be won to apply for affiliation in order to strengthen the party’s working class pole and help transform it into a fighting, working class body.
Yet the SWP, although it accepts that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, does not believe that the outcome of the internal battle is of much importance in itself. Yes, Corbyn’s victory “keyed into a bitter mood against austerity, unaccountable politicians, and declining living standards”, but “Corbyn successfully focused this mood through his campaign of mass rallies. He did not create it.” In reality, states the CC, “Everyone who marched against Britain’s imperial wars or campaigned and struck against cuts and for better wages, or who has fought racism and Islamophobia, contributed to the June 8 results, whether they are in Labour or not.”
The real focus must be “in the streets”, where, of course, the SWP’s own ‘united fronts’ have apparently had such a significant effect: “The more protests, demonstrations and strikes there are, the greater the gains and the more likely that Corbyn will win.”
The SWP leadership unreservedly states: “We want Corbyn as prime minister as soon as possible. We are part of the movement to get him there.” In fact, “We worked successfully to be an independent detachment of the Corbyn campaign.” But what Corbyn and his supporters in Labour fail to see is that “the key battles are in the streets and the workplaces, not parliament. We need revolution, not working inside the system.”
In other words, it is a case of ‘first Corbyn, then us’. However, “As Greece shows us, the failures of a reformist party in no way guarantee the growth of left alternatives.” So the SWP must focus on the key issues of “migration, racism and Islamophobia”, which are “central to British politics”. That means continuing to prioritise Stand Up To Racism, which is “our most important united front”. Building SUTR, not defeating Labour’s pro-capitalist right, is the “central strategic task”.
And, as it makes clear in its second document, ‘The rise of the Football Lads Alliance’, the CC believes that SUTR should be the main vehicle for defeating the emerging far-right FLA - just as (or so the SWP claims) another SWP ‘united front’ was the key to seeing off the English Defence League: “Thanks to the efforts of Unite Against Fascism over many years, the EDL is now a farcical shadow of its former self.”
Now, however, it is the FLA - whose October 7 London demonstration managed to mobilise up to 20,000 people behind an anti-migrant, anti-Islamic agenda - which must be defeated. The SWP concedes that, including for the FLA, racism “is not respectable, even if Islamophobic ideas are” - thanks partly to “the legacy of the anti-racist movement”, not least the SWP’s own ‘united fronts’, of course.
The CC also states: “The FLA is not a fascist organisation. At present there is a differentiation of views inside its ranks.” That is true, but it is, first and foremost, an embryonic street-fighting, anti-working class formation - in other words, it can be described as proto-fascist. Like the EDL, it may quickly lose any initial attraction, but, if we view it in this way, then surely a cross-class alliance like SUTR (which welcomes Greens, liberals and even Tories) is hardly up to the task of defeating it.
If the UK ruling class were to turn to fascism - which is still a remote possibility at this stage despite the twin crises it faces in the shape of Brexit and Corbynism - then only the organised working class, under the leadership of a mass Marxist party, would be able to defeat it.
The SWP continues to argue that what is bad for the ruling class and its state must be good for us. So the comrades backed, and still back, Scottish independence and, of course, campaigned for Brexit:
We argued a ‘leave’ vote would immediately force out David Cameron and destabilise the Tory Party. We said this could lead to a general election that would give Jeremy Corbyn an opportunity to lead Labour to victory.
The SWP got it all right! Similarly today, “We back the Catalonian struggle for independence.”
In this context the CC recommends an article published in the SWP’s International Socialism journal, written by a comrade called Héctor Sierra. And, just by coincidence, one of the four non-CC contributions to this IB is headed ‘Catalonia: what should socialists say?’ and its main author is a certain “Héctor” (the ‘first names only’ policy is not always completely reliable in protecting comrades’ identities).
He and his four co-writers note: “It is most unfortunate that, as the worst crisis in 40 years unfolds, there isn’t a consolidated group of the International Socialist Tendency in the Spanish state.” What a pity, because the rest of the left in Spain have got it all wrong - or so the SWP and IST contend:
… Podemos and the United Left leaders condemned the police repression on October 1 and asked for Rajoy’s resignation, but now are refusing to lend support to a declaration of independence. Thus, in practice they are propping up Rajoy’s government in a moment of great weakness.
As internationalists, we must see independence as a tool not only to pursue the interests of the Catalan working class, but to spark a revolutionary process in the whole of the Spanish state ….
If a unilateral proclamation of independence goes ahead, demands for its recognition should be a new focus for the campaign.
The right to self-determination cannot be supported as an abstract principle and then ignored when it concretely materialises ….
From a revolutionary Marxist perspective, we welcome the potentiality of the independence movement for accelerating trends like the collapse of the centre neoliberal parties or the decomposition of the crisis-ridden EU.
Note that for the SWP the “right to self-determination” is identical to the demand for independence and, it seems, that demand must be supported whenever it arises. That is because the ruling class will oppose the disintegration of its state and surely, if that happens, it will “spark a revolutionary process” that will also affect “the crisis-ridden EU”. As I have stated, what is bad for them must be good for us.
Or is it? In fact, all this is completely antithetical to a “revolutionary Marxist perspective”. Yes, we are for the right to self-determination, but, in general, we are against separatism: the two are not identical. Our aim is a world without borders, without states, and we support demands for separation only in exceptional circumstances - when it is the only way to end oppression in order to rebuild unity from below.
In reality the battle between rival nationalisms, of the sort that is taking place in Spain and is still a threat in Scotland, inhibits the struggle for working class power by dividing our class along national lines. Yes, an independent Catalonia and an independent Scotland would weaken the ruling classes of Spain and the UK respectively, but it would also weaken our own class.
In line with its usual practice, the CC proposes a slate of comrades which it recommends should be elected to the leadership.
In this context it is worth reminding readers that the SWP’s central committee is a totally self-perpetuating body. Every year the outgoing CC puts forward a recommended slate to replace it - but it almost always consists of exactly the same comrades! What is more, there is no way conference delegates can change the slate’s composition - it is a question of ‘take it or leave it’, because you must either vote for the official slate or propose a totally different one. But if your alternative slate seeks to replace just one or two of the outgoing members with newcomers, there is no guarantee that the rest of the current CC will agree to be part of that alternative.
This year, in fact, the central committee is proposing one change to its composition - the departure of Judith Orr, who “has decided to step down from the CC”:
Judith ran [the SWP bookshop] Bookmarks, edited Socialist Review and then edited Socialist Worker. Her writings include the important book Marxism and women’s liberation. She is a long-term representative of the party in the Stop the War Coalition, as well as her activity in Abortion Rights and other campaigns.
We are sure that everyone in the party will offer her huge thanks for the crucial work she has done for the CC, the party and the wider movement, and look forward to her continuing involvement in the SWP and the fight for socialism.
All of which begs the question, why is she stepping down? No reason is given. Her departure means that the new CC will be reduced from 13 members to 12 (all the other outgoing comrades have made it onto the new slate!) - unless the CC subsequently decides to propose a replacement for comrade Orr by amending the list of recommended members just before conference.