Floundering in wake of Corbynism
Peter Manson takes a look at the SWP’s second pre-conference bulletin and the poverty of thought
How is the Socialist Workers Party coping in the era of Jeremy Corbyn? The SWP’s second pre-conference Internal Bulletin (IB No2, November) provides us with quite a few pointers.
First of all, the organisation cannot be said to be overflowing with scores of comrades bursting with ideas. The three-month period before the annual conference (which will take place over the weekend of January 5-7 2018) allows rank and file members to communicate horizontally, ie, across the entire membership, through the three IBs the organisation publishes. However, thereare only 13 contributions from individual members or groups of members in IB No2, taking up only 11 of the 26 pages - the rest are filled with official announcements and the four contributions from the central committee.
The first of these - ‘Building the party’ - confirms what we all know: the SWP, far from growing, is losing comrades to Corbyn’s Labour Party. So, for the CC, “The key question is how can the SWP not only remain relevant, but also grow, at a time when the pull is towards the Labour Party.”
Although the SWP, like the rest of the left, has cheered on Corbyn, it has stopped short of calling on all trade unions to affiliate to Labour in order to directly influence the battle against the Blairite right. It also bemoans the fact that this internal battle is acting as a distraction from what the SWP sees as the ‘real class struggle’: demonstrations and, most of all, strikes for better pay and conditions. While there have been some strikes, according to the CC, “to most people it seems far more credible that Corbyn will dismantle austerity than the initiatives of the TUC and most union leaders”.
The CC therefore concludes:
This presents a challenge for revolutionary socialists. We have to explain why struggle is possible, can be powerful and remains central now - and even more so if we have a Labour government.
In other words, Labour’s internal battle is not regarded as part of the “struggle” to be fought - especially when potential recruits to the SWP are instead flocking into Labour. The leadership criticises those who it implies are not getting on with SWP ‘business as usual’, and who may have become demoralised by the lack of progress in “building the party”:
... rather than embrace the new terrain, with all its contradictions and challenges, one response to the pressures of Corbynism is to effectively run away or ‘batten down the hatches’. Essentially withdrawing from engagement with the outside world with the hope of maintaining the membership of our existing ‘loyal’ members rather than trying to recruit. Perhaps this is coupled with the view of re-emerging once Corbyn is in office and the pressures on the Labour government lead to problems that mean then ‘it will be our time’.
So what is the state of the SWP membership? We are informed:
Our total party membership currently stands at 5,904 - about the same as last year. Just under 2,000 of these pay a regular subscription to the SWP ... So far this year 473 people have joined the SWP, of whom 420 remain members and 125 pay subs by direct debit.
Let us consider the above. First, only a third of the SWP’s “membership” pays a subscription - for those recruited this year the percentage seems even lower. And how does the CC explain the fact that, out of the 473 people who have joined in 2017, only “420 remain members”? Surely the other 53 could not have resigned already? What caused them to leave?
The answer, of course, is that we are not really talking about genuine ‘members’, as the word is generally understood. These are people who have been persuaded to fill in an application form - no more - and presumably those 53 have been written off when local comrades tried to contact them subsequently.
But the SWP’s existing cadre should not be disheartened:
We want to encourage as many newer as well as longer-standing comrades to come to our meetings. Effort should be made to contact all members each week and involve them in the life of the branch.
The fact that the leadership has to spell this out says it all: it is clear that the majority are paper members only, including so-called new recruits.
So what is the situation on the ground, in the branches? “Martin and Anne (Ealing)” paint a very negative picture (only the first names of contributors are given for security reasons).
These two comrades are in fact long-term (and apparently isolated) oppositionists, who during the last decade blamed the leadership of John Rees and Lindsey German (who walked out to form Counterfire in 2010) for poor local organisation. They had hoped to see an improvement following their departure, but have been rather disappointed, it seems. However, they seem to be blaming SWP apparatchiks as a whole rather than just the leadership of joint national secretary Charlie Kimber. They write:
… so far the response to the leadership’s call-to-arms has been muted, to say the least. Raising the SWP banner in a town, with stalls and branch meetings, and also getting involved in the vital united front work is hard for comrades, but is more than possible. The movement is everywhere. There is nothing in the outside world stopping us doing this. The only obstruction, we would argue, is internal to the party.
In essence, there are still comrades who, if they’re honest, regard this as ‘low level work’, done by ‘low level people’ ... In their view, a good, superior comrade is one that appears in brief cameo roles, talking down to people, accepting the plaudits and then retiring for long periods of inactivity.
Back in the 80s, claim Martin and Anne, “A layer of comrades appointed themselves as ‘trustees’”, who “felt themselves innately superior and tended to be haughty, humourless and often ‘too important to be civil’ to active members, who they shamefully referred to as ‘foot-soldiers’”. As a result, “the growth of local organisation with an active, thinking membership was seriously hampered”. In addition, “The old leadership unhelpfully bungled the turn to the movement by diluting our unique politics in our publications and, even worse, closing down the branches.”
So what is the situation now? They claim: “Unfortunately the old mindset is still alive and now bolstered by further generations of trustees - still remaining aloof from collective organisation, still promoting themselves and still devaluing both branch and members.”
Martin and Anne allege that there was a brief period of three years when “our little branch was able to flourish” because it was “free of trustees”:
It could build, hold at least two sales and a branch meeting every week, and be centrally involved in united front activity. Just five or six various regular comrades worked miracles. But despite this there was constant veiled criticism and disparagement from trustees on the sidelines, of course always too busy themselves to show how it should be done. An active branch disconcerts local trustees. It inadvertently questions their commitment and political grasp.
As a result last September the conservative mindset asserted itself and took over the branch … As a result, meetings now are intermittent ... and the trustee-led branch has been largely inactive in local united front activity …
In our area there had been 12 active branches, but now there are none.
Martin and Anne say that this process and the ensuing demoralising “has been so unrelenting and for so long that there is hardly a rank-and-file membership left to do the necessary work”. They conclude: “We have somehow to break with the downturn mindset of celebrity, pecking orders and the denigration of the membership.”
Of course, it is impossible to judge how accurate all this is. But presumably there must be at least an element of truth, as far as local organisation is concerned, and what they say must surely reflect the low level of activity and the lack of enthusiasm amongst the rank and file.
‘Most pressing task’
As with IB No1, the issue that dominates the November bulletin is, of course, racism and the SWP’s number-one priority: building its “united front”, Stand Up To Racism. By the way, three north London comrades, in a piece headed ‘Hackney Stand Up To Racism’ describe SUTR as a “real united front”. After all, “The Greens (and even one Lib Dem supporter) have … been involved.”
This reveals the dire political impoverishment represented by today’s SWP. For orthodox Marxists, certainly as formulated by the executive committee of the Communist International in December 1921, the term ‘united front’ refers exclusively to an alliance between real working class formations, ie, parties, whose aim is actually to expose the shortcomings of the reformists and win their followers over to revolutionary politics.
But that is the exact opposite of SWP practice. Not only do SWP-sponsored organisations like SUTR attempt to bring together groups and individuals from as broad a background as possible - there is no reason why, say, a local Tory ‘anti-racist’ could not be invited to speak at a SUTR event - but the SWP makes no attempt to base its toy town ‘united front’ on class questions. Far from it. That would defeat the purpose - which is to establish a liberal grouping, out of which the SWP hopes to recruit ones and twos.
And for this purpose anti-racism is just the issue. After all, who is not against racism today? The CC states:
We have identified that racism and resistance to it has become a central feature in Britain. That means every branch should be involved in anti-racist activity - crucially working alongside others to build SUTR at a local level.
However, in order to persuade us, against all the evidence, that the rise in racism has become “a central feature in Britain”, the SWP is forced to redefine the term, so that it now means opposition to immigration. The SWP has long taken the correct, principled stance against all immigration controls and for the free movement of people. But is it really a good idea to dub the vast majority of workers, who have not yet been won to this principled Marxist approach, ‘racist’ - or at least imply that they are still influenced by racist ideas?
In its long (and boring) contribution entitled ‘Fighting racism and fascism’, the CC reports: “Throughout 2017 we have argued that building Stand Up To Racism … into a mass anti-racist movement, alongside other activists, is the most urgent and pressing task facing us.” But it provides no compelling arguments either to support its claim that racism is on the rise or to back up its line that building a “mass anti-racist movement” is “the most urgent and pressing task facing us”.
This issue dominates all of the CC’s articles in IB No2. For example, in ‘Socialist Worker online and social media’ the leadership lists the 12 most important immediate tasks of the SWP weekly paper. Of these, no fewer than six are connected to building SUTR and anti-racism.
Similarly in ‘Politics in the workplace’, the leadership argues that “racism in its multiple and overlapping forms has become a constant feature of politics in Britain and in different ways this seeps into the workplace and is raised in debates inside the unions”. The CC states:
Whether it is the argument that migrants lower wages, whether freedom of movement for EU nationals should continue or be curbed after Britain leaves the European Union, demands to turn healthworkers into immigration officers by checking passports before providing free healthcare, to the pressures on public-sector workers to comply with the Islamophobic demands of the Prevent programme, building solidarity with refugees trapped in Calais and across Northern France, such questions are inescapable.
Note that none of the issues listed are examples of racism proper, as the term is usually understood. For example, how can opposition to the immigration of (overwhelmingly white) EU nationals be described in that way, however reactionary its advocates are? While I agree that the effect of the Prevent programme is “Islamophobic”, the only argument I have come across which equates Islamophobia with racism is that most Muslims have dark skin. Yes, but they are being targeted for their religion - backed up by the implied claim that Islam per se provides a breeding ground for the likes of Islamic State.
Despite all this, the CC urges the membership: “Every comrade in a workplace can raise anti-racist arguments and try to get workmates along to SUTR initiatives.”
It goes without saying that no SWP comrade has yet dared to challenge the prioritisation of anti-racism in the way I have just done. However, as with October’s bulletin, a number of comrades seem to be implying doubts and are perhaps making such a challenge in a negative way - ie, they argue that other issues are actually important too!
For instance, in a contribution entitled ‘The party, ant-austerity and anti-racism’, “Huw (Bristol)” writes:
That anti-racist and anti-fascist work is very important for the movement as a whole and for the party is in my view not in doubt ... However, I am concerned that other aspects, which can be put under the label of anti-austerity, are seen as secondary in importance.
Huw argues that the two issues must be given equal priority, as in fact they are closely linked:
Our experience of the bedroom tax campaign a number of years ago was that we encountered at more or less every bedroom tax meeting a view that immigrants were taking up resources or myths around Muslims and housing which had become fairly commonplace.
The party rightly took the approach that we needed to both clearly counter such arguments, but to do so whilst being very serious about resisting the bedroom tax itself, and working with those people who were pulled by some of the racist arguments.
Then there is ‘Building the fight against austerity and racism’ - written by five (obviously senior) comrades from different parts of the country, including a certain “Candy (Camden and Westminster)”. Now who do we know with that first name?
This states openly: “Our perspectives must see the fight against austerity as important as the fight against racism.” It berates the fact that “Initiatives over campaigns over schools funding, council cuts, pay and homelessness do not seem to figure much in the party’s perspectives.”
Let us leave aside the small matter of the Labour Party and the fight to build a revolutionary party around politics, not just trade union questions. However, the comrades state that, admittedly, “at the moment the struggle against austerity does not differentiate between revolutionaries and reformists in the same way as the fightback against racism does”. But they do not specify how this differentiation is supposed to take place - especially given the actual nature of SUTR. Perhaps they mean that a campaign against anti-migrant nationalism and for open borders would lead to clear, Marxist and internationalist conclusions, but they do not say so and anyway, as I have pointed out, the SWP does not attempt to transform SUTR into such a campaign.
Interestingly “Candy” et al state:
The party’s trade union and campaigning work is not just about recruitment. It is about developing leadership in the movement with the aim of winning disputes and campaigns in the short term. It [is] about being the best reformists, while clearly putting forward our revolutionary politics.
I am not sure that “being the best reformists” is quite the right way to put it! But, as with all other contributions to this IB, there is a complete absence of any argument for the centrality of Marxist politics in the here and now (I’m sorry, comrades, but ‘Build the SWP’ is no substitute for that.)
This bulletin contains other interesting features - not least the following claim in the CC’s ‘Socialist Worker online and social media’: “We have to win a reputation as a source that is biased in favour of the working class, but doesn’t make wild claims about, say, sizes of demos and, while celebrating every success, does not pretend that the left is always winning.”
Of course, Socialist Worker has never been known to exaggerate the size of demonstrations or the attendance at, for example, Unite the Resistance rallies, has it? We can only hope that this statement underscores a conscious change of policy in this regard, but I am not holding my breath.
There is a serious point here, however. While the left’s insistence on bigging up the events it has organised is intended to act as an inspiration, it is in reality counterproductive to imply that we are “winning” when the opposite is the case. This can only lead to demoralisation. We need to assess our strengths and weaknesses in an honest and forthright manner.
Another mildly interesting contribution comes from “Richard (Coventry)” and his ‘Economic growth, the permanent arms economy, state capitalism and orthodox Trotskyism’. As he did last year, the comrade claims that the SWP leadership is deliberately dismissing the ‘reality’ of economic growth - presumably for the same reasons as it has exaggerated the size of demonstrations. He writes:
For those who doubt that our party ignores the political and industrial impact of economic growth in our perspectives, please ask yourself when our perspectives last took account of economic growth. The answer is, not at all in the last 17 years. Yet the world and UK economy have experienced economic growth for 16 out of the last 17 years.
To put it another way, the SWP decided that its perspectives must not take account of the economic realities in some of Britain’s biggest unionised manual workplaces, because to do so would contradict the theories of Michael Roberts.
Richard quotes an article in the SWP’s International Socialism journal, which states: “Western ruling classes are now beginning to suffer political payback for 40 years of neoliberalism and nearly 10 years of economic crisis.”
Of course, he is wrong to say that “10 years of economic crisis” is totally erroneous. The 2007-08 financial crash forced governments to intervene on a massive scale. Lehman Brothers was allowed to go down, but the danger was that the entire global financial system would follow it. Gordon Brown and George Bush came to the rescue. They went for a ‘socialism for the rich’ and bailed out the banks and insurance companies. As a result government borrowing reached heights never seen before in peace time. Government then imposed austerity on the masses and in effect printed money to the tune of billions of pounds, dollars and euros (quantitative easing). Doubtless there has been ‘growth’. But it is so anaemic it amounts to stagnation. For a system that is predicated on accumulation, that means crisis - certainly a crisis of underconsumption.
Richard also seems to believe that this ‘growth’ is having a serious negative impact on working class combativity - with the implication that ‘what is bad for them is good for us’. But this is also misplaced. Actual economic crises do not automatically produce working class combativity, just as actual growth does not necessarily inhibit it - the opposite could well be the case, and it goes without saying that the subjective factor - the question of leadership - is central in both situations.
Finally let me note the development reported by “Chris and Steve (Southwark)” in their ‘Using a card reader on SWP stalls’. They write: “We find increasing numbers of people who we meet who would be very happy to give a ‘donation’ to SW when they sign a petition, but they say ‘Sorry, I just don’t have any cash on me’.” So the branch paid £37 for a card reader and, although the bank takes a 3% commission on each transaction, things have changed for the better:
Whereas previously we would seldom sell anything other than SWs (and badges) on a stall, in the past week we have sold an ISJ, two Reviews, four Corbyn pamphlets, a ‘Marxism and ecology’ pamphlet and a ‘Money tree’ pamphlet. All of these paid with a bank card.
Well, at least there are some SWP cadre taking the initiative - even if it is a practical rather than a political one.