Not even Menshevism
Three quarters of the SWP's new recruits pay nothing, writes Peter Manson
The Socialist Workers Party annual conference took place over the weekend of January 5-7 in London and, according to the SWP’s Party Notes (January 9), “hundreds of delegates” were present. So what is the SWP’s actual membership and how committed are they to the organisation?
Well, the “post-conference special” which came as an attachment to Party Notes states:
Our total party membership currently stands at just under 6,000, with just under 2,000 paying a regular sub. During 2017, 511 joined the party, with 128 of those taking out a regular sub by direct debit.
No, you did not misread that. Only around one third of SWP ‘members’ pay a subscription, while the proportion for comrades recruited in 2017 was even worse, standing at almost exactly a quarter.
The obvious question this poses is, just how real are those 6,000 members? How committed to the SWP are they? In fact, as just about every local organiser could tell you, the majority never attend a meeting or take part in local actions, such as selling Socialist Worker or helping to run a stall. They are ‘paper members’ - comrades who have usually done no more than fill in an application form.
Of course, every political organisation needs to have a list of contacts - people who have expressed an interest in the organisation’s works and political aims, and who may be persuaded to support a particular campaign or turn up at a particular public event, before hopefully being drawn into membership. But for a Marxist organisation such contacts are totally different from members, for whom a level of commitment is essential.
For us, actual members have responsibilities as well as rights. Those responsibilities include working in a cell and acting under its discipline, as well as paying the requisite membership dues. For the CPGB, those dues are set at 10% of the member’s income - only in exceptional circumstances (such as extreme financial difficulties) is it acceptable for CPGB members to pay less than that.
Our approach goes back to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and in particular its Bolshevik faction. At the famous 2nd Congress a dispute over membership criteria split the Iskra grouping. Lenin proposed the following formulation: “A party member is one who accepts the party’s programme and supports the party both financially and by personal participation in one of its organisations.” Martov sought a somewhat looser arrangement; hence his formulation: “A member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is one who accepts the party’s programme, supports the party financially, and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organisations.” Martov - with the help of seven Bundists and economists who went on to leave the congress - won the day. The delegate vote was 28:23. Either way, what was at issue was not the programme (the SWP eschews drawing up a programme). Nor was it paying dues. It was whether members should act under the discipline of one of the RSDLP’s organisations.
Throughout this year the SWP has been making much - too much - of its commitment to the Bolsheviks and the heritage of October 1917. The reality is that the SWP has very little, if anything, in common with the Bolsheviks. Indeed it would be an insult to call them Mensheviks.
Obviously the leadership has been under some pressure from rank-and-file activists. They resent the whole farrago of being forced by Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather and the whole SE11 apparatus to recruit people who know bugger all about the politics of the SWP, have no intention of paying a penny to the SWP and will certainly never act under the discipline of the SWP. And yet formally these non-member ‘members’ are entitled to turn up at a membership aggregate and cast their vote!
But the SWP works on the basis of full-timers, branches and districts fulfilling their quota of recruits. And branches and districts (and their full-timers) are deemed to have failed if membership figures stagnate, let alone fall. Quantity is what counts. Not quality. It is, in fact, eerily reminiscent of the sort of ‘planning’ that used to operate in the Soviet Union after the first five-year plan.
Bending to rank-and-file pressure, the leadership stipulated before the conference (for the first time, as far as I know): “Please note that all delegates to conference must be paying a regular sub to the SWP” (Internal Bulletin No3, December 2017 - original emphasis). And a similar change has now been agreed in relation to ‘party council’, the SWP’s national delegate body that usually meets twice a year. The same bulletin explained: “In recent years the delegate entitlement has been two per branch or student group.” However, the central committee recommended that “in future the delegate entitlement should be based on subs-paying members” (my emphasis).
In other words, those who do not pay subscriptions should not enjoy full membership rights. But the idea of non-paying members should be as absurd as members who are not active in one of its branches - at least for those who claim to subscribe to the Bolshevik tradition.
The CC states in the January 9 Party Notes: “We should go back to the 350 people who joined last year who are not yet paying a sub and ask if they would be willing to do so.” However, it adds pathetically: “But we should start the conversation about what we are doing and how they can get involved.” In other words, don’t frighten them away by talking about membership responsibilities. Just slip it into the conversation when the moment seems right. But if they are not keen - well, never mind, at least we asked. And if they don’t want to pay anything, not to worry - they’re still a member.
As usual, the SWP launched its annual “subs drive” at conference. In the pre-conference edition of Party Notes (January 2), the CC explained:
We are asking all comrades to think about increasing their subs … If you are already paying by direct debit could you increase your subs by £5 a month? If you are working full-time and currently pay less than £25 a month - could you make a bigger increase? If you are not yet paying subs could you take out a direct debit?
All very polite, but once again it is clear that the payment of dues is not compulsory for members. Which is very strange, since in the final Pre-conference Bulletin the CC, having reminded readers that only “around a quarter of members who joined in the last year pay subs, compared to around a third of all members”, went on to state:
This indicates that perhaps new members are not being asked to pay subs by direct debit. This will involve a political discussion, but most people know they have to pay when they join something, and we will not hold on to new members if we shy away from asking them (my emphasis).
Yes, “most people know they have to pay when they join something” - a trade union, the Labour Party, even your local chess club. But, in fact, Party Notes makes it clear that new recruits will still not “have to pay when they join”. Incredibly it reported: “This year conference agreed to set ourselves the task of recruiting at least 750 new members, of whomat least 250 pay regular subs” (January 9, my emphasis).
As many readers will know, the SWP insists that its most important priority right now is building its ‘united front’, Stand Up To Racism. Party Notes states:
The thread running through conference was the increasing polarisation across the globe, the rise of racism and how we confront it. Racism is the key issue in British society and responding to it by building a mass anti-racist movement is the priority for the SWP (January 9).
And the latest Socialist Worker notes that SUTR is “a crucial initiative to win unity in the working class and resist all forms of racism”. That is because, apparently, “Racism frames every aspect of political life, and the fight against it is a central part of anti-austerity work.”
Yes, the SWP is seriously claiming that in 2018 racism “frames every aspect of political life” - despite the obvious adoption of official anti-racism by every section of the bourgeoisie, including even the UK Independence Party. As I have previously reported, no-one in the SWP dares to publicly challenge this nonsense, although in IB No2 (November) a number of comrades expressed their disquiet that anti-austerity has been downgraded as a result of the priority given to SUTR.
But in IB No3 (December 2017) the CC replied in a submission pointedly entitled ‘Fighting racism and austerity’. According to the leadership,
The danger at present is not that the SWP does too much to build SUTR, but that we do too little. In many places our leading comrades are too dispersed across many campaigns and therefore do not have the impact in the local area that is possible.
In other words, if necessary drop campaigning against austerity - prioritise the SWP’s most important ‘united front’. The idea is that (despite what the leadership says publicly) opposition to racism is so widely felt throughout society that large numbers can be pulled into SUTR and a proportion of them can be recruited as SWP ‘members’.
Interestingly, in the same IB “Maxine and Amy (Sheffield)” claimed: “no-one can get away with any argument about SUTR being an SWP front - our delegation to SUTR conference this year included nine Asian women”. Admittedly, “we were probably still in a majority …” Hmm.
By the way, the SWP has confirmed that the new CC is exactly the same as it was last year - except that Judith Orr has now stepped down (she did not explain why), so that the CC now consists of 12 instead of 13 members. But, along with Harvey Weinstein, the memory of a certain Martin Smith weighs heavy on the present generation. After all, how can SWP student activists jump on the #metoo bandwagon when they still have the SWP’s very own rape scandal still to be properly accounted for. Party Notes reports,
... conference agreed for the need to formally set out the behaviour we expect from our members in regards to oppressive behaviour. It was agreed to elect a group of five comrades at the next national committee to look at this further over the next year.
This is also mentioned in Socialist Worker, which noted that “a statement of expected behaviour of members” has been prepared “in addition to the SWP’s existing policy and procedure against sexual harassment”. Was that the “existing policy and procedure” that was used in 2010 to defend Martin Smith, the SWP’s national organiser, and to silence his alleged victims?