SWP: Keep on keeping on
The absence of members’ rights is striking. Peter Manson reports on the first Pre-Conference Bulletin
The Socialist Workers Party has just entered its official pre-conference period - the only time when comrades may engage in debate and criticism of the leadership before the entire membership. This takes place through threeinternal Pre-Conference Bulletins (PCBs), which, comrades are instructed, “are for members only and should not be shared outside the party”.
Because the 2019 conference is to be held over the weekend of January 4-6, the three-month annual pre-conference period officially began on October 4, and the first PCB was distributed last week. In it the central committee warns: “All pre-conference discussion should take place through the PCBs, the aggregates and the party’s democratic structures, and not by any other means” (my emphasis). It even states: “Motions to conference cannot be discussed outside the pre-conference period.”
Obviously the leadership fears what might arise if debate were not strictly controlled. Groups of comrades are not permitted to discuss possible alternative policies for nine months of the year. Even during the other three months, they may do so only within official structures. This makes you wonder how officially sanctioned factions - which are also only allowed to operate during the pre-conference period - can actually function in accordance with the rules.
PCB No1 (October) consists of 28 A4 pages, which are taken up by 15 separate documents - eight from the leadership, in the form of political statements and organisational announcements; and a mere seven from individual members or groups of members.
Racism and fascism
The two political statements from the central committee - which take up eight of the 28 pages - are entitled ‘The Tory crisis, Jeremy Corbyn and fighting racism’ and ‘Fighting racism and fascism’ respectively. I think that gives you an immediate idea of the leadership’s priorities. While the first contribution attempts to provide an overview of the political situation, the title makes clear that an alleged rise in racism is in its view a major factor.
The CC states:
Racism flourishes and the far right are stronger than at any time since the 1930s. Fascism is a real threat. Nazi slogans are heard on the streets of Germany. In Italy Matteo Salvini menaces Roma people and prevents desperate refugees from landing. The swaggering bigot, Donald Trump, inhabits the White House. In Britain the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, taunts Muslims.
The government ratchets up racist laws, and the far right have held perhaps their biggest marches ever. Nazis attacked Bookmarks bookshop.
It is true that rightwing populism is on the rise, but to say that “Racism flourishes” and “Fascism is a real threat” is clearly a gross exaggeration. When it comes to the latter, the bourgeoisie will resort to fascism if it genuinely fears that its own rule is under threat from the working class. Does that apply anywhere in Europe, let alone in Britain? True, organisations such as the Football Lads Alliance have mobilised a few thousand on demonstrations, but do they constitute “a real threat”? They are currently opposed by the bourgeoisie, as well as by the left.
But “Building Stand Up to Racism in the unions and inside our workplaces is a key task for every SWP member”, says the CC. After all, as it points out in ‘Fighting racism and fascism’, “For a number of years the SWP has identified the issue of building a mass anti-racist movement as the central task for socialists in Britain” (my emphasis). And, in fact, “Events over the last year have only strengthened the urgency of this project.”
But what about the claim that “Racism flourishes”? The CC states that everywhere we find “the language of racism and Islamophobia”. The examples it gives are:
From Trump’s ‘wall’ to keep out Mexican migrants and his ‘Muslim ban’, to Boris Johnson’s “letterbox” comments about the burqa, mainstream political figures are guilty of ‘othering’ migrants, Muslims and other communities ...
It goes on:
This year’s Windrush scandal is just the latest example of how institutional racism exists at every level of British society. The continuing list of deaths in police custody, the horrific treatment of those held in racist detention centres and the ongoing exposure of institutional racism in the educational and the legal system …
The first thing to say is that, as usual, the SWP is conflating anti-migrant nationalism - which has actually been a permanent feature of UK mainstream politics for the last century - with racism: ie, prejudice or hostility against other ‘races’. As can easily be observed, this nationalism today goes hand in hand with official anti-racism, whereby such prejudice or hostility is vehemently opposed, particularly in relation to British citizens. Far from Windrush being “the latest example” of “institutional racism” in Britain, it demonstrated the opposite. Once it became clear that the campaign against ‘undocumented’ migrants had inadvertently targeted permanent UK residents of the last half-century - most notably from the Caribbean - the Tories went into a full-scale retreat, precisely because they wanted to avoid accusations of racism.
As usual, the CC claims that its previous ‘united fronts’, such as Unite Against Fascism, were largely responsible for the decline, including electorally, of the National Front, British National Party and English Defence League. It states: “the failure to confront the far right when they march would be a disaster … They’ve got to know that they won’t get an easy ride if they take to the streets.”
And “the streets”, together with “the workplace”, is where, for the SWP, ‘real politics’ take place. So, for example, while the CC writes, “The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has boosted the whole of the left. We want him in Number 10 as soon as possible”, this has its downside. Yes, it welcomes the fact that the situation in the Labour Party “has encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to be more active politically”, but it immediately notes that this has also “led to a downgrading of mobilisation on the streets and in workplaces”, commenting: “If Labour mobilised a tenth of its members onto the streets against racism and [Tommy] Robinson, it would be hugely significant.”
It really does believe that mobilising several thousand people on a demonstration for a few hours is more significant than winning hundreds of thousands to help reshape the Labour Party and thus tilt the whole political balance. But there is another side to this too. As the CC declares,
In the 10 days in July of Marxism 2018, the Trump demonstration and opposing the supporters of Tommy Robinson on the streets of London, we recruited 170 people to the SWP. We sold over 5,000 copies of that week’s issue of Socialist Worker.
All this shows that “when there are big mobilisations, we can grow”. In other words, the actual priority is a political practice that is more likely to bring in new recruits (it claims there have been 375 so far this year), not one that really does lead to a political shift.
By the way, the SWP constantly refers to organisations like Stand Up To Racism and Unite Against Fascism as ‘united fronts’, even though they are deliberately aimed far beyond the working class movement. Such SWP ‘united fronts’ have frequently included Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, Liberal Democrats and even the occasional Tory. This despite the fact that in this PCB the CC refers to Trotsky’s comments about the necessity of a united front in Germany in the 1930s, when he was talking specifically about a policy for winning over social democrats to the communists - what the term ‘united front’ has always meant for Marxists.
Two other official documents in this PCB are the ‘Report from the Expected Behaviour Review Committee’ and ‘Terms of reference and procedures for the SWP Disputes Committee’. Both these committees were set up as a (rather belated) reaction to the Martin Smith affair, when the then national secretary was accused of a sexual assault against an SWP full-timer and eventually dismissed by the CC just before the 2011 conference. Previously the leadership had done all in its power to play down the incident and suppress information about it.
But what these two reports come up with is a mixture of platitudes and political correctness. For instance, the ‘expected behaviour’ committee concludes: “Comrades should avoid any language that reinforces negative stereotypes of oppressed groups. The language we use towards each other should be respectful and not abusive.”
It also makes a couple of rather questionable claims, such as: “Something can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn’t mean it to be; nor does it have to be intentionally directed at a specific person.” In my opinion, however, harassment by definition is behaviour that is targeted against either “a specific person” or a specific group.
Then there is this: “The decision to wear the hijab/niqab/burqa should be left to the individual, and it is Islamophobic to assume someone does this because it is imposed on them by men or because of patriarchal attitudes.” It is true that the choice of what to wear or not wear should be made by the woman herself, but those items of clothing derive specifically from “patriarchal attitudes” and were indeed originally “imposed on them by men”. Surely we should encourage women to break with such forms of patriarchy.
Notable during the Martin Smith affair was an absolute refusal to admit that some matters could not be fully dealt with internally, and that they might, as a last resort, have to be referred to the police. But now the disputes committee (DC) mentions possible police involvement several times in its statement.
Rank and file
When it comes to the submissions from rank-and-file members, there are, as I have stated, just seven of them. First of all, there are the usual contributions intended to show how well official policy is working on the ground. There are two of these - ‘Experience of building our branch in South London’ by four comrades; and ‘Campaigning stalls’ by “Chris K”, who also happens to be one of those four comrades (only first names are given on grounds of security).
Interestingly, another two contributions are from ‘national members’ - a status that can arise following disciplinary action, when, as the disputes committee report points out, the comrade concerned “cannot attend any local or district or fraction meetings or activities, as the DC or CC determines in their case”.
The first, from “John C”, states that he has a “serious mental health disability” and for that reason opposes the use of language directed against political opponents such as “crazy, nuts, lunatic”. The other “national member” is also a “John C”, who pens a very short contribution, in which he slates SWP members who have refused to “defend publicly Lexit”. It is not clear whether their ‘national member’ status results from disciplinary action or some other eventuality.
Two regular contributors also weigh in. First, we have ‘Politics and economics’, submitted by “Richard (Coventry)”, who complains, as he did last year - and once again at great length - of the SWP’s acceptance of the contention of Marxist economist Michael Roberts that capitalism has since the financial crisis of 2007-08 been in a “long depression”. He does this on the grounds that some companies, and indeed capitalists as a whole in some countries, are still able to flourish. Similarly, while admittedly strikes may now be very difficult to organise, there are exceptions and gains can still be made. To me these seem like ‘exceptions that prove the rule’.
The second contribution from ‘regulars’ is ‘Socialism from below’ by long-term critics “Anne and Martin (West London)”. Like last year, they complain about the closure of the SWP’s West London branch, blaming members who “involve themselves in selected higher-profile work, which is more to their liking” than local organisation. As a result, “branches are just used to support a personal project, neglected completely or unthinkingly disposed of”.
In West London, they write, “the last branch is defunct”. Consequently, “despite there being hundreds of people we can relate to in this vast district, the door has been firmly closed, probably for years, on any SWP activity here”. Therefore the leadership should “drop the damaging, top-down, ‘individual celebrity’ approach and go for the cooperative, communicative one from below”.
What “Anne and Martin” only refer to obliquely is the fact that a large majority of SWP ‘members’ are in reality individuals who have done no more than fill in a membership application form. Some are never seen again and most never take part in any SWP activity or attend branch meetings. No wonder very little activity takes place under the SWP banner in some areas. No doubt, as is usually the case, November’s PCB will give us the official ‘membership’ figure.
Finally, in full keeping with SWP ‘democracy’ and its self-perpetuating leadership, the central committee’s own slate of CC candidates for 2019 is revealed. They include all 12 CC members elected a year ago, along with three newcomers - named as Camilla Royle, Hector Puente Sierra and Paddy Nielsen. The best known of the current CC, whose membership is set to be extended for another year, are Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Charlie Kimber, Joseph Choonara and Weyman Bennett.