A sad state of affairs
Peter Manson looks at what passes for internal debate in the run-up to the SWP conference
The Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference is just a couple of weeks away, so we are now coming to the end of the three-month annual period when members are actually allowed to exchange ideas on a national level. They may send their submissions for publication in one of three Pre-Conference Bulletins, which are circulated internally.
I reviewed the first of these back in October and reported that there were exactly seven contributions from rank-and-file members, so it is not as though the comrades were champing at the bit (‘Keep on keeping on’, October 25). Since then the two other bulletins have been distributed, but things have hardly improved in relation to the numbers participating in the debate. In PCB No2 (November), out of the 14 submissions, five are from the central committee and only nine from individual members or groups of members. But, as usual, the final bulletin, PCB No3 (December), contained the largest number - there were 31 submissions, of which only two were from the central committee. However, on closer inspection, it turns our that, of those 29 contributions from individuals, 11 are from local or national officials intent on illustrating the tremendous success of the leadership’s line. That means there are only 18 featuring some kind of independent thought.
But let us begin with the CC’s own submissions. As usual, PCB No2 gives details of membership numbers and, in the report headed ‘Building the party’, the leadership states: “So far in 2018, 419 people have joined the SWP, of whom 402 remain members.” So what, you may ask, happened to the other 17? Have they already resigned? In fact, if you go back a couple of years, the CC claims that 514 joined the SWP in 2016, but more than 100 of those ‘recruits’ are no longer members.
How can this be accounted for? Well, it is pretty straightforward. To become an SWP ‘member’ you just have to fill in a form - nothing more. You are not expected to actually do anything, such as turn up at branch meetings or SWP-organised events. Nor do you have to pay a subscription. The CC states: “Our total party membership currently stands at 6,101, with just under 2,000 paying a regular subscription ...” (my emphasis).
In other words, the latter figure gives you a better idea of the number of comrades who are actually committed to the SWP on any level - although even here there are no doubt a good few hundred who pay a regular donation, but do nothing apart from that. The Labour Party, trade unions and my local chess club demand a higher level of commitment than the ‘Bolshevik’ SWP. If you do not pay subs, you are not a member. Period.
In its ‘Financial report’ (PCB No3), the CC states: “Comrades still have a tendency to put off the discussion about subs when someone joins. This is a mistake.” So ‘recruits’ are often not even asked to pay a subscription, let alone expected to submit themselves to ‘party discipline’. The reason for this is that all local branches are supposed to be recruiting at every possible opportunity, so there is a marked reluctance to broach matters that might put people off. In fact it is quite likely that some ‘recruits’ who are actually asked to pay up then decide they do not want to be a member after all - that would account for the difference between the numbers who have signed up and those considered to be still members.
The CC attempts to counter all this by claiming: “Experience shows that we are much more likely to hold on to and actively involve those members who pay regular subs - there is nothing to lose and a lot to gain by asking for money as part of a discussion about what the SWP does.” Obviously there is a link between paying subs and a comrade’s commitment, but it works in the opposite way from what the leadership implies: if you are committed, you will pay a subscription, not the other way round.
In ‘Building the party’, the CC declares: “Each branch should regularly check its membership list and ensure everyone is contacted.” That may seem obvious, but local officers know only too well that a good proportion of their so-called ‘members’ are nothing of the sort. Many never respond to emails, let alone turn up to meetings, although most of such people do not actually formally resign. Why should they bother?
As with PCB No1, the CC stresses the SWP’s current main priority in the two other bulletins: the need to build Stand Up To Racism (as a means of recruiting more of those ‘members’, of course).
By the way, “Mirfat (Birmingham)”, in his contribution entitled ‘Aspects of our work in the West Midlands’, complains that it is insufficient to state, “No to racism, no to fascism”: how about what we are for? He suggests something like “Yes to unity, yes to equality” or even “Yes to humanity, yes to love”!
But, returning to the CC, in ‘Students, anti-racism and socialism’ (PCB No2), the leadership declares:
Building on the campuses and colleges is a central question for every branch. There are two important aspects to this. The first is to build the anti-racist movement among students ... The second is to relate to the audience for socialist ideas among young people.
This makes the priority absolutely clear! And, in ‘Socialists, Brexit and the European Union’ (PCB No2), the CC states: “The EU cannot be a site of resistance to racism. Its border regime and austerity straitjacket fuel racism.” A strange logic, it has to be said - especially when it adds immediately: “Our solution is to put forward anti-austerity, anti-racist, internationalist demands that cut across the sterile debate taking place between a neoliberal and racist EU on one side and a neoliberal and racist Brexit on the other.”
In other words, the UK after Brexit would also still have a “border regime”, together with “austerity”, which presumably “fuel racism” too. Leaving aside the automatic conflation of anti-immigration sentiment with racism, surely the CC should conclude that the UK also “cannot be a site of resistance to racism” either. Obviously, the existence of reactionary measures and laws does not mean they cannot be resisted and defeated - and that applies within the EU as well as in Britain.
But such matters are not criticised by any of the contributors to the bulletins. And neither is the SWP’s blatant democratic deficit in any real sense. Outside the three-month pre-conference period comrades may not form a faction to campaign for a specific policy and even during that period statements may only be issued through official channels.
As for the central committee itself, you can only be elected to that body as part of a slate of candidates, and what always happens is that the only slate nominated is the one proposed by the outgoing CC - ie, it proposes to re-elect itself (allowing for replacement of any comrades who are stepping down). There is no provision for individual voting - conference delegates may vote only for or against the slate as a whole, take it or leave it.
This means that the CC is a self-perpetuating body, whose decisions cannot be seriously challenged. It is true that very occasionally the CC organises a ‘party council’, consisting of elected delegates, which is empowered to take decisions between conferences. And there is also the national committee, which, according to the SWP constitution (published in PCB No1), “normally meets every two months between annual conferences”:
The national committee assists the central committee in providing political leadership for the party and reviews the party’s political and organisational work between conferences. Its decisions are binding on the central committee ...
In the event of a major disagreement between the central committee and the national committee, the NC has the right to call a special conference.
I am not aware of any occasion when the NC has actually overturned any CC decision, and it is clear where the real power always lies, despite what is stated in the constitution. And “John C (Tyneside)”, in a contribution headed ‘Democratic centralism’ in PCB No2, makes some mild criticisms (only the first names of members are provided on security grounds). He writes:
It is true that the opportunity for discussion formally exists in the national committee and the party council, but in practice any discussion that might take place there never appears in branch meetings. Discussion which might contradict party policy can’t take place in branch meetings, especially when non-members are present.
There are 50 seats on the NC and the list of nominated candidates (who, unlike those for the CC, can be voted for individually by conference delegates) is published in PCB No3. There are just 55 of them! So in practice the NC, like the CC, ends up by and large as a self-perpetuating body - not that many members take it seriously enough to consider standing for election to it.
However, it seems that there is some disquiet about the NC’s role. For example, “Martin (Manchester) and Esme (Waltham Forest)”, who are the NC’s “outgoing joint chairs” (both up for re-election), “suggest that the newly elected NC opens up a discussion, together with the central committee (CC), about the role of the body and how it is elected”.
For his part, “Pete W (Bristol)”, in his ‘On party democracy’ (PCB No3), proposes: “Each pre-conference district aggregate to elect one NC member to sit for a year, the remaining seats to be filled by election at annual conference on the current basis of nomination by five subs-paying members.”
A recipe for federalism. Surely the way forward is simple. Elect the NC at conference ... and have the NC elect the CC. There should be no need for checks and balances. That can be left to the capitalist class and its two-chamber parliament, supreme court, etc.
PCB No3 in particular does feature some criticism from rank-and-file members, but none of it poses any serious political or organisational alternative to SWP policy.
For example, “Bridget (Birmingham)”, in ‘Where do we go from here?’, states:
I joined the party in 1978 and we used to joke that if it was a Saturday we must be on a coach to somewhere to fight the National Front. When I look back over this year and Birmingham SUTR, it feels a bit like that again!
This certainly says a lot about the SWP’s emphasis on ‘activism’, as opposed to genuinely political organisation - in relation to the Labour Party, for example. What really matters for the leadership are demonstrations and strikes, not ‘boring’ things like organising to help defeat the Labour right, for example. But Bridget points to a problem:
… after we took over 100 people down to the national demo recently, we didn’t get anyone to come to the following branch meeting.
I don’t know what conclusion I draw - other than the question, ‘Do we have to do all this over again next year?’
It is all very well bringing together lots of people to demonstrate against racism, but what happens when they go home? Despite the CC’s claims, they are not flooding into the SWP (or any other left group right now). The action is in the Labour Party and that is what we should be prioritising.
The general attraction towards Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is mentioned as an aside in the contribution headed ‘Space for a socialist bookshop to intervene’ from “Dave (Bookmarks)”. He writes:
The other component of the period is the rise of Corbyn and the mass membership of the Labour Party, including many young people.
One expression of this is the thirst for ideas from people who are new to the movement, but who are being guided by existing trade union and Labour Party members. One indication of this is the significant growth of our sales of Robert Tressell’s classic, The ragged-trousered philanthropists, and by an exponential increase in sales of Walter Citrine’s 1939 classic, The ABC of chairmanship, to young Labour Party members. Obviously there are lots of aspiring bureaucrats.
Then there is “John (Exeter)” and his ‘More on democratic centralism’. Just as Bridget is fed up with organising for demonstrations, John is exasperated by the continued claim that “we punch above our weight”. He writes:
The phrase is insidious because, although it contains a grain of truth, it completely misses the point. The phrase is a blanket that we hide beneath to cover the fact that our punch is weak and getting weaker, and our weight is low and getting lower.
Organisationally, the party has become conservative (with a small ‘c’); activity-wise, the party has become routinised; membership-wise, many of the longer-term members (including myself), have become institutionalised.
But, like the others, he seems to have no alternative to this ‘institutionalisation’.
Then there are those two long-term critics, “Anne and Martin (West London)”, who every year complain about the SWP’s failings. True, they often do propose alternatives to leadership policy, but these almost always relate to questions of organisation, not the actual politics of the SWP. So this year, in ‘Rebuilding the party’, they point out the “great advantages of smaller branches”, where “Political differences and even nuances can be immediately and thoroughly discussed”. But unfortunately the leadership tendency is to move in the opposite direction through the merging of branches. Yet, “with each town abandoned, each retrenchment, the party appears to celebrate”.
Anne and Martin conclude:
Let’s hope that this year’s conference faces up to the party’s long-term decline, digs its heels in over losing any further ground and takes organisation on the ground deadly seriously as the means of doing this. Otherwise the party will continue going backwards, conceding ground and with each defeat claiming, ‘Oh, it’s so much better now’.
A final example of this sort of criticism comes from “Huw (Bristol)” in his piece entitled ‘Social media’. He claims that “Any political organisation that doesn’t have a serious strategy with regards to social media is selling itself short.” And he places the SWP firmly within that category: “We seem too stuck in a mindset that ends up with every time social media is mentioned it has to be quickly followed by a ‘Yes, but the paper is the key’.”
But, like all the other critics, he can only come up with a vague alternative: “how do we develop a leadership that represents the best rather than the selected?”
When it comes to more concrete proposals, a group of comrades called in PCB No2 for a “day school on sexual oppression” as a way of combating sexism - not to mention making up for lost ground over the Martin Smith affair. Back in 2010 he was accused of exploiting his post of national organiser by sexually abusing a female comrade. As a result of this incident the SWP was condemned as “rape apologists” and no-platformed by, in particular, a number of student groups. Several comrades have mentioned in this year’s PCBs how local branches are still adversely affected by this.
The comrades who are proposing the day school also talk about the right’s “racialised misogyny”, which overlaps with Islamophobia. They state:
[This] bordering on obsession towards Muslim women who choose to cover themselves with a hijab, niqab or burqa (recently seen with Boris Johnson’s racist dog whistles in the Telegraph) shows how these people view the woman’s body as belonging to their gaze, not the woman herself.
And the CC, in its response in PCB No3, headed ‘Fighting oppression in the age of MeToo’, agrees entirely. It writes:
When Boris Johnson ... talked about veiled women “looking like letterboxes”, he was defended by some fellow Tories and commentators on the basis of the need to ‘liberate’ Muslim women. Part of the work of anti-racists is to challenge this Islamophobia masquerading as support for women’s rights.
The CC adds that when Guardian writer Polly Toynbee declared, “Hiding a woman dehumanises her completely, turning a person into an anonymous thing”, this was an example of the “acceptance of Islamophobic arguments”.
So is the wearing of the hijab now to be regarded merely as a matter of a woman’s choice? It is true that every woman must be free to dress and cover herself as she wishes, but what do we say about the origin of the hijab as a means of displaying patriarchy? There remain millions of woman, including in Britain, who are forced to cover up, whether they like it or not.
We need to clearly state that the general, voluntary abandonment of the hijab would be a symbolic advance for women’s equality.
PCS and Labour
There is a useful contribution from “Pete and Candy” from the “SWP PCS fraction”. (Examples such as “Candy” demonstrate the problem of the SWP’s ‘first names only’ policy, of course. Even if she was not the only SWP member with that name, I think most people would be able to identify this long-standing leading comrade from her prominence in the Public and Commercial Services union.)
Anyway, Pete and Candy give their take on the bitter dispute involving two leading members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Janice Godrich and Chris Baugh, who both attempted to secure the nomination from the PCS Left Unity faction for the post of assistant general secretary of the union. While comrade Baugh, who is the current AGS, was backed by SPEW, it was comrade Godrich who won the Left Unity nomination. However, since then she has announced that illness is now preventing her from standing for election, so it is unclear how LU will proceed.
Pete and Candy write: “The roots of the disagreement were difficult to identify for most people, and come down to a long-running political difference between Mark Serwotka and Chris Baugh.” They continue:
We tried to make sense of the split in the SP and the union, seeing it as taking place against the backdrop of the impact of Corbyn’s success on the Labour movement. This has led Mark Serwotka to join the Labour Party, and, on the other hand, for tensions to arise in the SP, as they tack to the ultra-left in relation to Labour.
This is a reference to SPEW’s commitment, despite Corbyn’s election as leader, to continue standing candidates against Labour rightwingers - even though just about everyone else, it seems, has now abandoned the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which was set up by SPEW to lay the ground for an alternative workers’ party - in effect a Labour Party mark two.
But the SWP’s decision to back comrade Godrich has nothing to do with the PCS attitude to Labour and the need for the unions to take a strong and consistent position within the party in opposition to the right:
We believe Mark Serwotka has consistently had the best strategy for leading members to fight back ... It was on this basis that we argued for support for Janice Godrich, because she is prepared to work with him on delivering this strategy, unlike Chris Baugh who has tried to undermine it.
The SWP may have stopped supporting Tusc, and correctly given up on the idea of continuing to stand candidates against Labour, but, like SPEW, it still refuses to play its part - particularly within the unions - to help the battle to defeat the right, let alone take any position on the way to transform Labour into a fighting party of the working class. PCS affiliation to the Labour Party is surely overdue.
Linked to this is the SWP’s opposition to Labour’s stance in regard to Scottish independence. This is illustrated by “Bob”, whose surname is actually given (presumably in error, so I will not compound the mistake by repeating it!). In ‘Scotland: the differences and the similarities’, he writes: “people in Scotland are looking for a way to fight back. This has manifested itself politically in support for Scottish independence and now in union action over equal pay and teachers’ salaries.” And he continues: “what has happened in Scotland shows that when working people are given an alternative then they will respond positively”. He adds: “The complete rigidity of the Labour Party in Scotland in opposing a second referendum at all costs is the main reason for their continuing failure to pick up support.”
Bob is, of course, stating the official SWP line - Scottish independence would be a good thing, because it would weaken British imperialism. What is bad for them must be good for us - even though it would also divide the working class in Britain and weaken our united struggle against imperialist interests.
Finally, let me mention the pathetic debate begun by “Richard (Coventry)”, who in PCB No1 expressed his disagreement with the notion accepted by the CC that the global capitalist economy is now 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 he admits that strikes are now generally very difficult to organise, there are exceptions and gains can still be made. Therefore he concludes that we cannot be in a depression!
You might think that it would be a waste of time arguing against such nonsense, but the CC did actually reply in PCB No2. Its rebuttal was immediately followed by another piece from Richard in the same vein - and another in No3!
What is needed is a serious SWP opposition. One that calls for a single, united Marxist party, based on genuine democratic centralism. Towards that end the democratisation of the SWP itself is needed, first and foremost by ending the ban on permanent factions and a commitment to open, public debate between all comrades.