Pretence of democracy
Peter Manson reports on the first of three SWP pre-conference internal bulletins.
No doubt members of the Socialist Workers Party were pleased that the pre-conference period began at the beginning of October - the only time of the year when they can put their viewpoint before the entire membership in one of the three Pre-Conference Bulletins (PCBs). During this three-month period only, they are also permitted to form temporary factions - but, of course, these must be disbanded immediately after the annual conference has taken place (this time being held over the weekend of January 3-5).
Even during the pre-conference period, debate is not exactly free and open. The central committee warns in its ‘Guide to SWP national conference’ in October’s PCB: “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). So you cannot circulate your views by email or state them at a public meeting - not if they differ from those of the leadership anyway. Presumably you cannot talk about them in private conversations either.
And the CC also warns: “Motions to conference cannot be discussed outside the pre-conference period.” So, officially you have to wait until the beginning of October before you can engage in any way with comrades who may share your views, if they diverge from those of the leadership.
You can also stand for the national committee - a subsidiary body to the CC, which “normally meets every two months between annual conferences” (constitution). Mind you, “Each candidate should submit up to 50 words explaining why they should be on the NC. Please do not submit more than 50 words.” That should be enough, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, the self-perpetuating CC is in complete charge. I say ‘self-perpetuating’, because no-one can stand for election to it as an individual, but only as part of a complete slate for the entire committee. So the existing CC will recommend its own re-election (with perhaps one or two proposed changes) and conference delegates must decide whether to vote for the CC slate, take it or leave it. Members can, of course, propose an alternative slate - but all those nominated must agree to be part of it. Which means that in effect you cannot nominate any existing CC members if you oppose others.
So are the members champing at the bit, just waiting for the moment when they can put their alternative views to fellow comrades (the PCBs are “for members only and should not be shared outside the party”)? Not exactly. PCB No1 carries just five submissions from individuals or groups of members, taking up less than eight of its 32 pages. But it also includes five contributions from the CC, taking up 14 pages (the other 10 pages are taken up by questions of organisation, including the SWP constitution). The leadership’s five lengthy statements concern the current overall situation and SWP perspectives; climate protests; racism; LGBT+ education; and - perhaps most interestingly - Leninism.
Let us start with this statement, which is entitled ‘Is there a future for Leninism?’ It tries to deal with the various splits that have affected the international revolutionary left, including the SWP itself and its International Socialist Tendency, and argues that only the SWP, as currently organised, can lay the basis for the mass party we need.
The SWP has, of course, faced a series of recent splits. In 2010 the former leadership around John Rees and Lindsey German quit to form Counterfire, and then a major scandal erupted in 2013, when former national secretary Martin Smith was accused of sexually assaulting a female SWP worker and the CC had clearly attempted to cover the whole thing up. Having mentioned this scandal in passing, without going into any details, the CC refers to “three small splits even before 2013, each centred on groups of comrades seeking to substitute various social movements (electoral formations, anti-austerity movements, etc) for the patient work of building Leninist organisation”.
The particular ‘electoral formation’ was, of course, George Galloway’s Respect, which the SWP under Rees and German effectively ran - apparently with the support of the rest of the leadership at the time. I am not aware of any retrospective criticism by the subsequent leadership of the overall SWP policy during the Respect period. Is the CC now implying that the SWP departed from Leninism at that time?
What does the CC understand by ‘Leninism’ anyway? It states: “Leninism begins from the central concept of Marxism: the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself.” It also “binds together lessons derived from the history of proletarian struggle, concentrated in theory, with the vitalising element of struggle in the here and now”.
It goes on:
We still believe that a mass revolutionary party is an indispensable prerequisite for a successful socialist revolution. The SWP is not that mass party, but without attempting to build some sort of Leninist organisation it is not clear how the seeds of such a party can be sown.
It claims that there are “two important elements to Leninism: the relationship of party to the class and the centrality of politics within the workers’ movement”. And that is it.
However, in my view Leninism relates either to the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks prior to the civil war in Russia, or the theory and practice of the civil-war period, as encoded in the theses and resolutions in the second and third congresses of the Communist International. Because of civil war the Bolsheviks were forced to militarise themselves. They also believed, not without foundation, that the world stood on the cusp of revolution, and that, consequently, the newly formed communist parties should organise along similar lines. This was a mistake, and one, regrettably, never corrected. Of course, Stalin built a terrible police regime in the Communist Party of Russia. But his left opponents, including what became the SWP, operate in a spirit that is a million miles away from the pre-civil war Bolsheviks. What they operate has precious little to do with democratic centralism.
True, the phrase ‘democratic centralism’ is not mentioned by the SWP’s CC here, despite the fact that the statement carries a subsection headed ‘Democracy and centralism’. Instead, it talks in vague terms about the relationship between the leadership and rank and file. Sometimes the leadership, it declares,
must respond to real pressures emerging from members, as they seek to implement the party’s perspective, re-orientating accordingly. At other times it must resist such pressures to avoid simply adapting to movements. This is a question of judgement - the ‘art’, rather than the science, of Leninism.
This vagueness stands in contrast to what Lenin wrote on democratic centralism:
... only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the party ... The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the party.1
And that, of course, stands also in contrast to the SWP’s practice - that of top-down bureaucratic centralism.
Climate and racism
As for the other CC statements, they are very much par for the course. What we need is mass action on the streets - which is why the leadership welcomes unreservedly the protests organised by Extinction Rebellion: “Now it might be said that another great power has arisen: the people who are not prepared to watch the planet burn and become uninhabitable for hundreds of millions of people.” The September 20 climate strikes were “an amazing global day of action and revolt” - “a timely reminder that feet on the streets can change the political atmosphere”.
But what about the politics of XR and those it mobilises? Do they really make up a “great power”? Yes, XR acts as a form of pressure on capital and the state, but to do what? The CC criticises those on the left who worry too much about XR’s aims and tactics: “This is the wrong starting point. Instead, we should begin with Extinction Rebellion’s capacity to bring London to a standstill by mobilising thousands of activists” (from ‘Is there a future for Leninism?’).
While, for the moment, organising alongside XR is the SWP’s priority, that does not mean it has relegated the work of Stand Up To Racism (SUTR). In fact it has thought of a way to link these two spheres of work: by campaigning for “climate refugees”! And it goes without saying that for the SWP ‘racism’ can now largely be defined as opposition to migrants. In ‘State racism, racist populism and the far right’, the CC declares that racism “remains at the heart of the ruling class’s strategy to ‘divide and rule’”. In fact there has been a “further intensification of state racism” in the form of the “scapegoating of migrants and refugees”.
Surely what we are talking about here is nationalism and national chauvinism. Is the ruling class attempting to use racism internally to “divide and rule” black and white workers? As if to illustrate the contradiction, the CC gives the following as an example: “Home secretary Priti Patel told the Tory Party conference that she would end freedom of movement ‘for good’.” Presumably people like Patel and chancellor Sajid Javid are appointed to somehow accentuate the divisions between black and white. After all, Patel as home secretary is ultimately responsible for the police and its “use of racist ‘stop and search’ laws”.
The leadership claims that SUTR’s recent conference on October 19 was “a crucial event to map out an anti-racist strategy in the upcoming election and the run-up to the international UN anti-racism day protests on Saturday March 21.” Obviously, while the strategy of the major capitalist states remains that of racist “divide and rule”, that does not apply to their collective voice in the shape of the United Nations.
Now, according to the CC, for the moment the far right has been defeated: “thanks to the successful campaigning of anti-racist and anti-fascists, they remain on the margins”. And, of course, “Stand Up To Racism was the driving force to change the balance of forces on the streets” - not to mention in ensuring that Tommy Robinson got a dismal vote in the May European Union elections. So, whereas “This time last year it was Stand Up To Racism’s main task to mobilise against the far right on the streets, now the rise of racist populism [eg, opposition to immigration] is becoming increasingly central.”
In its general assessment of the current situation, titled ‘Fundamental crises and new strands of resistance’, the CC talks about “the crisis in official politics” as a result of the Brexit debacle. This has “made the break-up of the British state a living debate again”. And, in case you had forgotten, “Socialists should be on the side of those who want to weaken and dismember that state.” Talk about ‘What is bad for them must be good for us’.
The CC also reiterates that, in the event of a second EU referendum, “it is possible that we could call for an active campaign of abstention”. That is because “any new vote will be slanted, anti-democratic and designed to rescue big business interests”. Presumably the 2016 referendum was ‘unslanted’ and ‘democratic’ then.
What about the Labour Party? It goes without saying that the CC does not recommend any tactics aimed at winning the internal left-right battle - apart from ‘on the streets’, of course: “If there is a Corbyn government we will need action outside parliament and independent of Labour to beat back the bosses’ pressure, hold Labour to its promises and to confront its retreats so that we can go further.”
The remaining CC contribution is headed ‘LGBT+ education in schools’ and deals with the protests in Birmingham organised by mainly Muslim parents against the inclusion of same-sex relationships in the local education authority’s curriculum. This appears to be a response to “Bridget (Birmingham)”, one of the five non-CC contributors to the PCB (only forenames are given to protect comrades’ security). I say it is a response, even though the CC’s statement appears before hers, since it deals with her concerns about opposing both the homophobia of the protestors and Islamophobia in general. Interestingly, in her contribution, headed ‘LGBT+ education’, she states rather mysteriously: “The problem started, I think, in that we never talked about this properly in the branch, because we were told not to.”
Another of the rank-and-file contributions also deals with this - and is also in line with the CC’s position. But it is in the name of five comrades from places including London, Birmingham and Leeds. It makes you wonder how they got together to draw up the statement without breaking SWP rules, as they do not appear to be a recognised ‘faction’.
Two of the other three contributions from members are also in line with leadership thinking, the exception being that of “Richard (Coventry)” and his ‘The continuing gaps in our perspectives’. “Richard” has been making basically the same point for the last couple of years - he contrasts the CC’s insistence that “capitalism is in terminal decline” with the continued rise in global GDP and expansion of certain manufacturing sectors. He thinks the leadership has been too influenced by Michael Roberts (who, Richard states, believes that “China is socialist”). He does not seem to grasp that there is no contradiction between asserting that we are in a long recession and at the same time recognising that individual sectors of capital are still expanding.
But, when it comes to PCB No1, he is the only one to oppose the leadership in any way. Let us hope there will be an improvement in the next two bulletins.
. ‘Freedom to criticise and unity of action’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/may/20c.htm.↩︎