From bright young students into ...

Political zombification

Mike Macnair finds the second pre-conference discussion bulletin a sad but revealing read...

The SWP’s stunted internal discussion culture moved in November into the second of its three annual instalments. Pre-Conference Bulletin No1 had 31 pages, of which just eight were taken up by the four contributions from rank-and-file members (including one clearly ‘solicited’ piece of local rah-rah for the central committee’s current fad, Extinction Rebellion).

PCB No2 contains a little more from members: of 32 pages, eight deal with administrative matters, eight are CC documents and there are two pages, carrying the contribution entitled ‘Politics in Scotland’, from four comrades in Glasgow (though not formally a CC document, this looks like an ‘official product’). That leaves 14 pages for contributions from members - five of which appear to be yet more ‘solicited’ local rah-rah for CC projects (this time for Stand Up To Racism and cognate activities), but there are nine pages’ worth of real debate.

PCB No2 is in a sense ‘book-ended’ by three highly symptomatic contributions. The first is the CC’s piece - ‘Building the party: revolutionaries in a time of turmoil’ - which displays ‘official optimism’ and the actual inability of the CC to think seriously. Towards the end of the bulletin there are two debate contributions. First there is “John from Exeter” and his ‘Missing the point’. He wanted to adopt an ‘active abstention’ line in the 2016 EU referendum, which the CC now proposes as a possible line for any second referendum.

The CC had commented in its ‘Leninism’ document in PCB No1 that “it is surprising that so few comrades in the party contested our position, to attempt to organise an internationalist left ‘leave’ campaign”. John responds: “One can only admire their chutzpah. No, it is completely unsurprising.” He argues that effective dissent from CC positions requires the right to organise; and the ban on factions outside the pre-conference period bars this: “Our current ‘Leninism’ and ‘democratic centralism’ provides one permanent faction - the CC - with live ammunition - but provides the membership only with blanks.”

“Liam from Plymouth” says more about the ‘Leninism’ piece. He argues that the working class constitutes itself through struggles - so far, so good; but also, so far so orthodox SWP, due to Liam’s not seeing that electoral struggles and electoral party construction also play this role, not just strikes. The loss of struggles has, he argued, resulted in atomisation; but atomisation still leaves a human need for ‘community’, and rightwing nationalism, etc, occupies that space (correct). The united front tactic was adopted for mass labour movements, which do not now exist (he misses the point that it was actually adopted for mass communist parties, which even more clearly do not exist).

There is a need to use new media in the way the alt-right do, says Liam. This is the usual left delusion that clever media use can overcome the problems of organisation: the left will not, until it builds mass organisations, have the resources to compete with the extensively funded alt-right (etc) on this terrain. The trade unions, he argues, are nearly dead, but need to be and can be over a prolonged struggle rebuilt, especially by fighting for participatory structures at the base. This segues into the point that the CC complains of loss of debate and local initiative in the SWP, but fails to recognise that the structure of debate - for three months only - prevents its development.

The problem, however, is not just the ban on factionalising and its accompanying restrictions on private communication, as discussed by Peter Manson in relation to PCB No1 (‘Pretence of democracy’, October 31). Rather, the SWP’s conception of the nature and tasks of a ‘revolutionary’ party and how to build it logically entails the ban on factionalising and all that goes with it. But, more generally, this conception inherently tends to make the SWP a machine which takes bright young students who want to change the world and dumbs them down into political zombies, who are ‘turned’ from campaign to campaign in the service of the voodoo-magician CC’s latest fad. The dumbing-down process means that there can be no feedback to correct errors on the part of the CC, so that its members also become in a sense infected by their servants’ zombification.


This is made clear by the CC’s ‘Building the party’ document, which begins with the usual ‘official optimism’: “2019 may yet go down as a year of global revolt.” Plainly written in October, the document tail-ends Boris Johnson to demand an early general election “to break the Brexit deadlock” and denounces the Labour leadership for “retreats” on both anti-Semitism and Brexit: “In this context the emergence of the new, militant climate movements in Britain, independent of the Labour Party, are even more important” (emphasis added). The SWP needs, therefore, to increase its involvement in Extinction Rebellion, etc, while maintaining its emphasis on its Stand Up To Racism front: “Our priorities can change with new developments. We have to avoid fragmentation in the party.” This is code for the usual ‘same old, same old’, which the SWP has operated since the failure of ‘rank and filism’ in the mid-1970s: the SWP’s members need to turn, turn and turn to the latest CC fad.

The document claims that total membership stands at 6,464, of whom “around 2,000” pay dues - “slightly up on where we were at this point last year”. We may guess that the 6,464 are really contacts who signed a form in a moment of enthusiasm, while the 2,000 are the actual members (plus paying sympathisers), and that the mobilisable membership is somewhere around 1,000 - the Marxism 2019 summer school attracted “over 2,500” and, since “over 90” joined the SWP there, it presumably included substantial numbers of contacts.

The CC states: “There has been a massive acceleration in recruitment since the start of September, with 146 people having joined …” Two paragraphs further on, we learn that 97 - two thirds - of these are students. Evidently the ‘Delta affair’ has receded far enough into the past to enable the SWP to recruit once again at freshers’ fairs.

“Branch meetings” are central. The members have to “be in the room, part of the movement and getting stuck in”; but please “ensure that our branch meetings are fit for purpose”, since “These are not internal meetings just for members, but should be a place we can bring people along to engage in interesting discussion and debate.” But quite plainly the “debate” here does not mean open debate among SWP members. On the contrary, there needs to be

thinking about how the meeting is run and what atmosphere is created. We should experiment with different formats. Many branches break into small groups after the speaker for a few minutes. There should not be a long and internal discussion in the second part of the meeting. This is often off-putting for non-members and can mean they leave early ...

The branch thus cannot be a venue for either internal debate or decision-making by the members. Decisions go to the branch committee:

Every branch - big or small - needs one. This should meet weekly for no more than an hour. It is the place to collectively discuss the priorities and assess our work. Therefore it needs to involve not only the SWP branch secretary, paper organiser and meetings organiser, but also the comrades involved in SUTR and anti-racist work and those involved in the climate movement …

It is actually rather hard to see how this could actually be a committee, unless it is to be understood as a ‘committee of the whole house’. The CC would then appear to be demanding two branch meetings a week - one that is in reality a public meeting and the other internal, called a ‘committee’. It is likely that by “the comrades involved in SUTR and anti-racist work and those involved in the climate movement” the CC means delegates of those comrades.

The article continues:

Without a branch committee and as new developments emerge, there can be a very real danger of fragmentation in the branch, with comrades just focussing on their own so-called area of work. This would be a disaster and will severely hinder our ability to grow and develop as a revolutionary party.

This is actually the opposite of the truth. It posits that the sole basis of the unity of the organisation is its common tactic. In reality, the point of a workers’ party, including a ‘revolutionary’ one, is its political programme - common political ideas, which are carried by its members into the actual working class movement in the varied forms that this movement takes: trade unions, cooperatives, tenants associations, the Labour Party and other attempts at political representation of the class, and single-issue campaigns of one sort and another.

Moreover, the branch committee as so identified is plainly no more a vehicle for the branch’s members to take their own collective decisions - beyond such things as who turns out to which event or sells papers where - than the public “branch meetings” are. It is a vehicle for ‘unifying’ round the CC’s latest fad or fads.

The CC document on Leninism bewailed the lack of initiative and debate coming from the ranks. But this is exactly the natural and probable result - not only of the ban on ‘factionalising’ outside the pre-conference period, but of a design of local organisation which in itself tends to suppress both real debate, and hence real critical thought, and initiative, in favour of hyper-activism and compliance-oriented behaviours towards the centre.

Single issues

The SWP thinks of the workers’ movement entirely in terms of a movement from one single-issue campaign to the next - and understands strikes also within this framework, because it is only the moment of activism - not the rather gradual period of discussion and preparation preceding the strike - which counts for its idea of working class action. This is visible, in fact, in Liam’s partially critical text.

It also appears in a curious non-sight in the partially critical ‘Bending the stick’ from “Iain and Jim from Dundee”, who argue for a higher priority to paper sales. They are concerned that (quoting Tony Cliff) “socialists need to be ‘part of the furniture’ [and] cannot intervene in any working class struggles as ‘Johnny come latelys’”. But it does not occur to them that this appearance is exactly the consequences of the SWP’s fetish of moving its forces from campaign to campaign at the expense of actually being ‘part of the furniture’ in any component of the movement.

The single-issue-campaign approach is also reflected in the actual limited debates in bulletins 1 and 2. These concern three issues: the Birmingham Islamists’ campaign against LGBTQ+ inclusion in ‘relationship and sex education’ in schools; ‘TERF wars’ (the politics of transgender); and whether to call for a Labour vote in Scotland in the general election.

In all three cases, the ‘united front’-single-issue campaign framework makes it practically impossible to have serious arguments or reach serious decisions. We have had in this paper our own partial and incomplete discussion of ‘TERF wars’, but we are at least not paralysed by competing-oppressions narratives. Sue Caldwell’s piece for the CC attempts at the end to make exactly this point - that identity politics is a trap and Marxists start from the dynamics of class. But she does so within the framework of the dominant narratives of victimisation, which is mandated by the single-issue approach to the problem, as opposed to a party-and-programme approach. The alternative view is presented very briefly by “Sarah from Haringey”: her argument consists mainly of objections to “gender identity ideology” and promotion of the “Woman’s Place UK” campaign for separate spaces. The debate about Birmingham is, again, exactly framed in victimisation narratives - both arguably true - about Muslims, and about LGBTQ+ children and youth. This sort of argument leads nowhere.

The Scots debate at least has the merit of being about a serious political issue. The Glasgow group argues that the SWP’s current position - “Vote Corbyn and support independence” - is right, because, first, “any general election is likely to become a battle to defend a Corbyn-led Labour Party from attacks by the right” (clearly true) and, second,

given the lack of any serious leftwing, pro-independence parties putting the socialist case for independence during a general election, then the consequences of calling for a vote for left independence would in effect mean supporting a vote for the SNP.

A bit late to have realised this, comrades! And all the more so, given that this conclusion is arrived at after five and a half columns (of six) in a document which had mostly been about how there is a great mass movement for independence on the streets which is “pressure from below”. This apparently led Nicola Sturgeon to give a speech to a pro-independence rally (would she really not do so without ‘pressure’?). They argue, indeed, that “In any case, the break-up of the British state - one of the most reactionary institutions in history - would be a major victory for the working class movement, not just in Scotland, but also internationally.”

This is as much nonsense as the argument the SWP ran for a ‘Lexit’, and which it now seems to be regretting (a bit, and inconsistently).

The other side of the debate is extremely thin. Iain and Jim argue for “a vote for Corbyn in England and vote left in Scotland”: this is not “a fudge, as many people are very well aware of the terrible decline of the Labour Party in Scotland”. But then they hardly need to engage seriously, because the framework of street-street-street and ‘single-issuism’ leads precisely to the result: the Glasgow group’s analysis in most of its contribution leads to the Dundee pair’s conclusion.

Time to think again, comrades, about the analysis, and about the method which leads you to political tailism in the name of single-issuism.