Not much to say
Peter Manson is saddened, but not surprised, by the extraordinarily low level of what passes for debate.
Pre-Conference Bulletin No3 was circulated to Socialist Workers Party members last week prior to the annual conference, which will take place at the very beginning of the new year (January 3-5).
The current three-month period is the only time of the year when SWP comrades are able to address the whole membership - indeed they are also permitted to form temporary factions during this period. Usually the third PCB contains the most individual contributions, as a small minority of comrades are perhaps moved by earlier submissions to get something off their mind. But there is not much genuine discussion in this one.
Around 16 of the 24 pages are taken up by rank-and-file members in 16 contributions from individual members or groups of members, but six or seven of them are from loyal leadership supporters who are basically echoing the central committee line. Contributions entitled ‘Building for the climate strikes in Tower Hamlets’, ‘Relaunching Love Music, Hate Racism in Swansea’ and ‘Building our branch’ tell you all you need to know about their content.
As for the other submissions from the rank and file, they are mostly either largely in line with the thinking of the central committee or only mildly critical. But let me start with the three articles from the leadership itself. Firstly there is the CC’s ‘Global revolt: youth and students at the forefront’. As you may gather from the title, the leadership is enthused by the climate protests organised in this country by Extinction Rebellion. For the SWP leadership, when people come out on the streets, it is time to get excited - almost irrespective of the political ideas of either the organisers or those being mobilised. After all, here is our opportunity to intervene - unlike in the left-right battle within the Labour Party, where the SWP merely observes from the sidelines.
According to the CC,
An important aspect of this movement is that it has emerged partially free from the restraints of parliamentary politics and independently from the phenomenon of Corbynism, allowing a distinct anti-capitalist critique to emerge, pointing to mass mobilisations rather than the ballot box for real change.
But fetishising demonstrations and stunt politics is as stupid as fetishising parliamentary votes. The main thing, surely, is the organisation, consciousness and effectiveness of the working class. Something that necessarily has to be mass, not judged according to narrow aims of this or that confessional sect.
The article goes on to talk about winning over students (to join the SWP, of course), but the problem is that most of the time those students are not ‘on the streets’ - and certainly not taking part in strikes or other trade union actions (another indication of ‘real politics’). However, “although campus politics can sometimes operate within a bubble, linking up with local trade unionists can be a good experience for students and can concretise our arguments on the importance of the working class”.
The second contribution from the leadership is a report headed simply ‘International Socialism journal’ from the “ISJ office”, which is short and to the point: it complains that “levels of sales and subscriptions of the journal could be much higher”. Apparently a good number of SWP branches do not even order copies of the quarterly to sell to their own members, let alone on stalls.
But an even greater problem is revealed in the other contribution in the name of the CC, which is the SWP ‘Finance report 2019’. For the leadership, “The question of raising the number of people paying regular subs, and increasing the amount paid, continues to be the most pressing financial issue for the party.” No, you did not misread this: if you are an SWP ‘member’, subscriptions (and the amount you pay) are in effect voluntary. So the CC urges branches to “engage new comrades in a discussion about subs”. After all,
Every other organisation does this, from the Labour Party to the RSPB. If we duck the issue we are sending a signal to the new member that we don’t really take the organisation seriously, and neither do we take them seriously. That is one reason why members who don’t pay subs are much less likely to remain in the party.
This question is discussed in more detail by two individual comrades, the first being “Mike (Leeds)” (only first names are published for ‘security’ reasons). In his contribution, entitled ‘On membership and finance - it’s not rocket science’, he writes that he was “shocked” when he read the membership figures provided in PCB No2: “There has been a significant decline since 2013, when I last wrote a piece on this subject: from 7,180 members in 2013 to 6,464 in 2019, with the same low proportion paying subs of 30%.” He adds: “this lamentable state of affairs receives little attention by the CC. I look in vain for any attempt to understand this bleak picture, let alone how to remedy it.”
He also complains about the “hyper-activity atmosphere created by the weekly exhortation to activity on numerous campaigns and issues”. It reminds him of the “culture of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in the 1960s and 1970s, with its daily paper Newsline calling on a daily basis for a general strike; a culture which burnt out and disillusioned their members, reducing them to the irrelevant rump of the renamed WRP today”.
Combine this with “70% of members not paying subs, and about 20% attending branch meetings regularly and only a minority even taking the weekly paper, let alone selling it,” remarks Mike tellingly. He adds: “We were told last year that paper sales are 3,000 a week - hardly impressive for an activist party, when we apparently have well over 6,000 members!” The word “apparently” is highly pertinent, of course.
Another contribution, entitled ‘Pruning the rose bush’, also goes into this central question. It is written by “John (national member)” - a “national member” is, I understand, someone who has been suspended from their branch for disciplinary reasons (such as criticising the leadership outside the PCBs, obviously). He writes:
What we should be saying to potential new members is that if they want to join us and are serious about revolutionary politics they need to show it by making a regular financial contribution. It is simply inconceivable to argue that someone who is committed to revolutionary politics cannot pay a regular monthly donation.
He also states:
We are simply deluding ourselves if we think we have 6,000 members. Who are the 4,000 non-subs-paying members? Have you seen them? Barring a few here and there, you won’t find them on a national demonstration or at the Marxism festival, let alone branch meetings.
John concludes: “It is an open secret that the vast bulk of the 4,000 non-subs-paying members are de facto paper members, who beyond signing an application form won’t be seen again.” You can see why the leadership has disciplined him, can’t you?
Apart from these two, however, there is nothing of much worth in PCB No3. For example, “Phil (Lancashire)” takes issue with a contributor in PCB No2, who argued that the right to form factions should be a permanent one. In his ‘Do we need more bulletins?’, he writes:
“I do not agree at all with this idea. I believe that it would lead to unhealthy factionalism and to members focusing too much on internal party matters at the expense of engaging with the outside world.” However, in total contradiction to this, he states that he approves of another idea suggested by the same comrade in PCB No2: “This is the idea of producing internal party bulletins at intervals through the year, rather than just having the three Pre-Conference Bulletins.” What? Focussing on “internal party matters” throughout the year?
There are one or two contributions that make you wonder about the failure of some to grasp basic democratic principles. For example, in ‘Ideas to improve meetings’ by “Miriam and Simon (Newham)”, the comrades contend that the SWP ought to take lessons from Extinction Rebellion: “At each XR meeting everyone is encouraged to speak, more than once, and they do. How many SW branches can say that? We have a conservative - in some branches perhaps even an elitist and patronising - attitude.” So far, so good. But then they continue:
We set up a speaker who knows everything and an audience often divided between cadre, questioners and listeners. Branches which still have a top table with chairs in rows exacerbate this hierarchy. No good educator just speaks non-stop for 20 minutes or more at their listeners.
What? Speaking for as long as 20 minutes? Never! But it gets worse:
More experienced comrades should not speak till others have. They should listen carefully, they should not think they have to put the whole party perspective, or put the whole meeting ‘right’. A long, very articulate and very correct contribution can kill off debate, be intimidating and can be experienced as belittling for those feeling their way ...
These comrades evidently do not understand a thing about democratic discussion.
Then there is another “John (national member)” - is he the same “John (national member)? We are not told. Anyway, in ‘Challenging offensive language’ he complains about the use of certain words. Even those such as “insane” and “mental” might offend some people with a mental disability - you mustn’t even talk about a “crazy situation”, he says. Crazy.
Then there are the half-dozen contributions from pro-leadership loyalists, including those who like to echo the leadership on the great ‘success’ of SWP campaigns. For instance, the CC mentions in passing “the impact that the party can have - for example, by stopping Tommy Robinson in the North West of England” (‘Finance report 2019’).
In ‘How we made Tommy cry’, “Paul (Lancashire)” concurs. The defeat of Robinson in this year’s European elections, where he was standing in the North West constituency, was “a massively significant victory,” he writes, “and this significance should not be forgotten about, or downplayed”. Apparently Robinson had “a good chance of winning”, needing just 7% of the vote to become one of the region’s MEPs. But he only got 2% - thanks, of course, to the SWP and its Stand Up To Racism front, which were effectively urging people to cast their vote for ‘anyone but Tommy’. Which planet are these comrades living on? They seriously believe that it was the SWP ‘what done it’ - and that Robinson had a good chance of getting elected in the first place. But “Paul (South London)” agrees. In ‘Armageddon time’ he says that “Comrades in the North West deserve great credit, of course, for their central role in stopping Robinson in the Euro elections.”
Apart from that, there are a couple of contributions from comrades taking the leadership’s side in the debate on trans people - ie, against “Sarah (Haringey)”, who in PCB No2 had argued the standard feminist line that transgender men should not be accepted as women in circumstances where they jeopardise ‘women-only’ spaces.
In ‘A response to Sarah from Haringey on trans’, five comrades from different parts of the country (perhaps they make up a ‘faction’!) claim that “trans people, and LGBT+ people more generally, have become key targets of rightwing populists, bigots and the far right both in Britain and more widely”. Mind you, “We should not support calls to no-platform trans-critical or transphobic speakers.” As everyone knows, ‘no platform’ should only be used against fascists. However, returning to the importance of ‘correct’ language, they object to the use of “inappropriate pronouns” when referring to trans people. If you’re not 100% sure whether someone is male or female, just use the word ‘they’ instead of ‘he’/’she’.
Finally there are those long-term critics, “Anne and Martin (W and NW London)”, who each year make use of the pre-conference period to have a go at the leadership. But this year they are even more vague and apolitical than usual. In ‘Party organisation versus fragmentation’ they claim that, when it comes to organisational disputes, the CC tends to take the side of comrades who are “only interested in personal status and pretension to leadership”. This amounts to the “subordination of organisation to individualism” and “the culture of hierarchy and individual celebrity”. An example of this is, they claim, the fact that the leadership closed down their small SWP branch to merge it with others.
As I say, not exactly high-quality debate.