Going nowhere fast
Peter Manson lifts the lid on mindless activity, an arid internal life and leadership control-freakery
No doubt members of the Socialist Workers Party are thrilled that the pre-conference period has begun - this is 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 8-10 2021).
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 in any case. Presumably you cannot talk about them in private conversations either. Which makes you wonder how a pre-conference faction can be formed in the first place.
And the CC also warns: “Motions to conference cannot be discussed outside the pre-conference period.” So, officially this year you had to wait until October 8 (not a day before the three-month temporary lifting of the barrier) before you could 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”, according to the 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 I am informed that 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. It is hardly surprising that the CC’s own slate goes unopposed.
This year 12 of the 14 members of the current CC have been renominated by the leadership. They include five of the most well-known and longstanding: Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, Weyman Bennett, Amy Leather and Joseph Choonara. Two comrades on the current CC have “decided to step down” from January (they are thanked for all their hard work) and will be replaced by two who are already full-timers: Sophia Beach, who is “now working in the party’s student department”; and Jess Walsh, who is in “the party’s workplace and trade union department”. You can see how this self-perpetuation is organised.
So are the rank-and-file 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 17 submissions from individuals or groups of members, taking up 17 of its 36 pages. But it also includes four contributions from the CC, which use up 11 pages (the other eight are taken up by questions of organisation, including the SWP constitution).
And it goes without saying, of course, that a good number of the contributions from below the CC are written by loyalists, who describe the great successes the leadership’s policies have produced at the local level. There are also a few riding their own particular hobbyhorse, including John (Colchester) - only the first names of contributors are published, for security reasons. John is concerned about what he terms “mental health oppression” and the “offensive, lazy and bigoted language that reinforces such oppression”. For example, in May of this year Socialist Worker published a cartoon with a poster that read: “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”. Apparently the leadership is not aware that people who are actually “mad” might find this offensive! And John complains that, despite all his letters in Socialist Worker and his previous contribution to one of last year’s PCBs on “mental health oppression”, not a single person has ever responded to him. Which is surely damning. A considered reply would not only be comradely: it would be the decent, human thing to do.
Then there are some comrades whose opinions make you wonder how they came to be in the SWP in the first place. For example, Leigh (Oxford), has a piece headed ‘The SWP and support for Palestine’, in which he declares: “All states have an international obligation to cooperate and end grave violations of international law ... through lawful measures, including sanctions”. So “the SWP should recognise there must be consequences for Israel’s continual breaches of international law”.
But, thankfully, there are others. I do not know much about the actual politics of Liam (Plymouth), but his contribution has a subsection headed ‘Towards a really democratic centralism’. He writes:
Within the SWP we have a sort of formal democracy, in that once every year the membership elects delegates who attend conference and vote for broad policy positions put forward by the leadership. Notionally there is a chance (starting from nothing, within 12 weeks) for members to debate pressing issues in one of three pre-conference bulletins.
Within this set-up there is no real possibility for a back-and-forth discussion and elaboration or clarification of ideas. At most I will be able to read a single round of replies to this piece and respond once - hardly a discussion at all. This is a formal democratic process with very little real democratic content. It does not serve the vital strategic need noted by [Tony] Cliff and Trotsky.
Well, that is a good start. But Liam contents himself with saying: “We need to have year-round discussion. At a minimum we need to have a monthly internal bulletin, which all members can contribute to ...” But what about the right to publicly express views in opposition to those of the leadership? And why should discussion over possible motions and alternative policies - not to mention the right to form a faction - be restricted to just three months?
The only other contribution that is overtly critical is that from longstanding oppositionists, Anne and Martin (West London), whose piece is headed ‘The party and the united front’.
While the comrades do not challenge the leadership’s definition of a “united front” - which in reality usually consists, for the SWP, of a cross-class, broad alliance, as opposed to one within the working class movement where Marxists try to win over supporters of mass reformist or centrist organisations - they are scathing about the leadership’s behaviour within such broad alliances (in reality the SWP has never tried to win organisations like the Stop The War Coalition or Stand Up To Racism to adopt clear working class politics; rather it works to ensure that they remain ‘broad’).
Anne and Martin write: “Cliff’s lesson on the united front is clear. Revolutionaries use the various movements to build the party and what we must not do is sacrifice the party to the movement.” Having listed examples of the ‘united fronts’ and campaigns the SWP has worked within over the last few decades, they state:
And yet, despite being active in almost all of these, the party has failed to grow. Quite the opposite: we’ve declined badly and abandoned town after town and district after district. Today we have less than 2,000 subs-paying members and far, far fewer activists. We are approaching the size of a sect.
However, for years now the belief throughout the party has remained that this is not important and future events outside will come and save us. How many more events do we need? The party is stuck deep in the mire and sinking.
Although he does not intend to do so, Ben (South London), in his ‘Lessons from Wandsworth Stand Up To Racism’ actually backs up what Anne and Martin are saying, when he writes of his experience in SUTR:
Of the various things we’re attacked for, the accusation that SUTR is an ‘SWP front’ is particularly laughable in our patch. In the Wandsworth group there is currently just me ... So I constitute perhaps 4% of the activist core.
What is really “laughable” is the claim that SUTR is not an “SWP front” - it was set up and has been led from the start by the SWP. But Ben’s statement that he is the only SWPer in his local group illustrates the point being made by Anne and Martin. In what way does the working class - or even in some cases the SWP itself - gain from these so-called ‘united fronts’?
The CC’s own four lengthy submissions consist of a general perspectives document, plus statements on the Covid pandemic, racism and the SWP’s use of social media. There is, however, a lot of overlap between the subject matters being discussed.
The CC’s first contribution, headed ‘Confronting the crisis’, deals with all of them. For example, it states: “The eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic was a result of capital’s brutal incursions into the natural world, which draws novel viruses that circulate in animal reservoirs into human populations.” Be that as it may, the CC contends that the spread of the pandemic explains why “the ‘Emergency Programme’ developed by the People Before Profit network is so important”:
In a moment of deep, generalised crisis, a programme such as this can offer a way forward for the movement. It presents a series of concrete but radical demands, which, taken together, offer a solution to the crisis that pushes against the logic of capitalism and defends the conditions of the working class.
In reality, the ‘Emergency Programme’ contains a set of standard, general leftwing demands, such as “tax the wealthy” and “don’t make workers pay”, “end the outsourcing of services to private firms”, and for a “massive programme of green investment”. It also calls for an extension of the furlough scheme for at least a year, and for support for “any group of workers that refuse to work in unsafe workplaces”. Yet imagine, for a moment, that all workers decide not to go to work for a year … the population would be starving within a week and dead within two. So, yes, the SWP is pushing against the logic of capitalism but, if we take them seriously, they are also pushing against the necessities of human survival.
Despite that, support for the ‘Emergency Programme’ is the first of the SWP’s three “central priorities”. And the second is - you guessed it - “building an anti-racist movement”. The CC declares:
It is crucially important that fascists in Britain are not able to take advantage of the political crisis to rebuild after several years in which they have faced resistance and suffered organisational decline ... That is why Stand Up To Racism, the broad united front organisation of which we are a part, remains a central priority for the months ahead.
The claim that there is now a “sharpening in establishment racism” - contained in the CC statement, ‘Black Lives Matter and fighting racism and fascism’ - is actually part of the SWP’s dogma that capitalism has always been racist and can never develop its own form of anti-racism and use it against the left and the working class movement in general. The ongoing ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ campaign is an obvious example.
Hence, the thing that is missed by the SWP is the promotion of nationalism by the front benches of both main parties. Virtually everyone nowadays is officially against racism. This makes SUTR eminently safe. The SWP can rehabilitate itself after the ‘comrade Delta’ scandal and get all manner of leftwing, and not so leftwing, trade union officials and MPs to share their platforms again.
As you would expect, the CC also makes much of the fact that BAME people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: “These needless deaths confirmed the institutional racism that shapes British society.” True, the CC recognises that black and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poor, overcrowded housing conditions and work in jobs where there is a higher risk of infection. But for the SWP this is down to “institutional racism”, not class. For liberals - the SWP included, it seems - if enough white workers were pushed to the bottom end of the working class, so that all ethnic groups were equally affected by Covid-19, then Britain would be a fine country to live in because “institutional racism” had been overcome.
Building the SWP
The third of the CC’s “central priorities” is, of course, “Building the SWP”. And, as it points out in ‘The SWP under lockdown and after - what have we learnt?’, the current situation is not without its opportunities: “Over the last few years the pull of the Labour Party was a big factor in British politics”, but now “there are many looking for a new political home”.
And, in ‘The SWP, social media and our online work’, the leadership reports how the lockdown has been made use of:
... a small but significant number of people are joining the SWP online, having had no, or very little, physical contact with us. This is difficult to quantify, but we get a small number of people messaging us across all formats, asking how to join, how to get involved locally and so on. While this is a small number of people, it is higher than the equivalent amount who did so online before lockdown.
This is certainly interesting, but it also points to the nature of SWP membership. Basically anyone who applies to join is accepted, irrespective of their actual political beliefs or commitment to ‘the party’. The fact that previously there might have been “physical contact” before recruitment is irrelevant to this.
The CC also states, by the way, that “the growth rate of our Facebook page during the pandemic has consistently been above that of any other British party, both larger and smaller than us - often by a factor of three or four”.
Another way in which the SWP hopes to opportunistically increase its membership is by stepping up its support for Scottish nationalism. In ‘Confronting the crisis’, the CC notes the “intensifying calls for Scottish independence, with demands for a new referendum, in which the SWP would support the break-up of the British state”. For that reason the SWP north of the border is supporting the new pro-independence campaign, All Under One Banner.
This is echoed by a couple of rank-and-file contributions. In the first of these, Bob (Glasgow), has a piece headed ‘Scotland, the working class and independence’, in which he inadvertently demonstrates that “the break-up of the British state” will not advance the cause of the working class. He writes:
,,, the sustained attack by the British establishment and rightwing Labour (which incidentally Nicola Sturgeon was happy to participate in) on Corbyn and his supporters has completely undermined the idea that any form of radical change can come through the British state.
This is totally illogical. Since when has not only “the British establishment”, but any ruling class, not attacked leading leftwing figures and the working class movement in general? As he notes, the leader of the Scottish National Party (and any independent Scottish government in the near future) does exactly the same thing. By the same logic then, he ought to conclude that no form of “radical change” can come through a Scottish state either.
But, of course, the key to such “radical change” is the building of a militant and politicised working class movement, not expecting it to magically appear through separatism.
Bob also notes that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has indicated its intention of contesting some seats in the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections. But he writes:
My own view is that outside of the main parties there is going to be little room for others to pick up votes ... Our resources would be best spent on building and supporting our united front work, around the Covid-19 Action Groups, Stand Up To Racism, the environmental movement and All Under One Banner. There remains a need for a serious leftwing, electoral, independence-supporting alternative to the SNP.
In a similar vein, Jim and Iain (Dundee) write in their piece headed ‘The Scottish election’ that “our main slogan should be ‘Vote left, fight for IndyRef 2’”. In the absence of the “serious leftwing, electoral, independence-supporting alternative to the SNP” noted by Bob, they advocate that:
... in each constituency throughout the country we argue for workers to vote for the candidate whose record stands furthest to the left. So that might mean voting for a leftwing member of the SNP: eg, Mhairi Black MP ... It could mean voting for a Green Party candidate, or a left Labour Party candidate.
So much for class politics!
But, in reality, that is the nature of the current SWP trajectory: build broad, cross-class alliances and hope to pick up some recruits as a result. As for a principled Marxist party based on genuine democratic centralism, forget it.