Dull echo chamber
Genuine debate is something the central committee has long tried to avoid. The end result is a comatosed membership. Peter Manson reviews the second pre-conference bulletin
We are, of course, in the time of the year when members of the Socialist Workers Party are permitted to share their political views with other comrades, even when they are at variance with those of the leadership. But this can only be done through the three Pre-Conference Bulletins (PCBs) in the three-month period in the run-up to the SWP annual conference, which is due to take place on January 8-10 2021.
But members are not exactly chomping at the bit. In PCB No2 (November), which has just been circulated within the SWP, just 11 comrades (or groups of comrades) submitted a contribution - that is even fewer than in PCB No1 (October). What is more, this time they are all more or less in line with the leadership, including one submission from a comrade who works in the SWP’s national office.
In fact, PCB No2 is dominated by the leadership’s own contributions: 15 of the 27 pages are taken up by either organisational details regarding, say, the coming conference or - more to the point - political statements issued by the central committee. There are five of them, taking up 10 pages, compared to the 12 pages used up by the rest of the entire membership.
There is a good deal of overlap amongst the CC’s five statements, each of them reminding comrades about the SWP’s priorities. In recent times the SWP has been stressing the ‘key role’ of its front, Stand Up To Racism, but in this bulletin a second SWP front, People Before Profit, is being plugged much more, in view of its ‘Emergency programme’ in response to Covid-19,
Thus, in ‘Workplace and trade union perspectives’, the CC states: “Alongside continuing to build Stand Up To Racism, we now are looking to be part of creating a network around PBP nationally and locally.” Not that SUTR has been forgotten: in fact the CC recommends that its comrades should try to organise “workplace ‘Take the knee’ events in solidarity with [Black Lives Matter]”.
And SWP comrades must do their best to build workers’ militancy, even though the CC does not really take into account the current adverse circumstances for union action as a result of the enforced closure due to the pandemic. True, the CC writes: “Mass job losses create a combination of fear and bitterness among workers. Fear of the sack can inhibit resistance, especially if no lead is given from above.” But what exactly can be done if employers decide to cut production or even shut up shop? It is all very well being militant in the workplace, but, when the odds are stacked against you, action in the workplace is not the way ahead. What about actual politics?
Well, at least, the CC believes, the terrain is more favourable, including in the workplace, for recruiting to the SWP, now that Jeremy Corbyn is no longer Labour leader: “... the replacement of Corbyn by Keir Starmer ... has significantly altered the political terrain, with Labour no more the overwhelming focus for the left that it had been since 2015”.
In ‘The SWP after Corbyn’s suspension and the US election’, the CC adds: “Certainly Corbyn boosted everyone who wanted to see resistance and made it easier to talk about socialism. But the other side of his rise was that many activists burrowed into Labour and stopped any sort of mobilisation outside it.”
Well, thankfully Corbyn has now gone and that gives the SWP an opportunity, the leadership believes. The CC states that the Labour left “should be preparing to break with the bankrupt politics of the extreme centre [sic] that is being forcibly re-imposed on Labour and form a new socialist party”. And, of course, “Joining the SWP is a vital first step in rebuilding the left.”
As for actual recruitment, “So far this year 324 people have joined the SWP, of which 185 are paying a regular sub to the party by direct debit.” So less than 60% of these recruits actually pay a subscription, but they are still classified as ‘members’ - even though a large proportion of them have never actually come to a meeting, let alone committed themselves to doing anything at all.
A table is published, headed ‘Where people joined in 2020’, and easily the largest proportion (around 150) comes from those who applied for membership online - via the SWP website, social media, etc. Another table lists the numbers in every district who have signed up and it is interesting that, for some reason, recruitment in London has fallen to negligible levels, compared to the previous three years, for which figures are also given. For example, in Central London, according to the table, there have been no recruits at all in 2020, compared to a total of 94 between 2017 and 2019. It is not quite as bad in other London districts, but still nowhere near the levels claimed in other parts of the country.
Nevertheless, the CC thinks this will change: “Literally tens of thousands of Labour Party members who joined because they were inspired by Corbyn will be questioning their membership” and now there is “potential to win people to revolutionary politics”.
In ‘Building a new layer of student revolutionaries in a time of crisis’, the central committee similarly urges its comrades to take advantage of Corbyn’s defeat, But bizarrely it states: “The growth of socialist ideas among young people has been most concretely reflected in the support for the left-reformist projects of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.” So Corbyn and Sanders are “left-reformist”, are they? In reality they both stand for no more than attempting to win limited gains under capitalism for the working class, and neither has been generating genuine “socialist ideas”. But that does not mean revolutionaries should stand aside from the battles within Labour, as the SWP has done - and even heave a sigh of relief when the Labour right presses home its advantage. No, the Labour Party is the site of huge struggles and it would be criminal to disengage now.
While in my view the SWP position in relation to Labour is bad enough, when it comes to Scotland and the national question, it is abysmal.
In ‘The Scottish elections, Covid-19 and the break-up of Britain’ the CC makes this promising start: “As revolutionary socialists, we reject nationalism.” The demand for Scottish independence results from a “thirst for change”, which “has to be understood as part of the process of radicalisation and polarisation seen across the globe”. Fair enough, up to a point. But things soon go downhill.
The leadership seems to bemoan the fact that “the lack of a credible electoral alternative” has meant that “the political reflection of the movement has not been the emergence of a left reformist alternative, such as Syriza or Podemos, but support for the nationalist politics of the Scottish National Party”. But in relation to the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections, it declares:
We will propose to conference that we should intervene in the election campaign primarily as the SWP, with a ‘Vote left, fight for independence’ slogan. This can connect with working class people that vote Labour, SNP and other parties ...
Yes, that’s right. ‘Vote left’ by putting your cross next to either Labour, the SNP or other unnamed parties. Does that include the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which is likely to contest? No, it does not: the CC states that Tusc is unlikely to make any impact (and, despite what the leadership says about intervening in the election campaign “primarily as the SWP”, there is no question of the SWP contesting itself).
While the CC is for Scottish independence, that “is not an end in itself”. The question is “how it can contribute to the struggle for socialism and to rising levels of confidence and consciousness among working class people”. How indeed? Separatism is precisely the opposite of the politics we fight for. Instead of building unity in order to strengthen the fight for working class power, it creates a diversion by bringing together people from all classes along nationalist lines.
So why promote it? According to the CC, Scottish independence would not only “deal the Tories a severe blow”. But “The socialist case for independence has always been linked to the weakening of the British state as an imperialist power.” The question is that of “using independence as a launch pad to fight for a fundamentally different society in the face of the SNP’s commitment to neoliberalism”.
How can they come out with such nonsense? Why should dealing the Tories “a severe blow” necessarily result in working class advance? What is bad for them must be good for us? How can it be, when it would be the SNP, with its “commitment to neoliberalism” that would be boosted?
Rank and file
Let me conclude by looking at a few points of interest among the contributions from the rank and file. First there is a piece headed ‘Is discussing global population size always racist?’ written by “Mike (Leeds)”. Only the first names of contributing members are published for security reasons, of course (although in at least two of the pieces the author actually identifies themselves by, for example, referring to an article they have had published under their own name).
Mike states: “Many on the left, including the SWP, dismiss any discussion of population size, in relation to the global crisis of climate change and resource exhaustion, as racist, describing it as ‘the myth of overpopulation’.” However, for him, the main problem does not lie in “the less developed world”. The “population size in the developed capitalist world” is “far more important”, because that is where greenhouse gas emissions mainly take place, and he relates this to two factors: first, inequality - “At the top broods a tiny minority with obscene levels of per capita consumption and GHG emissions” - and, secondly, the size of the population. ‘If there were fewer of us, we would not need to produce so much’ appears to be the argument.
He asks: “Can the planet sustain the current population, let alone the projected two billion-plus increase? Most certainly not under capitalism.” Therefore, as things stand, “there isn’t the time, even if it were possible, to transform the hidebound social democratic parties in the west”. Don’t think of working within Labour: just build the SWP - but very, very quickly!
Turning to another point of interest, there are three contributions in response to “John (Colchester)”, who in PCB No1 expressed his concern about “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 had ever responded to him.
Well, this time they have. In ‘Thinking through the language we use’, “Phil (Lancashire)” asks, for example, whether we should “pull someone up for saying something like ‘Don’t be daft!’ or ‘That’s a crazy idea!’” Also, what about Donald Trump?
The problem with Trump is that he is a vicious rightwing monster, not that he is ‘mad’. But it has to be said that he does seem to be mentally unstable. And it is reasonable to point out that instability is a dangerous quality when the person involved has a lot of power and has his finger on the nuclear button.
In ‘Mental distress, “othering” and solidarity’, “Iain (Glasgow)” agrees that “using throwaway terms such as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ to describe the behaviour or the policies of ruling-class politicians is not just offensive or lazy - it’s also bad politics.” But he too notes that “context does matter”. For instance, some people “talk positively about having had a ‘mad’ weekend, comedians will be described as ‘hysterically’ funny, and so on. So comradely discussion will be required here.”
In their ‘Why language matters’, “Ellen, Mark (South East London) and Nicola (South London)” recommend that “a disability language guide is developed”, while the branch to which the original complainant, “John (Colchester)”, belongs has put forward a motion for conference, which amends the ‘What we stand for’ column in Socialist Worker, so that the relevant passage would read: “We are for an end to all forms of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and disabled people, including those who suffer with mental distress.”
Well, that is about all there is in this PCB, when it comes to a genuine exchange of ideas. So what about serious proposals for democratising the SWP? Not a chance. The nearest we get is the suggestion from Lowestoft and Norwich branch committee in their ‘Finding a wider audience during lockdown and beyond’. This proposes in relation to ‘Party notes’ - the weekly bulletin sent out to all SWP comrades - “How about introducing a members’ section? Here a branch could send a note about something that went well, or even badly, and why!”
In other words, just like the content of a good number of the submissions to the PCBs! Those following the ‘party line’ tell everyone else how well - and, yes, occasionally how badly - things have been going. But please don’t raise political differences!