Meaningful debate absent
Why are Socialist Workers Party members incapable of making serious contributions? Peter Manson looks at the third and final internal bulletin
With the annual conference (January 8-10) about to take place online, what better time to discuss the third and final Pre-Conference Bulletin (PCB), which was sent out to all SWP members just before Christmas?
To remind readers, it is only during the three-month pre-conference period that SWP comrades are permitted to circulate their views to the rest of the membership - or in reality to any other SWP comrade, apart from verbally within their own branch. During this three-month period, temporary factions are also permitted, but they must be dissolved immediately, once conference has taken place.
In view of the general inhibition on free debate, it is hardly surprising that the quality of individual contributions is not exactly stimulating. Nor are there huge numbers desperate to have their say. While the third PCB normally features more contributions from individuals or groups of comrades than the first two - and this year is no exception - there are just 24 of them in PCB No3 (and several are from those holding local or other positions of responsibility, who tend to merely echo the ‘party line’).
Before I look at the individual contributions, let me start with the three articles written by the central committee. As always, the December PCB provides membership figures, which this year appear in the CC’s ‘Finance report 2019-20’. Here it is stated: “The number of registered members of the SWP is 6,701. This is about an increase of 250 on last year.”
But what does it mean to be an ‘SWP member’? There is a clue in this sentence: “Around 2,000 of our members are paying a regular subscription ...” Yes, that’s right - well under a third of them pay any dues! The CC elaborates: “New members tend to pay much lower subs - or sometimes none at all, if someone in the branch has not explained the importance of making a financial contribution.”
This gives the whole game away. These so-called ‘members’ are merely individuals who have filled in an application form. How many have even spoken to a branch officer, I wonder? I know for a fact that many ‘members’ are rarely contacted on an individual basis, irrespective of whether they ever turn up to any meeting or attend any SWP event, let alone whether they pay a regular membership subscription.
The CC continues: “Students are asked to pay £5 per month, people with regular jobs can usually afford to pay a bit more and we should not automatically agree very low subs from people with steady jobs.” I suppose “very low” includes zero in this context!
To be fair, it seems that at least some SWP activists are beginning to question this whole business and in this PCB there is one such contribution from “Chris (Leicester)”. (In case you were wondering, the policy is that, for reasons of security, only the first names of rank-and-file comrades are given. However, the CC is less than meticulous in ensuring that the writer’s identity is not revealed. For example, one comrade’s email address - which happens to contain his surname - is included in his contribution to this PCB; while another provides us with the title of a pamphlet he has written, which can still be found, along with his full name, on the internet.)
But back to Chris, who suggests that the SWP should introduce the category of “associate membership” for those who fail to pay a subscription. He writes: “It could also be a ‘halfway house’ for those unable or unwilling to contemplate fully active membership at a given time.” In reality, those who do not make a financial contribution ought to be classified as a ‘contact’.
By the way, in its finance report the CC notes one effect of the Covid pandemic: “... the income from paper sales” has fallen “from several thousand pounds a month to a few hundred”. Hardly surprising, of course, but it does go to show that the SWP sells fewer papers every month than it claims members. Eg, if “several thousand pounds” means £2,000 every month, that works out that the average SWP members sells a third of a copy of Socialist Worker every month. A Bolshevik level of commitment it is not.
Still ‘standing up’
The second CC article is headed ‘Anti-racism today’ - as I noted in my report of PCB No2,1 the SWP has recently upgraded the role of People Before Profit, in regard to the Covid pandemic; but that does not mean it has forgotten what has been its main front over the last few years: namely Stand Up To Racism.
The CC states: “Recent weeks have seen a serious ratcheting up by politicians and the media of attempts to use racism to divide opposition in the face of government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis.” Well, I must say I have not noticed that - and the CC gives not one example of such an occurrence! It does say that in the USA Donald Trump’s behaviour has given “confidence to racist populists and the far right across the world”, while “Here the racist deportation flights to the Caribbean continue under Priti Patel.”
Perhaps the SWP leadership has not noticed that Priti Patel herself has dark skin, which makes you ask, why would they appoint her as home secretary if the aim is to “use racism” to divide their opponents? How can that work? As for the deportations, inhuman as they are, they are driven not by racism, but by national chauvinism in two senses. Firstly, capitalist governments continually promote the idea that they are acting in the interests of the ‘entire nation’ - including dark-skinned people like Patel, of course - and that means not only taking strong action against criminals to help protect us; but, secondly, blaming it all on those ‘outsiders’ who aren’t British at all. The fact that many of those deported have lived in Britain for most of their lives has nothing to do with it. Loyal British citizens like Patel are acting in all our interests!
We should also note the next major anti-racism action the SWP is building support for. The CC writes: “All this will make the protests across the world on UN anti-racism day (March 20) more important this year than ever.” I find it rather ironic that, on the one hand, the SWP claims that the ruling class everywhere will always use racism to divide us, but, on the other, one of the main international instruments of that class is to be supported for taking an initiative against racism.
By the way, the CC states: “SUTR has just relaunched its statement calling for an independent public inquiry into disproportionate deaths in Bame communities during the Covid-19 crisis.” The reason for that disproportionality is, of course, ‘institutional racism’ - although it is not explained how exactly it is employed.
On January 5 SUTR sent out a circular, which noted:
This week Dr Augustine Obaro and Dr Abdul-Razaq Abdullah became the 15th and 16th GPs to die from Covid - all bar one of whom have been from a Bame background. This pattern has been repeated across the medical and public service field, as well as in [intensive care units] across the country.
To anyone who thinks it through, it is obvious that all health workers have been put at risk by the pandemic. But the reason why Bame people have been disproportionally affected is not because of current racism: it is linked to two factors. First, a greater proportion of blacks than whites are among the poorer, disadvantaged sections, as a result of previous historical practices - not least the creation of overseas empires (and, yes, the employment of racism). You could also say that the working class is overwhelmingly more affected by Covid than the ruling class, irrespective of their skin coloration. Secondly, it also just happens that a higher proportion of British Asians than whites are GPs - and, yes, many of them practise in working class areas. But, once again, does this have anything to do with current racist practices?
Note that the CC concludes by stating: “The issues of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will remain central in the coming period” (my emphasis). Although the SWP recognises that allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party were almost entirely falsely generated to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, it is prepared to go along with the notion that anti-Semitism is a major problem in 21st century Britain.
I will now deal with an issue that has created something of a controversy: the decision to close the print version of the SWP’s monthly magazine, Socialist Review. As the CC writes in ‘Our online work and what it means for Socialist Review’, “We think this should be online only and that we should cease publication of the hard-copy magazine.”
In a previous PCB the CC had talked about its overall use of the internet and social media, including the upgrading of the SWP website: “The enhanced online strategy being proposed,” the CC wrote, “raises questions about Socialist Review which we will need to give thought to. We believe the content of the Review is politically important and we want to consider how we can widen its reach.” Rather vague. And, as “Mark (Glasgow)” writes, “The problem with ambiguous statements is that they give rise to speculation.”
But it turns out that the CC first discussed its actual proposal within the SWP at a meeting of the Socialist Review committee. As “Ian and Mike (Hackney)” state,
The party’s print publications have received little attention from the CC in the first two bulletins. This gives the membership little opportunity to comment on the leadership’s strategy for the titles, particularly the decision to close the Review, which should not have been presented as a fait accompli ...
Like them, other comrades argue for the continuation of the print issue, stating that after the pandemic it will be very useful to have regular print publications once more. They make some useful points about the best practice of a political party, including the use of both online and print versions of its publications.
But what struck me about all this was that no-one is prepared to discuss the nature of the party that is needed. They all seem to take it as a given that the SWP is the revolutionary party and, like the leadership, make little mention of the rest of the organised left and the need for a mass party based on genuine democratic centralism and continuous Marxist-based debate - something that is acutely lacking in the SWP.
So it is little wonder that the politics of many individual members is so poorly thought out. For example, “Jim (Newcastle)” proposes an addition to Socialist Worker’s ‘What we stand for’ column, which reads:
In the event of a successful transition to socialism ... we reject any attempt to create a one-party state by encouraging a multi-party system, with the provision that all parties represent different means of progressing towards production for need, not profit, and do not include any policies that seek to discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion or disability.
In other words, once the working class has taken power, the only kind of political parties permitted will be those advocating the building of socialism. What about the minority of the population, who have not yet been persuaded of the need for common ownership (not to mention the aim of an eventual class-free, money-free society known as communism)? Presumably they will still be able to speak out, but not form a political party.
The only other debate worth mentioning is the continued discussion on mental health, first raised in PCB No1. It seems that many comrades are mainly concerned about the ‘correct’ use of language. For instance, “Roger (South London)” believes that people like himself should be referred to as “disabled people”, as opposed to “people with disabilities”, since ‘disability’ should not refer to “physical, mental or sensory loss or lack of function: we refer to this as ‘impairment’. I, for example, have no usable sight, which is a visual impairment.” But he is “disabled” because “Microsoft make computers which exclude me, as they do not have any functional way for me to use them as fully and effectively as a non-visually impaired person.” In other words, the likes of Microsoft have “disabled” him, whereas saying that he has a “disability” implies it is his own fault!
For his part, “John (Colchester)” returns to the original debate and responds to a comrade in PCB No2 who stated that to refer to a proposal as “daft” or “crazy” was simply an expression of opposition to it and was not intended to offend the mentally impaired. John, it seems, is quite happy with the word ‘daft’, which, he says, “is a diplomatic term in place of calling someone/something ‘stupid’”. That’s a new one on me! By contrast, he says. Remarks like “Are you out of your mind?” and “That’s a crazy idea” are “blatantly offensive terms”. Hmm.
Well, the exchange of ideas is always useful, but when are we going to see such an exchange in the SWP about what really matters?
‘Dull echo chamber’, December 3.↩︎