Totally in control

The central committee is looking forward to yet another conference without a peep of opposition from the rank and file. Peter Manson reports on the first of three internal bulletins

No doubt members of the Socialist Workers Party are delighted 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 7-9 2022).

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 with other comrades 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 7 (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 - in reality a subsidiary body to the CC, even though, according to the constitution, “Its decisions are binding on the central committee”. On the other hand, the NC “normally meets every two months between annual conferences”! If members do want to stand for election, “Each candidate should submit up to 50 words explaining why they should be on the NC. Please do not submit more than 50 words” (original emphasis). That should be enough, don’t you think?

Meanwhile, in reality 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 always recommends 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 usually goes through unopposed.

This year all 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. I somehow do not think they will be confronted by a different slate this year!

Just in case you might believe all this to be anti-democratic, the CC declares in its introduction, when it explains the conference procedures: “But don’t think this is a stuffy, bureaucratic exercise”. Of course not!

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 12 submissions from individuals or groups of members, taking up 11 of its 28 pages. But it also includes four contributions from the CC, which cover nine 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 - some read as though they have been commissioned by the leadership, such as the submission on Cop26, entitled ‘The importance of Cop and mobilising for Saturday November 6’ from “Martin (Manchester)” - only the first names of contributors are published, for security reasons.

Type of party

But despite all this everything is going swimmingly well for the SWP, according to the CC. After all, “well over 400 people have joined this year”.

However, “John (Colchester)” in his ‘Membership: a proposal’ (one of three contributions that are actually critical of the leadership) takes issue with its claim about the size of the membership. He points out that there is a distinction between “registered members” and “unregistered members”. Apparently there are approximately 2,000 registered members, who “generally pay subs”, but 4,000 “unregistered members”, who “generally do not”. That is why the proclaimed “6,000 figure doesn’t equate with the real world in which we operate”. After all, it is an “open secret”, says John, that most of those who fall into the ‘unregistered’ category are nothing more than “paper members who once signed a membership form and haven’t been seen again or for some time”.

He argues that these two categories should be replaced with ‘members’ and ‘supporters’. It is worth noting, by the way, that, according to the leadership in one of the CC’s own submissions, “A new member is unlikely to be a fully-fledged Marxist” - they could have all sorts of views, since there are no actual membership criteria in fact. No wonder the CC thinks it is a good idea to deny the members basic democratic rights!

For their part, long-time oppositionists “Martin and Anne (W and NW London)” make their annual criticism, adding another touch of reality: “we are perhaps a quarter of the size we were” in 1980-2000, and today we “have so few genuinely active forces able to do the work that our party seems to be a hollow vessel”.

Then there is “Liam (Plymouth)”, with his ‘We need a party of socialist unification’. Yes, that’s right: he really is arguing that the SWP in its current form should not be the final aim. He writes:

Comrades, our strategic goal over the next few years needs to be the formation of a unified socialist party, into which the SWP should dissolve. This unified party must be based around the need for more working class self-activity, especially in the workplace, and must be democratic with factional rights for the different tendencies, which must be folded into it.

Well, for the most part, that is OK as far as it goes, but he does not spell out the precise politics of this new party. Would it be based on Marxism and operate according to genuine democratic centralism? In fact Liam states: “I want to emphasise that our politics and our general strategy really are correct.” But he does want the current rival sects to come together, since:

The duplication of effort between these small organisations is a waste. The way that the existence of other parties with such similar politics drives socialists to find and emphasise differences fosters a sectarian mindset. It also appears truly absurd from the outside, putting people off from the left altogether.

But, he adds, there is also “a specific problem associated with the name, ‘Socialist Workers Party’” - that is, the “continuing repercussions of the ‘comrade Delta’ events in 2013”.

This is the wrong approach. The ‘comrade Delta’ affair (referring to former SWP national secretary Martin Smith, who was accused of sexually assaulting female members) was a direct result of the SWP’s organisational and political failings. Such failings need to be tackled now - they will not just disappear in a newly formed party.

Liam also seems to share the leadership’s own limited ‘strikes and streets’ view of “working class self-activity”. For example, in the CC’s ‘Revolutionary socialists in a world of crisis’ (which talks about the “triple crisis” of “coronavirus, economic slump and a climate emergency”), it is stated: “Socialists have to respond urgently, seeking every possibility to raise the level of resistance on the streets and in workplaces, building united fronts ... ” After all, “A resurgence of resistance is inevitable.”

Par for the course

Although the CC condemns the ruling class for attempting to produce “fake solidarity based on nation and state”, that does not stop it from giving support for what it expects will be “a determined battle for Scottish independence”. Mind you, it does add the rider: “Instead of seeking to unify all Scots, the movement has to be based on class struggle.”

But what about attempting to unify the working class? Calling for an independent Scotland does the opposite, when it comes to united working class action against the bourgeoisie in Britain. What is bad for the British bourgeoisie is not necessarily good for us.

As for racism, the leadership’s notion that it, not national chauvinism, plays a central role in current ruling class strategy is largely echoed by the SWP rank and file. Despite that, members also follow the lead of the leadership in supporting efforts to counter racism from, say, the United Nations! “Phil (Dorset)” in his ‘Reparations back on the agenda’ notes that: “In July, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights told UN member states that her review of racism past and present concluded that urgent action was required to address historic practices and present injustices - and that all states should prepare for reparation.”

Phil writes: “Now Amsterdam and Bristol are leading a movement for European cities to apologise for their historic role in slavery and to adopt policies for redress.” Such “redress” and “reparation” seems to take the form of the former colonisers handing over cash to the current capitalist rulers of the ex-colonies. He notes the fact that “notorious slaver Christopher Codrington had bequeathed part of his fortune” to All Souls College Oxford, but Phil is happy that “The government of Antigua and Barbuda .. has demanded further action”, saying that the college should “repay its debt to enslaved persons on Antigua and Barbuda”.

Finally, let me end with “John (Colchester)”, who notes that this is “the fifth year running that I have raised the issue of mental health oppression and language that reinforces such oppression”. But he is now pleased that Socialist Worker, along with other SWP publications, “has ceased to publish offensive terms such as ‘mad’ and ‘nuts’, to name just two”. It seems then that at last the leadership has realised how upset people like John get when they read phrases like ‘What a mad idea!’

All this really is par for the course: a combination of bureaucratic dogmatism on the part of the leadership, and a total absence of any serious challenge from below.