Talking loud, saying nothing
Paul Demarty checks in on the congress of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - a decision-making body apparently without decisions to make
Judging by the official report, the recent congress of the Socialist Party in England and Wales had at least some virtues commonly denied communists participating in such events.
It took its time, for a start, taking place over three days. It seems to have covered a lot of ground, at least in terms of the topics discussed. SPEW does not indulge in the laughable security theatre that characterises the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference. Speakers are quoted by their actual names, so it is possible to glean which figures took which line.
The problem, of course, is that this is a purely theoretical consideration, given the actual content of the report, which rather leaves the impression that there are no lines of division at all. Three days were set aside - three days in comrades’ no doubt busy lives, away from work and family and indeed the duties of numerous officials in the wider workers’ movement - three days in which apparently nobody disagreed with anything anybody else said, but merely nodded along sagely.
Can it be so? The report’s author, Kevin Parslow, begins his article with the statement: “Congress is the most important democratic decision-making body of the Socialist Party. It is always a very important event, an opportunity to step back to clarify our ideas.”1 How can it be so important, when comrade Kevin cannot seem to identify a single decision that was actually made, democratically or otherwise, or indeed a single idea that was usefully clarified?
We could take, as a pertinent illustration, the question of SPEW’s programme. According to comrade Kevin, “Socialist Party members have been discussing a new draft programme for the party” - over an eight-month period a draft produced by the executive committee has been discussed in branches, and “members have suggested additions and amendments”. A fine and important exercise, no doubt - one we in the CPGB wish was undertaken more frequently by more of our fellow left organisations. Any reader not familiar with the details of that discussion period, however, will be confronted unavoidably with the question: what amendments and additions?
There would then follow further questions: what attitude did the EC take to these amendments? “Lenny Shail, speaking on behalf of the [EC], explained that the programme encapsulated how we are adapting to a changed situation.” Good for Lenny, but what about the actual points of substance? Comrade Kevin does not name a single point of contention. Amazingly, he does not even tell us whether the document was voted on by congress - is it now finished? Does debate continue? If so, why? What needs to be ironed out? This is presumably the most important decision before the most important decision-making body of an organisation that (as we shall see) certainly regards itself as the most important contingent of the socialist movement. Yet its own official report does not consider the outcome worthy of notice!
To this sort of bland, textureless report, we could contrast illustrious historical examples: above all, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which began the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. In his own commentary on the affair, Lenin urged readers not to take his word for it, but to obtain and read thoroughly the full stenographic minutes of the congress. (We await with interest, or perhaps trepidation, the minutes of the SPEW congress of 2022 … )
Of course, we may not expect Peter Taaffe and co to meet the standards set by Lenin, Trotsky, Martov and so on; but it so happens that the CPGB has recently been revising parts of our programme, and regular readers of this paper will have learned that (for example) we had very sharp disagreements on one specific demand: that the working day for nursing mothers should be limited to six hours. This disagreement has been reported in several aggregate articles, and those articles have themselves been criticised by the minority. It can get messy; but it is common in political disagreement for the contending parties to disagree (even sometimes about what the disagreement is), which makes it imperative that space is found in the press to fight things out. How else would someone in our orbit be able to judge the differences themselves? SPEW has a larger periphery than ours, so its duties are more urgent in this respect.
Another example is worth noting. A similarly detailed but vacuous account is given of a ‘debate’ on women’s liberation. An opening by Christine Thomas covered basic points about the double burden and so on, sharpened by the Covid pandemic:
But lockdown has also had a radicalising effect on a layer of women, who are questioning why gender inequality is still so pervasive, as well as moving into struggle against the bosses trying to make workers pay … Internationally, anger at the inequality caused by the 2007-08 economic crisis had spilled over into anger at all forms of inequality and injustice; the context for huge protests by women against issues such as gender violence, sexism and reproductive rights.2
This is a slightly peculiar analysis - it seems to imply that the economic crisis of 15 years ago is at the root of various struggles around the women’s question, and likewise “gender inequality” is rather clumsily linked to struggle against the bosses - not that these questions are not importantly connected, but the implication is that this is ‘spontaneously’ obvious to people and at the root of movements like the Sarah Everard vigils and so forth. For all that, “there are also limitations to movements that are restricted to changing the law and changing attitudes. Socialists have to intervene and try to orientate movements towards the working class and the trade unions.”
No disagreement is reported, but rather further details on how bad things are for parents (from comrade Bea Gardner) and for women of south Asian origin (Faria Attique), and a heart-warming tale from a comrade in Devon: “Women, she said, are conditioned to feel useless, but the Socialist Party had empowered her.”
This is remarkable, primarily because not that long ago SPEW forced through a split in its toytown international, the Committee for a Workers’ International, ostensibly because its opponents (who formed a majority of the international leadership) had capitulated to petty bourgeois feminism, Mandelism and related ills. The ‘petty bourgeois feminist’ and ‘Mandelite’ ideas so decried were essentially identical to the analysis offered by comrade Thomas, with a difference of emphasis on tactics in relation to the feminist movement and so forth. This issue was important enough, I repeat, for an international split to be engineered by Taaffe and his cronies in London, but not so important that ideas substantially identical to the opposing side of the split were contested at SPEW’s congress.
It is as if the whole affair, which cost the CWI a third or more of its international membership, had simply never happened. More proof, if any were needed, that the substantial principle involved was the Peter Principle - the unquestioned dominance of the historic leadership of the ‘international’.
Playing the hits
If the leadership cannot be allowed to change, how much less so the lead it gives! The CWI split is not the only piece of recent history that may as well have happened in another fragment of the multiverse, for all the difference it makes to SPEW’s politics.
Almost every speaker that the report mentions made points that will be familiar to long-term SPEW-watchers. We read that “global revolt is on [the] agenda”, as it always is. Mark Evans of Swansea noted “the anger in society, yet a feeling of impotence exists for many at present”; but “this is not true for every worker, particularly those who have struggled. Once it moves, the working class is an unstoppable force”. We need to build for the June 18 trade union day of action, but use it as a springboard for “coordinated action”. Rob Williams, who heads up SPEW’s trade union work, “said there is not another party that supports and engages with workers’ disputes as much as we do, and participates as seriously”. He concluded: “A new mass workers’ party is urgently needed”; and “if Jeremy Corbyn or the trade unions initiated a new party, it would have big potential to grow”.
Comrade Williams is not wholly wrong to hail SPEW’s contribution to the unions - they certainly are good militants in most cases, and much was made at the congress of their success in recruiting among striking refuse workers on their home turf of Coventry. But a Trotskyist organisation is surely supposed to be solving the “crisis of proletarian leadership”, the recruitment of militants in ones and twos being only a subordinate objective; and the only clear lead SPEW has ever given at that level - demanding unions disaffiliate from Labour - is spectacularly disproven by events. That it may look more attractive in the current context only makes its wrong-headedness more dangerous.
Which brings us to the ‘new mass workers’ party’ theme, which has been sounded endlessly since at least the end of SPEW’s participation in the Socialist Alliance, and most particularly since its Campaign for a New Workers Party (from 2006) and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (2010 to present).
The mention of Jeremy Corbyn at this point brings to mind the rather embarrassing failure of the perspective that led to these ill-starred initiatives - SPEW’s view that the Labour Party had entirely severed its working class character and become just another bourgeois party. That perspective was spectacularly exposed as being way off the mark by the victory of Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election. Yet the subsequent defeat and capitulation of the Labour left mercifully absolves Taaffe and his allies from accounting for this failure of analysis; so it is as you were, comrades. (Whether Corbyn is fit to lead any such new party, given his shameful conduct with respect to phoney accusations against his supporters over the years, is not a concern for SPEW, apparently.)
Wading through such complacent, self-deceiving drivel - which would have felt a bit gauche at a public rally, but is an insult to the very idea of a party congress - we are reminded of Max Shachtman’s damning verdict on the 1948 congress of the Fourth International. He wrote of the executive committee’s official report to the congress:
The only claim to distinction the report could make is that it was one of the most lamentable performances in the history of the movement. For, carefully scraped out emptiness, it remained unexcelled by any of its rivals at other sessions. To be sure, the reporter took care to refer to the reactionary character of the Stalinist and reformist parties; he noted with pride that the centrist organisations had not become mass movements, whereas the Fourth International, in the face of great difficulties, had not disappeared; he did not fail to dwell loudly on his unshattered faith in the working class, his confidence in socialism, and his conviction that the Fourth International would overcome all obstacles - including, presumably, such reports as he was delivering.
It is debatable if the speech, sodden with cheerless commonplaces, would have been appropriate even at some anniversary celebration in a mountain village. Its suitability as a report of the executive committee to a congress was not debatable. Consequently it was not debated - not at all, not by anyone and not for a single moment.3
Alas, our comrades in SPEW seem equally unable to truly confront their similarly troubled recent history; and, if their leaders will not face up to the problem, the result can only be cynicism and intellectual passivity in the ranks. It is long past time that these bad habits were abandoned - and the bad politics that are their cause and consequence.
Quoted by Jim Higgins at www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/chap02.htm.↩︎