Marxism, passivity and the SWP

One dramatic moment at this year’s Marxism - the annual school of the Socialist Workers Party - illustrated that there are real tensions in the organisation. Well known member Peter Green dramatically tore up his party card in front of an audience of hundreds of people. Apparently, the comrade is frustrated by the SWP’s restrictive internal regime and his inability to express what he regards as important differences. He can hardly be alone. Overall however, the event has been pretty tame with any left elements cowed by the bureaucracy.

Marxism ’96 was probably the smallest for some time. The SWP’s ‘dash for growth’ after 1992 certainly produced some quantitative results, if not the qualitative breakthrough that the leaders hoped for.

So, as evidenced by this year’s event, either the SWP is now losing people, or - as seems more likely - there is a certain passivity on the part of longer term members. They may not have actually left the group, but a growing cynicism has kept them away from this important party event. Either that, or numbers of them have not been “re-registered”.

“Registration” is - or should be - the simple practice of the annual card exchange for party members. SWP apparatchiks have spotted the opportunity to dump awkward people at this stage without the rigmarole of expulsions, potential appeals, the bother of having to organise a control commission hearing and so on. This parallels the Socialist Labour Party’s charming practice of telling recalcitrant members that - surprise! - they actually never have been members at all; it was all a big misunderstanding.

Thus, the main event was a rather ‘flat’ affair. This inevitably had an effect on the fringe meetings jointly organised by the Communist Party, the International Socialist Group and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP). The numbers were down on last year, although the debates were better quality.

Our first meeting - on ‘Building a workers’ party’ - attracted about 20 people to hear speakers from the CPGB, Militant Labour, the RDG, ISG and the SLP. Almost inevitably, the debate centred around concrete developments around the SLP, the attitude revolutionaries should have to it and Labour.

Comrades from the Alliance for Workers Liberty and the Workers International League argued that the SLP was at best premature, at worst a petty diversion. Lenin’s call for Labour to be put into power to expose workers’ “illusions” was cited ... again. This really is a very tired and discredited argument and it is a shame that serious comrades continue to put it forward.

SLPers in the audience suggested that these comrades have an unreal view of the real development of the workers’ movement. Here is a layer of advanced workers, splitting from Labour. It is not in the form that any of us would have chosen if we were in charge of the whole thing, of course. But then, that’s life.

The pro-Labour comrades were guilty of trying to leap over the heads of these advanced workers to get to the mass. This leads them to belittle the SLP in ways that compound their Labourite errors. Thus one WIL comrade actually suggested that the recent trivial rebellion by some 50 Labour MPs against Blair’s diktats was expressive of a more “organic” movement than Scargill’s party initiative! Quite incredible.

The second fringe meeting - ‘Debating the International Socialist tradition’ - had speakers from the ISG, from the ISG’s fraternal German organisation, plus Jim Higgins, one time national secretary of the International Socialists. The presentations and much of the debate from the floor was perhaps overly anecdotal, but of interest nevertheless.

A comrade from Workers Power suggested the IS comrades read their Trotsky for all the answers. Mark Fischer for the Communist Party suggested that the IS tradition - good and bad - originated precisely because of the “falsification” of this great revolutionary’s perspectives. Telling the comrades to bravely move forward to the past really was not of much use.

In the aftermath of Marxism ’96, comrades in the ISG in particular are faced with a dilemma. Their impact as an ‘external faction’ is small and likely to get smaller, given the pulverised and demoralised nature of the SWP left. We urge the comrades to enter the process of communist rapprochement, a course that would in the long run provide SWP dissidents with an answer in practice as well as in theory.

Andy Colham