The announcement by the Socialist Workers Party that it now intends to enter the field of electoral politics should be welcomed throughout the workers’ movement. Leading member Lindsey German told an SWP council meeting of Sunday May 17 that the organisation is “in a position to put forward class politics and stand candidates on a class basis” in “elections to the Scottish parliament and other elections in the future” (Socialist Worker May 23).
The SWP is the biggest organisation to the left of the Labour Party. Its decision to stand candidates against Blair’s party is a positive break from the automatic pro-Labour vote it has advocated for so long. Inevitably, this relatively large group - that has previously sealed its comrades off from the rest of the left behind a wall of sullen sectarian hostility - will be opened up to new arguments, debates and pressures. Whatever the subjective intentions of the leadership, this ‘Scottish turn’ creates fluidity and an important opportunity for the theoretical and political clarification vitally needed amongst revolutionaries as a prerequisite of principled unity.
The Socialist Alliances and other left organisations willing to fight Labour at the ballot box should immediately approach the SWP both at a local and national level in a call for joint work and united platforms. However, we should not be surprised if in the short term the SWP attempts to maintain its disdain for the rest of the revolutionary movement. It is indicative that Socialist Worker’s short announcement of this new turn does not even mention the other organisations that are already regularly fighting in this field. Yet if it is to maintain any sort of credibility, the SWP will have try to hammer out agreements with other groups, particularly in Scotland.
This will create its own pressures, of course, Indeed, it is already quite amusing to watch reality obliquely reflected in the pronouncements of leading SWP cadre, the only ones currently allowed to think. Thus German warns the rank and file that, while “we can look big in some workplaces and on demonstrations ... elections are not the best area for us”; and that “we have no idea what vote we will get”. This warning of potentially small polls sits a little uneasily with comments elsewhere in the German article that “a significant number of people are dissatisfied with [Labour’s] performance”. Similarly, the rest of Socialist Worker’s report of the party council (consisting of delegates from all SWP branches) is replete with bubbly talk of SWP branches that have “doubled in size” and of “massive interest in the ideas of Marxism”.
Leading Scottish member Chris Bambery - introducing the main session on ‘Blair one year on’- is a little more downbeat. He admits that the period can be “frustrating for socialists in Britain” in comparison with other parts of the world. But even he suggests that, while “we can’t offer mass strikes” to new recruits, there is a smouldering “anger against Blair”, a “discontent [that] was ... shown in the local election results”.
But if all this rumbling anger with Blair and New Labour is finding an electoral expression in a situation where there apparently is a “massive interest in the ideas of Marxism”, why is the leadership preparing the members for small votes?
These types of discrepancies in the SWP schema will become more glaring as the organisation tests its strength via the ballot box and against the tide in bourgeois society.
Yet, given its infamously authoritarian internal regime, how will it resolve these contradictions without blowing apart? The turn has not been preceded by any debate. It is simply announced to an almost apolitical membership.
The majority of the SWP are actually constitutionally banned from thinking or developing their ideas on any other level than the most mundane and technical (article 9c of its constitution bans permanent factions). Reviewing contributions to the three internal bulletins that preceded last year’s SWP conference (the SWP does not have a regular internal bulletin), I noted that “not even one percent of the membership felt itself able to contribute to the discussion concerning the fundamental direction of their own organisation” (Weekly Worker November 13 1997).
Essentially this membership is atomised, befuddled and utterly confused by the jarring discrepancies between the leadership’s excited perspectives for quick and dramatic growth and the reality of the class struggle in contemporary Britain. To ensure continuity, an organisation thus characterised by constantly telling itself lies must have a bureaucratic internal regime and a pulverised membership almost unable to respond in political terms at all.
Ian Birchall of the SWP writes in the latest issue of What next? that in his organisation, permanent factions are “rooted out with a degree of ruthlessness” (No8, p18). But then if factions are “organisations within the party ... united not by place of work, language or other objective conditions, but by a particular platform of views on party questions” (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Vol 17, Moscow 1977, p265), Birchall is actually thuggishly boasting of the fact that SWP members are banned from thinking, prohibited from collectively developing their ideas according to their “views on party questions”.
With the move of the SWP into the difficult field of electoral intervention, how much longer will this organisation be able to maintain this fragile monolithic regime?