A member of the Socialist Workers Party, writing on the International Socialist tendency opposition internet list, bemoans the absence of democratic discussion
I am in the SWP and was at the Party Council which "set a number of changes for the party" (SWP 'Party notes' May 15). First off, I would like to describe the way in which we, the Party Council, 'decided' on the changes, and then I will go on to talk about the changes themselves.
To start with, I was not elected as a delegate from my branch: I was appointed. Once there, I did not get to vote on a single issue. The entire process was completely undemocratic. In fact the International Socialist Organization issue is just one example of how the leadership managed to gloss over just about every issue.
When we arrived at the venue, if we wanted to find out what was happening with the ISO properly, we had to buy a 60-page document and then somehow manage to read it in the short space of time before the 'Council' started.
When it came to the actual 'discussion' of the issues involved (it was the last item to be discussed), there was not a single ISO member on the top table. There was just a speech by the SWP leadership. None of the issues were gone into in any depth in this speech: it was mainly about the way the debate had been carried on between the SWP and the ISO. So after that I was none the wiser.
In the 'debate' afterwards two members of the ISO were allowed to speak from the floor (for all of four minutes each). I thought, "Maybe I'll finally find something out at last." But, sure enough, neither of them went into any real depth about the political arguments involved: they just talked about the way the debate had been held. I got the impression that all both parties were interested in was slagging off the leadership of the opposite party in front of the membership to try and use them to pressure the leadership. Someone did get up to talk about the 'third way' - following neither leadership - but by the time any real issues had been got to the time limit was up and it was on to the next speaker.
When I tell you that this discussion was the most in-depth and democratic of all the issues involved you will get an idea of what the rest of the 'Council' was like.
Anyway, on to the actual issues involved: "Both initiatives [a united response to the assault on asylum-seekers and the relaunched Action programme] can bring together discontented Labour supporters, trade unionists who are looking to a fightback and people who identify themselves as anti-capitalist. For us these groups are not self-compartmentalised. They cross-fertilise."
This is what the 'Party notes' say the "demands of the class struggle" are. And it is absolutely true to say that these are all important groups to focus on. However, to lump them all together and say "these groups are not self-compartmentalised" is to fail to have even a basic idea of where we are up to in the class struggle and, indeed, the idea of what class is.
Yeah, Seattle was great. And it was great that the young student greens, anti-capitalists and other assorted radicals joined up with the trade unions in protest. But that does not mean that these groups are not separate. Young middle class students are obviously a completely different kettle of fish to working class trade unionists and, while I definitely do not advocate just ignoring these people (far from it), it is, at the very least, important to understand the difference, otherwise you fail to understand the society we live in, the stage of its development and the different reasons for radicalisation of different sections of society.
"Following on from the success of the LSA, we want to build a strong socialist challenge to Blair at next year's general election." If anyone really understands what this means please tell me. This is one of the leadership's favourite mantras at the moment. If ever anyone asks why we are involved in the London Socialist Alliance they get the answer, "We want to build a strong socialist challenge to Blair at next year's general election." The phrase sounds really impressive - it sounds like something is really happening. But if you look closer it doesn't actually say anything.
What is "a strong socialist challenge"? Does it mean they want to win the election? - If so, why only stand 50 candidates? Does it mean they want to get a better profile for socialism? If so, I can think of better ways to get publicity. Does it mean they want to get Labour Party members and trade unionists involved? Isn't that why we are moving towards "campaigning branches" and relaunching the Action programme (which I have not actually seen yet)? Isn't that the idea of getting involved in strikes, council housing campaigns, etc?
Personally, I have no fundamental objection in principle to being involved in the LSA or standing in elections (I am not a 'left' communist). However, it would be nice to know the exact reasoning behind our involvement - it would be nice to have an idea why we are doing the things we are doing.
"At Party Council we decided on a shift to campaigning branches of a new type. The starting point should be what are the tasks demanded of us locally and how do we respond. We can then map out the united front initiatives we need to undertake locally - whether over asylum-seekers, job losses and the Action programme, Defend council housing or whatever."
Well, first off, I would like to know who this "we" is. But anyway, I think campaigning branches are a good idea and I think that united front work is also a very good idea. However, there are two questions outstanding. First of all, describing the kinds of issues we should be working on as "asylum-seekers, job losses and the Action programme, Defend council housing or whatever" is not really all that helpful. Maybe we should go and do united front work with the Anti Corn Law League. But seriously it is not what I would call a very in-depth discussion of a major shift in the way the party operates.
The second question is over education. This is what the 'Party notes' have to say: "District educationals - we need to organise a regular educational series aimed not just at new members. One person in the district should take responsibility for organising education. Again we can pull in people who do not normally come to branch meetings."
Now yeah, it is great having district educationals. But to have the entirety of the party's theoretical analysis contained in this and 'Marxism' is to not only give education too little importance: it is to misunderstand the role of revolutionary theory in revolutionary practice.
Theory and practice cannot be separated, even on the most mundane of levels. There cannot be one without the other. Discussion of fundamental Marxist theory on a branch level does not have to be, as they put it, "a lengthy lecture", but that does not mean it should not exist at all. Every issue we are involved in needs to be analysed at the most fundamental of levels, otherwise you end up with the kind of 'Party notes' that I am going over now - you fail to understand the society we live in, you fail to understand the tasks facing us and you fail to have a membership able to do anything other than what they are told to do.