Marxism 2000

SWP beginning to change - slowly

The annual 'Marxism' event has highlighted in many small ways the changes taking place in the Socialist Workers Party, but has also illustrated continuing contradictions and flaws in its politics.

The involvement of the SWP in the socialist alliance project, which represents a major shift for the SWP, has been a continuous theme. Indeed a meeting, to which all branches were expected to send delegates, was called to explain "how to relate to elections". The fact that the alliances challenge the logic of the SWP proclaiming itself as 'the Party' clearly poses problems. The explanation that this is merely "united front" work is how the leadership is trying to convince a sometimes sceptical membership.

It has to be said that at the meeting on the united front the SWP from my point of view displayed an extremely flexible definition of what the united front actually is: it seems that it can be stretched to the point where it appears more like a cross-class popular front at times. The fact is that the involvement in the socialist alliances in reality represents a tacit recognition that the SWP cannot 'go it alone' and is not strong enough on its own to challenge Blairism at the ballot box.

This means that it now finds itself forced to engage with other trends and ideas on the left, ending in a limited way the policy of splendid isolation. In this process the SWP has to recognise that, while it may have numerical domination over the rest of the left, it by no means has ideological hegemony - though at 'Marxism' it strives to present the situation as being otherwise.

The continuing attacks on reformism made at 'Marxism' seem odd in the light of the fact that in the London Socialist Alliance the SWP championed a reformist programme. The obvious question that needs to be asked is that, if as repeatedly stated at 'Marxism' reformism is such a dead letter, then why saddle the LSA with a reformist albatross? Either the SWP lacks confidence in its own ideas or it is deliberately playing up the revolutionary rhetoric to influence potential recruits at 'Marxism'. Hardly an example of linking theory to practice.

The 'new anti-capitalist' movement was also a prominent feature with the opening rally featuring Naomi Klein, author of No logo and an activist from the anarcho-green milieu. In pointing out what she viewed as the strengths of her movement, Klein in fact identified many of its weaknesses - not least its 'many headed' nature. Simply demonstrating against capitalism will not lead to its overthrow - for that only a Communist Party organising the advanced part of the working class will do. The best Klein could come up with on how this movement might develop was a 'wait and see' agnosticism.

It is a grave error to view the current weakness of the working class and suppose that the 'new anti-capitalism' can step into its shoes. Much of its politics is reactionary and rooted in reformism: for example, the notion that the abolition of the IMF or the WTO will somehow effect a qualitative change over capitalism is not one revolutionaries should support; neither will protectionism resolve its fundamental flaws.

To be fair, some of the notions put forward by Klein were challenged by comrades from the SWP. Critics correctly posed the centrality of the working class and the need for organisation. However, Marxists need to go further and begin to actively combat reactionary ideas through polemic. This is where the SWP clearly fails - it seems to feel that the non-monopoly commodity production, overpopulation, anti-science and nature first shibboleths of the green/'new anti-capitalist' movement are minor issues which can be overlooked for the moment in the dash for recruits. But 'relating' does not have to mean tailing. Such movements, while seeming to provide an easy answer and an outlet for pent-up activism, will not spontaneously arrive at revolutionary communist conclusions. In fact, their worship of the individual and rejection of all authority - even the most democratic - tends to push many activists in an anti-socialist direction.

In attempting to intervene in both the socialist alliances and the 'new anti-capitalist' movement, the SWP is hampered by its lack of a communist programme, and a loose understanding of what a communist programme actually is. For communists the Party does not base itself on bullet point statements, such as Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' column. The programme is a living thing which applies the Marxist method to the present situation, drawing on the lessons of past struggle. However, the SWP, not wishing to be 'tied down' to consistent Marxist methodology, prefers to frame its demands opportunistically in response to the latest fad or fashion.

This is hardly an academic debate, but one crucial to our ability to lead the class. However, it is a debate that the SWP is unwilling to countenance at meetings where you would perhaps expect such issues to be raised. At 'Marxism', the question of programme is apparently a non-issue, but when you look at the practical consequences of this you see the SWP championing reformism in the LSA and unable to really combat reactionary trends within the 'new anti-capitalist' movement.

A big theme at 'Marxism' was the notion that the current period is like the 1930s in slow motion. This severely flawed analysis leads the SWP into several false positions. While it is true to say that ruling class politics has shifted to the right, dramatic polarisation in society is hardly present, except in the imagination of the SWP. While some attitudes of the working class are to the left of New Labour, the working class is passive, atomised and far from revolutionary.

The collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union has produced capitalist triumphalism and for the moment punctured any kind of alternative working class vision; it is wrong to say that workers at present view themselves as having the potential to create a new society. Seattle is proof of lack of vision. The task of communists is not to rebuild a socialist vision from the rubble of the Soviet Union or to retreat into a pre-industrial utopia. Humanity needs a positive alternative to capitalism.

The level of democracy at 'Marxism' seems to have marginally improved. For example, the meeting on Cuba, which last year was a flashpoint because comrades from the pro-Castro Revolutionary Communist Group were prevented from speaking, was marked by the fact that they and others who defend the Cuban state were allowed to come to the microphone. But some over-vetting of questions and contributions still seemed to persist, particularly after the weekend.

It is however a welcome sign that small shifts seem to be taking place which in time will hopefully see the SWP develop a more open culture, both in its internal dealings and its public events.

Mike Speed