Future party structure
This document was circulated by the Socialist Workers Party leadership just before the election. Its significance is obvious. SWP branches are to be fused into the Socialist Alliance. The old routine, it is now acknowledged, did not train the membership - it isolated them. We are, though, presented with a paradoxical half-way house. The SWP has half-broken with its past, but only half-embraced the future. It is the main force blocking moves to put the Socialist Alliance onto a proper footing as a democratic party equipped with a frequent political paper
The party has been heavily involved in activity in recent weeks: in May alone we kicked off with the anti-capitalist demos, had the Glasgow and London Globalise Resistance conferences, were central to strikes in the post office and tube, went to Aldermaston, built the Socialist Alliance, intervened at union conferences and mobilised for Genoa.
There is far more activity in the unions, in campaigns, around local issues, than for many years. We have a party which has a highly effective political profile, but where we need to sink far more roots if we are to really lead the struggles to come. That means a radical assessment of party structures. We have abandoned the old party branches, which only involved a minority of comrades, because these have often been in practice sectarian barriers to our wider intervention. But what are we going to put in their place?
The branches failed because they did not fit the changed tasks posed for us by the development of the movement over the past two years. They started from a party routine and structure - midweek meetings and Saturday sales - rather than united activity around issues. Yet the united front has become central to our work.
Much has changed since four years ago, when we put much effort into arguing for a Labour vote to get rid of the Tories, often against the scepticism of much of the rest of the left. Today, we are putting our efforts into building an electoral alternative to the left of Labour. Whereas then the union leaders prevented any whimper of industrial unrest in the run-up to the election, now rank and file revolts have bubbled in the post office and tubes. There has been a one-day lecturers? strike and there is set to be a strike by Daily Express journalists on election day.
Since Seattle, the anti-capitalist movement has grown in strength with a good projected mobilisation to Genoa from Britain and a sizeable May Day demo, which we were centrally involved in mobilising. Anti-capitalism and the crisis of reformism have created a new, sizeable audience for us, which is characterised by two features: it is activist and committed, but at the same time it is highly ?ideological. The test for the party is how we can relate to the ongoing and rising struggle, and build the movement, while also providing an ideological pole of attraction, which can win people towards us. This entails making major changes in our organisational structures, some of which have taken place in recent months, but which everywhere need to be extended and strengthened.
We are faced with bigger tasks as a party than we have ever had. We are absolutely central to the growth and development of the Socialist Alliance, and have shaped it over the past year or so into a serious national organisation with a national profile and an orientation on the best of former Labour activists who are looking for an alternative. We have established a very good relationship with many on the left around our SA activity and have won real respect in the movement.
The same can be said about Globalise Resistance. Our May Day activity was a big success, and the demonstrations in which we were central compared very favourably with those a year ago organised by Reclaim the Streets. Intervention in industry has seen the development of several highly successful rank and file papers in the past year, and we played a national role in leading the post workers? strikes.
All these successes and many more have deepened the roots of the SWP and raised our profile. There are many on the left in Britain who are looking to the SWP for a lead. However, this also entails responsibilities and problems.
We have to transform the party into an organisation which can both give support and encouragement to our members involved in various activities, while at the same time arguing the general politics and polemics of the organisation. In particular we have to build structures that can relate to some of the most deeply rooted working class comrades, even if they do not fit the picture of a ?branch activist? or ?cadre?.
One of the main problems with the campaigning branches was that they did not do this. They tended to involve only a small number of members in attendance and activity, while the majority of members have not seen them as the centre of their activity. Often the people most rooted in the movements are the ones in least contact with the party structures. We want people who can organise a post office strike even if they can?t make a meeting on a Wednesday night, or protest over tuition fees even if they do nothing outside the college.
We have put the emphasis on district structures, which are able to give a centralised impetus to building in an area. We have to combine a centralised push and high party profile with very detailed direction of our work and interventions.
There is no going back to the old structures after the election. Few people want to. More importantly, if we see the SA as an ongoing vibrant organisation that should be active in a locality and meet as an organisation at least once a month, then we cannot go back. At the same time, we do not want to lose our cutting edge as the SWP by not meeting and discussing regularly. The way round this is to think of the big picture and then think how we fit into it. There is no internal solution to this problem, but only one that starts with the needs of the struggle.
The big picture means:
- that many comrades are involved in many [sic] activity and meetings every week and therefore have little time or inclination for small internalised meetings;
- that the atmosphere inside the working class movement and in most workplaces is intensely political because of anti-capitalism and the crisis of Blairism and so we have real opportunities to intervene, even though we will often be in a minority;
- that the questions raised by the revival in struggle and the new movements are often highly complicated and we need to learn how and at what level to intervene;
- there is a large audience for the paper and our other publications in localities, workplaces and campaigns.
This means our organisation needs to be:
- highly centralised. Distribution of SW is the key to activating a layer of comrades involved in very important and rooted work. Getting the paper to a layer of people opens up sales to 10 times that number. It also is the organiser of our comrades, letting them know what is happening and putting the line of the organisation. We have to get everyone who needs it the paper; we have to ensure that we intervene in every picket line, every campaign, every SA. There has to be a clear direction and push from the district organiser/district committee which all comrades know about (through ring-rounds, district notes, etc) and which involves polemical arguments where necessary - eg, over canvassing, nature of SA, etc;
- we should have a monthly meeting for the district, open to people working closely with us, where we discuss perspectives, major political questions and so on. It should meet regularly - for instance, at the same time and place on the last Thursday of the month;
- highly organised in intervention. We now need a return to caucuses - where comrades discuss and argue their intervention in a campaign. Partly we cannot afford the scenario where comrades argue against each other in meetings or have no clear cutting edge. Partly if we do not give a lead then the reformists or small sects can. Caucuses are a means of ensuring good interventions; they also educate comrades into how we operate most effectively in a particular milieu;
- localised activity. This means groups based on workplaces, colleges, and geographical distribution meetings which pull together various campaigns and interventions on a local basis. The meetings should be largely activity-based, coordinating issues, with political discussions kept fairly short. Workplaces and colleges can have regular readers? meetings as well as activity discussions;
- national and local fraction organisation in the unions to discuss relevant campaigns and issues. The unions have been changed a lot in the past two years, despite the low level of industrial struggle. The possibility of rank and file activity, the election of a series of left union leaders and the growing militancy of various groups are all straws in the wind. How we organise within them can be key to building our influence.
- teams - eg, for Socialist Worker and ?Marxism? - which pull together work across the districts and which collectively organise rather than leaving it to one person in each district.
This structure harks back to the 1970s in terms of localised groups and branches plus strong district leadership. But one of the biggest dangers then was sectionalism and today the danger with all this is fragmentation. This can be partly countered by strong leadership in a district, which is political as well as organisational and which tries to generalise from the best experience. But we also need an attractive series of SW meetings as well as a regular monthly meeting - educationals, special meetings, debates and forums. These need to be publicised and members should be encouraged to come. They should be the focus of discussion among the best of the left locally.
We are already beginning to achieve some of this in some localities. But we need to go much further if we are to establish ourselves in every district. That means organisers and activists can?t simply wear themselves out trying to relate to this movement - they have to think strategically how we lead, what we want to do in the district, and they have to win party members to this perspective.