Socialist Workers Party plans for year ahead

This year's Marxism educational will no doubt be judged a success by the Socialist Workers Party. Aside from some hyperbole from Chris Bambery about it being "the most diverse ever" and the usual inflation of figures, the organisation has reason to be pleased. The SWP has stretched itself over recent years to take on new tasks and to intervene in new forums. We have seen the move to contest elections through the Socialist Alliance, entry into the Scottish Socialist Party as a permanent faction and now a growing engagement with serious left political forces across Europe. All of these initiatives pose problems to an organisation such as the SWP. None have been openly and comprehensively debated through by the group as a whole; all these re-orientations have been imposed by leadership fiat. Yet the SWP has remained intact. The annual Marxism - its prestigious showcase event - is still an impressive affair, whatever political criticisms that can be made of it. While there must be strains, they do not show at Marxism. The last day was organised as a "special activists convention", setting priorities for what looks like a full agenda of activity for the rest of the year. This was of interest, as it allows us to anticipate the emphasis the SWP will be putting on various areas of work and the form of its intervention. Chris Bambery started the day off in a packed plenary session on 'Campaigning priorities' with some observations on Marxism itself. Apart from the "diverse" comment, he noted that it had largely built itself this year. In contrast to previous events, when for three months prior to the school "whole sections of the SWP" had worked flat out to put the show on the road, this year "we haven't concentrated on it", he told us. Comrade Bambery was clearly trying to imply that the SWP's work over the past 12 months had built the week - he keeps "having flashbacks to Genoa", a highpoint of the "most exciting year of my life". "Marxism is part of the creation of a new left," he suggested. Therefore building that new left in Genoa and elsewhere builds events like Marxism. This is debatable. Most comrades from other groups I spoke to agreed with my observation that the audience were not particularly young, not particularly 'new'. Despite the SWP's work during the previous 12 months, it does not seem to have picked up much in the way of fresh forces. The numbers hold up because of the organisation's already existing membership and periphery. Certainly, Marxism occupies a special place in the SWP calendar. Members who do little or nothing else all year will often be at Marxism. Its significance as a social as well as political event should therefore not be underestimated. Comrade Bambery identified three battlefronts for the coming period for his 700-plus audience. * The struggle against war with Iraq - a "decisive conflict", as he dubbed it. If imperialism in Europe and the US succeeded in launching this conflict, it would be an "historic advance for the forces of neoliberalism," he suggested. * Against racism. The ANL carnival on September 1 needs to be vigorously built. The increasing levels of 'racism', as manifest in things like attacks on asylum-seekers, are the domestic counterparts of the drive to war internationally. * The European Social Forum. Like other leading SWPers later in the day, Bambery looked forward to a struggle over the agenda and activities of the ESF to prevent it being pulled rightwards. For this, he posed the need for a block of the SWP, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire of France and Rifondazione Comunista - "a left axis with real power". Turning to questions of organisation, comrade Bambery urged an emphasis on the Marxist forums, the SWP's extended branch meetings. Clearly, SWP rank and file stalwarts are feeling a little shell-shocked by the repeated changes of branch organisation imposed on them over the past year or so. Addressing this, comrade Bambery called for a "new format for the forums". They should move out of the scruffy "old halls" where branches normally meet - these "reek of defeat", he told the audience. The need to fight rightist pulls in the ESF was also emphasised by Alex Callinicos during the debate following the workshop on 'Preparing for the ESF' later in the day. As an example, he mentioned a recent "rightwing coup" in the French branch of Attac that would have implications in Florence for the launch of the ESF. Like comrade Bambery, he spoke of the central importance of building a "left pole" in Europe. The SWP leadership seems a little frustrated by the organisation's inability to grow, despite its domination of the revolutionary left in this country. There was talk during the week of breaking out of old habits, about approaching tasks in a more imaginative and dynamic way. Chris Bambery's comments on the need to seek out more welcoming meeting venues were not untypical. What was typical, of course, was that such comments and criticisms of aspects of the organisation's work were normally thrown in as asides in longer openings. It is important to avoid carping, however. The general atmosphere was relatively open and even - occasionally - friendly. I personally experienced only one snarling 'Get off our steps - what are you bastards doing here anyway?'-style exchange with a young SWPer as I sold outside the University of London Union building - a big improvement on previous years. "You people are fucking parasites," she energetically informed me. "How very retro," I thought. The comrade's spasm was untypical of much of the rest of the event, however, and more like a vestigial moment of personal irrationality - like an amputee sometimes feels the need to scratch a limb that is no longer there. Of course, some comrades will be quick off the mark to tell me that in their neck of the woods, things are not so civilised. However, in general things have clearly changed for the better. The problems that persist are not peculiar to the SWP, but are certainly expressed in a concise form in this group. It is hard to get the buggers to read or even to take leaflets. We presume the internal regime that once dictated that reading the literature of another group was tantamount to treachery has relaxed via the experience of the SA. So clearly, what remains is philistinism - hardly a peculiarly SWP disease, of course. Important to breaking this down will be the development of the Fringe at Marxism. This must be the where the genuine debate takes place - something that can then seep through to the main event. Ian Mahoney