New project, same old sectarianism
SW Kenning reports about the latest conference of the Socialist Workers Party
Several hundred Socialist Workers Party comrades and fraternal visitors from overseas attended the organisation’s national conference in Camden Centre just over the road from St Pancras station in north London. Beginning on the morning of Saturday November 1, the 2003 conference held its valedictory session on the afternoon of Monday November 3.
Purportedly conference represented what national secretary Chris Bambery claims are now 8,000 members. However, the delegate ratio is one for every 10 “registered” members, so paper membership is in all probability much lower. Apart from the bevy of central committee and national committee members - each of whom have automatic speaking rights - those sporting full delegate stickers stood at somewhere near the 200 mark. This is roughly in line with the active, dues-paying, real, membership. A total which has stayed stubbornly and frustratingly stationary at around 2,000; that despite the massive upsurge around the Iraq war.
Unlike the familiar conferences and congresses of trade unions and political parties, the Socialist Alliance included, the SWP acts on these occasions as if it were an illegal organisation operating underground. The date, venue and proceedings are supposed to be a closely guarded secret. Delegates and visitors alike were warned not to wear political regalia or carry copies of Socialist Worker with them. Lapel badges had to be removed and delegates were told to keep toing and froing from the hall to the barest minimum. As a further “security” measure, all conference documents were numbered and had to be handed back at the end. The final session actually consisted of instructions as to what exactly was allowed to be reported back to outsiders and what should be kept firmly under wraps.
Why the deliberate fostering of paranoia and a laager mentality? It might serve to create an air of mystery? Cloak and dagger stuff could possibly excite the young, impressionable and inexperienced. Fear of fascist attack is certainly used as an excuse. Years ago British National Party goons managed to get past the first line of stewards before they were ejected. But nowadays none of that washes. What the central committee really fears is being put under the spotlight and the possibility that internal matters - especially political differences - might become public knowledge. So most delegates made their way to the Camden Centre with collars turned up and wearing their best non-political disguises. It would be comical, if it were not so sad.
Another associated factor which helps to explain the silly cult of secrecy is the likelihood of the whole gamut of rival left groups sending paper sellers along - though SWP members are in public notoriously unwilling to buy anything that smacks of polemic (that does not stop them routinely logging onto the CPGB’s website in the privacy of their own homes to read the latest Weekly Worker). An article in the Pre-conference bulletin by Bunny Laroche and Jon Flaig actually urged members to “Stop reading the sectarian press”: “You’ll go blind” otherwise, they half jokingly, half threateningly warn (No1, p4). Here we have the classic closed psychology of a besieged sect.
Political parties of the working class behave very differently. Publicity is not something to be shunned, but welcomed. After all, even the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain held its bi-annual congresses in the presence of a small media posse. Apart from one special closed session, everything else could be reported by the capitalist and leftwing press. And mostly it was. Conferences of the Scottish Socialist Party are likewise kept open - indeed the press and media are made welcome and courted. Tommy Sheridan’s keynote speech and controversial debates feature on Scottish TV news and the front page of The Herald, etc.
That, of course, is how it should be for any substantial organisation of the working class operating in conditions of legality. True, the Bolsheviks might have had to hold some of their conferences and congresses abroad due to tsarist oppression. When they were forced to do so, however, every effort was made to fully inform the politically conscious public of all debates and decisions. Far from disputes being hidden away - as if such things were signs of weakness, something to be ashamed of - they were highlighted and carefully and exhaustively explained in the Bolshevik press, where feasible minutes were published to encourage an active understanding of factional arguments and alignments.
In all honesty the SWP conference is a thoroughly unattractive affair. Worse, it is boring. Despite being held in camera, it is not that far removed from the revivalist rallies staged nowadays by the Tories and New Labour. Yawn.
Instead of being regarded as the highest decision-making body of a serious leftwing organisation, the conference is treated instrumentally, as part of a series of wheels and cogs. The central committee and its inner constellation of chosen ‘stars’ have already decided the latest ‘turn’. Conference exists not as a forum where leading comrades honestly and fearlessly thrash out burning differences, where the trusted representatives of the whole membership gather to have their say and finally decide matters through a series of hotly contested votes. Instead conference operates as an echo chamber. The leadership line is announced from on high and then loyally confirmed and endlessly parroted by the specially selected cadres, before being spoon-fed to the membership.
Such an approach can only but engender cynicism above and passivity below. Something which once again found its reflection in this year’s Pre-conference bulletin. Three were published - all were painfully thin - and none of them contain anything that could by any measure rate as a challenging (or any kind of) alternative. There were no factional platforms.
Apart from vacuous pep talk pieces from the central committee and other leading bodies, the bulletins contain nothing, not a thing, of genuine significance. The hollowness of the SWP and the political inertness of its geographical branches is shown by a simple but revealing statistic. Only some 30 rank and file comrades contributed articles (and most of them were written jointly with others). These are mainly dull-as-ditchwater examples of official optimism - jolly little reports boasting about how attendance at this or that Marxist forum has increased from five to 15 and sales of Chris Harman’s revamped Socialist Worker topped 50 last week. Wow.
A partial exception is the ingeniously titled ‘Pre-conference article’ two-hander, authored by Anne Kenefeck and Martin Pitt (Pre-conference bulletin No3). They locate what they call a “worrying dichotomy”. The SWP on the national and international stage has been “impressive and unerring”, but not in the “localities” and “branches”. Here there is a deeply off-putting regime with an associated “posturing” and “deference to status”, which goes hand in hand with “passivity”. “Activity” amounts to “snapping to attention in the face of authority” and then “sinking back” into languor. The “pecking order” this involves has become “woven into the fabric and psyche of the party”. New members either conform to it or they are driven out and into hostility. The result amongst those who remain is “low spirits and morale”. A fair, if not very rigorous, diagnosis. Apart from platitudes no cure is presented.
The editors must have been hard pushed for material. Presumably that explains why the correspondence between Alex Callinicos and the SWP’s former sister organisation in the US, Left Turn, is laboriously reproduced, along with the criticisms penned by Mike Gonzales and Neil Davidson of the SSP’s position on Scottish independence. The original paper on Scottish independence by SSP policy coordinator Alan McCombes is also reprinted in full. All this stuff has, of course, been available to SWP members north and south of the border for a while now and was included presumably to take up space, not with the idea of sparking a thoughtful debate about mistakes and shortcomings. Scotland did not even rate a session of its own.
What of conference? Not surprisingly nothing dramatic happened. The strategic choices facing the SWP leadership - outlined by Mike Macnair in his pre-conference Weekly Worker article - remain unresolved. Nevertheless, where the central committee - the core of which consists of Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German, Chris Harman, Dave Hayes, Chris Nineham, John Rees and Martin Smith - wants to go is increasingly clear.
Their future lies in pursuing a new coalition with those who were mobilised against the Iraq war - not only anti-war activists and muslims like Salma Yaqoob, but unions such as RMT, FBU and CWU, and dissident ex-Labour Party members - most obviously George Galloway. He, for the moment at least, is considered key.
Time and again the putative ‘peace and justice’ coalition was called “the project”. The central committee hopes to constitute the SWP as its “revolutionary component”, get a few of its top members elected on the back of what it believes is an inexorable tide that is flowing against the Labour Party and use the whole exercise to create a wide transmission belt of the brightest and the best “fighters” straight into the ranks of the SWP. The SA, had if anything, the opposite effect. The more it came to resemble a party, the less coherence the SWP exhibited.
The experience of councillor Michael Lavalette and Preston SA is upheld as the “model” which everyone else should emulate. The resolution moved by John Rees, Kay Phillips and Simon Hester called “super Thursday” in June 2004 “decisive”. Besides elections to the European Union parliament there are also elections to the Greater London assembly - both involve an element of proportional representation. ‘Peace and justice’ is to be promoted in the expectation of an electoral breakthrough for the SWP.
The “old” SA, announced comrade Bambery, is “dead”. What the new alliance “project” will look like was hinted at by a number of platform speakers though. Worryingly comrade Lavalette attacked opposition forces in the SA as being the “problem”. They, not SWP misleadership, are the reason why people did not flock in. Instead of building the SA, he depicted the opposition as internet nerds debating “minutiae with each other” and then not even bothering to turn up to “big mobilisations”.
He also shamelessly twisted and distorted the political positions of the SA’s remaining principal “affiliate organisations”. They equate Palestinian militants - presumably Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers - with the “violent aggression of the Israeli state”. Obviously untrue: the CPGB has explicitly blamed the Israeli state as bearing prime responsibility for the outrages directed against its civilians. Apparently though the SA has been hurt by “association” with these “reactionary positions”. Comrade Lavalette also hit out against executive members who dared argue for their “own positions” rather than those of the SA’s majority. Such people have a damaging effect on the SA’s “political credibility”. Birmingham SA was especially condemned for giving the “impression of islamophobia”.
Alex Callinicos underlined the message. He singled out the CPGB and the Weekly Worker. The CPGB name has been “stolen” - presumably from its rightful owners in the defunct Eurocommunist Marxism Today faction - and he commented that we should be “sued”, not congratulated, for having done it. Marcus Ström, the SA’s nominations officers, and a regular contributor to these pages, writes “poison”, according to comrade Callinicos. He assured conference that in the new “project” sectarians such as the CPGB will be kept out. There shall be “no reproduction of the weak elements of the SA”, he promised. Soon there will be a conference of the “new, left, radical alternative”, but the door will shut, locked and bolted to undesirables. Comrade Callinicos thereby unconsciously mimics the anti-communist witch-hunt imposed upon the Labour Party in the early 1920s by Ramsay MacDonald and his rightwing cohorts.
In other words the SWP will do its damnedest to police the whole “project” and impose tight, constricting, bureaucratic controls from the beginning. The “project” will bar communists and other revolutionary democrats. So there will be phrase-mongering about unity, inclusively and toleration in abundance. Bans and proscriptions will though be imposed unofficially, and if need be officially, to put a lid on internal dissent.
On the Sunday a new, slightly longer, SWP constitution was presented. The 2002 conference appointed a commission of four to rewrite the document (Colin Barker acted as convenor and the other members were Seth Harman, Allison Philcock and Yuri Prassad). They handed over their draft to the national committee in October for consideration and amendment.
John Rees described the old constitution as “embarrassing”. However, the changes are largely cosmetic. Eg, the numbers needed to call a special conference or establish a pre-conference faction have been reduced. Now instead of 30% of the membership all that is required is 20%. To set up a pre-conference faction all one needs is “a joint statement by at least 30 members”, as opposed to 40 until now.
Unsurprisingly the main problems remain unaddressed. The SWP is a sect in which membership is defined as someone “who agrees with the politics of the SWP (as outlined in ‘Where we stand’ which is printed in each issue of Socialist Worker), accepts its constitution and works within and under the direction of the appropriate party bodies” (my emphasis, clause 2a).
Communist parties organised along the lines set out by the first congresses of the Communist International demand something less and something more. Members must accept the programme as the basis for common actions. The SWP is, of course, militantly afraid of programmes - unlike the “revolutionary communist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky” (clause 1b). What of ‘accept’ and ‘agree’? Arguing for one against the other might at first sight appear to be pure semantics. However, in such a crucial detail lies the basic distinction separating a party of the class from a mere sect. Eg, the SWP’s ‘Where we stand’ column hardly counts as a programme but it categorically defines the system in Russia under Stalin as “state capitalism” and claims that in eastern Europe and China “a similar system was later established”. Go against that particular shibboleth, even in the sheltered environment of an SWP Marxist forum, and you automatically disbar yourself from membership. In other words the SWP is a common or garden confessional sect.
Sunday also saw elections to the central committee, national committee and what is now called the disputes committee. The central committee remains a tight and compact body and is undoubtedly the SWP’s ruling body. It initiates and presides over everything - according to a new clause in the constitution, introduced by John Rees, it not only appoints “all full-time organisers” (clause 3c). From now on district organisers “represent and are responsible” to it (clause 3f). Membership of the national committee is fixed at 100 and, as there were 50 nominations from the outgoing central committee and 57 from branches, effectively the election was a matter of eliminating seven comrades.
Interestingly, when the SWP in Scotland reconstituted itself as an SSP platform - a permanent faction - its membership formally severed ties with the organisation based in London. After the 2003 conference there are now five comrades from Scotland on the national committee. They are Mike Gonzales, Dave Sherry and Gill Hubbard (nominated by the outgoing central committee) and Neil Davidson and Ian Ferguson. What Alan McCombes and Allan Green will make of this act of remarriage remains to be seen.
What is noticeable, though, in terms of the material contained in Pre-conference bulletin No3 on Scotland is that the rhetoric against nationalism is being stepped up. Comrade Davidson’s article, ‘Is independence a road to socialism in Scotland?’, is in fact a Socialist Worker platform pamphlet. It draws heavily on his extensive, and first-rate, historical work contained in his two books - The origins of Scottish nationhood (London 2000) and Discovering the Scottish revolution (London 2003). Yet, while comrade Davidson has justifiably been awarded this year’s Isaac Deutscher prize, and can take apart the nationalist myths peddled by McCombes, Sheridan et al with consummate ease, he finds himself programmatically at sea.
Having rightly rejected independence as any kind of road to socialism and carefully distanced himself from the parallel call for the break-up of Britain, all he can offer is economist quackery. He genuflects before all-British trade union struggles and the anti-war movement and puts his trust in common sense eventually prevailing. That amounts to an abstract socialism. He is unable to tackle the democratic deficit that palpably exists within the United Kingdom under the conditions of capitalism. Eschewing the demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, which would embody the constitutional right to self-determination, unlike “the revolutionary communist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky” he cannot supply the necessary programmatic bridge that links the struggles of today with our desired socialist future.
Hence on the one hand the SW platform pursues diplomatic accommodation and on the other hand it finds itself hopelessly outmanoeuvred by comrade McCombes. At the SSP’s 2001 conference the SW platform voted as a bloc for a leadership motion specifically calling for independence to be made a “priority” in the general election. Lambs to the slaughter. When McCombes pursues that agreed policy and develops it concretely by proposing that the SSP should outdo the Scottish National Party in nationalism through establishing his convention on independence, SW platform objections are hard, if not impossible, for the membership to take seriously. How can the SW platform denounce today what yesterday it raised its hands to proclaim?
Perhaps the re-incorporation of leading comrades from Scotland into the SWP’s formal command structures and the aim of getting the new “project” based on Salma Yaqoob, George Monbiot and George Galloway up and running before February 2004 in time for the June elections means that the period of cohabitation which saw it prepared to inhabit the SSP’s space as a minority platform is drawing to an end. Needless to say, the chances of a politically hazy new “project” lasting for any length of time are not high. Loose coalitions usually fall apart at the first hurdle. Parties - real parties, that is - are another matter.