SWP and freedom of speech

Michelle Euston reports on the Socialist Workers Party's rally 'Socialists and the Movement' in London, while Ted North attended the event in Sheffield

The London 'Socialists and the movement' rally called by the Socialist Workers Party was held on February 8. Over 200 people heard Lindsey German compare Marx's involvement in the German mass movement of 1848-49 to the SWP "socialist core" within the movement today.

Of course, a large part of her speech was devoted to the cartoon furore. For her it was a "dubious notion" that the representation of Mohammed with a bomb on his turban - implying islam was a violent religion - should be thought of as free expression. We have to see the cartoons for what they are: a rightwing newspaper provocation. She went on to comment on what she saw as a "double standard": Abu Hamza gets a seven-year sentence, while Nick Griffin of the BNP is let off.

Next up was Chris Harman. He said that socialists have a "double duty": firstly, to develop the struggle and the movement; and, secondly, to build a left pole of attraction inside it. Socialist Worker was an essential weapon - we need an active network of socialists around the paper to carry forward the arguments and win people to revolutionary politics.

Comrade Harman did not address the question of how comrades were expected to build both Respect and the SWP as their party. Whereas just a few months ago the priority was undoubtedly Respect (it was said that would automatically produce more SWP recruits), the 'Socialists and the movement' series of meetings seems to be an attempt to redress the balance back in favour of the SWP.

Comrade Harman paid lip service to the need for greater discussion, but this was not put into practice at this meeting, which lasted less than an hour, with no contributions permitted from the floor.

Michelle Euston

In the same room

On February 9 the 'Socialists and the movement' roadshow moved to Sheffield for a well attended meeting in the Hilton Hotel. Recently the SWP has been pushing Respect - the SWP at Sheffield University freshers fair had covered its Socialist Workers Student Society sign with a Respect one - but at this event the SWP itself was once more to the fore.

John Rees used the example of the Stop the War Coalition to explain how it is essential for socialists to interact with a mass movement. Comrade Rees said it was important to be in the "same room" with people who have different politics and work on areas of agreement. But that does not apply to the "sectarian left", who "don't talk to anyone except themselves" anyway. I always understood sectarianism to mean putting the interests of your own group, or sect, above the needs of the working class as a whole. But the expression of criticism, the refusal to sell out the ideas of Marxism - that is not sectarianism.

Rees inevitably moved on to the cartoon controversy, "double standards" and the "nonsense about freedom of speech". Quite how Rees is able to use the fact that "the media have always censored some things" as a reason why socialists should oppose freedom of speech I do not know.

Comrade Rees finished his speech by attempting to clarify the role of the SWP within Respect, which he claimed was to build a revolutionary pole within the workers' movement.

Following a speech from a student SWPer just returned from Venezuela, Alex Callinicos talked about the disintegration of "the tradition of Labourism" - leaving a space on the left. We must aim to fill this space by drawing in people from a Labour background into a "broad and open" coalition, alongside the SWP.

There was a pitifully short time allowed for contributions and questions from the floor, and I was one of the handful of people allowed to speak. I criticised the SWP's opposition to freedom of speech, which, despite its claims, is alien to the Marxist tradition. Karl Marx was a lifelong defender of freedom of speech, even for the rightwing German press. I pointed out that the tradition of genuine Marxism is to seek allies but not abandon your own politics when doing so, but I don't think Alex appreciated my suggestion that he re-read Marx's Critique of the Gotha programme!

Ted North