Opportunism and hype
The Socialist Workers' Party's annual Marxism school marked another step along the popular front road. Peter Manson, Anne Mc Shane and Phil Kent report
This year Marxism was held over the long weekend of Thursday July 6-Monday July 10. Whereas traditionally the event always lasted more than a week, it now seems that four full days is the established format.
Nevertheless, according to the SWP's Beccy Palmer, speaking at the final rally on July 10, this was "the biggest Marxism for many years". Socialist Worker claims that 4,100 registered to attend, including 1,700 students and school students (July 15). The impression of CPGB comrades was that numbers were about the same as last year, although of course attendance has fallen substantially from the time when the SWP used to push Marxism for a good six months beforehand.
Comrade Palmer reported that 121 people had joined the SWP during the school. This is actually not such a big return for all the effort expended, but significantly the new recruits included two of the recently elected Tower Hamlets Respect councillors (this will, however, mean that the SWP will now have to take direct responsibility for their behaviour, of course).
Also speaking at the closing rally, student organiser Susie Wylie said that this year's Marxism had been "absolutely brilliant". But she was also very hyped up about this whole period and the opportunities it offered for socialists - she quoted George Galloway, who had said to her during a recent tour of universities: "This feels like the 1960s".
In fact the SWP relies on generating excitement and exaggerating perspectives in order to pull in new people - in reality in order to stand still. For a large proportion of recruits it is a case of the revolving door: a good number leave disillusioned after a short period of membership.
One question that might have crossed the minds of the two Respect councillors could have been: 'Why is this not a Respect event?' Since the SWP declares that a new 'broad' party, within which the socialists will make up a small minority, is what is required to challenge New Labour, then why not throw all your resources into building that new party: ie, Respect?
But the SWP is clearly having some difficulty in mobilising its own members for Respect - especially in between election campaigns, when it is put onto the back burner or, in the case of some branches, virtually closes down altogether. That explains why the so-called "forum", 'What next for Respect?', addressed by John Rees and comrade Galloway, was actually a rally. At this meeting it was not membership application forms for the SWP that the stewards were handing out, but for Respect.
In order to persuade comrades of the importance of Respect, the two speakers went into overdrive. Comrade Rees talked about a "new direction for Respect - as if we were launching a new organisation" (he did not say what that "new direction" would be). Respect - founded to give expression to supporters of the anti-war movement, "no matter what their political background" - was "the single most integrated space in British politics and I'm proud of it". Respect's purpose was "to replace Labour as the representative of working people in this country".
And, of course, the November 11 'Organising for fighting unions' conference would be an important stage in breaking the unions from Labour: "I have never seen a conference take off so quickly." It will be "the biggest trade union conference for 10 years", with 1,000 people, over half union delegates, he predicted.
In similar vein Galloway talked of Respect as the future "party of people who have nothing to sell but their labour", a party in "the tradition of Keir Hardie". He, like Rees, stressed the need to orientate to muslims - "I have never understood why the far left says we should be somehow ashamed of standing shoulder to shoulder with the most oppressed section of the British population".
Comrade Rees went further. There was "a ferocious attack on the muslim community from practically every quarter of the establishment", which "brands the whole muslim community as supporters of terrorism". If this was not enough, he went on to say that one of the main aims of this islamophobia was "to separate muslims from Respect".
'Islam and the left' was one of Marxism's running themes, with five main meetings, plus a number of allied discussions. The SWP "secular socialists" also provided two prayer rooms (one for men, one for women).
However, this year the SWP also attempted to hit back at the criticism that it was watering down its commitment to gay and women's rights in order to accommodate its muslim allies. It laid on a number of meetings on gay oppression and gay liberation, including 'The fight for gay liberation in the Middle East', and also had sessions on abortion and women's rights in general. In these meetings SWP speakers generally rejected the notion that islam and homophobia or islam and anti-abortion sentiment could be linked.
The CPGB stall did a brisk trade, with the Weekly Worker attracting a good deal of attention for its front page on the anti-SWP coup attempt in Tower Hamlets Respect.