SWP and morality

An ideal opportunity to challenge the SWP leadership over its attitude to Martin Smith's thuggery came at the Sunday afternoon session aptly entitled 'Marxism and morality'. Peter Manson reports

All the more so, since the introduction was given by 'loyal oppositionist' John Molyneux, who has criticised some of the SWP's undemocratic internal practices and knows full well that its regime needs to change. So would comrade Molyneux be prepared to condemn violence as a means of suppressing dissenting voices? Unfortunately he was found sadly wanting.

His speech was thought-provoking and delivered by someone who obviously knows his stuff - even if he is not prepared to ensure such theory is kept in line with practice.

Comrade Molyneux rebuffed the notion that Marxism was somehow 'without morality' or 'value-free'. He pointed out that Marx's theory grew out of a determination to change society, driven precisely by his very human morality - it was not as though he first completed his study of capitalism and only then decided a different social system was needed. Marxism, continued comrade Molyneux, is based on proletarian morality - vastly superior to the bourgeois variety because it is determined by genuine human need, not the needs of a minority, exploiting class.

There can be no ahistorical morality, he went on - moral codes are determined by a particular society and particular class interests. Comrade Molyneux was easily able to demonstrate this by giving examples of codes based on both religion and a classless, timeless 'reason' - such as Immanuel Kant's 'categorical imperative' - to show that they were neither timeless nor class-neutral.

Comrade Molyneux was absolutely clear that the political and moral principles of socialists are identical. For example, the maxim, 'An injury to one is an injury to all', or our absolute opposition to everything that divides our class, such as racism and sexism, and to all forms of "physical and psychological oppression", are at one and the same time both political and moral.

In this session, like others held in the comparatively small Elvin Hall, there was no system of speaker's slips in operation - even though there were around 200 present. This meant that any vetting of speakers is carried out by the chair alone, and there is a greater chance that the SWP's opponents will be permitted to speak. Having caught her eye early, I was soon called to the microphone by chair Elane Heffernan, who in all likelihood did not recognise me or was unaware of the matter I wished to raise.

I started by congratulating comrade Molyneux on his excellent opening and suggested that proletarian morality could be defined as the principles and practice that ultimately serve the interests of our class and the cause of socialism and communism. If so, this has repercussions for the way Marxists conduct their own affairs. For example, it is essential to provide space for dissenting voices. Why? Because sometimes minorities turn out to be right and their proposals may help to point us on the correct road to human emancipation. Here was an example of the identity of political and moral principles that comrade Molyneux had referred to. For the same reason socialists never employ violence as a means of settling their differences.

I then reported the previous day's incident, where comrade Simon - expelled from the SWP merely for raising criticisms - had been physically assaulted by the SWP leader responsible for his expulsion. At the very least, the SWP must hold an enquiry to establish the facts of this disgraceful incident. If the organisation was serious about Marxist morality, I concluded, it must express its absolute condemnation of the use of such violence by one working class partisan against another.

Surprisingly I was applauded by a minority of those in the hall, although my contribution was not referred to by any of the subsequent speakers from the floor. It was left to comrade Molyneux to dismiss what I had said. Firstly he tried to make out that my definition of proletarian morality - whatever ultimately serves the interest of communism - could be interpreted as 'the ends justify the means': ie, extreme oppression, gulags, etc. This was hardly in accord with my forthright defence of minority rights (in opposition to the SWP gulag regime) and indeed it could only be interpreted in that way by those who believe that 'socialism' can be imposed from above on an unwilling population.

The comrade implied I had abused the meeting by raising the previous day's assault: "If the session had been on North Korea you would have found a way to bring it up." Yes, the CPGB did all we could to bring this outrage to the attention of as many people as possible and I am sorry if he thought a physical attack carried out by an SWP leader is irrelevant to a discussion on Marxist morality.

Comrade Molyneux said that allegations of SWP violence are frequently made. He recalled his first Marxism as a young man in his 20s, when it was the Workers Revolutionary Party that was demanding an enquiry into an alleged SWP physical attack. Clearly such claims are made so frequently either because they do indeed occur or because the SWP's opponents are engaged in underhand activity to discredit it. Comrade Molyneux clearly wanted his audience to believe it was the latter: "The trouble with you comrades is that you like to create an incident each year at Marxism."

The last time such an "incident" occurred was in 2003, when CPGB comrades were also physically attacked. We had been handing out a leaflet criticising comments made by one of the SWP's leading comrades, Lindsey German, which betrayed a clear softness towards homophobia ("I am in favour of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth"). SWP members tried to rip copies of the leaflet and the Weekly Worker out of our hands.

Critics have only themselves to blame if they are assaulted. That is the lesson the SWP wants people to draw. We, on the other hand, agree with John Molyneux when he says, "An injury to one is an injury to all." The difference is that we mean it.