Socialism from below in Respect

Longstanding SWP member Nick Bird has resigned from the organisation in protest at its lack of internal democracy and change of policy on Respect. He spoke to Peter Manson

What first attracted you to the SWP?

When I joined in 1990 it was at the time of the anti-poll tax movement and in the run-up to the first Iraq war. There was one Militant member involved in the anti-poll tax campaign, but the SWP was much larger.

I had been aware of the SWP before, when I was at university, but hadn't really got involved. Then I met the local branch members in Lowestoft and started going to meetings. I began to take Socialist Worker and I read the short book by Paul Foot, The case for socialism.

For me this was a new political perspective, separate from both western social democracy and eastern communism. In my teens I was a bit of a Liberal and had been involved in animal rights, though not to any great degree. But the politics that the SWP represented was new to me - socialism from below, what the party called classical Marxism - and I was persuaded. I was impressed by the SWP's internationalism, work in the anti-fascist movement and emphasis on trade union work.

And the whole theory of state capitalism was quite important. I had grown up in the cold war and was seeing the revolutions in eastern Europe that overthrew a series of authoritarian regimes. The SWP did represent a new way of looking at these things for me.

What activities did you get involved in?

Initially, as I say, it had been around the anti-poll tax campaign, the movement against the bombing of Iraq in 1991. Then in 92 there was the outburst of anger around the pit closures and the miners' resistance. Although in retrospect it was only a brief explosion, I hadn't really been involved in such a scale of protest before. Then there were the campaigns around the Anti-Nazi League and against the Criminal Justice Bill - we were heavily involved in all of them in Lowestoft.

When did you start going to SWP conference and other national events?

I went to Marxism every year, but the first conference I went to was probably in the mid-90s. I also went to national meetings and I was as involved as anyone around that time.

What for you is the best thing about the SWP tradition?

The whole emphasis on socialism from below - change comes from the self-activity of the class and that requires the most democratic means.

Many people have noted the contradiction between that and the way the SWP conducts its own internal organisation.

Yes, but I didn't think that at the time. I am no longer in favour of the type of party the SWP has become, based on an interpretation of Leninism and an internal culture which is not sufficiently open or truly democratic. That is the view I have come to over the past four or five years.

There is no culture of discussion, there are no regular bulletins. While there is communication from the leadership, there is no forum for members to debate with each other. Connected to that is the ban on factions. Trade union fractions within the party do communicate amongst themselves and I am sure some larger branches have their own email lists. There are also some informal networks, but there is no official all-members list.

How did you view proceedings at SWP conference initially?

Of course, I didn't have the critical perspective I have now, but it felt positive. It was a time when the party was growing in size and influence. The SWP probably reached its peak of membership around the end of 1994 after a very active time in all sorts of campaigns.

SWP conferences are not based around motions by and large, but around a series of sessions on different subjects. A document is drawn up at the end which is then voted on. But there isn't normally a lot of dissent or disagreement and I agreed with the line at the time. If you do, then perhaps you don't notice some of the shortcomings.

Looking back, were those shortcomings in evidence then?

Essentially the structure of the party hasn't changed. I've come to see that the ban on factions and the lack of internal debate does go back to that period.

The problem is, at conferences and national meetings there has never been a great deal of opposition. You were aware of a few dissenters and occasionally someone might be expelled for something, but these have been very isolated incidents. Because there never was much debate within the party, you weren't aware of the restrictions contained within that model.

Would you say that opposition to the leadership line has been expressed more openly at recent conferences? For example, John Molyneux's concerns were reported in Socialist Worker a couple of years ago.

Well, I haven't actually been to an SWP conference for a few years. Partly it's been a matter of practicalities, but I suppose I've been less than enthusiastic about the overall approach. I wasn't at the conference when Molyneux challenged the political committee, but from what I hear there was quite a bit of debate there and he was supported by a substantial minority. And now, obviously, there's dissent around the whole question of the crisis in Respect.

However, it's not that reports of previous controversies have been suppressed in Socialist Worker. It's just that there wasn't that much dissent. When Molyneux stood for the central committee, that was the first competitive election in my memory and that's going back to the early 90s.

So what is wrong with SWP democracy? You could say if everyone is happy and no-one is dissenting, then what's the problem?

Well, not everyone is happy now. What's wrong with it is that there's a lack of internal culture that respects different opinions. Critics, although sometimes they can be encouraged to come forward, can be treated very harshly. You have to be quite brave to stick your head up and make criticisms.

I don't think there have been a lot of expulsions from the SWP recently - Ger Francis was one. In essence it comes down to the culture - without having the means of internal debate, without a much more open approach, people don't have the confidence that they can raise criticisms.

Similarly the system of elections doesn't encourage candidates to come forward. The incoming leadership is effectively chosen by the outgoing leadership. If you oppose some individual candidates, then, rather than just proposing a couple of replacements, you have to propose an alternative slate. I'm sure that's the reason why there haven't been a lot of contested elections. You can put forward amendments, but after they're defeated it's a question of 'take it or leave it'.

The model of trade union elections that I know is that you get your list of candidates and you vote for 20 or whatever. But under the slate system you can't pick and choose which candidates you want to support if they don't happen to be on a certain slate.

In my view the much maligned 'recommended lists' of the 'official communist' parties do have something going for them if they are used in a democratic way. The leadership - or anyone else - proposes a balance, taking into account not only geography, union membership and so on, but political views too. But at the end of the day you vote for individual candidates.

In effect that's how it works in trade unions. In my union, the PCS, you vote for individual candidates, but Left Unity, Independent Left, Moderates all put forward their recommended candidates. Members can vote for the whole list, vote for some of them or they can mix and match. That's probably the best model.

What measures need to be taken to overcome the democratic deficit in the SWP?

There needs to be an internal bulletin, forums for debate and members must be allowed to organise in factions or platforms. Conferences and national meetings need to be organised much more democratically. At present the central committee speaker introducing the discussion gets 30 minutes and everyone else gets four. But you can't develop a sufficient answer to a complicated argument in four minutes. The whole thing ends up fragmented and the leadership has an inbuilt advantage.

What effect does the ban on factions have?

Temporary factions are allowed only in the run-up to conference. A faction could be described as a group of SWP members communicating with each other outside official structures. So obviously independent publications or websites are not allowed. Although interestingly there are now a number of SWP members who do have their own blogs and the leadership seems to be quite happy with that situation.

Lenin's Tomb, one of the best known, is fairly loyal to the party, but blogs by their nature encourage debate and discussion. That's one of the advantages of the internet - it's a lot harder to control.

So does the SWP operate democratic centralism or a departure from it?

Formally there is democracy. Every year conference gets the chance to vote out the leadership, should it so wish. Formally branches have the right to submit motions. But in fact, because of the culture that's developed, democracy is quite stunted. In reality branches hardly ever submit motions in my experience. The leadership makes it quite clear that the kind of conference it prefers is one based around a series of discussions and perspective documents.

Democratic centralism has been rather maligned. The main actions and policies of the party need to be decided democratically and they have to be carried out, but if you apply that to every dot and comma it becomes far too restrictive and holds back the development of members. It's difficult to be prescriptive about these things. If a party has a healthy, democratic culture, they work themselves out and people will probably know when the line has been crossed. But it's difficult to formulate that.

The history of left groups in this country is that so many people have experienced a regime that is a distortion of democratic centralism. We need to gain the experience of what it would be like under a properly functioning democratic internal regime.

Was there a particular event that first started to spark doubts in your mind about the SWP's internal regime?

I don't remember one single event. But it was probably around the time of the Socialist Alliance. You become aware of other members who have left the party with criticisms. It starts off a series of small doubts, I suppose, and gradually builds up into a more general critique.

One such example was when the US International Socialist Organization was expelled from the International Socialist Tendency. I regarded that as a mistake. The official reason given at the time was that they had a slightly different view on the anti-capitalist movement and hadn't mobilised sufficiently for Seattle. Even if all the disputed allegations against the ISO were true, it seemed to me a strange reason to expel a whole organisation - it was one of the tendency's bigger groups. There was the feeling that you weren't being told the whole story and perhaps it was more about a power struggle within the IST.

Other things concerned the treatment of individual members, that I don't want to name, who had developed a critique of the party. They were examples of a lack of seriousness regarding debate within the party. Sometimes the pressure from national office makes you feel you are being treated not so much as a comrade, but as a cog in the wheel. The way people are sometimes instructed to do things is counterproductive - as it is when they subsequently leave.

Broadly speaking, I was not badly treated myself. But this may partly have been because Lowestoft SWP is not exactly a big city branch and not one of the key areas. There's no full-time organiser in this area, for example, so we don't come under so much pressure.

So I'm not leaving the SWP because I'm personally bitter about how I've been treated. I'm not interested in the politics of vendettas - some people become a bit obsessed with their former organisation. It's just that I don't feel I can remain a member any longer.

Did you not consider the possibility of trying to organise some kind of opposition?

Two or three years ago I wrote a critique in the internal pre-conference bulletin. But, to be honest, the level of debate in the party is not sufficiently developed to allow such a challenge to arise. The ban on factions also stops it.

You have to think, is it a productive way of spending your time - trying to wage an internal battle in a party where the culture doesn't support it, where discussion is limited to a few weeks a year before conference? Even then there are very few contributions from rank and file members, and what they do write is often fixated on organisational and local issues.

On the other hand, this is a strategically important time for Respect, and my main work now as a socialist is in my union. I am also involved in the Defend Council Housing campaign.

How many members has the SWP lost, would you say?

The party claimed at least 10,000 by the end of 1994 and that felt about right. In Lowestoft we had about 25 members then, compared to about three in the late 80s. Now there are probably around five, although there is also a pool of supporters. I don't think that the scale of the loss is so great nationally - there were over 4,000 at Marxism this year. Not all members go to Marxism, but not all who do go are members either.

How does party council differ from conference?

Party councils are held around every three months and are usually called to discuss a particular subject - the most recent one, obviously, was about Respect. Party councils, which are one-day events, can, unlike the national committee, take decisions between conferences, but branches are not usually asked to submit motions. There are also national meetings.

At the September 30 party council we were told that voting would be restricted to the two documents presented by the leadership and no amendments would be allowed. This is one of the criticisms I have made - 'take it or leave it' is not the best basis for facilitating debate and constructing a policy.

The normal format is that one or two big issues are presented, there is a broad discussion and in a way it acts as a rally as much as anything, allowing the leadership to convey its views to the core of party activists.

And right now, when the leadership is clearly changing its line and preparing to ditch Respect, that is necessary, I suppose.

I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that the SWP will abandon Respect. There's not going to be an early general election now, which is fortunate: firstly Respect is clearly not ready at the moment to fight one; and secondly the Respect conference and then the SWP conference will allow this debate to play out and we'll have a clearer idea of what's going to happen.

It's a question of who wins the argument in Respect. One possibility is that the SWP will reassert its control and the other side will then walk out. But I don't think the SWP as yet has decided to abandon the whole thing.

If after 10 years of a rightwing Labour government the left hasn't managed to construct an organisation capable of mounting an electoral challenge, that would be a serious failure and it's one for which the SWP, as the biggest far-left organisation, will have to take a share of responsibility. We need a viable broad organisation which can unite socialists and others on the left.

The SWP must realise that. After the Socialist Alliance, if Respect then fails as well, where does that leave the SWP's perspective?

You're clearly in favour of a Respect-type formation, but what about the organisation of revolutionaries?

It's not an abstract question. I remember Duncan Hallas saying quite clearly at Marxism a number of years ago, "I'm not a purist." You need to make strategic and tactical judgements about the period you're in, about how you engage with wider society and the working class, about how you create the conditions in which Marxist arguments can gain an audience.

The measure of your commitment isn't how often and how loudly you proclaim you're a revolutionary - otherwise we'd all join the Spartacists or the Workers Revolutionary Party. But those are clearly tiny sects that have no influence on the working class or anyone else. They have no idea how to engage with people and work with other socialists, so their ideas fall on barren ground.

Nevertheless, surely communist organisation is necessary?

Within a broad, socialistic type of party that Respect is trying to build I hope there will be various platforms - that's how democratic organisations work, isn't it? You have the debate within them and hopefully win. That is the test for Marxists - to be able to convince people who aren't Marxists that they are correct. And the arena for doing that is within a broader party.

I don't agree with the SWP formulation that Respect is a 'united front of a special type' - that is a bit of a nonsense. I am in favour of it becoming a proper party.

As a stepping stone to a socialist party?

'Socialism' is in the Respect acronym "¦

But it includes non-socialists, such as the bloc of businessmen councillors in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps they might be considered anti-socialist.

Any socialist party should be made up in its large majority of working class people. The definition of a self-employed or small business person can be quite broad.

But when the majority in places like Tower Hamlets are not congealed around any working class perspective "¦

It's difficult for me to comment on the balance of membership there. The best safeguard is for Respect to do work in the unions and in working class communities, as it has around the housing issue, for example.

There has been a tendency to say that if someone is a muslim they are not part of the working class. There are businessmen involved, but there are working class muslims as well, which is where Respect is getting its support.

I get really tired of people criticising Salma Yaqoob, for instance. That's what you get from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - you know, she's got nothing to do with the working class or socialism. In fact what she's done in Birmingham is exemplary in many ways for our approach to working in the community. She's become a leader of radical left politics in Birmingham and stands a good chance of winning a seat at the next election. But the kind of sniping she gets is shocking.