Control and no genuine debate
This year's Marxism felt rather flat, writes Ben Klein. Despite the positive spin that invariably accompanies any Socialist Workers Party event, it was a disappointment, not least in terms of the numbers attending
The SWP claimed that over 4,000 people took part in its annual summer school from July 3-7. But if the numbers passing by the stalls between sessions are anything to go by, numbers were well down on last year. Indeed, the stalls were certainly not as busy as in previous years and SWP members were certainly not so boisterous in their dealings with the fair smattering of other left groups present.
This did not equate to any sort of positive engagement with the groups and their ideas though - most SWPers have mastered the art of avoiding eye contact when being approached by Weekly Worker sellers or comrades distributing leaflets.
It certainly was interesting to see how some SWP comrades attempt to influence young recruits. Walking back from grabbing a coffee, I overheard a conversation between a young SWP member sporting a ‘Team Marxism’ T-shirt inculcating SWP culture into a young contact by telling him that sectarianism means “taking more of an interest in the politics of the little sects than the movement” - a formulation which is presumably meant to avoid having to admit that the SWP is simply one of the larger “little sects” and a way of dismissing criticisms of the SWP’s opportunism.
Quite revealing also was another overheard conversation, where one SWPer was asking for assistance to deal with a number of “Millies” (ie, Socialist Party comrades) who had set up a stall outside one of the entrances - another attempt to ‘protect’ SWPers from the unwanted attention of rival groups. One leading SWP student comrade half-jokingly told me that he should not be seen talking to me …
Another student SWPer, Andrew Cunningham, was a bit more confrontational - calling us “parasites” as he passed.
In different ways, these examples highlight the control-freakery of the SWP leadership and its bureaucratic approach to socialist ideas - they are the exclusive property of its tradition, all the other groups being deemed as irrelevant and marginal. Not that this tradition actually informs SWP everyday practice, however - that would be a step forward. The everyday practice of the SWP is to actually argue against the politics of working class socialism in the name of ‘broadness’ and ‘making a difference’.
This approach - unfortunately replicated across the left - means that Marxism is only for the individual sect’s own meetings, festivals and pub conversations: ‘mass’ politics has to be the politics of Labourism to reflect the current low levels of class-consciousness. This inevitably leads to the consignment of Marxism to the realms of dogma and the separation of theory from practice.
Yet the left urgently needs to tackle some key practicalquestions and undertake a genuine re-examination of its recent enterprises and activity. How can we avoid repeating the disastrous failures of the recent period? How can the left be rebuilt? How best to mobilise against the threat of war? That Hands Off the People of Iran has received only silence in response to its request to debate the nature of our solidarity work speaks volumes about the SWP leadership’s arrogance and unwillingness to take on these necessary tasks.
This is reflected in the way Marxism is organised. There are very few real debates, even when comrades with different points of view (usually to the right of the SWP) share the platform with an SWP leader. And, of course, the three-minute contributions from the floor can never be more than sound bites - usually from rank and file SWPers who are called upon to relate anecdotes or offer platitudes in order to illustrate the leaders’ line.
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