Keep off our turf

James Turley critiques the SWP's proprietorial culture

It has become common in daily life for capitalism to restrict people’s access to communal space - indeed, this is one of the oldest features of capitalism, which was built in Britain at least off the back of the enclosure acts, which created the proletariat through denying peasants access to the commons.

Today that process continues, albeit in the urban sphere - many leftwing activists trying to sell papers and distribute leaflets in city centres are harassed by police officers and private security guards keen to ensure activities on ‘their’ turf are restricted to approved consumerism. Those planning demonstrations have to give prior notice and the police have to agree the route. Teenagers who commit the crime of hanging around in a shopping precinct after trading hours are regularly moved on by the police. Democracy Village protesters still occupying Parliament Square face eviction by Boris Johnson and the Greater London Authority if they lose their legal appeal at the end of this week.

In bourgeois society, where legal ownership confers numerous other rights, this is perfectly unsurprising. The point of ownership is control - so a building owned or rented by a capitalist will be organised according to the needs of capital. That means uniformed guards to deal not only with genuine breaches of security, but to keep the floor free of ‘foreign bodies’ that may interfere with the money-making operations.

Unfortunately, this is also apparently the culture of the Socialist Workers Party. As reported in this paper last week (July 8), CPGB comrade Zuri Zurowski fell foul of the same kind of mind-set at the SWP’s annual ‘festival of ideas’, Marxism. He was confronted by an abusive, screaming and threatening, officially T-shirted SWP steward while leafleting for our fringe meeting on fascism. The incident took place outside a Marxism session where Martin Smith was due to talk about the fascist English Defence League. This is our building, our comrade was told; we booked it, and if you want to leaflet, you will have to do so outside.

In fact, this behaviour compares unfavourably with bourgeois society - after all, should a Socialist Worker seller in a shopping centre be confronted by a jobsworth cop or security guard, it is more likely they will be politely asked to move on, rather than being told that they are going to get their head ripped off. Ditto club bouncers. They now have to undergo 30 hours of compulsory training, learning how to defuse potentially violent situations as well as the gentle art of restraining without injury.

For good reason - wilfully antagonising someone may escalate things, when the aim should be to calm the situation down and resolve matters peacefully. Quite apart from being an affront to democracy, the attitude of this SWP comrade represents incompetent stewarding - his threats may well have been empty (comrade Zurowski’s head remains attached to his body), but that does not mean they could not have provoked just the sort of problem that stewards are supposed to be there to prevent.

It is easy enough to draw comparisons with far-left groups past who relied on physical force in dealing with their competitors. The most infamous advocate of such activities on the British left was the Trotskyist Gerry Healy, whose organisations always tended to act like millenarian cults and treated other left groups with the visceral contempt more classically associated with Stalinist slurs against Trotsky. Indeed, as a Young Communist League member in the 1930s, Healy learned from the best on this score.

Yet this is not simply a function of the well-documented sectarianism of the far left, but a carbon copy of the culture of the labour bureaucracy. In 2005, Walter Wolfgang - a veteran leftwing and anti-war campaigner, aged 82 at the time - was physically removed from the Labour Party conference floor after shouting a single word - “Nonsense!” - during a speech by Blairite hatchet-man Jack Straw. Straw was offering up the usual mendacious defences of Britain’s mission in Iraq. Because he dared to dissent from this garbage, the world’s TV cameras were treated to the spectacle of several burly stewards dragging an octogenarian activist to the door. Upon attempting to re-enter the conference later that day, Wolfgang was briefly held by the police - under (what else?) anti-terror legislation.

It all makes perfect sense for the labour bureaucracy. Its whole basis is its function: to act as a buffer between capital and labour, exacting concessions from the bourgeoisie in return for pliancy from the working class. Its methods follow from that role. From dodgy back-room pay deals to administering the state in the interests of capitalism, the labour bureaucracy thrives when it is insulated from pressure from below. The whole history of the Labour Party is one of periodic purges of dissident members (particularly those associated with Trotskyism), and the most recent is the most prolonged and thoroughgoing on record.

Against this, communists argue for democracy in our movement. Democratic mechanisms are our main weapon against the corruption of our leaders and our goals - they do not solve everything, but, combined with a culture of criticism among the membership at large, they may be used to hold powerful individuals to account and replace them if necessary. We want Jack Straw to get heckled and exposed as a class traitor; and we want every labour bureaucrat brought under democratic control from below. For that to happen, however, we need our voices to be heard in the first place.

The SWP’s internal culture corresponds alarmingly to that of the labour bureaucracy. This is perfectly clear from the whole Marxism weekend, not just the unsavoury experience of comrade Zuri. Members of an array of different political groups attend the festival, but are greeted in the manner of leeches and parasites (rather like entryists in the Labour Party). The ‘debates’ are largely engineered through the speaker slip system, which means unacceptable criticisms are weeded out. Alternatively a member of another left group is set up to be condemned by a series of SWP loyalists parroting the prescribed line in breathless tones.

Whether the SWP can continue to get away with this kind of culture is another matter. The organisation, despite displaying its usual bravado, is reeling from a series of political blunders over several years. First came the split in Respect, which lost it most of its remaining allies among the wider left; then came endless internal ructions, centred around former leader John Rees.

Rees’s name was synonymous with the Respect venture, after all. Rees and George Galloway, then still an MP, were inseparable in public, and it was Rees who carried the can for the appalling way the SWP managed the split. He was widely reviled by the SWP rank and file. By any conceivable measure, he was unfit to serve on any central committee.

The CC behaved in the usual way, though - it attempted to lop off Rees and his closest allies as cleanly as possible. Neither side of the dispute, to be sure, had any interest in discussing the political failures behind the Respect disaster, since all were implicated. There has yet to be a serious accounting for the whole popular frontist episode.

The leadership did not get its way completely, however. Internal pre-conference bulletins published before the January 2009 conference revealed widespread discontent with the party regime, and even with aspects of its strategy - prolonged ‘united front’ work with any and all allies, typically on an issue by issue basis. As a result, a ‘democracy commission’ was set up, whose emptiness was revealed spectacularly when, not satisfied with edging him out of the CC, the SWP leadership decided to provoke a full split with comrade Rees and his allies. The 2009-10 pre-conference period - astonishingly, the only time that SWP comrades have any opportunity to openly critique the actions, views and perspectives of the leadership in any meaningful way - saw another wave of grumbles, as the SWP apparat and comrade Rees’s Left Platform were clearly heading for a split.

The split produced, around the exiled minority, a media-centric left operation in the form of Counterfire. But the problems have continued. The SWP’s economic ‘united front’ - Right to Work - had no sooner held a major conference than it destroyed its own reputation, when a hundred SWP/RTW activists invaded the Acas talks over the BA cabin crew dispute in an utterly childish and anarchistic fashion (not many anarchists would be so silly, in truth).

Now, the Doncaster branch - always, according to their split document, closer to Rees - have resigned en masse. They cite the directionless character of the SWP’s union work, in particular their failure to hold the SWP’s union officials to account. No sooner is a debate stitched up than a new row erupts - and increasingly, these rows end in splits.

Demographically speaking, the SWP has historically dealt with this problem by roping in ‘new layers’ of naive youngsters, who - efficiently managed by a full-timer - can be relied upon for loyalty for a few years at least. But SWP leaders are caught in a genuine bind. They treat the organisation as their personal property; the problem is that it is more or less an accurate assessment. By maintaining bureaucratic organisational norms and opportunist political priorities, the leadership comes into possession of the party structures. It regulates communication between fractions and branches. It is their shop, and if you don’t like it, you can leave and try another.

The SWP’s project, however, remains a revolutionary one in the broadest terms - they wish, one way or another, to place the working class in charge of the world and remake it into a communist society. Moreover, there is the group’s founding myth - only by rejecting Trotsky’s theory of degenerated and deformed workers’ states (ie, that the socialised property of the Stalinist regimes was itself a stamp of working class rule, however corrupted by the bureaucratic ruling caste) could founder-guru Tony Cliff produce a socialism that was genuinely a ‘socialism from below’, of mass action and democracy.

My point is not to argue with Cliff’s conclusions on all this (many are, of course, arguable), but simply to point out that there is a contradiction inherent in any organisation that argues for socialism ‘from below’, through one or another form of workers’ democracy, but uses the technical-organisational norms of the labour bureaucracy to pursue this project. Either the bureaucratic machine, and the leadership’s monopoly over information, must be destroyed; or the political errors will simply multiply. Treating other left voices as comrades in a common struggle, rather than dangerous parasites, and engaging in the battle of ideas without threatening to turn it into a literal bloodbath - that would be a good start.