Marxism 2011: Impressions from sectarian alley

Ben Lewis found the SWP a lot less hostile than in previous years

At each and every Marxism there are places where attendees are politely warned not to go by Socialist Workers Party full-timers and more narrow-minded members. The left groups, armed only with pasting tables, books, pamphlets and leaflets (which just might have the odd critical thing or two to say about the SWP and its leadership), are confined to what the SWP tops dub ‘sectarian alley’.

New SWP recruits are instructed not to waste time talking to us ‘sectarians’. We are there only to “poach” members - mere locusts to “parasite” off the “the party”. This approach is all too reminiscent of the attitude of the ‘official’ CPGB towards ‘the Trots’ - an irrelevant, inward-looking distraction.

Anyway, this year again many far left groups set up their stalls outside Marxism’s new location, centred on the University College London campus in Euston. Most of my time was spent on the CPGB stall, and I can report that it was mainly an enjoyable experience. Unlike previous years, there were no threats against comrades handing out leaflets for our fringe meetings and no low-level intimidation of those on the stall. Doubtless because of the antipathy against competing ideas and tendencies drilled into members by the SWP leadership, the attitude towards the Weekly Worker and our ideas is, of course, largely negative - albeit characterised more by indifference than outright hostility: slightly embarrassed, many look down at their feet as they walk by, while some snort vaguely in our direction. But there are quite a few comrades who will now stop for a brief chat, take a leaflet and then go on their way. While our stall can never claim to do a roaring trade at Marxism, this year we sold well over £200 of materials, including books, badges, papers and even a whole set of The Leninist, forerunner to the Weekly Worker. Several of the more open-minded and friendly SWP comrades we have established relations with over the years came over to the stall and also attended our two fringe meetings.

I like spending time on and around the stalls. I enjoy the exchanges you have during the course of the weekend - something that is perfectly healthy and natural in the workers’ movement. Moreover, the festival is a chance for you to catch up with friends and comrades from various left groups/localities whom you may not have seen for a while, to find out what others on the left are saying first hand and to buy some interesting literature - in my case a copy of Michael Löwy’s Politics of combined and uneven development from the well-stocked Bookmarks official stall, and a new translation of the Communist International’s theses on women’s organisation from the Spartacist League. Other groups were the Sparts’ nemesis/twin in the form of the International Bolshevik Tendency, the Commune, Revolutionary History (with its shiny new volume on Iran), Workers Power, the Socialist Equality Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales (very briefly), Workers Fight and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The award for worst fringe meeting/leaflet must go to the social-imperialists of the latter group, who were handing out a leaflet asked: “Was ‘no to Nato intervention’ the only anti-imperialist line for Libya?” This, of course, led to some rather heated debates on the nature of imperialism with AWL members. Not only CPGB comrades, but - to their credit - some members of the Spartacists and the occasional SWPer certainly took the AWL members to task. The CPGB’s Mark Fischer pointed out that the AWL had learnt nothing from the Iraq disaster, and that they were still labouring under the illusion that imperialist intervention could create a ‘space’ for working class activity denied them under Gaddafi.

The AWL’s Daniel Randall, once an oppositionist on the question of Iraq, one might recall, reminded us that there were now trade unions in that country! This idiotic position overlooks the obvious fact these rights have been won in spite of the carnage and barbarity inflicted on Iraqi society, and that, had it not been for the invasion and occupation of Iraq (which the AWL refused to oppose), then today Iraq would almost certainly be in a situation more analogous to Egypt with an outcome more favourable to the masses. The AWL leaflet is all the more disingenuous in that it claims to be ‘anti-imperialist’. For the AWL, the “right side” won in 2003, something undisputed by AWL members at their stall. Shameful.

Over a beer on the Saturday night, an American friend from the Platypus group wondered what it would mean for the SWP to have 30,000 members. As currently constituted, it would be nigh on a miracle - for the SWP or any other left group, for that matter - to reach such a figure. Bureaucratic centralism, the inability of members to openly articulate their differences, the unwillingness to engage with other far-left groups or strive for revolutionary unity preclude this. This is why we need a space to thrash out our views and work out ideas which can change the world.

It was excellent that attendance at Marxism was up on past years, and also positive that some of the more distasteful aspects of running a stall in ‘sectarian alley’ were not repeated. Opening up the Marxism timetable to address some of the points made by those to the SWP’s left (its relationship to the union bureaucracy, lack of programme, etc), not to mention actually inviting the other groups to bring their stalls inside, would be real step in radically transforming the culture of the SWP, and with it the left as a whole. It might even help us to emerge from the quagmire we are currently all in: talent is wasted, new comrades are miseducated and our political work is criminally replicated.

That is why it is not ‘sectarian’ to address our disunity in the honest and forthright fashion that we in the CPGB do. See you next year, comrades.