The tiny cog and its mechanical mindset

Peter Manson reviews the first of three SWP pre-conference bulletins

Yes, it is that time of the year again. In the three months before the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference, SWP comrades are allowed to submit their ideas to the whole organisation for publication in their entirety in three Pre-conference Bulletins. What is more, during this brief period they are even permitted to form a temporary faction, provided at least 30 members sign a “joint statement” and, in accordance with the SWP constitution, all the faction’s documents are exclusively distributed “through the national office”.

Prior to 2009, the Pre-conference Bulletin (also known as Internal Bulletin, or IB) was only available in printed form - the central committee claimed that to circulate it electronically would jeopardise members’ ‘security’ and that would allow the identity of contributors to be more easily revealed to their employers or to fascists. In reality, of course, details about every half-decent activist already circulate freely on the internet - those who have genuine security concerns should surely use a pseudonym. The real reason for the restriction was the CC’s desire to prevent criticism from becoming public and to keep firm control over what passes for internal debate.

However, two years ago the CC relented and began emailing the IB to all members, who are told not to forward them to non-SWPers. As a further gesture in the direction of ‘security’, it publishes only the first name of contributors. This has the effect of muddying the waters somewhat - those members not in the know cannot be sure of the status of  contributors. Are they senior cadres and do their comments have the CC seal of approval, for instance?

IB No1 (October) signals a further retreat from the leadership’s antipathy towards the free exchange of ideas that the internet permits. Once upon a time the SWP banned its members from taking part in online discussion forums and up to very recently it continued to express its disapproval of the idea, on the grounds that such forums are “undemocratic” - branch meetings are open to all members, and that is where debate should take place!

Now, however, the CC document, ‘The SWP and the internet’, has faced up to the inevitable: “Many comrades now regularly post … to Facebook and Twitter, and comment … online. A few also produce valuable blog entries (and some less useful!). While these kinds of forums are not a substitute for branch meetings, etc, it would be wrong for the SWP to abstain from such forums.” Progress indeed! (This article also states: “Each month well over 350,000 people visit the [Socialist Worker] site, generating in excess of 1.25 million page views.”)

A largish submission from “Ian (Manchester)” - which takes up six pages, mainly regurgitating standard SWP ‘wisdom’- makes a more than useful contribution on this subject, however. He writes: “In the age of the internet, any organisation larger than a sect cannot have free internal debate if it fears those debates becoming visible to those outside its ranks - no fudge is possible on this. But the desire to separate ‘internal’ debate from the class is based on a false understanding of democratic centralism. How can a party take sensible decisions about what to do in the class without seeking the views of those it works alongside?”

He continues: “Open debate … would have the great advantage of allowing mistakes to be promptly identified and corrected .… Mistakes are inevitable, but it is impossible to ensure a whole party learns from them without being willing to acknowledge them publicly.” And he adds: “A mass revolutionary party would include members with varied political opinions … Party growth helps openness and diversity, which are in turn preconditions for genuine mass parties.”

At last we have an SWP comrade who, no matter how vaguely, recognises the difference between genuine democratic centralism and the bureaucratic centralist impostor advocated by so much of the left. Perhaps comrade Ian will develop a thoroughgoing critique of the SWP’s practice and propose a radical overhaul. For the moment, however, he concludes by saying: “Having had a party structure that has changed so little for such a long period means that more debate will be required to work out what changes will be best.”

Shaping the fightback?

This first IB is dominated by another CC document, ‘Perspectives for the SWP’, which this year, not unexpectedly, is centred on the forthcoming class battles, as workers and their unions react to the coalition government’s austerity attacks. Much of what the CC writes is correct and this section of the document begins in a measured way.

The leadership writes: “If the coordinated battle over pensions were to become sufficiently powerful to win, it would transform the situation … It would boost our side in every battle and be an important step in reversing the shattering of working class confidence in the 1980s.” This is compared to the December 1995 strike wave in France: “It opened up a period in which a higher level of struggle was possible, but also in which the political space for the anti-capitalist left expanded.”

This betrays the economistic outlook of the SWP. If its CC is only aiming for the situation in France 15 years ago, that is clearly woefully inadequate given the depth of the capitalist crisis. The same is actually true of the ‘parallel’ perspective summed up by the ridiculous SWP call for an indefinite general strike. While it is right to say that partial “smart strikes” are “unlikely to be sufficient to defeat a key plank of the government’s agenda”, it is wrong to conclude: “That is why we will raise the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’, in November.”

The more I read this slogan, the more it seems to me like a mere device to both activate the current membership and win new recruits by attempting to make the SWP appear the most militant and revolutionary group. Is ‘All out, stay out’ really on the cards, and if so what would be the outcome? True, the CC insists that the government is “weak”, but it admits that the working class is in a pretty poor state. Rank-and-file organisation is almost non-existent, while the “revolutionary party” itself is hardly in a position to lead a bid for power: “The SWP, an organisation of a few thousand members, is unlikely to be the decisive force in a movement of three million workers.” Yes, it is a bit unlikely. So what does the CC think would happen if there really was an indefinite general strike under these circumstances?

Nevertheless, the CC talks up its own role: “We must prepare the party to meet the tests we will face. As the largest revolutionary organisation in Britain, the burden of historical responsibility rests on our shoulders, and the development of a perspective that can match up to this new situation is a challenge to us all.”

The leadership admits, however: “More resistance does not necessarily lead to a stronger SWP and we know that we face competition and challenges from competing trends.” But it goes without saying that the SWP has no perspective of uniting these “competing trends” within a single Marxist party - such an achievement really would aid the process of rebuilding our class’s strength. The CC’s desire to simply outstrip the others is in fact classic sectarianism.

Unite the Resistance

The CC describes how it hopes to influence events: “The tiny cog of the revolutionary left cannot turn the giant cog of the TUC. But we are in a position to shape aspects of the struggle and to give it a more effective and militant character - provided we have an intermediate cog.”

This approach is typical for the confessional sects. The mechanical mindset betrays the contemptible attitude towards the existing working class and its future potential. Instead of seeking to unite the Marxist left into a Communist Party and winning the majority of class-conscious workers to that party, the bureaucratic sect perpetuates Bakuninist methods. Knowing that their organisation will never achieve anything significant by itself, knowing that it will never convince the majority in society, the self-selecting elite think that they can move the unknowing mass conspiratorially, dishonestly, covertly, through a system of wheels and cogs. The latest “cog” is something called Unite the Resistance.

You may not have heard of this body and could be forgiven for thinking it laudably aims to bring together the various anti-cuts campaigns. Unfortunately not - “it is not another attempt to create a national coalition of cuts campaigns”, states the CC. In fact the leadership makes its usual nod in the direction of a rapprochement between the SWP’s Right to Work and RTW’s rivals, only to dismiss it: “We recognise the need for joint work with Coalition of Resistance, the National Shop Stewards Committee Anti-Cuts Campaign, the People’s Charter and others. We are in favour of cooperation and unity. But we should also recognise that no such unity is at all likely in the short term. Therefore we are for continuing to build RTW.”

But back to Unite the Resistance. The SWP got its members holding senior union positions, along with some non-members, to call a rally under that name just before the June 30 mass strikes. They are organising a repeat on November 19. But now UTR is to be transformed into a “hybrid organisation” - apparently a combination of, or cross between, a “broad left” and a “rank-and-file movement”. Compared, at least in the aspiration, to the Communist Party-sponsored National Minority Movement of the 1920s, according to the CC.

But the leadership does not go into detail. That is left to “Sean of North London” - presumably Sean Vernell, whose own contribution is conveniently entitled ‘Unite the Resistance: building a middle cog’.

He explains: “Socialists need to be raising the argument in the run-up to November 30: all out, stay out. But how do we turn this from a propaganda demand into one that becomes a real possibility?” Well, “The urgent task for the SWP is to create a middle cog within the organised working class that can turn the larger cog of the movement.” That “middle cog” needs to consist of “around 25,000 workers within the unions, and outside”

“Sean” continues: “Unite the Resistance is … the beginning of a hybrid organisation. Its aim is to build networks that ensure that the official calls from the trade unions are implemented and the action taken is the most effective. It has general secretaries as well as rank-and-file militants involved in the rallies and conferences. It attempts to use the official structures of the movement to create unofficial networks.”

Comrade Vernell (or whatever other leading SWPer called Sean is a University and College Union activist) sings the praises of the SWP-backed UCU Left rank-and-file grouping, claiming credit for the success of the March 24 lecturers’ strike: “It was not unofficial action, but it took the unofficial networks to ensure that the official call was supported by the members.” As a result, “The SWP, by playing a central part in UCU Left’s development, has managed to attract and recruit some of the best militants. This year, so far, 19 have joined the party.”

All this is meant to show that the SWP can play a decisive role in the forthcoming battles - it can be the “tiny cog” that sets the whole machine in motion - although, to be honest, I think the winning of 19 recruits to the SWP is a bit of a let-down compared to the achievements of the National Minority Movement.

“Sean” concludes: “We need to throw ourselves into a movement that can defend the gains made by working people and by so doing lay the basis for one that can begin to raise the possibility of an alternative way of running society. The next step in creating such a movement will be on November 19 in London at the Unite the Resistance conference.” Well, I know rallies can have a role, but surely this is overstating things.

‘Stronger party’

The CC claims that despite “a degree of internal turmoil over recent years … in many ways the party is growing stronger”.

But that is not how perennial oppositionists “Anne and Martin (West London)” see things. This couple, who surface every year in the IBs, slyly use the John Rees-Lindsey German “rightwing bloc” as a whipping boy for the failings of the current SWP. The former leadership is blamed for deliberately wrecking the SWP branch structure - a situation the current CC has failed to remedy: “The rightwing bloc’s relegation of organisation essentially still seems to hold sway.”

“Anne and Martin” state an obvious truth: “… the overwhelming majority of SWP members are not active. Even for those who are, the only encouragement [from the leadership] is to wait and support the next big event.” Such as the Unite the Resistance rally perhaps?

The reason why most SWPers are “not active” is because of the chasm that exists between the “registered members” - ie, anyone who said they wanted to join in the previous two years - and the real members: those who regularly turn up to SWP events or support SWP actions. No doubt the leadership will reveal more when it gives the figures in one of the two forthcoming IBs.

In this Pre-conference Bulletin, though, the self-perpetuating central committee recommends a slightly different leadership following the 2012 annual conference. It proposes to re-elect itself in its entirety - apart from Chris Bambery, of course, who resigned from the SWP in April - and to add four new faces to its number.

The four are SWP student organiser and National Union of Students executive member Mark Bergfeld, author and former Socialist Worker journalist Esme Choonara, Ray Marral (who?) and apparatchik Mark Thomas. They will take their places after the January 6-8 conference alongside Weyman Bennett, Michael Bradley, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Hannah Dee, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather, Dan Mayer, Judith Orr and Martin Smith.