No ambition, no vision

As the unions prepare for the biggest strike since 1926, the SWP cannot see further than recruiting to itself. Peter Manson reports on its second internal bulletin

The second of the three Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletins, distributed to members last week, is, even by the organisation’s own standards, a big let-down.

SWP comrades have only three opportunities every year to make all their comments, suggestions and political criticisms available to the entire membership - and they are the Pre-conference Bulletins (also known as Internal Bulletin or IB), usually published in October, November and December prior to the annual conference. Incredibly, only four comrades submitted anything to the November IB.

In fact, out of the 26 discussion pages in IB No2, around 20 are taken up by the central committee itself. Those 20 pages are made up of seven separate CC submissions (on ‘The centrality of November 30’, ‘Building the party’, ‘Fighting racism and fascism’, ‘Selling Socialist Worker’, ‘The fight for women’s liberation’, Arab revolutions’ and ‘Defending the right to protest’). Then there are two submissions - on ‘Climate change’ and ‘LBGT work’ - which, while appearing under the names of a group of individual comrades, are obviously putting forward the leadership position.

That brings us to the four independently submitted contributions. “Ian (Manchester)”, who in IB No1 attempted to differentiate between the SWP’s version of democratic centralism (in reality, bureaucratic centralism) and the genuine article, writes a piece entitled ‘Positioning November 19 and 30 on the path to victory’, which this time seems totally in line with what the CC is saying.

That just leaves “Martin (Manchester)”, who writes on ‘The role of the bookstall’ (contain your excitement!); “Florence (South East London)”, who makes a few rather vague and incoherent moans about “hero-worshipping of individuals in the party” (“leadership in the SWP does not mean exalting oneself above others”; “every member should be treated with respect”); and “Chris (Tyneside)”, who, in ‘Building in Middlesbrough’, reports: “Every new attendee of the meetings are lent the Arguments for revolution book. This ensures they feel they have to come back at least once to return the book.” Nice one, Chris!

Evidently, then - unless IB No3 is surprisingly lively - the January 6-8 2012 conference is not exactly going to be controversial. In fact, although the IBs are supposed to facilitate conference debate, it is clear that much of what the CC writes will already be out of date by the time January comes around. ‘The centrality of November 30’ speaks for itself in this regard.

In truth the leadership uses the IBs not to prepare for a democratic conference, but to repeat what for a very large part are pretty timeless exhortations to recruit, sell Socialist Worker and increase the SWP profile. This sectarian promotion above all of “the party” - and the CC’s own leadership - distorts the organisation’s analysis of current politics and renders it incomplete and one-sided.

State of the SWP

But before looking at those politics let us start with the CC’s description of the current state of the SWP.

“The revolutionary left can seem tiny, irrelevant and marginalised,” states the leadership. However, “Our party has a profile in virtually every fightback and a high profile in most.” In fact, “What the SWP does matters.” Sorry, comrades, you were right first time: the revolutionary left is “tiny” and “marginalised” - in regard to both general political discourse and mass actions, such as those being prepared by the unions for November 30. Of course, we ought to be ‘relevant’ despite that. But the situation will not change just by talking up our own role.

However, the CC persuades itself through an historical analogy in ‘The centrality of November 30’ that it will be able to wield great influence: “In May 1926 the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain stood at 5,000, roughly the same size as the SWP’s today.” The “tiny cog”, as the leadership described the SWP in IB No1, will be able to help turn the great wheel of the working class movement by developing the right contacts and influencing the right people.

In its document entitled ‘Building the party’, the CC states: “... while engaging in every form of fightback, we also have to build the SWP ... We face a ruthless, centralised and brutal ruling class. We need our own organisation.” In other words, the SWP itself must become “our own organisation” - the force capable of squaring up to that “ruthless, centralised and brutal ruling class”. Understandably, then, the leadership recognises that: “The SWP is too small for the tasks we set ourselves. We find it hard to carry through the level of intervention we know is necessary. That is why we are determined to grow ...”

So what level of growth does the CC have in mind? “We are going to work hard to recruit as many people as possible, particularly around N30. But even if we were successful and recruited, say, 100 people around the strikes, it would still be far short of what the objective situation demands.” Yes, “far short” indeed! Our class needs a mass party of hundreds of thousands, capable of leading millions of workers, but the recruitment of 100 people would be regarded as “successful” by the SWP. How about trying to develop a winning strategy for our class, not one that aims to make the SWP marginally less tiny?

This time last year the organisation set itself the aim of recruiting “at least 2,000” during 2011, but it admits that it is not “on target”. Up to October 18, 1,036 recruits had joined the SWP in 2011, taking the “registered membership” up to 7,127 - the CC gives figures to show a steady rise over the last three years: back in 2008 “registered membership” was only 6,155.

But what about that 5,000 figure, which the CC compared to that of the 1926 CPGB? Surely 7,127 is rather more than “roughly” that size? The truth is, both figures are a fantasy. That is because “registered membership” includes everyone who has filled in an application form over the previous two years, whether or not they are ever seen or heard of again.

As the CC puts it, “We are for ‘open recruitment’, spreading the net wide ...” Which means that “Everyone who says they want to be a member is to us.” However, the leadership admits, “There are some comrades who doubt whether people who haven’t met us before but join on demonstrations and sales are ‘real members’.” That’s because they’re not real members! In the CC’s own words, “When they sign a form they are presenting an opportunity: a chance for us to win them.” And “if we hold a good number of those we recruit in this way, it’s worth it.”

A very high proportion of those “who haven’t met us before but join on demonstrations and sales” are students. A breakdown is provided which reveals that of the 1,036 ‘recruits’ so far in 2011, only 179 are trade union members, while 515 are students, including school students. It is safe to say that most of those who “join” in this light-hearted way are not and will not become committed revolutionaries.

A fair indication of this is revealed by the proportion of “registered members” that pays dues. According to the CC, “The membership that pays a regular sub to the organisation stands at 38%, very slightly down on last year’s figure.” By my reckoning, that comes to 2,708 people - quite a bit below both the 7,127 official membership figure and the 5,000 approximation of it. But even that is likely to be a bit on the high side, since a number of comrades who never attend an SWP meeting or take part in SWP-organised actions will view their small subscription as a kind of regular donation in lieu of any real commitment.

In its ‘Selling Socialist Worker’ piece, the CC reports: “On a typical week at the moment we send out 2,500 papers on paid subscriptions and receive about £2,500 in cash from sales.” While it is not clear exactly which sales are being referred to, these figures also seem to confirm a membership rather lower than even 5,000.

‘All out, stay out’

In its ‘The centrality of November 30’ document, the CC writes: “... in the run-up to November 30 and on the day, we have to demand that the union leaders name another day for mass strikes early in the new year.” However, in the very next paragraph it exhorts: “But we mustn’t wait until November 30; we need to be raising the demand, ‘All out, stay out’, now.”

Does anyone notice the contradiction? ‘All out, stay out’ is a slogan for an immediate, indefinite general strike - not quite the same as a demand to “name the day” for another 24-hour action in a few months time. This surely exposes the sectarian use of ‘All out, stay out’. It is not meant to be taken seriously - as a genuine proposal to be adopted by militant workers in the here and now. It is meant to demonstrate the SWP’s revolutionary credentials to both current members and potential recruits, while in reality the comrades will be pressing the union leaders to think about the next one-day walkout.

The CC claims: “The SWP has played a major part in ramping up the pressure on the trade union leaders.” Mentioning the 1926 general strike and France 1995, it states: “The role socialists play during such events can be crucial in their outcome.”

Surely the “outcome” we are aiming for is one that sees a political and organisational advance for our class. One that brings us nearer to bringing into existence “our own organisation”, capable of resisting and challenging a “ruthless, centralised and brutal ruling class”. Obviously I am not talking about a slightly larger SWP - we ought to be much more ambitious.

The response of Marxists to the austerity assault ought to be rather different. We must strive to end our sectarian rivalry and bring together all socialists, communists and revolutionaries into a single, democratic-centralist organisation - one that could pose an attractive, united and viable alternative. With such unity, rather than talking up our pathetic membership figures and influence, we could actually start to deliver.

But that is not part of the SWP vision (nor that of any of the other sects, for that matter). Instead it hopes to increase its own membership both by posing as the most militant revolutionaries and by mechanistically influencing the working class through an “intermediate cog”, as it dubbed Unite the Resistance in IB No1. In IB No2 the CC says of this latest SWP front: “Its purpose is to both build the strikes and put pressure on the unions to lead the fight. We would like to see it become the framework for a future rank and file organisation.”

Therefore, “we want everyone to sign up one or two reps or activists, so that we create a network of activists across the country ... If we achieve our goal of getting 1,000-1,500 activists to attend the [November 19] convention, it will give us a firm base to move on and attempt to push for further action ... In the immediate aftermath of November 30 we want Unite the Resistance to call local meetings to discuss ‘Where next after the November 30 strikes?’”

To me the idea that an organisation like the SWP can call a few meetings under another name (attended by mainly its own members, supporters and contacts, obviously) and hope to see a “framework for a future rank and file organisation” spring up as a result is quite absurd. Isn’t it self-evident that a rank and file organisation has to be built by ... the rank and file? That is, by members of the various unions - in the workplaces and localities - organising together for action, if necessary cutting across official union lines.

Of course, a mass workers’ party would exert great influence on such a body - no doubt its members would be to the fore within it. But a genuine rank and file organisation cannot be brought into existence from the outside. That is why Unite the Resistance is clearly just the latest in a long line of SWP recruitment fronts.

Don’t get me wrong: recruiting more people to the left, including the SWP, would be an excellent thing. But where is the ambition? Where is the vision?