Muddle, passivity, conformity
The SWP's annual conference was a big let-down following the positive ideas put forward in the final pre-conference internal bulletin. Peter Manson reports
Ten days after the Socialist Workers Party’s January 6-8 annual conference, the official record of the decisions taken landed in SWP comrades’ email inboxes.
According to national secretary Charlie Kimber, this report provides members with “a summary of the debates, commissions and motions” (Post-conference Bulletin January 2012). But it does no such thing. It lists all conference decisions, including the final version of motions and ‘commissions’ after any amendments, but it says not a word about the “debates”. So SWP members are none the wiser about points of contention, about arguments for and against; nor are they informed whether there was any opposition at all to any of the leadership’s proposals, or whether any votes were close.
The truth is that, as usual, all the decisions were either unanimous or overwhelmingly carried. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But the problem is that in the SWP only such an outcome is considered acceptable by the leadership. Views that seriously challenge those of the central committee are strongly discouraged and in practice blocked. Any comrade known to oppose the CC’s trajectory will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to be elected to conference as a delegate. The leadership simply instructs local officials to mobilise against such comrades.
So, for example, when in 2009 the CC faced opposition from the SWP’s deposed leader, John Rees, it went all-out to ensure that as few supporters as possible of comrade Rees’s Left Platform were delegates. In that case it was unable to keep them out altogether, since Rees supporters actually controlled a handful of branches.
Any serious organisation seeking to win the trust of the working class would behave in a diametrically opposite way. It would positively encourage comrades to develop their own critique in order to be able to rectify mistakes, reject opportunist errors and in general strengthen the organisation’s policy and approach. It would strive to ensure that dissenting individual comrades or groups of comrades were able to put their minority views before the membership, especially at conference. Not in the SWP, where opposition to the leadership, or even an aspect of its politics, is regarded almost as treason.
Rank-and-file members may not even meet up outside official SWP structures to exchange experiences of their activity or discuss a common approach. To do so would risk being accused of ‘factionalism’ - factions are completely banned outside the three-month period before annual conference. The CC is the only permitted permanent faction. In other words, the SWP does not even practise the basic democracy that it demands of the bourgeois state. It does not permit freedom of association or freedom of expression.
This results in conferences that are little more than rallies. For instance, you might think that an enthusiastic and partisan membership organised in dozens of branches would throw up all sorts of contending ideas, leading to scores of motions and amendments on every conceivable subject. But the Post-conference Bulletin records just 13 motions (seven of them from the central committee itself), plus two ‘commissions’ (in effect the same as CC motions). The membership is not provided with the text of the handful of amendments that were put forward - although those with sufficient patience can theoretically identify the two amendments put to CC motions or commissions by comparing the final version to the one published in the appropriate Pre-conference Bulletin.
All but two of the 23 pages of motions in the official post-conference document are taken up by the nine lengthy submissions from the CC. A good deal of what is contained within them is out of date. For example, ‘The centrality of November 30 - industrial perspectives’ begins: “The public sector general strike planned for November 30 will be the largest strike this country has seen since 1926.”
What is the point in putting such long, detailed and time-specific analyses to conference for approval? Why not try to identify the principles and points of potential disagreement in a motion of a couple of paragraphs? As I say, only two (minor and non-controversial) amendments were moved to these motions/commissions.
The six successful motions that came from below were equally uncontroversial - at least in the sense that neither the CC nor anyone else was opposed to them (certainly not those that were amended by the CC). It was agreed that branches should produce more leaflets for workplaces instead of relying on the leadership to supply them; that there should be a debate within the SWP about new possible uses of the internet; and that the SWP should also launch an internal debate on the details of its precise position before and during a Scottish independence referendum (as opposed to its support for a ‘yes’ vote, which was agreed last year).
A motion from Manchester district and others called for Socialist Worker to “frequently carry” features on the theme, “debates in the movement”. It went on: “When such debates are also reflected within the party and united action is not immediately required on the issue, the features can also be used to air debates between SWP comrades …” This is an advance of sorts, but do not expect Socialist Worker to be transformed into a forum for controversy, with SWP leaders being challenged by the rank and file, or CC members arguing against each other. If the membership itself is not informed about internal differences, then it is hardly likely that the CC will suddenly go public on them.
The fifth successful motion, also moved by Manchester, called for the Socialist Worker column, ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’, to be changed - although the new wording was agreed only after a CC amendment. The first sentence of the column previously read: “The workers create all the wealth under capitalism.” This, as Manchester explained, quoting Karl Marx from ‘Critique of the Gotha programme’, was completely wrong. Wealth ultimately derives from nature and it is added to by the labour of workers and other classes such as the petty bourgeoisie.
The CC-approved wording now reads: “Under capitalism workers’ labour creates all profit.” I suppose you can say that at least this is not a crass blunder like the previous version, but it is not exactly accurate. It would have been correct to say that ‘human labour creates all surplus value under capitalism’, but the CC position was that an easily understood term like ‘profit’ should be used instead. The trouble is that profit and surplus value are not identical. For instance, if a commodity trader buys cheap and sells dear there is not necessarily any labour involved in the transactions that produced that particular profit.
The real problem for the SWP is that this 300-word column, which substitutes for a carefully considered programme, is just a mess. It contains just four sections: ‘Revolution, not reform’, ‘There is no parliamentary road’, ‘Internationalism’ and ‘The revolutionary party’. What about immediate demands, democracy, socialism and the transition to communism, to name but a few obvious omissions?
This is even more clear when you look at the second part of Manchester’s amendment - to insert: “We defend the right of believers to practise their religion without state interference.” Let me say first of all that, while a working class organisation should indeed have something to say about religion, it needs to be a lot more thought through than this. In Britain there is generally no problem with believers being able to practise their faith. But there is a problem with the privilege extended to one particular religious institution: the established church in England. If I was only allowed one sentence on the subject, I would call for secularism, equality between believers and non-believers, and separation of church and state.
However, leaving the inadequacy of the addition to one side, in which of the above sections is this new sentence inserted, do you think? You will find it under ‘Internationalism’, of course! You can see how this absurd situation came about. In this section there appears: “We oppose everything which turns workers from one country against those from other countries. We oppose racism and imperialism.” It must have seemed natural to add demands for women’s, gay and now religious rights after this.
Let me repeat: this jumble results directly from the SWP’s opportunist refusal to draw up a programme. The absence of such an essential document allows the CC to twist and turn as it pleases according to circumstances, without risk of being held to account for any breach of principles. First develop the programme and then summarise its essential features in a short column. The programme must come first.
It is incredible that Manchester district, supported by its Rusholme branch, was the only SWP body other than the CC to propose any motions. It actually put forward four out of the six that came from below (the motion on leaflets was also from Manchester). The other two were put forward by individual comrades. So an organisation which claims over 7,000 members and scores of branches, industrial fractions and districts can only muster six ideas for change? Something is very wrong, comrades. What happened to the many constructive ideas raised in Pre-conference Bulletin No3 (see ‘Signs of an awakening’ Weekly Worker December 22 2011)? How come they did not make it to conference floor?
The one motion I have not yet mentioned is the only unsuccessful one. Once again it was proposed by Manchester and it began: “One internal bulletin to which the CC and any comrade or group of comrades can contribute should be produced prior to each party council meeting.” This is hardly asking the earth. According to the SWP constitution, party council “normally meets once a year”, so the comrades were in effect requesting an increase in the number of discussion bulletins from three to four.
But, no, Alex Callinicos rose to oppose it. There is so much to be done and so little time to do it. The SWP must be a party of action, not a never-ending discussion forum. Debate must be concentrated in the period before conference, the organisation’s decision-making body (in fact party council also “has power to take decisions on matters of general policy binding on the CC”). And, in any case, there is nothing to stop any SWP body or individual raising pressing matters directly with the CC in between conferences.
The leadership’s opposition to this extremely modest proposal clearly symbolises its determination to cling onto its uncontested power to run the organisation as its own private fiefdom. No democracy, please: we’re SWP.
Talking of ‘democracy’, the CC itself was re-elected as a block using the notorious, ‘take it or leave it’ slate system. No alternative slate was proposed, so once again the existing members retained their places on the nod. However, the number of CC members was increased from 13 to 14 by the addition of “a trade union activist whose name has been withheld to protect them from their employer” (Socialist Worker January 14).
But the name of this individual is published in the Post-conference Bulletin, and was previously published in Pre-conference Bulletin No1. These bulletins are supposed to go out to all 7,000 “registered members” - ie, anyone who has filled in a membership application form within the last two years. So much for security.
SWP comrades really should consider the use of pseudonyms.