Alex Callinicos: quarrels - but with who and over what

Private SWP quarrels and public SWP gagging

The main role of the annual Marxism festival seems to be making new recruits and attempting to buoy up the rank and file. Peter Manson reports

Over 5,000 comrades attended the Socialist Workers Party’s July 5-9 Marxism festival in central London, according to Socialist Worker. As usual, there were several large rallies, as well as dozens of smaller meetings - on the Saturday and Sunday there was a choice of 12 to attend at any given time.

Although most sessions allow contributions from the floor, the emphasis is very much on the SWP central committee laying down the line. Each meeting is restricted to a mere one hour and a quarter, usually starting a few minutes late. So, especially where there is more than one platform speaker, the time allowed for contributions from the floor is very pinched - most of the session is taken up with platform speeches, including replies to the ‘debate’.

At the rally-type meetings, often attended by over 1,000 people, the space for speakers from the floor is reduced to no more than five or six, and those called to speak have usually been primed in advance - although Marxism stewards still go through the motions of handing out speaker’s slips and the chair inevitably apologises for having failed to call so many who wanted to join the discussion. At the smaller meetings though, speaker’s slips are often dispensed with and it is possible for a dozen or so people to speak from the floor - although you have to ensure your points are very concise if you are to make them in your allotted three minutes.

It goes without saying that the SWP is not interested in debating with other groups on the revolutionary left - we are at best tolerated - although it has to be said that for the last two Marxisms other groups have been allowed to hire stalls within the main quad at University College London. Perhaps reflecting the SWP antipathy to other left organisations, however, this has yet to take off - only two or three non-SWP stalls were there.

Rallying the troops

One of the packed-out rallies in Friends Meeting House - ‘The Egyptian revolution: results and prospects’ - was addressed by national secretary Charlie Kimber and Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists leader Hossam al-Hamalawy.

It was not, of course, billed as a rally, but that is most certainly what it was. Comrade Hamalawy must have been speaking for a good half of the time, and he knew what was expected of him. SWP comrades may sometimes become disillusioned on their Saturday morning stalls, he said, but they should think of their International Socialist Tendency comrades in Egypt, who risk getting shot when they hand out their leaflets and talk to workers on the street. Every paper you sell counts, he said - it is an act of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution: “What you do matters for us and for workers around the world.”

There were no more than four or five speakers ‘from the floor’ - among them a young SWP comrade who told of her inspiring experience when she recently went with her mother to Tahrir Square; a Sudanese comrade who talked of parallel events in his own country; and two senior SWP figures who spelled out the line, not least on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in the second round of the presidential elections.

Comrade Hamalawy himself was strangely reticent on that question - although his speech overall was informative and useful. On the MB he said that it was “not a homogenous bloc”: its leadership was from a bourgeois background and is “reactionary”, but many young MB members have joined the militant anti-regime actions organised by the RS among others. While Brotherhood leaders are “even more neoliberal than Mubarak” (some are multimillionaires, he said), for the MB youth and working class membership, “sharia means social justice”. As a result of the pressure from below, “the leadership was forced to endorse the uprising”.

But comrade Hamalawy did not explain the RS position of calling for a vote for the MB candidate, Mohammed Mursi, in the June 16-17 second round. In fact he did not mention it. He concentrated instead on the central role of the Egyptian working class.

Just as in Britain, people in Egypt often used to say, ‘Our country is the last place where you’ll see a revolution’. What is more, even amongst the left the working class would be written off. When workers did go on strike - both during the Mubarak era and afterwards - their actions would be dismissed as non-political, he said. However, during the mass strikes of September 2011, 750,000 workers were involved and they did raise anti-regime slogans, as well as demands relating to the workplace: “Down with military rule” has been the cry. He did concede that this is partly linked to the fact that many of the factories and complexes where workers suffer such appalling pay and conditions are owned by the military (a proportion that accounts for 20%-25% of industry, he said).

Comrade Hamalawy noted that the MB scabbed on a fresh wave of strikes in February of this year, between the parliamentary and presidential elections - what we need is stability, was the cry. Meanwhile pessimists on the left were once again saying, ‘The revolution is lost, now that the Islamists have won.’

However, strikes are continuing, but they are still “largely spontaneous”. If there had been “a fighting organisation rooted in the workplace, the situation would be very different”. While the RS claims it has played a major part in mass mobilisations in Cairo and elsewhere (and is influential in many universities), paradoxically it admits to playing no significant role in workers’ struggles, even though it claims that those struggles have actually been central in the revolutionary upsurge - “Square and factory - one fight” is the RS slogan. But in his reply to the discussion he gave the opposite impression: he stressed that the middle class and petty bourgeoisie has been “very organised” - “it’s the working class that’s not organised”. He also reminded us that there are only around 25 million workers in Egypt out of a population of 90 million.

So what is this talk from comrade Kimber about the “completion of the revolution” and the winning of “full workers’ power” in that country? Surely the situation - in Egypt as elsewhere - calls for a long, patient struggle to build up working class strength and combativity. In the meantime we should not sow illusions in the imminence of workers’ revolution: what is called for is a period of extreme opposition - to both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But that is not the message the SWP leadership wants its membership to hear. The SWP method demands a belief in the enormous potential of the latest action - whatever it is. That is why it ensured that the young comrade who had experienced the masses thronging in Tahrir Square read the poem she had been inspired to write: “I want some of this. I want revolution.”

In the absence of any comment from comrade Hamalawy, it was left to a couple of other SW speakers to outline the official position on voting for Mursi (a position which has caused not a little concern within the RS itself). One comrade said that, while admittedly the MB is “part of the counterrevolution”, its victory “allows us a bit of space”.

Another made a less passive argument for voting for Mursi: when the struggle is “uneven”, electoral politics become “more important” - in fact we must participate in them in such circumstances. Indeed those who had called for a boycott of the second round had “almost handed the elections to the military”. It seemed to escape the comrade that ‘participation’ can take many different forms and most certainly does not necessarily involve voting for the lesser evil - and for what is at this stage an imaginary ally.

Comrade Kimber in his reply was even more direct: it is essential to “form a bloc to defend the revolution” (even with a force that is “part of the counterrevolution”, it seems). He thought it was “disgraceful” that “some sections of the left could never bring themselves to vote for a Muslim”. Some were so infected by this Islamophobia that they had even called for a vote for Ahmed Shafiq, the military’s candidate.

Taking his cue from the poetic comrade, he pointed out to other young activists what they should do if they wanted “some of that here”: why, join the SWP, of course!

EU: in or out?

Another country that featured a lot in Marxist sessions was, obviously, Greece, which came up in the session entitled ‘The euro zone and the European project: a Marxist analysis’. How Marxist it was proved a little difficult to discern, as the sound system in the lecture room was not working and the SWP speaker, Sarah Young, appeared unable to raise her voice above a level that was barely audible.

Her speech seemed, however, to be a largely uncontroversial history of the European Union. Quoting the late Chris Harman, she noted that the EU had always been anti-democratic. It was a “business arrangement” serving the interests of capital, and not about the “integration of peoples”. In fact it remained a “coalition of competitive states”, for whom “nationalism never went away”. The kind of integration favoured by Germany was one that “suited the needs of German capital”.

But comrade Young, as far as it was possible to make out, did not say what position the left ought to take up in relation to the membership of, say, Greece or the UK. What policy should the working class adopt? Her Marxist analysis did not apparently extend to drawing practical conclusions.

First up in the debate was comrade Toby Abse - perennial figure on the left and Weekly Worker writer on Italy - who raised Greece’s membership. How would a bankrupt state be able to survive in isolation without having to suffer even worse austerity? The break-up of the EU would hardly be progressive, he said. What would be the gain for workers in Greece or any other EU member-state of a return to a situation where European countries were (in the terminology of comrade Young) purely “competitive” and not part of a “coalition”? We would still need to fight capitalism within those separate states.

Speaking from the floor, Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s international secretary and de facto leader, commented that it was “not good enough to say the enemy is capitalism”. Capitalism’s “concrete form” is the EU, he said. But does that mean that in every EU country socialists should demand that their government pulls out? His answer was no, that would be incorrect - it “depends on the circumstances”. For example, here in Britain we do not call for withdrawal - that is why Bob Crow and the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ coalition that contested the 2009 EU elections were wrong. However, in Greece we “have to have answers”. And leaving the euro zone would be “a start”. It would, of course, not be enough, he said. Greece would, for example, also have to “nationalise the banks under workers’ control”.

So an isolated Greece, having left the euro (and no doubt having been booted out of the EU as well), would be in a better position if it nationalised the banks, repudiated the debt and perhaps adopted a range of Keynesian measures too, despite the massive reprisals it would have to endure?

Another SWP comrade thought that staying in the EU or euro zone amounted to “reformism”. It implies we just have to accept things as they are, whereas revolutionaries demand the smashing of the state. Replying to this, I said that, to the extent that the EU adopted state forms, it, like current nation-states, would have to be smashed. So neither leaving the EU nor remaining in it was revolutionary in itself. Yes, the EU is a “bosses’ club”, but so too is the UK, Germany and Greece.

It was all very well comrade Callinicos talking about the adoption of different policies according to circumstances, I continued, but what should be our overall trajectory? Capitalism has its progressive side, in that it creates its gravedigger and internationalises the working class. Our task is to take advantage of that progressive side, not attempt to return to the past.

What was interesting about this session was that comrade Callinicos was clearly against a UK withdrawal from the EU, yet the SWP rank-and-file comrades who spoke seemed to be under the impression that what applied to Greece should apply across the board. And in a way the position of No2EU and the Communist Party of Britain makes more sense - either the working class should fight together, through the formation of united trade unions and a single revolutionary party across the continent, as I proposed, or we should all follow our own separate, left-nationalist roads.

Lively democracy’

In the session called ‘The problem of organisation’ (part of the ‘Leninism’ series) comrade Callinicos was this time the platform speaker. His main thrust was to insist on the need for a disciplined party based on (his version of) democratic centralism - as opposed to ‘horizontalist’, consensus-type forms of organisation.

As far as it went, it was a good presentation. He pointed out that the capitalist class attempts to act in coordination, including internationally, and the working class must obviously do the same. The “collective revolutionary subject” must achieve the necessary centralisation - without replicating the forms of “anti-democratic hierarchy” employed by the bourgeoisie. While the working class party may sometimes “lag behind” the spontaneous action of the working class, we cannot expect such centralisation to happen spontaneously.

However, as well as centralisation, “democracy is so important in the revolutionary party”. It was “essential to avoid a top-down command structure” and to facilitate democratic debate - the only way to “identify problems arising with our practice”. So, while democratic centralism “emphasises leadership”, it actually represents “majority rule” in action.

Comrade Callinicos contrasted this form of organisation (which, it goes without saying, the SWP practises, he would have us believe) with the ‘non-hierarchical’ forms of consensus decision-making common in the ‘spontaneist’ anti-capitalist movement. He himself had been involved in such groupings, he said, and he knew from that experience that there were always people controlling them behind the scenes.

This was obviously a reference to the now almost defunct European Social Forum, which at the time the CPGB had criticised for exactly the same reasons that comrade Callinicos outlined. However, the SWP had refused to criticise the practice of ‘consensus’ and actually opposed our attempts to democratise the ESF. Now, a decade later, we discover that comrade Callinicos actually agreed with us all along.

(Or did he? In his reply to contributions he said that consensus “sometimes makes sense”: for example, if three or four people are discussing which film to go and see. Fair enough. But then he went on to say that it also made sense in “the early days of the anti-capitalist movement, when people didn’t know each other”. First you have to have “trust”, you see. For example, in the SWP “We argue, but we trust each other” - which is why decisions can be taken democratically.)

I was the first to speak from the floor. I said that I agreed with just about everything Callinicos had said when outlining the theory, but what about the SWP’s own practice? The working class needs a single Marxist party, encompassing the various strands of the revolutionary left. Comrade Callinicos and I “ought to be in the same party”, even though at the moment “you wouldn’t have me”.

In order for such a united democratic-centralist party to exist, however, it would require two things that are absent from the SWP’s own practice. Firstly the right to speak and publish openly and publicly (except when to do so would adversely affect a specific action); and the right of rank-and-file members to come together to challenge the leadership line. But the SWP bans “permanent factions” and the only time comrades can organise together outside the official structures is during the three-month pre-conference period. The absence of these two rights ensures that the SWP remains an organisation with precisely a “top-down command structure”.

I pointed out that the ban on factions means that two comrades in different parts of the country who communicate with each other on a common approach to an SWP dispute will find themselves on very shaky grounds outside the pre-conference period. At other times such disputes are in reality conducted only within the central committee - in reality the CC is the only permitted permanent faction.

Although I had introduced myself as “Peter Manson of the CPGB and Weekly Worker”, the SWP cadre who responded to my comments on the desirability of a single party remarked: “Surely the comrade from the Communist Party is aware of the differences” between our two organisations? The SWP is for socialism from below, not Stalinism; revolution, not reform; soviets, not parliament. So how can we be in the same party?

The reader may be struck by the ignorance that this response reveals. It is all very well for the SWP leadership to instruct its membership to ignore “sectarian” groups like the CPGB, but if this leaves sections of its experienced membership unable to differentiate between the Weekly Worker (perhaps the comrade had not heard of our paper) and the Morning Star, then you might think that even the likes of comrade Callinicos might be concerned.

The same comrade was outraged by the suggestion that “you can’t argue and say what you like inside the party - I’m sorry?” She herself had been encouraged to go to conference to argue for her beliefs on the women’s question. Other comrades made similar points about the constant debate that takes place within the SWP.

No doubt they are correct - provided that debate is restricted within the narrow limits prescribed by the CC, and provided it is not carried out publicly. Nobody answered the point about public dissent. Comrade Callinicos himself ignored it when he asserted that there is a “very lively democracy in the SWP - we quarrel and argue all the time”. This also ignores the internal criticisms made by the likes of John Molyneux, who has identified an SWP culture which involves the use of the proverbial sledgehammer at internal meetings to warn off those with a different view.

However, comrade Callinicos did take up the question of permanent factions. He was against them because they tend to “freeze differences that are temporary”. For example, when Lenin and Trotsky fell out over the militarisation of labour, it would have been disastrous if they had formed separate factions over the question. Apparently this would have prevented them cooperating later on.

This is all quite clearly nonsense. Once ‘the party’ decides on a question - including on the militarisation of labour - then that puts an end to the question, does it? What if life itself brings it to the fore once more? Presumably you have to wait until the next pre-conference period before you can raise it again. Unless you are the CC, of course. And if life itself actually resolves the dispute, why should the comrades on either side retain their factional allegiances based on it?

No, the ban on factions does not keep comrades within ‘the party’: it tends to drive them out by preventing them speaking out in an organised, coherent way. It is the same with the ban on public dissent. But it does maintain the appearance of unity - and that, for the CC, is the most important thing.