SWP: Annual show of ‘democracy’

This years first Internal Bulletin is a CC dominated token effort at democratic debate. Will this change, wonders Peter Manson?

The three-month period when Socialist Workers Party comrades are permitted to put their views in writing before the entire membership has just begun and for the same period members may also form temporary factions in order to put forward a commonly held idea or set of ideas.

Contributions, whether from individuals or groups of comrades, are published in three Pre-conference Bulletins, known as Internal Bulletins or IBs, in October, November and December, prior to the annual conference, to be held over January 4-6 in London. Apart from clipped, three-minute interventions at pre-conference aggregates or at conference itself, the bulletins are the only way in which members can participate in something approaching political debate. The SWP does not host an email discussion list and the only officially sanctioned means of horizontal communication is via meetings of SWP branches or trade unions fractions, whose business is overwhelmingly organisational.

IB No1 has just come out - emailed to every “registered member” (anyone who has applied to join over the last three years, whether or not they are ever seen or heard from again). The first IB is always the shortest and least controversial and this year looks like being no exception. Two-thirds of its 28 pages are taken up by the central committee itself, dealing with either its own perspectives or organisational matters.

This time, national secretary Charlie Kimber outlines the conference procedure for the benefit of those who have never attended: “The main method of discussion is through what we call commissions. These are documents drawn up at the end of conference sessions which summarise the main strands of discussion and action to be taken.” The CC insists that, although motions “can be useful”, commissions must be “the main method of discussion”. This is because “It is perfectly possible to change your mind after hearing the debate: this is the strength of the commissions system.”

You can also change your mind after hearing a debate on a motion, I would have thought. But comrade Kimber is not referring to the mass of delegates: he is referring to those who want to put forward an alternative point of view. The CC hopes that such dissenting views can be ‘accommodated’ - or neutered - by making some vague reference to them in its “commissions” or, better still, the comrades concerned can be persuaded to drop their proposals - ‘change their minds’. The idea is that the final “commission” statement will be seen to have overwhelming support and any hint of opposition will appear totally marginalised, irrespective of the validity of its criticisms. The system is even less democratic than the compositing so beloved of union bureaucracies - at least composited motions are usually circulated in advance.

These “commissions” are often based on the leadership’s own lengthy perspective documents - in fact it is not unusual for CC documents to emerge in the post-conference report exactly as they went in. This year IB No1 carries the first three of these CC proposals - ‘Perspectives - a prolonged crisis’, ‘Fighting racism and fascism’ and ‘Syria and the Arab revolutions’. Several more are promised. The handful of motions from branches or other SWP bodies will be squeezed by the commissions - there will be the usual rally-type speeches followed by comrades from the floor giving their ‘local input’ to back up the leadership.

The first CC document stresses, of course, the key role of the SWP itself. While it is “too small on its own to shape the direction of class struggle nationally”, the “party” is able, thanks to such influential bodies as Unite the Resistance and Unite Against Fascism, to make a real impact. Through UTR “The SWP has played a prominent role in the most important expressions of resistance to the coalition government.”

UTR is positively contrasted to, on the one hand, the National Shop Stewards Network, which engages in “the ritual denunciation of union leaders, except those who happen to be involved in the project”; and, on the other, the Coalition of Resistance, which “falls into the opposite trap” of making itself “the prisoner of sections of the union bureaucracy”. UTR, of course, strikes just the right balance between these two extremes.

So building its November “conference” is one of the SWP’s upcoming priorities. It must be even bigger than last year’s, which was “over a thousand-strong” (in reality 600-700). That will really give the opposition to austerity a boost and put some fight into the union bureaucracies, won’t it? Well, at least it might enable the SWP to outdo the Socialist Party’s NSSN and Counterfire’s COR in winning new recruits.

Meanwhile, the leadership claims credit for the British National Party’s loss of support and council seats: comrades “tirelessly knocked on doors, spoke at small meetings and undermined the Nazis’ votes. This was slow, meticulous and patient work, which finally undermined the BNP’s electoral base …” The CC states that the “mainstream coverage has emphasised the infighting and chaos within the BNP itself, but this ignores the campaigning work of Unite Against Fascism”.

By the way, the CC believes that “Institutional racism continues to scar British society.” In fact “Cameron’s speech in Munich attacking multiculturalism and blaming Muslims for not integrating into the ‘British way of life’ in February 2011 represented a step change in state racism.” In order to “deflect anger away from their failure to deal with the economic crisis and in order to justify the so-called ‘war on terror’ the Tories are shamelessly playing the race card.” This “legitimisation of racist ideas” is one of the key factors in the “rise of the far right across Europe”.

It is as though there were no such thing as official anti-racism - of the type that sees John Terry charged with a “racially aggravated public order offence” for engaging in an abusive verbal altercation on a football pitch. No, on the contrary, across Europe the ruling class is deliberately engaged in the “legitimisation of racist ideas”.

The final CC document, ‘Syria and the Arab revolutions’, is more measured, correctly stating its opposition to both the Assad regime and imperialist interference. But it continues to totally understate the latter, implying that the west is not serious about arming the Free Syrian Army, which is “opposing tanks and air attacks with the most basic of weapons”. The “heart of the revolution” is to be found in the Local Coordinating Committees, which receive no imperialist aid, the CC claims.

IB No1 also carries a few pieces with headings such as ‘Building Unite the Resistance in Manchester’ and ‘Organising PhD students’ (yawn), but there is also a contribution from “Ian (Manchester)” - no surnames are published in the bulletins - called ‘Raising the political level of the party’.

In fact Ian is primarily concerned with facilitating debate. He writes: “One of the silliest ideas that pops up from time to time is that debate necessarily increases disagreements, which necessarily lead to factions, which necessarily lead to splits. Debate normally increases the understanding of all participants, increases the prospects of the ‘losing’ side in any argument accepting the outcome, helps avoid mistakes and accelerates learning from events.” So we should “bend the stick in the direction of greater debate in order to help raise the political level of the party and intervene in the struggle more effectively”.

Ian notes that, despite the successful motion at this year’s conference - that “Socialist Worker should frequently carry features on the theme, ‘debates in the movement’, which … can also be used to air debates between SWP comrades in order to raise the level of clarity and assist debate in party branches and fractions” - only two such debates have been carried (on Syria and Scottish independence): “It is regrettable that the CC has not made a more serious attempt to implement this conference decision.”

Ian also wants to revisit the failed attempt at the 2012 conference to effectively make the IBs an all-year-round feature: “We have plenty of national meetings (national committee, party council) which could theoretically take decisions, but we currently lack the space for adequate debate to facilitate that. A bulletin wouldn’t necessarily need to be tied to a particular meeting, though the CC could use and time them to circulate discussion documents … if they wanted to stimulate debate in branches on particular topics.” But unfortunately it is a big ‘if’.

Ian has further suggestions for improving internal democracy. For example, while he does not object to nominations for the CC being made using the existing slate system, “I think this year we should elect individually”. This would “reduce the huge premium for being on the outgoing CC’s slate”, which he says has been a “significant factor discouraging CC members from promptly bringing major problems to the attention of the wider party ... Doing so when in a minority would be very likely to result in losing a place on the CC slate.”

He also encourages the open expression of differences within the SWP apparatus: “We should … clarify that individual CC members and full-timers can participate freely in the key areas of the party’s democracy … without being bound by the CC ‘line’.” Discipline, he says, is required “for unity in action in the carrying out of decisions, not to stifle debate”. It is “necessary in a revolutionary party to ensure united action against the enemies of the working class, not against our own members”.

Ian calls on other comrades to respond to his arguments in the following IBs. Let us hope they do so.