SWP conference: An anatomical investigation
A minority of SWP comrades are taking advantage of their right to put their views before the membership once a year. Peter Manson reviews the latest Pre-conference Bulletin
The second Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletin came out at the end of last week. Known as Internal Bulletins (IBs), the three documents represent the one chance ordinary SWP comrades have each year of putting forward their point of view, including criticisms, before the whole membership.
Unfortunately, however, such is the culture of the organisation that only a tiny proportion actually avail themselves of the opportunity. For instance, there were only eight contributions from individual members or groups of members in IB No1 (October), and there are just 11 in IB No2 (November). Just over half of the second bulletin’s 36 pages are taken up by statements/proposals from the central committee or CC-backed bodies/representatives, and several other submissions from rank-and-file members are undoubtedly of the type the leadership approves: descriptions of how the official line is being implemented locally, for example.
There are, however, three contributions in IB No2 from what appear to be committed SWP members who are at the same time highly critical of the organisation and make useful and constructive proposals for establishing a democratic culture and practice.
But, before we turn to these critiques, let us start by examining the leadership’s own proposals and perspectives. First of all, there is to be a change in personnel at the top, including, significantly, the departure from the CC of former national secretary Martin Smith. A year ago comrade Smith was replaced in that post by current incumbent Charlie Kimber amid rumours, among other things, that Smith had been accused of sexual harassment. The leadership offered to the membership no explanation for his demotion, apart from how invaluable he would be in his new responsibility for industrial work in addition to running Unite Against Fascism.
It is the same this year: the membership is not told the real reason for his exclusion from the CC-recommended slate beyond the fact that he has “decided to stand down”. In the absence of any explanation it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this longstanding SWP leader has been forced off against his wishes. Another departee is comrade “Dan” (whose surname is not given, presumably for security reasons, although he was named last year). Dan had been given responsibility, among other things, for Marxism and the fundraising appeal, but he had not exactly been prominent in those roles.
So the new CC is to be reduced from 14 comrades to 12 and will consist of Weyman Bennett, Mark Bergfeld, Michael Bradley, Alex Callinicos, Esme Choonara, Joseph Choonara, Hannah Dee, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather, Ray Marral, Judith Orr and Mark Thomas. I say “will consist”, since the slate recommended by the outgoing CC is always elected in its entirety. That is because voting is not for individuals, but for the whole slate - take it or leave it (see below for rank-and-file criticisms of this self-perpetuating system) - and only once in the SWP era has a rival slate been nominated: that proposed by ‘loyal oppositionist’ John Molyneux for the January 2006 conference. Even allowing for the current bureaucratic method, it is remarkable that CC members are unable or unwilling to find new blood to replace Martin Smith and comrade Dan. Perhaps there is no-one considered trustworthy enough.
Building ‘the party’
It goes without saying that the CC considers the SWP, under its own leadership, to be embryo of the revolutionary party needed in Britain. No other left group is worth a mention in this regard, not even as a potential partner.
In a passage repeated from a similar perspectives document last year, the CC states: “The growth and development of the revolutionary socialist party is not an optional add-on. It has to be consciously built and strengthened in the course of struggle. We face a ruthless, centralised and brutal ruling class. The working class needs its own organisation.” Which is, of course, the Socialist Workers Party.
The CC notes in its ‘Building the party’ document that “The SWP is the biggest organisation on the revolutionary left”, and adds modestly: “… but is still much too small for the tasks we set ourselves.” The key task is described in this way: “We have to get the Con-Dems out - and replace them with something much better than Ed Miliband’s politics!” Exactly what that “something better” will be is not outlined, but the membership is left in no doubt that achieving it will most certainly depend on what the SWP does.
In another CC perspectives document (there are four in IB No2 and three in IB No1) - this one titled ‘Industrial perspectives’ - the leadership insists that “Building the Unite the Resistance national conference on November 17” is the absolutely central priority (note, by the way, that the IBs are supposed to inform the debate at the January 4-6 2013 conference, yet they are full of leadership proposals and exhortations that will obviously be out of date by then).
Last year, the CC explains, despite the efforts of UTR, the unions retreated on public service pensions: “Two important gatherings of activists - one called by the PCS United Left, the other by Unite the Resistance - debated the way forwards, but were not sufficiently powerful to stop the retreat.” The idea that a meeting of a few hundred SWP comrades and their contacts, plus a handful of other leftwingers, could actually be so influential as to either force the union bureaucracies to adopt a different strategy or construct a rank-and-file alternative is totally absurd, but the CC seems to believe that its membership is stupid enough to accept it.
The CC elaborates: “We need a broad movement in the unions, a ‘middle cog’ between socialists and the whole working class that can pull together the many thousands who want action. Unite the Resistance (UTR) is our answer to this.” And, while the SWP is, of course, for a united fightback, UTR’s rivals are just not up to the job: “Debates inside UTR have to take up the thorny issue of the trade union bureaucracy - something groups such as the Coalition of Resistance avoid. Unite the Resistance is an attempt to create a genuine network of working class militants, not a ‘party front’. The Socialist Party forced independent elements out of its National Shop Stewards Network.”
Leaving aside the rather tendentious nature of the final sentence above, does the CC seriously expect us to believe that UTR alone - which is “our answer”, yet is somehow “not a ‘party front’” - can “pull together the many thousands who want action”? In actual fact a real party - a genuine part of the working class - would be able to play such a role. A real party would have roots in the whole class and militants in every key workplace. It would be able to unite different revolutionary tendencies around a Marxist programme on the basis of democratic centralism, not the SWP’s bureaucratic impostor.
In reality the leadership knows full well that neither it nor UTR can exert such influence. Its aim is to retain and inspire current members and recruit new ones by posing as the most militant, the most revolutionary group. Although its short-lived slogan from a year ago, “All out, stay out”, was thankfully dropped (without explanation, obviously), the SWP will not hear of anything less than the demand for immediate strike action in every union, irrespective of the support (or lack of it) for such action amongst the rank and file, and irrespective of the need for coordination.
The CC criticises the rest of the left in these terms: “The slogan, ‘Strike together’, was transformed from a call for united action into one that said nobody could move without the others.” It goes on: “Leading members of left groups in the NUT, such as the Socialist Teachers Alliance (which we are part of) and the softer left Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union, believe that talk of striking with non-teaching unions or even alone is adventurism. Even those at the centre of the … Local Associations Network that grew out of rows at the NUT conference have baulked at arguing for the NUT to ‘name a day’ for action or to seek strikes with unions such as the PCS. We won precisely two votes for this position at the NUT executive pre-meeting with the left - those of our two comrades.” And it adds: “Even our members on the national executives of unions are subject to the pressure to go along with the rest of the left and to accept ‘realistic’ options.”
The problem with the SWP, however, is that it is not at all concerned with what is “realistic” - ie, what strike action can actually be delivered, given the weakness of our class and, in particular, the total absence of a rank-and-file movement worthy of the name. I do not mean to excuse any timidity or accommodation with the right on the part of other groups, but it is rather convenient for the SWP that it does not control any powerful union body and so its posturing slogans are never put to the test.
Alongside such posturing is the illusion that the leadership constantly seeks to reinforce that “the party” is continually growing in size. There is only one way the membership figure is allowed to go - up.
So in IB No2 information is provided showing that every year since 2008 the total membership has increased. Back then there were 6,155 “registered members”, but now there are 7,597 (a rise of over 1,400). Strangely though, according to a table showing recruitment figures for the same period, over 1,000 have joined the SWP every single year since 2008 - no fewer than 5,193 signed up between January 2008 and October 2012. So, even allowing for other comrades dropping out, how come the total membership has only gone up by a fraction of that figure?
This anomaly is explained by the fact that “registered membership” is not the same thing as actual membership. The first category includes everyone who has filled in an application form over the last two years, irrespective of whether they have ever been in contact since. But, of course, under the SWP’s “open recruitment” policy, there are no membership requirements - anyone can join without committing themselves to anything at all. For example, “The membership that pays a regular sub to the organisation stands at 32%, slightly down on last year’s figure.” I make that 2,431 dues-payers - a much more accurate approximation of the actual SWP membership.
In another passage copied from last year, the CC notes: “There are some comrades who doubt whether people who haven’t met us before but join on demonstrations or sales are ‘real members’.” That’s because they’re not real members! But the leadership pretends they are, squaring the circle in this way: “It’s a battle to win them fully, and sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. But if we hold a good number of those we recruit in this way it’s worth it.”
One of the ‘doubters’ is “Paris (Leeds and West Yorkshire)”, who comments: “It is well known that the majority of people on the lists are not members (many never were), and that it is easier to squeeze blood from a stone than getting people taken off. These lists are then used as a basis for an assessment of our organisation’s size, which is clearly going to be completely distorted.”
Paris (only the first names of contributors are published) continues: “I was told recently that Leeds had 153 members. If this is the case, the district must have 10 more branches that I’m not aware of (maybe I’ve just stumbled across our underground membership?), or we are employing the age-old method of kidology?”
S/he concludes: “What is most worrying about this situation is that very few comrades are actually willing to raise this with the centre, despite it being the consensus in branches and districts.” In other words, according to Paris, it is not just “some” comrades who “doubt” whether most names on the lists are “real members”. The majority of activists know they are not.
But at least the CC can claim to have reinvigorated the existing structure: “More branches are also having regular meetings. If you look at page 12 of Socialist Worker you can see that it is barely able to contain the details of all our branch meetings. That wasn’t true a few years ago.” And such branches are found in the most unlikely of places - “We also have an SWP branch in Palestine,” declares the CC! What? Selling Socialist Worker outside Sainsbury’s in Ramallah?
Comrade Paris is one of the three critical contributors mentioned above, alongside “Ruth (South London)” and “Justin (Cambridge)”. As I have said, these comrades make clear their partisan commitment and are prepared to recognise recent improvements in SWP culture (however marginal, you might comment), while urging the leadership to go much further.
For example, Paris, in his/her contribution entitled ‘Political engagement and party democracy’, writes: “The worst elements of previous bad practice have been left behind; certainly the party feels more open than it once did.” And Ruth (‘Democratic centralism and accountability’) states: “… we have to acknowledge that the party has taken significant steps forwards in the last few years in terms of raising the level of political openness and discussion.”
But both comrades demand far more. Ruth writes: “… it is vital that our party is capable of vigorous debate and decisive action, swift changes of tack and honest analysis of our successes and failures …. we need to be capable of constant reflection and analysis of how effective the strategy is, in order to correct it swiftly if it is wrong or generalise from successes.
“All this means we need three things: maximum debate and discussion, all the time, at all levels of the party; a high level of theoretical clarity and confidence in all members; and unity in action guaranteed by accountability of all members, whether in elected positions or not.”
To ensure this happens, CC comrades must “admit mistakes or even be removed from leading positions if they are not effectively leading”. In fact, “The full-time apparatus is very large and operates in an unnecessarily substitutionist way. There are 50 full-time party workers, which seems far too large for an organisation of our size.”
Ruth continues: “Hiding mistakes from the rest of the party, or failing to analyse what went wrong and why, can only lead to even bigger errors. This is exemplified by Unite the Resistance - the CC and centre are pushing a strategy, but not effectively winning over large sections of the membership, so we end up with the party neither applying it wholeheartedly nor raising any serious alternative to it.”
Paris also cites problems with UTR, stating: “It is clear that many comrades have completely switched off from the party’s national work, many not attempting to follow the latest twist or turn. It is doubtful how many comrades could give you a meaningful explanation as to the difference between Right to Work and Unite the Resistance; it is even more doubtful how many could explain why one was all but dropped from the party’s activities.”
The comrade is right to say that the relegation of RTW was never properly explained. It was proclaimed initially as an anti-cuts campaign despite the fact that it had a name that was completely unsuitable. So it was replaced in that role by UTR and is now held in reserve for actions relating to threatened job losses and unemployment. So comrade Ruth’s criticism is rather apt: the leadership cannot even admit it got the name wrong.
Turning to another democratic failing, Ruth states: “… as well as being unused to being held to account by the party through sharp debates, the CC in particular are unused to being held to account through elections.
“The last challenge to the CC slate was in 2005, when John M proposed himself (precisely in order to raise the question of CC accountability). The slate system … discourages members from challenging the leadership in elections, because any challenger has to take on the entire CC, rather than just one member of it, and the CC have almost always presented a united front to conference, even when there are disagreements within it.”
On the CC’s objections to a more democratic means of electing a leadership, she writes: “… if an open election is a popularity contest [a phrase used to decry voting for individual candidates] in which the membership takes part, the slate system is a popularity contest in which only the current CC takes part. It is contradictory in the extreme to argue that limiting the number of people who take part in a decision makes it more democratic.”
Paris hopes to change this through a motion s/he hopes will get onto the conference agenda, which demands the “removal of the ‘slate system’ as it is currently practised. The right of comrades to propose slates should remain, but the election of comrades to the central committee should be on an individual basis.” Excellent!
Paris’s motion includes a proposal which, if implemented, would represent a revolution in SWP culture: “Political differences should be openly acknowledged, with the debates open to the party. Different political tendencies should be represented on the CC, not suppressed behind a veil of ‘unity’. This would be an important step to fostering a culture of open and honest debate within the party.”
In Paris’s view, “the democratic aspect of a revolutionary party is not an added extra, but an absolutely integral element … The complete freedom of exchange of ideas and criticism in the first instance, and the absolute unity in action once a decision has been reached, remains the clearest and best way of organising a revolutionary working class organisation.”
Paris goes on to talk about “the lack of critical engagement from the active core of the party; where it does exist, it is often dropped, for fear of alienating less experienced members or seeming disloyal …. This also is clearly a hangover from the last 20 years, where political disagreement was dealt with through suppression of ideas and people being shouted down. Nevertheless, it still exists throughout the party.”
S/he gives a recent example of the treatment of dissent, which occurred at a party council - the branch delegate body which “normally meets once a year”, although “additional meetings may be called in case of need by the CC” (SWP constitution). Comrade Paris recalls: “The one time a comrade did raise a disagreement with the CC, she was cut off (despite CC members going well over their time) and the CC member summing up spent 10 of his 15 minutes responding to her point. This being the case, it is little wonder that comrades are not engaged with the party’s democracy.”
Because party council is seen as a mere “rubber stamp for the central committee”, comrades are hardly enthusiastic about attending, claims Paris: “I have never known a branch vote on its delegates, and arguments tend to revolve around why people shouldn’t have to go, rather than why they should.”
Paris concludes: “Taken overall, far from the organisation being one of controversy and debate, most comrades are politically under-confident to raise criticism, unused to the rigour of constructive debate and argument, and the overall political level remains very low.”
Many of comrade Paris’s criticisms are backed up “Justin (Cambridge)”, who, in a piece entitled ‘Opposition to bureaucratic centralism’, tells a horror story relating to his own treatment:
“Three years back, when I joined the Socialist Workers Party, I had no idea that to disagree, question or think differently would be counted as a disciplinary offence. Nor did I expect to see the central committee attempt to intimidate, bully, exclude and silence me.
“Using the excuse that I voted the ‘wrong’ way at a routine Unite branch meeting, I find myself reduced to being a ‘national’ member of the party. I am barred from attending Cambridge branch meetings. Indeed, national secretary Charlie Kimber actually wrote to me urging me to resign from the SWP. Instead of offering political solutions to political problems, almost instinctively he turned to organisational (bureaucratic) methods.”
Comrade Justin fully concurs with Paris over the meaning of genuine democratic centralism: “Complementing the duty to unite in agreed actions, there must be the constitutionally enshrined right to openly disagree.” In my view this position is unanswerable in a working class organisation that claims to be democratic-centralist.
But Justin does not leave it at that. He insists that the SWP must have “a fully developed Marxist programme”. In its absence, “The central committee is left free to pursue almost any will-of-the-wisp policies. Certainly, the members have no commonly agreed point of reference with which to judge, assess and hold the leadership to account.”
Acting as a poor man’s substitute for such a “fully developed Marxist programme” is the ‘Where we stand’ column, carried each week in Socialist Worker. Justin takes issue with some of the points it contains and argues: “The stipulation that to be a party member one must ‘agree’ with the ‘Where we stand’ column must be struck out.” Instead, we must “follow Lenin and the Bolsheviks and replace ‘agree’ with ‘accept’, I would suggest.”
But the paragraph that struck me the most about Justin’s contribution was his contention that the SWP alone is not the answer - a contention that goes very much against the grain of SWP wisdom. He states: “We should be fighting for a mass, working class party solidly based on Marxism. As a first step, the much-divided Marxist left needs to be united into a single organisation. Given our weight, connections, history, etc, the SWP can play a pivotal role here.”
It is most encouraging that these three comrades, like “Ian” in IB No1 (see ‘SWP: Annual show of “democracy”’ Weekly Worker October 11), are clear-sighted and courageous enough to make such far-reaching proposals - proposals aimed at transforming the SWP into a genuinely democratic-centralist force, capable of playing a leading role in the struggle for the mass party we so desperately need.
It remains to be seen for how long they would be tolerated if their ideas began to make headway. And here the treatment meted out to Justin (assuming there is even a hint of substance in his allegations) should serve as a warning to SWP members wanting to assert their right to speak out and to criticise.