SWP no-platformed: Self-inflicted injury
The annual Marxism festival is running short of big names - but the SWP has encouraged the culture of boycotting problematic people, argues Paul Demarty
It is necessary, first of all, to issue a note of caution concerning the premature eulogies for the Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism festival.
There are those who have cheekily suggested that its attendees will fit into a red London phone booth, such is the tornado of animosity swirling up around Britain’s largest, and most beleaguered, leftwing sect. There is a distasteful note of triumphalism to all these mock funeral rites and, in any case, the SWP and its remaining periphery will in all likelihood still manage to put on the biggest annual gathering of leftwingers in this country.
Still, there are serious problems facing the unlucky comrades whose job it will be to organise the school and put the bravest face possible on things this summer - it will almost certainly be a smaller, more brittle event than recent years. Of the first eight ‘big names’ to have been announced as speakers, four have already pulled out. The list - as things stand - is a little short on celebrity.1
Gilbert Achcar and Samir Amin may have been influential, but Amin’s star in particular has long been on the wane (and both, despite supposedly impeccable anti-imperialist credentials, have been found supporting western adventures in Africa in the last two years). Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, is not a nobody - but neither will the masses be queuing around the block for him. The same is true of Alan Freeman and Paul Le Blanc, who are interesting people, but primarily ‘niche’ draws.
The absent names, to some extent, can be put down to an honest shock at the “dark side”2 of the SWP, which was on full display during the crisis that has engulfed the organisation this year. Others, however, seem to have been cajoled into pulling out by the serried ranks of liberal feminist crusaders, principally through Twitter - the witchfinder general of social media.
John McDonnell, the most leftwing Labour MP (to paraphrase William F Buckley junior, a bit like being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas), was prodded repeatedly on this matter, until he finally issued a response that was, even by the 140-character yardstick, terse - “I’m not attending”.3 Exactly why he has made this decision thus remains a mystery.
Yet the example of McDonnell is a good one to get to the bottom of the boycotters’ thinking as a whole, whether they have jumped or been pushed. Let us imagine a speech that McDonnell might have made. “You in the SWP,” he could have said, “are serious fighters for the working class, against war and austerity. Yet you are hampered by your misjudgements. You insist on having your own anti-austerity campaign, when there are already too many, and you have no principled reason to do so.
“You abstain from the fight to make Labour into an anti-austerity, pro-working class party. We have pressured,” he could claim (as he has before), “Ed Miliband into tacking away from Blairism. This is not nearly enough, of course - but it would be an easier thing to achieve if you were on board.
“And the way you handled the rape allegation and the rebellion in your own ranks was reprehensible and a gift to the right. When I come to talk to comrades on the left, I am wounded to see the same tricks employed by the Labour machine against my own colleagues being used by people who call themselves socialists.”
We know, of course, that had he not withdrawn from Marxism, he would have made no such speech. Because comrade McDonnell is a consensus politician. He would have reminded the audience how important it was to get this government out, to support strikes and demonstrations, to oppose military adventures. He would have peppered this uncontroversial spiel with anecdotes about the bastards he has to put up with in the Commons. He would not have broached the political differences that have brought him and the SWP to different places on the left landscape today.
As for McDonnell, so for many others, no doubt. The Marxism event is a “festival of resistance”, and not a festival of controversy. There is a tacit understanding between the SWP and star speakers (when they are not put up in straight debates with SWP comrades) that the political authority of the organisers will not be challenged. Neither, necessarily, will be the star speakers (I would be very surprised if any audience member mentions Libya to Gilbert Achcar, or Mali to Samir Amin, this year). This is not an iron rule - the superstar philosopher, Slavoj iek, has been on the outs with the SWP for years, after increasingly fraught Marxism sessions. But it is certainly the norm.
It is, on the whole, one of the most frustrating features of Marxism, which is traditionally at least a good event on paper. The many peculiar ideas on offer from star speakers are simply left more or less unchallenged, and likewise the hallowed IS/SWP tradition is wrapped in cotton wool and unveiled only in sessions specifically on the theory of state capitalism, etc, led off by ‘safe’ SWP comrades. The truce is enforced by the legendary ‘speaker slip’ system, through which controversy can be crushed before it arises.
The result is a basically diplomatic arrangement, and diplomacy - as we all know - is about horse trading. The SWP grants the speaker a large and enthusiastic audience in central London. In return, the speaker offers the SWP an implicit endorsement of the image it wishes to project: a non-sectarian, unifying force on the radical left, offering up its resources to ‘build the movement’.
However, there is an internal limit to diplomacy, which is reached when the trade-off is no longer advantageous to both sides.
In the grubby finaglings of great powers, the result is war. In the pettier marketplace of the socialist summer school season, the result is a boycott. The logic is easy enough to see. Imagine (if you can!) the SWP seriously tarnishing its brand. Suddenly, having your name on all its publicity materials hardly amounts to a free lunch; on the contrary, it may be used against you by whatever rivals and enemies you may have.
Being less cynical about it, a speaker may be quite aware of, but basically untroubled by, the fact that bulking up the Marxism timetable lends some credibility to the SWP. It is an ‘endorsement’ that many are happy to make out of genuine respect for the comrades, even if they disagree. After a scandal of the order of this one, however, suddenly that no longer seems a conscionable option.
The result in both cases is the same: the star speaker will withdraw. We will be clear - this is the worst of all possible outcomes.
The first reason for this is that it will exacerbate the tendencies in the SWP, as presently constituted, that lead towards its further shrivelling into an insular sect. In the first instance, it will exclude even the possibility of using an SWP platform to offer a welcome corrective from the ‘reality-based community’. On top of that, it will reinforce the bunker mentality of the pro-central committee crazies, and the suspicion of all those who demur as somehow ‘foreign agents’ causing damage to ‘the party’.
The latest set of resignations from the SWP come from one of its recent strongholds - the Manchester Socialist Worker Student Society. It is remarkable for two small reasons - firstly, it has rather more in the way of levity and wit than such resignation statements have possessed in recent months (the comrades sign off as “The Marxists formerly known as University of Manchester Socialist Worker Student Society”). More importantly, there is a relatively sober caveat for others who have taken the same path:
“For all those who have left the organisation, we would urge you to consider the political necessity of working with ‘CC loyalists’ again. There is barely a campaign or trade union one can be active in without coming across SWP members and we are prepared to work alongside any we might encounter. To refuse to work with them out of grudges either personal or political would weaken any future activism on our behalf. This is not to say we will forget our disagreements, but rather continue to fraternally argue that the party has run its course.”4
An admirable attitude, though their decision to split is still politically frivolous. It takes two to tango, however, and with every high-profile snub, SWP loyalists will be more resistant to ‘fraternal argument’, and - indeed - less able to play nicely with others in united campaigns.
The second reason why the withdrawal of speakers is the worst of all possible outcomes is that it reinforces the culture, widespread on the left, of boycotting ideas, individuals and organisations that one finds distasteful.
At the moment, there is a lot of it about, and it happens to be centred on the SWP. Barely a week goes by without yet another story of people walking out of a room when an SWPer gets up to speak. After all, they are ‘rape deniers’, or ‘rape apologists’, or whatever inane shorthand version of anathematisation is dropping off tongues this week.
This whole attitude is profoundly foolish. It encourages not critique, which could at least be productive, but irrational fear and hatred; it is anti-intellectual and in reality elitist (the underlying assumption behind no-platforming ‘rape deniers’/‘apologists’ is that, firstly, women are so prone to fits of the vapours that they will be put in fear of their physical safety by the presence of such people; and, secondly, that men are so bestial that they will somehow take their presence as a green light to go around raping people). The target of the boycott is no longer ignorant, or just plain wrong; he is diseased, and shunned as one would shun a black rat with plague bacilli in its blood.
Alas, it is difficult to conjure up much sympathy for the SWP in this case, because no organised force on the left has done more to entrench this kind of stupidity in our patterns of political activity. It is the SWP which insists on greeting every passing, ephemeral far-right sect as if they were Hitler risen from the grave. It is the SWP which has thus made the most consistent case for the novel anti-fascist tactic of no-platforming oneself by refusing all invitations to speak when a representative of ‘the Nazis’ has also been invited.
And, while in the recent period, after ‘No platform for rape deniers’ became the feminist bureaucrat’s rallying cry, the SWP has been bizarrely dogmatic in its insistence that only fascists should be no-platformed (no satisfactory explanation has ever emerged as to why that should be the case), it has not always been so reticent, pushing on some occasions a ‘No platform for Zionists’ line, for example.
The SWP is locked into this kind of behaviour ultimately because it has no programme, and thus is reduced to repeating progressive-minded people’s prejudices back to them, but louder, in order to get such people agitated. There is something strikingly SWPish, meanwhile, about the tone of those currently seeking to carve them out of trade unions, student unions and so forth; and, indeed, bureaucratic feminists equally have no programme to speak of, only gag reflexes. For the SWP, the scream of enraged liberalism was a perfectly adequate means of keeping mobilisation at a steady state of hysteria, so long as its own progressive credentials were superficially unimpeachable. Now it is being attacked, if not exactly by a monster of its own making, at least by a monster to which it has given endless sustenance - the anti-rational elitism of boycott culture.
The SWP wants this year’s Marxism to be ‘business as usual’, and present an attractive public face through its flagship event. The more likely outcome is a smaller, more paranoid and insular school, with grudges bubbling under the surface and wounds festering. Any principled Marxist with a cordial invite would use the opportunity to make sure it is neither, by breaking both with sterile boycottism and cosy diplomatic speechifying. Alas, principled Marxists are in shorter supply at Marxism than ever.
2. An expression notoriously used by SWP leader Alex Callinicos in the context of the internet: see Socialist Review January 2013.