You don't want to do it like that!
response to Mike Marquese’s criticisms of the Socialist Workers Party
First, my usual
disclaimer: I don’t speak for the SWP in any official capacity, I can
only speak for myself as a local member with a perhaps excessive
fascination with intra-left debates.
Also I’ve got to say I
agree with many of m’comrades that the internet is a far-from-ideal
forum, because (1) debates here can easily become detached from any
actual practice and (2) probably as a result, there’s a danger of being
nastier and sillier than we’d dream of being face to face.
Okay so. Though I’ve
never met him, I’ve got some time for Mike Marquese, ever since I read
his truly brilliant book on Muhammed Ali (read it, read it now). And I
was aware of his contributions both to the Stop the War Coalition and
the Socialist Alliance. So I’m inclined to take him seriously.
And I can, believe it
or not, accept the bulk of his essay (‘Formations for the Next Left’)
without difficulty. Okay, maybe not surprising that I find the opening
bit, where Mike acknowledges the achievements of the SWP and makes the
case for effective organisation, refreshingly objective!
But also most of the
second half, wherein Mike sets out his vision for an alternative
political formation, is fine by me. I mean, I disagree about what we
need (obviously, or I wouldn’t be in the SWP) but I really can’t object
to Mike’s heartfelt desire to try to build what he wants, which I gather
is some new type of smart, militant, non-hierarchical, decentralised
network. Each to their own, as I think I may have said before once or
It’s the middle bit
that I find a trifle hard to swallow. “Ah” I hear you cry “typical SWP
can’t take criticism”. But hear me out: my suggestion is that Mike’s
criticisms of the SWP seem mostly to be based on the fact that we will
insist on acting like a bunch of damned Marxist-Leninists. Which, um,
you see, we are.
First off, Mike says we
distort meetings by turning up with a common position, so everyone ends
up ‘rotating around [our] axis’. Well now, bear in mind that all our
members do have certain ideas in common, otherwise we wouldn’t all have
joined the same party. And part of what we do in the party is discuss
and develop those ideas with the aim of putting them into practice.
Given that, what is Mike saying we should do? Pretend that we haven’t
had those discussions, that we are just a random bunch of folk
spontaneously coming up with the same ideas off the top of our heads?
Or perhaps invent spurious disagreements in order to restore the
balance? It’s unclear.
Linked with this is the
accusation of ‘packing meetings’. This one has always puzzled me. What
is ‘packing’ a meeting? In what way does it differ from ‘encouraging
people to attend’? Yet one is good and the other is bad. Is it one of
those irregular verbs: “I encouraged grassroots participation,
you dragged some people along, they packed the meeting”?
Then we get into the
alleged attitude of ‘the SWP leadership’ to accountability and
democracy. Now I’m not qualified to get into the ins and outs of this
particular executive meeting or conference or whether the minutes of x
should have been circulated on email list y or whatever. But I can say
that, in my experience, SWP members are no more or less accountable than
anyone else who takes up an officer position in a campaign. That is,
just like everyone in the movement, we all try to make sure we report
what we should to who we should when we should, that decisions are made
democratically, and that as many members of a campaign are involved as
What I think happens
though is that there is often some suspicion (borne of prejudice,
frankly) against an SWP member taking up such a role, such that their
every action is scrutinised in a way that an ‘independent’ wouldn’t be,
looking for evidence of unwarranted interference from sinister
bureaucratic forces. And as we know from the whole Iraq/WMD experience,
if you really really want to believe there’s evidence, you’ll find it.
The final accusation I
really can’t let go is the same one we keep getting from certain
anarchist groups, god bless em: despite building the biggest ever
anti-war movement in recorded history, we failed to stop the war. To be
honest I’m pretty shocked the usually sober and critical Mike gives this
un-Marxist argument airplay. Shall I quote? “We make our own history,
but not in circumstances of our own choosing”. Do you really believe
that not stopping the war was just a subjective matter of not trying
hard enough? We (all of us, not just the SWP) built the biggest, most
diverse movement we could, and pushed for the strongest action we could
without splitting or losing that diversity and support. If we’d called
for storming army bases, would the two million marchers have followed?
Or would they have said “I didn’t sign up for that” and left us back
with the activist hardcore, able to be isolated, made to look like the
minority and arrested and defeated anyway? Honestly?
As it is, though we
haven’t stopped the war, we have sent seismic shockwaves through
politics in the UK and globally, the effects of which will be playing
out for years to come. One of the most positive effects is the tendency
of many ordinary people to look for a left alternative to the mainstream
political agenda of privatisation and war, and the possibility of
meeting that demand by building on the networks of solidarity forged
during the anti-war campaign.
I’m going to finish by
saying that I do sincerely hope that Mike Marquese and other independent
leftists like him will continue to play an active role building that
alternative, and perhaps come to accept the reality that there are going
to be SWP members in that movement as well. We’d miss you otherwise,
and in truth I think you might find you’d miss us.