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Reply to Ben Drake

Mike Marqusee


Reply to Ben Drake


I very much appreciate the friendly personal tone (and plug for my book) in
Ben Drake's response to my remarks on the SWP at the Signs of the Times
seminar last year.



I've avoided answering most of the various comments that arose from those
remarks. Life is short and I don't want to spend much more of mine in
internecine combat.



But I hope it will be useful if I respond to Ben's response.



1. The Stop the War Coalition



Ben asks: "Do you really believe that not stopping the war was just a
subjective matter of not trying hard enough? " No, and I have never said or
written anything  that could fairly lead anyone to think that I do hold such
a belief. Blaming the Stop the War Coalition for our inability to stop the
invasion of Iraq would be preposterous. But that is not the end of the
discussion, because the STWC - like any other movement institution - must be
open to question and criticism.



What I said in my Signs of the Times comments was that the STWC leadership
failed to foster (or in some cases permit) the kind of discussion we needed
following the fall of Baghdad. Triumphalism replaced sober assessment of our
real achievements, our obvious shortcomings and the need to look to the
future. My view was always that it would be difficult to convert an anti-war
movement into an anti-occupation movement. And so it has proved. However,
the STWC leadership's response to that challenge has been inadequate and in
some cases destructive. It's also obvious that the STWC has been placed on
the back burner as the SWP's resources have been swallowed up by Respect and to some extent the ESF. The attempt to identify Respect with the STWC (the BBC was told repeatedly and falsely that Respect was "the electoral wing" of the STWC) was just one example of a casual approach to the integrity and
diversity of the movement the STWC leaders claim to represent.



In my experience every attempt to discuss honestly the problems and
challenges facing the anti-war movement is met by blind resistance from the
SWP. Sorry to say that Ben's obviously sincere but completely groundless
belief that my remarks are tantamount to blaming the STWC for our failure to
stop the war seems to be an example of this.



I've written various articles on the anti-war movement. Anyone who's curious
about what I actually think can check out my website - www.mikemarqusee.com





2. Democracy and accountability



My problem with the SWP isn't that it's 'Marxist-Leninist', though I don't
subscribe to a good deal of Leninism and never have done. My problem with
the SWP is that it behaves undemocratically, sometimes unethically; and in
recent months with increasing cynicism - and to the detriment of the broader
movement. .



"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?" Actually, at least in my neck
of the woods, that is a precise description of routine SWP practise. People
turn up mob handed and then pretend that they haven't. The same line is
repeated without variation by a series of individuals who do not identify
themselves as SWP members and who each claim to have arrived at this line a
result of an experience in a workplace or community setting.  I'm not sure
SWP members realise just how unconvincing this is.



Caucusing is anyone's right. Agreeing with comrades and working with them on
a common project is anyone's right. But that's not all that happens when the
SWP turn up at a meeting with a pre-determined line. You stop listening to
the rest of us. You don't recognise objections that you haven't anticipated.
You don't recognise the spectrum of opinion. Others' positions are cast
immediately into a pro- or anti-mode, any sign of resistance to the SWP's
proposals is met with impatience or bluster or panic. As a result, frank
participation in debate, with all its necessary nuances, is discouraged.
Ben, there are just too many of us who've experienced this for you to
dismiss it so lightly.



Let me explain what 'packing meetings' is. It is bringing people (members or
contacts) along to a meeting of a broader group not with the aim of
participating meaningfully in that group but simply to swing a particular
decision. Many of these people have not turned up or participated in any way
before and are never seen again. Far from encouraging participation, this
practice makes it meaningless. Any independents trying to sustain a
constructive involvement find that their voices count for nothing when the
SWP decides to impose its priorities. I've seen the SWP put huge energy into
packing a meeting of a broader group, only to allow that same group to
wither away within weeks.



"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." And I can
say that, in my experience, which is extensive at both national and local
level, they are not. In particular SWP full-timers who take on officer's
responsibilities in broader groupings routinely abuse those positions and
pay little heed to the niceties of democracy. What counts for them is
control, political and organisational control; in the end, all other
concerns are subordinated to that overriding priority. I've seen it close-up
many times.



Over the years the SWP has refused to allow any broader front in which it
had a serious investment to enjoy an autonomous life. The history of the
Anti-Nazi League, the Right to Work campaigns, etc. bear abundant testimony
to this. When I was approached by the SWP leadership about getting involved
with the Socialist Alliance, I was told that those were the bad old days,
that this time it would be different . the SWP was making a turn towards the
broader movement.. all of which I welcomed, some would say naively. But the
experience of the last four years has shown that this is precisely the
lesson the SWP has not managed to learn. (Most recent example being the
crass attempts to manipulate the London ESF process.)



SWP full-timers who were elected or designated or appointed as responsible
officers in both the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition
furthered only those initiatives that were central to the SWP while
obstructing most others. No attention was paid to the democratic mandate of
the larger group. Basic democratic practises - from circulating minutes and
notices of meetings on time to reporting back to committees and
conferences - seemed alien to them, and requests that they be adhered to
were treated with scorn. Meetings of steering committees and national
conferences and the like were always treated as set-pieces, showcases for
the priorities of the SWP, not as democratic, pluralistic, potentially
creative forums. The result always had to be guaranteed in advance.



In the Socialist Alliance, flagrant financial dishonesty was practised by
SWP full-timers over a period of months. When this was uncovered,
accidentally, the SWP leadership (with help from others) blocked all efforts
to bring those responsible to account.



Let me offer a small example of the casual unaccountability that is accepted
without demur within the SWP's culture. I've seen people turn up at public
meetings billed as and speaking as representatives of the Stop the War
Coalition whose only relationship to the STWC was that they were SWP
full-timers. They were not sent by, or with the knowledge of, or accountable
to any of the structures of the STWC. When I raised this with SWP members,
they seemed genuinely not to know what I was talking about.



Of course, lots of people on the left and in the labour movement behave in
unaccountable ways, individuals as well as groups, right as well as left.
But for a democrat and a socialist - not to speak of a revolutionary - these
practises should be anathema. It is simply impossible to build an effective
and enduring social movement on this kind of quicksand.



3. Some questions for Ben



Ben urges me to "come to accept the reality that there are going to be SWP
members in that movement as well." There is an Alice in Wonderland quality
to this injunction, part of the general air of unreality and denial in Ben's
remarks as a whole. The problem is not that we won't accept the reality of
the SWP but that the SWP leadership refuses to accept our right  to express
disagreements with the SWP, our right to resist undemocratic attempts to
impose SWP priorities.



For example, I'd like Ben to consider the matter of the SWP's current
approach to critics. Is it right to respond to political opponents (or
perceived opponents) with smears? Is it right to disseminate lies about
individuals?



The challenge to Ben and other honest grassroots members of the SWP is to
drop the complacency, stand up against smear tactics and undemocratic
practises, and undertake a more realistic self-appraisal.




 

August 2004

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