The Socialist Unity Network

What's in a name?

Farewell to the Marxist forums

I have long believed that when something changes its name, it is usually because it has changed in some more fundamental way. Remember when Coca Cola disastrously relaunched themselves as New Coke - to cover up the fact they had changed their recipe to taste more like the then market leader, Pepsi? When their core market declined still further Coca Cola relaunched again as Classic Coke, returning to the old recipe and overtook Pepsi!

So when I read in the SWP's internal publication, Party Notes, that the SWP's Marxist Forums are to change their name this suggests to me that something is up.

To use a political example, when the Socialist Labour League changed to the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974 it was not just a rebranding, it represented a shift in the ambition of the group. To quote Alan Thornet on the change: "Healy argued that the SLL had outgrown its role as a 'league' and the time had come to transform itself into a party, or more precisely 'the' party. By this time the WRP had several thousand members, a daily paper, and significant support in the unions ... ... The idea that it was to become a mass party, however, was a delusion and was to lead to further ultra-left and sectarian developments."

For comrades who only encountered the WRP in its later dotage it may come as some surprise that the SLL was a serious organisation with strong influence in some areas, particularly in the car and engineering industries, although it was always inclined to pomposity and self delusion. For example the WRP was prone to vastly exaggerating its own influence in the movement while demonstrating great hostility to other socialists. Indeed this phenomenon is was well described by Tony Cliff describing how the SWP's electoral interventions in 1977 had adversely affected him personally: "... unjustified triumphalism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin"

Of course, the launching of the Socialist Workers Party by the International Socialists (IS) on 1st January 1977 was also based upon a mistaken perspective. As Cliff saw things at the time: "For two years after Labour came to power, until last spring, our membership slowly and gradually went down from 3,300 members to around 2,650 members. In recent months things have changed. In June we recruited 64 members, in July 77, in August 100, in September 174, in October 192, in November 243, and in the first three weeks of December 155, making a total of over 1,000 in just over seven months. ... ... The conclusions for us are clear. If, when the revolutionary crisis comes to Britain, we have 40,000 members, there is no question that we can grow to 400,000 or perhaps half a million. ... ... In February and March this year [1977] we will be holding some 200 meetings with the central theme of building the Socialist Workers Party. The aim of them will be to recruit - and recruit quickly."

Unfortunately in politics there seems to be no going back, and there was no attempt to relaunch Classic IS, using the old recipe.

So what is going on with the Marxist Forums?

Party Notes says:
"In the autumn we want to relaunch the Forums as Socialist Worker Forums: a) because there has been a general hardening up of the politicisation associated with the movement b) as part of a wider drive to increase sales & distribution of SW. This will coincide with the launch of a new look SW round the ESF (when the paper will appear daily!)."

The SWP have been running these Marxist Forums for a few years now. I tried to research exactly how long ago through the Socialist Worker archive but found that this is no longer accessible following the SWP's redesign of their web-page. Relying on memory alone I would say it has been about 4 years or so. When the Marxist Forums were initiated the SWP were in laid-back mood, and the original idea was that they would be hosting meetings for the whole left, and indeed early Forums had non-party speakers, like Mike Marqusee talking about Muhammad Ali. At that time the SWP leadership was making friendly noises about left regroupment, as the SWP's own Red Professor, Alex Callinicos wrote: "There is an extraordinary strong desire for unity among activists of all backgrounds and generations. This finds expression in a variety of different ways. To begin with the far left, in Britain we have seen the formation of the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and of the Scottish Socialist Party, which have between them united most of the sane elements to the left of the Labour Party under the same roof."

There has obviously been a shift since then towards Marxist Forums becoming straightforward SWP public meetings. However many of us had attributed this trend to organisational conservatism rather than a shift in perspectives. Until this week's Party Notes the trend had not been explicitly endorsed by the Party leadership.

But what are we to make of the justification? Well, it seems odd to say that the phrasing "Socialist Worker Forum" better matches a "hardening up of the politicisisation of the movement", than the phrase "Marxist Forum". To the casual observer the word "Marxist" sounds more hard core than the word "socialist". How are we supposed to understand this contention that there has been a "hardening up of the politicisation of the movement". I for one would require more evidence before I was persuaded that there was a harder left mood in the country than existed a few years ago when Marxist Forums were initiated. How is this politicisation being manifested?

As James P Cannon used to say, comrades often have two reasons for what they do; the good reason and the real reason. It is however more usual for someone to only tell you the good reason, and keep the real reason to themselves. So congratulations to Martin Smith for his honesty that Marxist Forums, which the SWP originally saw as a forum for debate for the whole movement, are now officially to be used "as part of a wider drive to increase sales & distribution of Socialist Worker". What was it that Cliff said back in 1977? "The aim of them will be to recruit - and recruit quickly"

Finally, we learn that Socialist Worker is to be a daily during the ESF. Personally, I quite like the paper, however, in a spirit of mischief I cannot help quoting from John Sullivan's scurrilous pamphlet on the history of the left groups: "In the early 1980s we were told that the Militant's journal was to become a daily, but as the speed of recruitment slackened the proposal was quietly abandoned. Not even the most loyal supporter would read the unchanging contents every day; really it would be better as an annual"



July 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism