The Socialist Unity Network

In defence of the SWP  

Andy Newman

    The last few weeks have seen two major articles in the Weekly Worker, the paper of the ambitiously named CPGB, attacking the SWP. One article, "Left Populism and its Discontents" seems to have been cynically timed to coincide with the SWP national members meeting and was accompanied by a front page claiming that a "rebellion" was being contemplated by SWP members.

    In essence this article consists of some re-cycled gossip, and speculation about named leading individuals. This type of trivia is common coin in any pub frequented by the left in London, and is usually completely unreliable.

    Many years ago as a mischievous and alcohol influenced youngster I started some rumours myself, one that Alex Callinicos used to play in goal for Zimbabwe's football team, and the other that the RCG were subsidised by Shakin' Stevens. Both of these were repeated back to me several months later as gospel truth. The truth is that the CPGB spices up its article with this (for most readers, completely unverifiable) tittle tattle to try to give a gloss of authority to what is otherwise pretty thin gruel of speculation and wishful thinking.

    So let us look at the substance of this article. We learn from the CPGB that apparently the SWP have: "retreated from taking a definite principled stand on issues as diverse as a workers' representative receiving a worker's wage, opposition to all immigration controls, republicanism and supporting abortion rights." Is any of this true?

    As a trade union rep I have found management sometimes try, in the absence of any actual disciplinary offences, to mount up loads of minor niggles, and try to carry it off by shear bravado. The CPGB are trying the same cheap trick.  In these circumstances we need to look at each charge in turn.

    The SWP have not retreated on the issue of a workers' wage. What they have done, and I agree with them, is not make it an issue at this stage in Respect. As I have written elsewhere: "If George Galloway just wanted a comfortable life he wouldn't spend 3 or 4 days every week speaking in community centres and church halls the length and breadth of the country. George has been able to make a major impact because his parliamentary salary and other earnings have given him independence. By joining RESPECT George could be making the first step in a transition from being a maverick individual towards being part of a collective organisation. It is unrealistic to expect him to surrender his independence as a precondition, and it would lessen his influence within RESPECT as a counterbalance to the SWP. It is therefore quite correct that the founding convention of RESPECT rejected the demand that all elected representatives should draw only a workers' wage. It is quite acceptable for compromises to be made in order to build a broader coalition."

    Have the SWP retreated on the question of opposing all immigration controls. Well no they haven't. What they did was oppose building this in to the founding declaration of Respect. As I have written elsewhere: "In the case of open borders and abolition of all immigration controls there is an argument to be had. There are many activists and trade unionists, even socialists, who wrongly believe that you can have non-racist immigration controls. So there is justification for a debate about how we can best win our principled position in the wider labour movement. " In fact all of RESPECT's election literature was unambiguously anti-racist and pro-immigrant. It engaged with the debate as it is actually occurring within the working class, not on the basis of abstract principles.

    Have the SWP retreated on Republicanism? Actually I think that Respect made a mistake in not adopting republicanism at the founding convention, but it is hardly the pressing issue of the moment. Most people in Britain see the Royal family as a rather expensive soap opera, rather than the cap stone of our constitution. I am confident that the next big royal event will see the usual scurrilous and amusing coverage in Socialist Worker we have come to expect from the paper that had the "Noddy Marries Big-Ears" headline when Charles and Di jumped the broomstick.

    Have the SWP retreated on Abortion rights? Well, I am prepared to be proven wrong, but I am confident that the SWP will support Respect adopting a pro-choice policy. I am also confident that should the rumoured attempt to reduce the time limit on abortions materialise then SWP comrades around the country will throw themselves into a campaign defending existing abortion rights with enthusiasm.

    The CPGB also accuses the SWP of: "easing aside SWP veterans, such as Chris Harman, and producing a paper that is less and less overtly political and more and more like a leftwing version of the Daily Mirror. With Chris Bambery as editor there has been a distinct change of style. Pop music, human interest stories and sport are increasingly dominant"

    Now Harman had been editor of the paper for 20 years or more. Surely the CPGB will show some compassion and allow him to go to another job. Making him editor of the SWP's widely read theoretical journal is hardly putting him out to pasture. Were the CPGB's analysis correct that John Rees is the post-Cliff Big Cheese then editor of the ISJ has been his own position, so it is hardly consistent to argue that Harman as new editor is being sidelined.

    But the point the CPGB are getting most wrong is that the paper has actually greatly improved since Bambury took over as editor. It has came as a shock to those of us used to Bambury's stream of consciousness style of writing in the internal weekly Party Notes, but it turns out he is a good editor, and Socialist Worker has opened itself up more to other voices in the movement, and more debate. I prefer it.

    The pretext for the article is the claim that a number of unnamed SWP members have signed a collective letter asking that the Central Committee reveal the membership figures and the circulation of the publications. I have no idea if it is true, but if it is true it is a very good idea. It hardly constitutes a rebellion, it sounds like a sensible initiative from responsible comrades who are committed to building the SWP, and who recognise that some of the current hype is counterproductive.

    Of course this is the rub. The CPGB are not really interested in the SWP getting its act together. Their real purpose is to sow discord to disrupt the SWP, making the whole of the left weaker. What they would like is to peel off a dozen or so SWP members to join them. Given that former CPGB member Manny Neira has revealed on the UK Left Network e-list that the CPGB has only 26 members then surely their ambition cannot be greater than that.

    A recent article in Weekly Worker by Dave Isaacson, a former member of the SWP in Colchester reveals the way of thinking. Dave is by all accounts a sincere, hard working and honest comrade. He was in the SWP for a while, and served for one year on the National Committee. So what is interesting about his article "Consider Your tactics wisely, for yours is not an easy fight" is that the description he gives of life in the SWP is completely unrecognisable to anyone who has been in the organisation. Dave has sadly written a standard issue CPGB critique of the SWP, and seemingly selected from his own experience to illustrate it. What he has not done is honestly analysed his own experience and used it both to suggest a way forward for other discontented SWP members, but also to correct the CPGB's mistakes. Perhaps I am being unfair, but it seems to have been written to ingratiate himself with his new comrades, rather than to actually move the debate forward.

    Firstly there is the old canard that "Debate and criticism openly conducted within the party, let alone in front of the working class, just does not happen". Now whether or not the debate is in front of the working class is a moot point as most of the working class have better things to do than pay attention to what goes on in the SWP. However, Dave is being rather over formalistic. Debate certainly does take place in the SWP, but it takes place outside and alongside the official structures.

    One of the interesting aspects of the SWP is how experienced and leading comrades pretty much work on their own initiative, and these comrades network with each other based upon years of experience, trust and respect gained working alongside one another in the workers' movement (often with very real achievement). Amongst this layer there is constant informal debate.

    Now I would not idealise this arrangement, and the drawbacks are recognised, and I assume the new Party structures are partly designed to address this. But it does mean that Dave's criticism is wide of the mark that "Everything in the SWP flows from the top down. Below the central committee is a layer of full-timers and party bureaucrats who are appointed by and accountable to the leadership, not the membership. Unsurprisingly they are never critical or questioning of their paymasters. It is their job to ram home the leadership's new line and make sure that everyone is on board."

    That may indeed be the way the full-timers see their role. But they are singularly ineffective at it. One of the characteristics of the SWP is the way comrades only apply those parts pf the perspective they want to. Many SWP members did not join or actively support the Socialist Alliance. Many SWP members did not join or actively support RESPECT. So there are problems, but Dave's analysis is wrong.

    In fact one of the excellent things about the SWP is the way that it seriously does try to always push outwards, and look to the wider workers' movement. It seems to me that its difficulty at the moment is based upon an underestimation of how weak workplace organisation is, and an overestimation of how radical most workers are. This is leading to some tactical and strategic errors that are damaging the long term relationships that the SWP has with the rest of the left. The nature of SWP conference, that Dave rather unfairly derides, is based upon the assumption that the weaker parts of the Party can best learn from the areas that are performing best. If the SWP's overall political understanding were correct then this would work. However, as the expectations are currently exaggerated then it can be demoralising, and comrades can feel (unintentionally) intimidated in putting forward their own experiences that contradict the perspectives. This is a big problem, but perhaps not an insoluble one.

    A revealing error of Dave's is the way he describes his election to the National Committee. The NC consists of 100 comrades, and is really neither fish nor fowl, with no clear purpose. However, there are on the NC a high proportion of the most experienced and capable SWP members. There are also some sycophants, a few sectarians and some up and coming youngsters being given a chance.

    At the time he was elected to the NC he was a very active comrade, always keen to go fly-posting, or leaflet or sell papers. This was recognised by the student organiser, and he was given a chance on the NC to see if it would develop him. It didn't, as he never contributed in meetings, or really reported back. So the following year he was dropped from the NC. The fact he wasn't re-elected the next year shows that the system worked.

    But the biggest mistake is Dave's conclusion. An address to discontented SWP members and referring to the Weekly Worker: "Without a serious challenge from principled communists both inside and outside the SWP any crisis it suffers will simply weaken the socialist movement. SWP members must rebel against the leadership's dramatic swing to the right. But consider your tactics wisely, for yours is not an easy fight. Publicity is the sharpest and surest weapon and remember, you have tried and tested allies with whom you share a common cause - that of communism. To further our common cause use this paper, make it your paper"

    Firstly, is Dave genuinely addressing himself to what SWP members should do, those SWP members who are loyal to the SWP and want it to change some of its policies and current methods of work?. Or is he mischievously seeking to sow discord and attract a few of the SWP's more ultra left members towards the CPGB?

    There are a number of clues. Firstly his use of the word "communist". No member of the SWP would have any principled objection to calling themselves a communist. But in the context of the British Labour Movement it is a label that cuts you off from other class conscious workers, who prefer the label "socialist". Dave is therefore consciously appealing to the few ultra-lefts within the SWP, those who would rather separate themselves off from the unpleasant business of actually building in the working class movement, and who would prefer to hone their revolutionary purity. If they are successful after a period of training they may be unable to have any sort of conversation with anyone not already in the revolutionary left.

    Has the SWP really exhibited a "dramatic swing to the right."? This question is related to programmatic purity, not the actual social content of the SWP's activity. If anything the SWP is ultra-left, both in believing it is necessary to organisationally seperate off revolutionaries from class conscious workers not yet convinced of the need for revolution, and also arguably ultra-left in believing that the issue of the war is of greater significance within the workers movement than it really is, and therefore seeking to base RESPECT too much on this one issue. Selecting Yvonne Ridley, a candidate with a child at Public School in a by-election where education cuts were an issue was actually ultra-left because it was elevating the issue of anti-imperialism over more traditional social democratic concerns about education and welfare.

    But the silliest suggestion is the idea that the CPGB are the allies of those seeking to reform the SWP. This is the pot calling the kettle black.

    The CPGB talk endlessly about the SWP's supposed internal crisis, and have been doing so for years. Hoping that if enough mud is slung then some of it will stick, and they may pick up a few members in the process. But in reality their own organisation really is in crisis.

    Many people used to read Weekly Worker because it had inside track information about what was happening in the Socialist Labour Party and later the Socialist Alliance. The CPGB simply don't have much inside information about RESPECT or the SWP, so that is a problem for them. What is more the closure of the SA and launch of Respect has surely created a crisis in the CPGB's perspectives. They suffered a split from the comrades unhappy with Respect, who managed to win a vote to rejoin the SADP, against the leadership's wishes. Pro-RESPRECT members, Ian Donovan and Andy Hannah also left over the leadership's handling of the affair. John Pearson was expelled for opposing Respect. Perhaps most significantly the popular and talented Marcus Strom returned to Australia. Although he said this was due to his wife wanting to be nearer her family, it is hard to imagine he would have gone back to Oz, leaving a staff job on the Independent, if he was not slightly jaundiced about his political prospects.

    For all their criticism of the internal structure of the SWP, the CPGB are internally a very illiberal organisation. The expulsion of John Pearson was because he would not toe the Party line and vote the right way at a meeting, where he claimed he was mandated by Stockport Socialist Alliance. The SWP simply wouldn't expel someone over that sort of issue. The CPGB's Red faction allegedly had their allotted page in the weekly paper taken away at the whim of the leadership, not subject to any democratic process. The CPGB has no internal discussion bulletins, and the discussion e-list is now moderated, so that there is no forum for CPGB comrades to freely debate.

    Despite its shortcomings the SWP has some real advantages. Its size means it can actually do things. It has hundreds of experienced, capable and non-sectarian members ( As well as some members not quite up to that standard, but if you are in the SWP and you are reading this then I am sure you are experienced, capable and non-sectarian ). Debate and discussion within the SWP is usually outward looking and actually trying to change the world for the better. The CPGB has none of these advantages.

October 2004

Do you have a comment to make on this article?
Send us an email

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