The Socialist Unity Network

You don't want to do it like that!

Ben Drake

A rough-and-ready 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 twice.

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 possible.

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.



August 2004


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