Reply to Ben Drake
Reply to Ben Drake
I very much appreciate the friendly personal tone (and plug for my book)
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
remarks. Life is short and I don't want to spend much more of mine in
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
written anything that could fairly lead anyone to think that I do hold
a belief. Blaming the Stop the War Coalition for our inability to stop
invasion of Iraq would be preposterous. But that is not the end of the
discussion, because the STWC - like any other movement institution -
open to question and criticism.
What I said in my Signs of the Times comments was that the STWC
failed to foster (or in some cases permit) the kind of discussion we
following the fall of Baghdad. Triumphalism replaced sober assessment of
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
movement into an anti-occupation movement. And so it has proved.
the STWC leadership's response to that challenge has been inadequate and
some cases destructive. It's also obvious that the STWC has been placed
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
SWP. Sorry to say that Ben's obviously sincere but completely groundless
belief that my remarks are tantamount to blaming the STWC for our
stop the war seems to be an example of this.
I've written various articles on the anti-war movement. Anyone who's
about what I actually think can check out my website -
2. Democracy and accountability
My problem with the SWP isn't that it's 'Marxist-Leninist', though I
subscribe to a good deal of Leninism and never have done. My problem
the SWP is that it behaves undemocratically, sometimes unethically; and
recent months with increasing cynicism - and to the detriment of the
"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
with the same ideas off the top of our heads?" Actually, at least in my
of the woods, that is a precise description of routine SWP practise.
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
themselves as SWP members and who each claim to have arrived at this
result of an experience in a workplace or community setting. I'm not
SWP members realise just how unconvincing this is.
Caucusing is anyone's right. Agreeing with comrades and working with
a common project is anyone's right. But that's not all that happens when
SWP turn up at a meeting with a pre-determined line. You stop listening
the rest of us. You don't recognise objections that you haven't
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
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
contacts) along to a meeting of a broader group not with the aim of
participating meaningfully in that group but simply to swing a
decision. Many of these people have not turned up or participated in any
before and are never seen again. Far from encouraging participation,
practice makes it meaningless. Any independents trying to sustain a
constructive involvement find that their voices count for nothing when
SWP decides to impose its priorities. I've seen the SWP put huge energy
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
than anyone else who takes up an officer position in a campaign." And I
say that, in my experience, which is extensive at both national and
level, they are not. In particular SWP full-timers who take on officer's
responsibilities in broader groupings routinely abuse those positions
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
Over the years the SWP has refused to allow any broader front in which
had a serious investment to enjoy an autonomous life. The history of the
Anti-Nazi League, the Right to Work campaigns, etc. bear abundant
to this. When I was approached by the SWP leadership about getting
with the Socialist Alliance, I was told that those were the bad old
that this time it would be different . the SWP was making a turn towards
broader movement.. all of which I welcomed, some would say naively. But
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
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
the larger group. Basic democratic practises - from circulating minutes
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
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
SWP full-timers over a period of months. When this was uncovered,
accidentally, the SWP leadership (with help from others) blocked all
to bring those responsible to account.
Let me offer a small example of the casual unaccountability that is
without demur within the SWP's culture. I've seen people turn up at
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
to any of the structures of the STWC. When I raised this with SWP
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
unaccountable ways, individuals as well as groups, right as well as
But for a democrat and a socialist - not to speak of a revolutionary -
practises should be anathema. It is simply impossible to build an
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
members in that movement as well." There is an Alice in Wonderland
to this injunction, part of the general air of unreality and denial in
remarks as a whole. The problem is not that we won't accept the reality
the SWP but that the SWP leadership refuses to accept our right to
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
The challenge to Ben and other honest grassroots members of the SWP is
drop the complacency, stand up against smear tactics and undemocratic
practises, and undertake a more realistic self-appraisal.