Better in than out?
Random thoughts on SWP
someone who took a decade to join:
I grew up in the
Labour Party. Both my parents were active on the CND / trade union left
and my Dad was even a one-time CPer. Amazingly enough, rather than
rebel and join the Young Conservatives, I actually enjoyed left activism
and found Marxism a convincing analysis of power. But by the time I was
old enough to join, Kinnock had gone all Hammer-of-the-Militant and the
Labour Party didn’t seem at all like the sort of party I got invited to.
All of which
should’ve made me an ideal recruit for the SWP. Except my fascination
with left politics led me to seek out and read every bit of intra-left
‘Life of Brian’ polemic I could lay hands on. A crazy, feverish world
of purges and denouncement, but the one thing all agreed on was how
simply awful the SWP were. Between that (and the global context of the
1980s-90s where the whole notion of socialism had taken quite a beating)
I was left with an assortment of contradictory ideas, no clear
perspective and one unshakeable item of faith: that the SWP must be
So, like many
left-thinking people, I spent years going on protests mobilised largely
by SWP members, as part of campaigns organised largely by SWP members,
while complaining bitterly about the presence of the SWP.
I’d like to claim I
realised the absurdity of this myself. But like many men I need here to
acknowledge the intervention of a superior intelligence i.e. a woman. My
partner came to my rescue, knocking down my intricately-constructed
prejudices with judicious use of such unfair questions as ‘why?’ and
‘how?’ and most disarmingly of all ‘what would you do?’
So to cut to the
chase, I did finally join, and I haven’t regretted it. Here in a
nutshell is why I did and why I think you should too:
The SWP is far and
away the largest organised far left group in the country. It has
branches in towns many Londoners can’t find on a map (sorry, couldn’t
resist) and is ubiquitous in protests and campaigns to an extent that
patently irritates everyone else.
It has a stable and
effective structure, a strong cadre of activists, a healthy stable of
publications. And it has Socialist Worker, the most recognised and read
paper on the far left (and the only one that doesn’t talk about the far
Its politics and
analysis are essentially sound. Tony Cliff’s big ideas (Stalinism =
state capitalism, modern capitalism sustains itself with permanent arms
races, and most importantly there can never be any route to socialism
without the working class) stand up better than any alternative I’ve
Now assuming you've
nodded along to all of that, the question is, why not join? I suspect
for some the answer may be more to do with style than substance. Put
simply, SWPers keep pissing you off.
To elaborate: SWP
comrades (all of us) sometimes come across in a bad way, best described
as impatient, more often as arrogant or high-handed. Now I should
interject in our defence, any period of being on ‘our side’ of the
equation shows you why; there’s little more infuriating than working
hard for weeks building an action or event only for someone to turn up
on the day and tell you you’ve done it all wrong and furthermore you’re
But still, angry or
dismissive outbursts don’t come over well, or present the SWP as the
mature party I think we actually are.
Question is, is
that a good enough reason not to be a member? To me, it isn’t. It’s a
problem of style, manner, not substantive politics. The further we
grow, away from the old sectarian politics, the more we’ll relax and
leave such bad habits behind.
All the plus points
of the SWP I listed above are the inheritance of decades of work. You
could possibly build a new organisation with a cuddlier image, and
certainly that faced less prejudice, but you couldn’t replace all the
SWP have going for us.
So that’s my case.
All of us from time to time have thought we could have a
smoother-rolling wheel, but does it really make sense to abandon the one
we’ve got only to try to reinvent it? Why not, instead, do the
unthinkable: join the SWP and make it work.
Ben asked me to add this post script
and I was happy to oblige;
"This piece certainly wasn't intended as sectarian, I hope that's not my
style. It's personal rather than ideological, an account of my generally
positive experience of the party I chose to join, written mostly because
people rarely write about the SWP while in it!
What I should on reflection
have added is that it's far more important that people become involved
in campaigning than which (if any) group they join. The Socialist
Alliance was, for a while, a refreshing experience of the left pushing
outward (onward? upward? dizzy now) together.
Respect has the
potential to be the same on a more massive scale, if we can successfully
involve the diversity of forces brought together in the anti-war
movement. Another world is possible!"