I joined the SWP in February 1977, just after the party had changed its name (and always regretted never having been in the IS). I went straight into the thick of things - Grunwicks, Lewisham, Right to Work marches and then the ANL. I lost my job as a result, got thumpings and death threats from the NF and ended up, unemployed with a young daughter, selling the paper on my own in Chester through the Falklands war. Never regretted a moment of it and don’t now.
Later in the 1980’s I got work in welfare rights, a field I’ve stayed in ever since; politically ambiguous because it involves individual advocacy, rather than collective action but it earned me a living and at least did no harm. Did my bit during the miners’ strike and waited for better times. But things are a bit different in a modest provincial city rather than a metropolis. You work with the rest of the left - Militant and CND at the time - because you have to. The SWP kept me active and, yes, probably did keep me out of Cliff’s swamp, preventing cosy compromises.
But by the end of the 80’s I had a problem: the poll tax. The SWP took a disgracefully sectarian turn, in active opposition to the non-payment campaign. Let no-one tell you this was a principled position, arguing for action by council workers. It may have started like that but it went on, long after it was obvious that there was going to be a mass campaign of non-payment, as a reflex opposition to anything the Millies were doing. So I ignored the party and worked in the anti-poll tax unions. Fortunately the SWP changed position - just in time for the first Iraq war.
We talk about the IS tradition, meaning the ideas of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution and so on. But just as important is the ingrained tradition of praxis found in the party. And in the SWP perhaps the strongest such tradition is that we know what to do when our ruling class starts a war. We oppose it, actively and up front, whatever the difficulties. The period of my political activity of which I am most proud is the early 90’s when the poll tax and the anti-war campaigns ran into and fed from each other.
And so the reactionary ‘80’s became the nondescript ‘90’s. Without having a very clear idea what was going on (remember ‘the 1930’s in slow motion’ anyone?) the SWP grew quite impressively, partly because we were the only people left standing after the collapse of communism . I joined in intermittently.
Then came 9/11. Stop the War swept us all up and along. I woke up one day at a Merseyside aggregate to find John Rees telling us that because a Labour left challenge to Blairism had failed to materialise we were going to have to provide it ourselves, through Respect. News to me, having spent the whole of the 1980’s arguing against Labourist perspectives, (and having tried to make a real go the the Socialist Alliance). Never mind, the leadership had real, earned in action, authority back then.
But has anything gone right since?
TO COMRADES IN THE CC FACTION
You think you won in Hammersmith. You didn’t: you lost. For all the foot-stamping and cheering you lost, comprehensively and probably irrevocably.
I’m not going to go into ‘ the case’. But just look at the effects. And keep looking because it isn’t over yet.
● Hundreds of members have resigned with more to come. Hundreds more will just drift away. You only had 2,500 members to start with (don’t bother lying about the numbers - ask Mark H about the Merseyside members list).
● UtR backing is evaporating, as reported at last week’s branch meeting
● Marxism is going to be a small, dispirited event this year; most of the non-party speakers have already withdrawn
● the SWP in short is a small, shrinking and ageing organisation, living on past glories
● the CC do not have a clue what to do. They are divided and will split again at or before next conference (but they won’t tell you about it beforehand). Mark Thomas at last week’s meeting might as well have been represented by an empty chair for all the ideas and spirit he showed (in fact was he really there? It’s all rather vague in the memory...)
And don’t be fooled by the fact that people still talk to you. That’s because you’re all, as far as I’m concerned, decent socialists and militants, with your own records to lean on. People feel sorry for you.
I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel like giving each and every one of you a kick up the bum. Most of you have long and honourable records as class fighters. Yet you allow yourselves to be dragooned and misled by a completely mediocre leadership. You are each worth 10 of the current CC. 100! (1,000! Cliff would say but he always exaggerated).
Stay members, that’s fine, better than being inactive. But don’t put up with being lied to, patronised, kept in the dark, told what you can and can’t discuss, being required to say everything’s fine when it isn’t and listening to dreary speakers trying to reheat 30 year old ideas that you have already learned verbatim. Try not to believe (because it really can’t be true if you think about it) that your party’s problems are all being caused by the internet, young people today, ruling class attacks (they’re not attacking the SWP they’re laughing at you), uppity feminists or Richard Seymour. If bad things keep happening to your party, then it is not unreasonable, or disloyal, to hold your leadership at least partly responsible.
(But you’ll need to be ruthless and stick together or the Professor will get you too).
TO COMRADES IN THE IDOOP FACTION
I apologise. I voted for the sense of the final faction statement and so was committed to staying in with you. Then I contemplated going public and selling the paper. And I just couldn’t do it. I would be ashamed. For the first time in my life not just temporarily embarrassed by a turn I wasn’t convinced about but comprehensively ashamed.
I know we voted for the long haul of recovering our party from the present morass. But I’m not, after all up for it. And I’m afraid it’s all your fault. Yes, each and every one of you. Bastards. Because in the faction I experienced more creative political discussion and political passion than I have in years. And I want more of it.
We each have to make our own personal reckoning with the Party and I’m not going to tell anyone what to do. The faction leadership’s claims already to have made a difference within the party are not empty and I’m sure that, as you go on, you will force further movement. And I think the struggle is on the rise again, which will be good for everyone. For myself I’d just say that my MS is only gently progressive but it is progressing and I would like to be involved in something politically creative while I still can. Anyway, that’s my excuse for impatience.
The Professor opened proceedings at Hammersmith by announcing that “the SWP is not an institution of bourgeois society”. Note the polyvalent and evasive “of”. But the SWP is definitely an institution within bourgeois society and duly affected by that. That we have Marxist ideas in no way exempts us from the Marxist insight that the social relations of production in which we are embedded profoundly affect both our ideas and praxis. SWP comrades above all should know this.
And we have a problem with a party bureaucracy which has taken on many of the forms of the stratified and managerialist society in which it sits. We never discuss this. But that is the root cause of our current problems. The party’s bloated centre (3% or more of party membership is made up of full timers by my estimate) is identified with the party itself and must be defended at all costs. And so a pesky 19 year old making a complaint becomes a challenge to ‘Leninism’.
It doesn’t even work well. Our leadership is out of touch and ineffective. Our branch is working well round the bedroom tax. The leadership contributed nothing. Indeed they have offered no way forward since the collapse of the pensions dispute in December 2011 at least.
Of course they have some basic competence. They can produce an OK paper. They can defend an existing corpus of ideas competently, as can we all. They can occasionally take an effective initiative - the RtW assault on companies exploiting Workfare springs to mind. But nothing comes out of it.
Perhaps above all, in unprecedented times, when the ruling class is conducting open class war as never before in recent times, when Southern Europe is convulsed by revolt, when existing political and ideological structures are collapsing around us our leadership have next to nothing to say: just carry on with the routine, prattle about a weak government (our Coalition government might be weak; our ruling class is not) and wait for an upturn.
What does it mean to be a revolutionary in these times? What do we mean by socialism after the collapse of the supposed alternatives in the East? What would a socialist revolution look like and what sort of crisis might engender it? We actually need answers at this sort of level because history is asking us questions anew. Every day. Today, for instance, in Cyprus. Is the bank raid a model for the revolutionary appropriation of private property? Is there a prospect of a hegemonic alliance of the working class with small businesses against the oligarchy? Neil Davidson started to think about this sort of thing in his Big Book only to be slapped down in his usual patronising way by the Professor.
But it’s not just about high theory. What do we say and do about UNITE community branches? How do we fight back in the war on welfare? How do we relate to the million of workers in non-unionised private sector workplaces? We say nothing or talk about something else, even when faced with these everyday practical problems.
So, anyway, I say it’s time to try again. I actually find myself agreeing with every single proposition in this piece by John Game.
So I’m off to join the IS Network (temporary name I hope) and give that a try. Anyone else tempted is very welcome and there’s quite a few people there you’ll know.
Otherwise, I will see you around I’m sure. No particular hard feelings, and lots of respect, for everyone in the branch on my side; and I propose happily to ignore the convention that we do not talk to ex-members. Good luck with your project and if you can turn the SWP round (when you’ve sacked the Professor I’ll take notice) I will gladly admit my errors.
- Richard Atkinson