david.welch at SPAMst-edmund-hall.oxford.ac.uk
Sun Oct 24 05:47:34 MDT 1999
Weekly Worker #309 October 21 1999
The three-day annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party -
currently the largest revolutionary organisation in Britain - starts on
November 6. The deliberations of the SWP matter to the workers'
movement. Despite the overblown membership figures that leading SWPers
occasionally toss out, there is no doubt that Tony Cliff's organisation
unites several thousand good activists. While it is true that the SWP
has never achieved anything like the serious implantation in the class
of the Communist Party (or even Militant/Socialist Party fleetingly
did), the mere fact of its size makes it of some importance to us.
With this in mind, the state of internal debate and thought revealed by
its first Pre-conference bulletin is truly frightening. This slim
document is the first of just three bulletins that will be produced by
the SWP centre in the lead-up to November 6. (The SWP has no regular
internal bulletin and, of course, no open discussion in the pages of its
press). The bulk of it is taken up by three reports produced by the SWP
central committee - 'The new world disorder', 'How we build' and
'Finance and membership'.
'The new world disorder' is essentially an attempt to rescue the
myopically upbeat perspectives the SWP has lumbered itself with over the
last period, while making sure that cadre actually operate with some
degree of rationality.
Thus, internationally the 1990s are characterised as "a decade of slow
recovery in working class consciousness and combativity" (Pre-conference
bulletin No1, p5). There "has been no return to the working class
offensive of the 1968-74 period", but at the same time we have seen "no
repeat of the defeats of the 1980s". Thus, the document talks of the
"depressed level of the class struggle in Britain", the class struggle
narrowly equated with the levels of strike activity, of course. This,
however, contrasts with the emergence of a "radicalised consciousness",
which is apparently composed of a minority that is "more or less clearly
anti-capitalist and a majority who reject Blairism in the name of
reformist or left reformist ideas" (ibid).
Thus, on one side there is ongoing "trench warfare" with the trade union
bureaucracy. On the other, an "often hidden degree of radicalisation"
which "presents a challenge" to the SWP, posing the need for it to grow
and become influential. Struggling for a definition of the political
patchiness, the SWP leadership defines the period as having a "mosaic
nature", expressed "more in consciousness than in struggle, more partial
struggles than sustained struggles, more campaigns than industrial
action" (p6). Special mention is therefore made of issues such as "GM
foods", the "Drop the Debt demonstrations, arms sales and June's
Carnival in the city" (p7).
These reflect the "very favourable" conditions, an opportunity for the
SWP to move to answer "the massive ideological crisis" affecting British
society ('How we build', p6). The SWP has charted the "revival in
working class consciousness" throughout the 90s, yet paradoxically this
leads to no "generalised upturn in the struggle", in particular in the
workplace (ibid). We are thus "neither in an upturn nor a downturn.
There is not an audience out there for us on the picket lines. Nor are
there the big single-issue campaigns that dominated the first half of
the 1990s ..." There is a "growing audience" for SWP ideas, but this is
because "we are relating to people's consciousness rather than to
struggle ..." (p7).
This is an interesting time for the SWP. It has been forced by the
pressure of circumstances to revise its long-standing practice of an
automatic Labour vote come election time. Yet nowhere in any of the
central committee documents is there an assessment of the experience of
standing candidates against Labour, apart from the throwaway comment in
'The new world disorder' that "creditable votes for the left, including
SWP members, shows the potential for providing disillusioned Labour
supporters with a socialist alternative" (p5). The leadership concedes
that they are in the business of recruiting ones and twos, yet are
anxious to maintain the fiction of imminent breakthrough, of big
possibilities looming, that has sustained its cadre for over a decade
The strains seem to be showing. If anything, the circumstantial evidence
from these documents points to a dilution in already low-quality levels
of SWP recruits. 'How we build' focuses on retention and activating the
membership. This is supposed to be a two-pronged strategy - "getting
them Socialist Worker each week and getting them to make a commitment to
the SWP by taking out a standing order ..." (p7).
The notion that it is a key task of a revolutionary party's cadre to
service the inactive membership with the paper and cajole them to take
out any type of financial commitment to their 'party' is frankly a joke.
The SWP leaders actually suggest that their thoroughly Menshevik
approach to organisation is in line with the "Bolshevik tradition". The
fact that such substantial parts of these three central committee
resolutions are devoted to the issue of finance, of resolving the
situation where "every member was not getting the paper each week" (p8)
and large swathes not even paying dues, illustrates how hollow the claim
The SWP is a sect par excellence - it has little or no rationale for its
existence apart from its existence. It lives to recruit, in other words.
In the current period of reaction, with few struggles propelling people
in the direction of political activism, many new members appear to be
individuals that happen to be touched by the SWP because it is
relatively big. Cliff's officers are "winning ones and twos - often
after lengthy argument" (p7).
So these are pretty inert recruits in other words, which explains the
constant battle to get them to rise to even the most basic levels of
commitment. This is also being illustrated in the pre-conference
discussion on the ground. In each district, aggregates are being
convened, supposedly arranged to allow "members from across the district
[to] get a chance to discuss together for longer than a branch meeting
allows" (p2). In fact, the aggregates have confirmed what anyone with
any experience of the SWP will tell you: membership is increasingly
passive and frighteningly ignorant.
The stresses and strains that are beginning to erode 'party' unity have yet
to find organised expression amongst the rank and file. It can only
be a question of time.
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