What's in a name?
Farewell to the Marxist forums
I have long believed that when something changes its name, it is usually
because it has changed in some more fundamental way. Remember when Coca
Cola disastrously relaunched themselves as New Coke - to cover up
the fact they had changed their recipe to taste more like the then
market leader, Pepsi? When their core market declined still further Coca
Cola relaunched again as Classic Coke, returning to the old
recipe and overtook Pepsi!
So when I read in the SWP's internal
publication, Party Notes,
that the SWP's Marxist Forums are to change their name this suggests to
me that something is up.
To use a political example, when the
Socialist Labour League changed to the Workers Revolutionary Party in
1974 it was not just a rebranding, it represented a shift in the
ambition of the group. To quote Alan Thornet on the change:
"Healy argued that the SLL had outgrown its role as a 'league' and the
time had come to transform itself into a party, or more precisely 'the'
party. By this time the WRP had several thousand members, a daily paper,
and significant support in the unions ... ... The idea that it was to
become a mass party, however, was a delusion and was to lead to further
ultra-left and sectarian developments."
For comrades who only encountered the WRP
in its later dotage it may come as some surprise that the SLL was a
serious organisation with strong influence in some areas, particularly
in the car and engineering industries, although it was always inclined
to pomposity and self delusion. For example the WRP was prone to vastly
exaggerating its own influence in the movement while demonstrating great
hostility to other socialists. Indeed this phenomenon is was well
described by Tony Cliff describing
how the SWP's electoral interventions in 1977 had adversely affected him
personally: "... unjustified
triumphalism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin"
Of course, the launching of the Socialist
Workers Party by the International Socialists (IS) on 1st January 1977
was also based upon a mistaken
perspective. As Cliff saw things at the time: "For
two years after Labour came to power, until last spring, our membership
slowly and gradually went down from 3,300 members to around 2,650
members. In recent months things have changed. In June we recruited 64
members, in July 77, in August 100, in September 174, in October 192, in
November 243, and in the first three weeks of December 155, making a
total of over 1,000 in just over seven months.
... ... The conclusions for us are
clear. If, when the revolutionary crisis comes to Britain, we have
40,000 members, there is no question that we can grow to 400,000 or
perhaps half a million.
... ... In February and March this year  we will be holding some
200 meetings with the central theme of building the Socialist Workers
Party. The aim of them will be to recruit - and recruit quickly."
Unfortunately in politics there seems to
be no going back, and there was no attempt to relaunch
Classic IS, using the old recipe.
So what is going on with the Marxist
Party Notes says: "In the autumn
we want to relaunch the Forums as Socialist Worker Forums: a) because
there has been a general hardening up of the politicisation associated
with the movement b) as part of a wider drive to increase sales &
distribution of SW. This will coincide with the launch of a new look SW
round the ESF (when the paper will appear daily!)."
The SWP have been running these Marxist
Forums for a few years now. I tried to research exactly how long ago
through the Socialist Worker archive but found that this is no longer
accessible following the SWP's redesign of their web-page. Relying on
memory alone I would say it has been about 4 years or so. When the
Marxist Forums were initiated the SWP were in laid-back mood, and the
original idea was that they would be hosting meetings for the whole
left, and indeed early Forums had non-party speakers, like Mike Marqusee
talking about Muhammad Ali. At that time the SWP leadership was making
friendly noises about left regroupment, as the SWP's own Red Professor,
Alex Callinicos wrote: "There is
an extraordinary strong desire for unity among activists of all
backgrounds and generations. This finds expression in a variety of
different ways. To begin with the far left, in Britain we have seen the
formation of the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and of the
Scottish Socialist Party, which have between them united most of the
sane elements to the left of the Labour Party under the same roof."
There has obviously been a shift since
then towards Marxist Forums becoming straightforward SWP public
meetings. However many of us had attributed this trend to organisational
conservatism rather than a shift in perspectives. Until this week's
Party Notes the trend had not been explicitly endorsed by the Party
But what are we to make of the
justification? Well, it seems odd to say that the phrasing "Socialist
Worker Forum" better matches a "hardening
up of the politicisisation of the movement",
than the phrase "Marxist Forum".
To the casual observer the word "Marxist"
sounds more hard core than the word "socialist".
How are we supposed to understand this contention that there has been a
"hardening up of the
politicisation of the movement".
I for one would require more evidence before I was persuaded that there
was a harder left mood in the country than existed a few years ago when
Marxist Forums were initiated. How is this politicisation being
As James P Cannon used to say, comrades
often have two reasons for what they do; the good reason and the real
reason. It is however more usual for someone to only tell you the good
reason, and keep the real reason to themselves. So congratulations to
Martin Smith for his honesty that Marxist Forums, which the SWP
originally saw as a forum for debate for the whole movement, are now
officially to be used "as part of
a wider drive to increase sales & distribution of Socialist Worker".
What was it that Cliff said back in 1977? "The
aim of them will be to recruit - and recruit quickly"
Finally, we learn that Socialist Worker
is to be a daily during the ESF. Personally, I quite like the paper,
however, in a spirit of mischief I cannot help quoting from John
Sullivan's scurrilous pamphlet on the history of the left groups:
"In the early 1980s we were told that the Militant's journal was to
become a daily, but as the speed of recruitment slackened the proposal
was quietly abandoned. Not even the most loyal supporter would read the
unchanging contents every day; really it would be better as an annual"