The last few
weeks have seen two major articles in the Weekly Worker, the paper of
the ambitiously named CPGB, attacking the SWP. One article, "Left
Populism and its Discontents" seems to have been cynically timed
to coincide with the SWP national members meeting and was accompanied
by a front page claiming that a "rebellion" was being contemplated by
this article consists of some re-cycled gossip, and speculation about
named leading individuals. This type of trivia is common coin in any
pub frequented by the left in London, and is usually completely
ago as a mischievous and alcohol influenced youngster I started some
rumours myself, one that Alex Callinicos used to play in goal for
Zimbabwe's football team, and the other that the RCG were subsidised
by Shakin' Stevens. Both of these were repeated back to me several
months later as gospel truth. The truth is that the CPGB spices up its
article with this (for most readers, completely unverifiable) tittle
tattle to try to give a gloss of authority to what is otherwise pretty
thin gruel of speculation and wishful thinking.
So let us
look at the substance of this article. We learn from the CPGB that
apparently the SWP have: "retreated
from taking a definite principled stand on issues as diverse as a
workers' representative receiving a worker's wage, opposition to all
immigration controls, republicanism and supporting abortion rights."
Is any of this true?
As a trade
union rep I have found management sometimes try, in the absence of any
actual disciplinary offences, to mount up loads of minor niggles, and
try to carry it off by shear bravado. The CPGB are trying the same
cheap trick. In these circumstances we need to look at each charge in
The SWP have
not retreated on the issue of a workers' wage. What they have done,
and I agree with them, is not make it an issue at this stage in
Respect. As I have written elsewhere: "If
George Galloway just wanted a comfortable life he wouldn't spend 3 or
4 days every week speaking in community centres and church halls the
length and breadth of the country. George has been able to make a
major impact because his parliamentary salary and other earnings have
given him independence. By joining RESPECT George could be making the
first step in a transition from being a maverick individual towards
being part of a collective organisation. It is unrealistic to expect
him to surrender his independence as a precondition, and it would
lessen his influence within RESPECT as a counterbalance to the SWP. It
is therefore quite correct that the founding convention of RESPECT
rejected the demand that all elected representatives should draw only
a workers' wage. It is quite acceptable for compromises to be made in
order to build a broader coalition."
Have the SWP
retreated on the question of opposing all immigration controls. Well
no they haven't. What they did was oppose building this in to the
founding declaration of Respect. As I have written elsewhere: "In
the case of open borders and abolition of all immigration controls
there is an argument to be had. There are many activists and trade
unionists, even socialists, who wrongly believe that you can have
non-racist immigration controls. So there is justification for a
debate about how we can best win our principled position in the wider
" In fact all of RESPECT's election
literature was unambiguously anti-racist and pro-immigrant. It engaged
with the debate as it is actually occurring within the working class,
not on the basis of abstract principles.
Have the SWP
retreated on Republicanism? Actually I think that Respect made a
mistake in not adopting republicanism at the founding convention, but
it is hardly the pressing issue of the moment. Most people in Britain
see the Royal family as a rather expensive soap opera, rather than the
cap stone of our constitution. I am confident that the next big royal
event will see the usual scurrilous and amusing coverage in Socialist
Worker we have come to expect from the paper that had the "Noddy
headline when Charles and Di jumped the broomstick.
Have the SWP
retreated on Abortion rights? Well, I am prepared to be proven wrong,
but I am confident that the SWP will support Respect adopting a
pro-choice policy. I am also confident that should the rumoured
attempt to reduce the time limit on abortions materialise then SWP
comrades around the country will throw themselves into a campaign
defending existing abortion rights with enthusiasm.
The CPGB also
accuses the SWP of: "easing
aside SWP veterans, such as Chris Harman, and producing a paper that
is less and less overtly political and more and more like a leftwing
version of the Daily Mirror. With Chris Bambery as editor there has
been a distinct change of style. Pop music, human interest stories and
sport are increasingly dominant"
had been editor of the paper for 20 years or more. Surely the CPGB
will show some compassion and allow him to go to another job. Making
him editor of the SWP's widely read theoretical journal is hardly
putting him out to pasture. Were the CPGB's analysis correct that John
Rees is the post-Cliff Big Cheese then editor of the ISJ has been his
own position, so it is hardly consistent to argue that Harman as new
editor is being sidelined.
But the point
the CPGB are getting most wrong is that the paper has actually greatly
improved since Bambury took over as editor. It has came as a shock to
those of us used to Bambury's stream of consciousness style of writing
in the internal weekly Party Notes, but it turns out he is a
good editor, and Socialist Worker has opened itself up more to
other voices in the movement, and more debate. I prefer it.
for the article is the claim that a number of unnamed SWP members have
signed a collective letter asking that the Central Committee reveal
the membership figures and the circulation of the publications. I have
no idea if it is true, but if it is true it is a very good idea. It
hardly constitutes a rebellion, it sounds like a sensible initiative
from responsible comrades who are committed to building the SWP, and
who recognise that some of the current hype is counterproductive.
this is the rub. The CPGB are not really interested in the SWP getting
its act together. Their real purpose is to sow discord to disrupt the
SWP, making the whole of the left weaker. What they would like is to
peel off a dozen or so SWP members to join them. Given that former
CPGB member Manny Neira has revealed on the UK Left Network e-list
that the CPGB has only 26 members then surely their ambition cannot be
greater than that.
article in Weekly Worker by Dave Isaacson, a former member of the SWP
in Colchester reveals the way of thinking. Dave is by all accounts a
sincere, hard working and honest comrade. He was in the SWP for a
while, and served for one year on the National Committee. So what is
interesting about his article "Consider
Your tactics wisely, for yours is not an easy fight"
is that the description he gives of life in the SWP is completely
unrecognisable to anyone who has been in the organisation. Dave has
sadly written a standard issue CPGB critique of the SWP, and seemingly
selected from his own experience to illustrate it. What he has not
done is honestly analysed his own experience and used it both to
suggest a way forward for other discontented SWP members, but also to
correct the CPGB's mistakes. Perhaps I am being unfair, but it seems
to have been written to ingratiate himself with his new comrades,
rather than to actually move the debate forward.
is the old canard that "Debate
and criticism openly conducted within the party, let alone in front of
the working class, just does not happen".
Now whether or not the debate is in front of the working class is a
moot point as most of the working class have better things to do than
pay attention to what goes on in the SWP. However, Dave is being
rather over formalistic. Debate certainly does take place in the SWP,
but it takes place outside and alongside the official structures.
One of the
interesting aspects of the SWP is how experienced and leading comrades
pretty much work on their own initiative, and these comrades network
with each other based upon years of experience, trust and respect
gained working alongside one another in the workers' movement (often
with very real achievement). Amongst this layer there is constant
Now I would
not idealise this arrangement, and the drawbacks are recognised, and I
assume the new Party structures are partly designed to address this.
But it does mean that Dave's criticism is wide of the mark that "Everything
in the SWP flows from the top down. Below the central committee is a
layer of full-timers and party bureaucrats who are appointed by and
accountable to the leadership, not the membership. Unsurprisingly they
are never critical or questioning of their paymasters. It is their job
to ram home the leadership's new line and make sure that everyone is
indeed be the way the full-timers see their role. But they are
singularly ineffective at it. One of the characteristics of the SWP is
the way comrades only apply those parts pf the perspective they want
to. Many SWP members did not join or actively support the Socialist
Alliance. Many SWP members did not join or actively support RESPECT.
So there are problems, but Dave's analysis is wrong.
In fact one
of the excellent things about the SWP is the way that it seriously
does try to always push outwards, and look to the wider workers'
movement. It seems to me that its difficulty at the moment is based
upon an underestimation of how weak workplace organisation is, and an
overestimation of how radical most workers are. This is leading to
some tactical and strategic errors that are damaging the long term
relationships that the SWP has with the rest of the left. The nature
of SWP conference, that Dave rather unfairly derides, is based upon
the assumption that the weaker parts of the Party can best learn from
the areas that are performing best. If the SWP's overall political
understanding were correct then this would work. However, as the
expectations are currently exaggerated then it can be demoralising,
and comrades can feel (unintentionally) intimidated in putting forward
their own experiences that contradict the perspectives. This is a big
problem, but perhaps not an insoluble one.
error of Dave's is the way he describes his election to the National
Committee. The NC consists of 100 comrades, and is really neither fish
nor fowl, with no clear purpose. However, there are on the NC a high
proportion of the most experienced and capable SWP members. There are
also some sycophants, a few sectarians and some up and coming
youngsters being given a chance.
At the time
he was elected to the NC he was a very active comrade, always keen to
go fly-posting, or leaflet or sell papers. This was recognised by the
student organiser, and he was given a chance on the NC to see if it
would develop him. It didn't, as he never contributed in meetings, or
really reported back. So the following year he was dropped from the NC.
The fact he wasn't re-elected the next year shows that the system
biggest mistake is Dave's conclusion. An address to discontented SWP
members and referring to the Weekly Worker: "Without
a serious challenge from principled communists both inside and outside
the SWP any crisis it suffers will simply weaken the socialist
movement. SWP members must rebel against the leadership's dramatic
swing to the right. But consider your tactics wisely, for yours is not
an easy fight. Publicity is the sharpest and surest weapon and
remember, you have tried and tested allies with whom you share a
common cause - that of communism. To further our common cause use this
paper, make it your paper"